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Indian Prairie, West Aurora school districts to hold mental health symposium for parents, students

Chicago Tribune - 2/26/2024

Indian Prairie 204 and West Aurora school districts will hold a joint symposium to teach parents and students about mental health issues and connect them with local resources.

A keynote speech by Devorah Heitner, the author of two best-selling books about children’s mental health in the digital age, will be followed by a panel of local experts and breakout groups for parents and teenage students. The conference will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., March 9, at Metea Valley High School in Aurora.

“Indian Prairie has always had a focus on our mental health and social emotional learning of our students and families, and we just wanted to take what we already have and grow it into a larger event,” said Dawn Forkner, Indian Prairie School District 204’s social-emotional learning and wellness coordinator.

The idea of the conference is to have a single keynote speaker that appeals to all who attend, then have breakout sessions that tackle individual topics, like understanding adolescent substance abuse or having difficult conversations with children when they don’t want to open up, according to Forkner. She said each parent and student may choose two topics to attend a session about.

In total, there will be 10 different sessions available, each to be led by local community agencies, Forkner said. According to a district news release, topics include practical strategies for managing anxiety, embracing resilience and self-esteem and more.

Heitner is expected to discuss how parents can set boundaries with their children, how they can have open conversations and what signs may suggest their child is struggling with mental health issues from social media or digital device use, according to Forkner. She said one of the reasons Heitner was chosen to give the keynote speech is because she is from the Chicago area, helping to give a local perspective on the issue.

To further localize the issue, a panel of area experts will discuss their experiences and how they relate to Heitner’s speech, Forkner said.

The event will also feature a book fair, a community resource fair and child care services for children 3 to 10 years old, according to the district’s news release.

All local parents and students in grades eight to 12 are invited to the symposium, even if they do not attend school in the West Aurora or Indian Prairie school districts, according to Forkner. Registration is required. For more information, go to

West Aurora School District decided to join Indian Prairie District 204 in sponsoring the second year of the symposium. Forkner said West Aurora was interested in planning its own symposium after the success of Indian Prairie’s conference last year, but when the two districts noticed they used many of the same local community resources, they decided to plan the event together.

Because of West Aurora School District’s involvement, translation services will be offered for those who do not speak English as a first language, according to Forkner.

For many school districts in the state and beyond, Indian Prairie School District 204 has become a model concerning mental health care of students, particularly in its CARES Clinics, officials said. Forkner said these school-based mental health clinics work after school hours and on weekends to give students and others in the district access to a therapist even when transportation is an issue.

Each family can access up to six no-cost mental health care sessions, she said.

“One thing that we saw post-COVID was the increased need for our mental health services outside of the school day for our students,” Forkner said.

The district was awarded a grant through the Endeavor Health, formerly Edward-Elmhurst, Community Investment Fund and the Illinois Department of Public Health to start up the clinics, which are now used as a model for other districts in the state and nation, according to Forkner. She said district leaders are headed to New York for the League of Innovative Schools conference in March, where they will give a presentation about the CARES Clinics.

District leaders previously attended a similar conference in Chicago to present the idea to other districts, Forkner said.

“We’ve kind of been going around and sharing how we made this possible and what our success rate has been as well as any hiccups that we’ve had along the way so that other districts can take from that model and then make it work for their own districts,” she said.

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