Transforming mental health and counseling services for students

April 24, 2020

In 2017, a deadly wave of wildfires hit northern California, leaving many students and families in Zenia Lemos Horning’s (EdS ‘98) community homeless. 

While her county had prior experience with allocating resources and support to a single school affected by a disaster, Lemos Horning said the 2017 wildfires affected multiple schools in different areas across Healdsburg Unified School District, where she serves as lead psychologist.

It was “nothing we had experienced before. There wasn't really a system in place for that level of response that was needed,” Lemos Horning explained. 

With so many families displaced during the difficult period, the county’s schools and local agencies were challenged to reorganize resources to support community members. That’s where Lemos Horning stepped in to help develop a crisis response system that included recognizing and supporting staff who had been traumatized by the disaster before asking them to help students and families.

“We had to figure out a way to recognize that we had the capacity within our county to support the other schools,” she said. “We just had to figure out a way to organize that.” 

In 2018, Lemos Horning was recognized by the California Association of School Psychologists (CASP), which she serves as a representative for its eight-county Region 1, for her help developing the crisis response system. 

The policies and procedures Lemos Horning helped to establish were employed again in October 2019 when another wave of wildfires hit her county, forcing 180,000 people to evacuate. The impact of climate change across California, including both wildfires and flooding, has contributed to elevated stress and anxiety among students across the state, she said.

In Healdsburg Unified School District, Lemos Horning is addressing the issue by working with staff to expand quality educational-related mental health and counseling resources for students.

She said that teachers are implementing more mindfulness techniques in the classroom setting. They are also “becoming more trauma-informed staff and recognizing when academics may not be the most important things to work on at that minute.”

If a student has difficulty with attention and memory, for example, Lemos Horning helps staff understand what factors, such as previous trauma or a learning disability, are influencing the student’s socioemotional wellbeing. She then helps them provide more informed solutions to meet the student’s needs.  

During her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Lemos Horning cultivated an interest in understanding human behavior and, particularly, how that knowledge can be used to help people in times of crisis.

For Lemos Horning, school psychology was a perfect blend of that interest of the human mind and her lifelong passion for learning.

Lemos Horning completed her master’s in school psychology at the University of Washington College of Education. After working closely with Professor Emeritus Virginia Berninger, she fostered an interest in studying learning disabilities.

This brought her to research focused on bilingual reading acquisition and reading disabilities with students who primarily speak Spanish, which has been fundamental to her work serving the linguistically diverse students in Healdsburg Unified School District.

Coursework and training at UW “gave me a good basis for understanding learning disabilities,” Lemos Horning said. “It gave me a really good basis for socio-emotional wellbeing and counseling skills [and] also understanding policies and systems and ways to make change for the better.” 

She draws on this wide knowledge base to deal with the unpredictability of her work.

“Every day is different. You may have a plan for what you think you're going to do or try to get done, and you may only get one of those things accomplished because five other things come at you. Being able to be flexible is key.”

Outside of her work with the district, Lemos Horning works with CASP to establish best practices and procedures for school psychologists and advocate for students, families and her colleagues in the profession. With her local affiliate Sonoma County Association of School Psychologists, where she has served as board president for multiple terms, she helps to provide professional development training and other resources for school psychologists.  

Lemos Horning is also working to establish a new school psychology program at a local university. This, she said, is because of a lack of school psychology programs in California and the U.S., particularly those approved by the National Association of School Psychologists.

One of her goals for the new program is to give students plentiful opportunities to learn directly from faculty and their peers. “At UW,” she recalled, “I took a bunch of classes with students that were going into the teacher training program or students that were in the school counseling program, and you learned a lot of different perspectives by being around the other students.”

And, for her, it's continuing to learn from and support individuals in the profession that can foster a workforce more suited to the needs of students and families. 

Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications