How school counselors are helping children cope during COVID

Many students returned to school campuses full time this year with trauma in tow. Many had struggled with distance learning, suffered through mental health issues and endured social isolation and challenges at home due to the pandemic.

The job of helping students recover fell largely to school counselors, a chronically understaffed profession tasked with tending to students’ social, mental and academic needs.

Recently the San Diego County Office of Education named three Counselors of the Year: Fran Hjalmarson of Poway Unified’s Los Peñasquitos Elementary, Christine Araki of Sweetwater Union High School District’s Launch Virtual Academy and Nicole Pablo of Poway’s Twin Peaks Middle. The Union-Tribune interviewed them about what it’s like being a school counselor during the pandemic.

How has COVID changed your job?

Araki: Mental health has always been a concern, but when we went on lockdown … the priority really switched into, with students, are you safe, don’t give up, hang in there, how can we help you? A lot of what our jobs are is beyond just scheduling, it is really trying to connect with our students and the variety of students that we have.

Hjalmarson: Just like with teachers, we had to shift from being in person to being virtual. As far as counseling virtually, it was challenging because … a lot of times kids want to talk about something privately, and not having someone listening when they are at home, it can be really tricky. At the same time, some kids opened up more.

Most recently, with COVID funding … it’s been phenomenal. (Our associate superintendent) increased counseling at all schools to three days (a week), medium-size schools it’s four days and at big schools it’s five. We hired 11 new counselors this year. That’s been a super big change. Our district really is making social-emotional learning a priority.

What kinds of problems have kids been struggling with this school year?

Pablo: I was already seeing a lot of anxiety and stress … as well as just social-emotional middle school pressures. After the pandemic we definitely saw a lot more of that. Students having a hard time coming to school, students telling me they’re having a hard time adjusting from what used to be a 3, 4-hour day online to a 7-hour day in person.

I see a lot of students struggling behaviorally. They are having a hard time getting along with peers and are nervous about interacting with peers and adults. They essentially don’t know how to school anymore. They are having a hard time remembering what it was like to behave in school, abiding by school expectations and adult expectations. Normally throughout the year we see a lot of grief and anxiety in December, I thought that after the school year had died down that it would go away, but there’s been a spike in it again.

I think it comes from all different facets and multitudes of factors. I think it’s from being at home with their siblings for the last year or two … from stress and anxiety … from some of these families’ basic needs not being met.

Araki: As we know, students have experienced a lot of trauma for the past couple years. Trauma has been a variety: compounded mental issues students had before the pandemic, students have lost a lot of family members, parents, aunts, uncles; some families it was multiple family members. We had students that had to get jobs to support their family. Families lost jobs.

Hjalmarson: While we did see some increase for some of them in anxiety and social-emotional challenges, we also saw a lot of resilience. I would say there’s a couple of challenges that we’re getting through and things are getting better every day. First challenge was during those first few weeks — separation anxiety, we never had separation anxiety like that. We had quite a few students, TK, kindergarten and a couple first-graders that really struggled being dropped off in the morning. But they’ve all settled in and are doing amazing. What I’m seeing now is a lot of concerns from pre-COVID: family changes, moving, impulse control, so it’s kind of settled into being fairly typical for me.

What do you do to help students?

Pablo: It’s a lot of normalizing the behaviors, hearing them out and making sure they understand we understand things are different right now. I find myself doing a lot of deep breathing with students, finding ways for them to calm down so they can think clearly and make good decisions, and just supporting them and making sure they know that they’re cared about and they’re loved … giving them grace, letting them know staff, students and parents realize we’re still bouncing back from a difficult time and we know they’re doing their best. A lot of us counselors are going into the class to teach about coping strategies: positive self talk, positive affirmations, being mindful and self-reflective and aware, recognizing your strengths, how to recognize stress itself.

Araki: To support them virtually you just have to be persistent in your ways to connect with them, whether it’s phone calls, virtual meetings in person — whatever works best for the student is what I will accommodate to. When students know you care, they will connect. First, I have to make sure that they’re safe, that it’s something they’re not at risk to harm themselves or others. I want to make sure they get help, help beyond school. I get involved with getting counseling services outside the school for the student. While it’s scary to go into counseling or therapy, it’s the healthiest thing that they can go to themselves.

Hjalmarson: To be able to find students that maybe aren’t connecting with other students and playing on their own, I do spend time out on the playground. But in between, it’s doing class lessons at our school. Our students get 30 minutes of social skills in (the) Second Step (curriculum) every single week, so that’s teaching them empathy and problem-solving and emotional management. We also meet with students individually, meet with students in groups, meet with parents and consult with staff on ways to support our students.

Anything else you want to add?

Pablo: We are grateful as school counselors that everyone else is recognizing now the need for mental health supports and how imperative it is. However I hope … that people don’t forget to continue to invest in counselors and student supports to ensure that they’re able to thrive. Essentially, I hope that we don’t go back to cutting resources.

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