What strategies are you using MOST to support the mental health of students as they return to in-person school?
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As a middle school counselor, I have seen the wide range of implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. One of my students, who had stopped signing on to virtual learning, sent me this message after weeks of not engaging with teachers or turning in work: “Things are hard. I feel alone and I don’t want to do anything.” Some of our students have parents who have lost their jobs. Many have loved ones who have died. But no matter their specific experiences, they have all been impacted academically, behaviorally, and socially in a way they will never forget.
Recognizing Challenges Students Have Faced in Preparation for Returning to School
One of the most pronounced challenges for young people has been the impact of the pandemic on their mental health and wellbeing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). I have seen first-hand how the loss, trauma, and confusion of the year has transformed the lived experience of students. Experts report a dramatic rise in emergency department visits related to mental health concerns (Leeb et al., 2020), increased symptoms of anxiety and depression (Wagner, K.D., 2020) among children and teens, as well as an increased risk of family violence and neglect (Sing et al., 2020). Many of the negative impacts of the pandemic are more likely to be experienced by low-income children and children of color (Bryant et al., 2020), contributing to the every-growing inequity in wellbeing outcomes for these vulnerable students. In the thick of the pandemic, it was clear that my job as school counselor was to be a consistent, supportive presence for my students and to triage any possible supports for the children and their families. The grief among our school community was far and wide and nothing felt close to normal for students.
The shift to virtual learning was perhaps the biggest, and most acutely felt, changes in daily life for children and adolescents during the pandemic. As a school, we scrambled to transform our educational model almost overnight as students became online learners, far away from classmates and school routines. Some students have thrived (Fleming, 2020) in this environment, but many young people have reported feeling depressed, anxious, distracted, disconnected, and unmotivated to work (YouthTruth, 2020). As school counselors, we committed to having a touch point with each of our students weekly and developed and delivered weekly school wide Social Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2020) lessons. We partnered with teachers and administrators to motivate students to stay engaged despite the distance. We collaborated with parents on creating routines and environments conducive to learning at home. We did this all while grappling with our own anxieties as the pandemic raged on.
A new challenge emerged when President Biden issued a statement indicating he wanted all K-8 schools to rely on CDC- issued guidance (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020) to accelerate the opening of schools. Across the country, schools are in various stages of re-opening with some opening fully and while others are engaging in a mixture of hybrid and virtual learning. My school is currently offering either hybrid instruction two-days a week or full-time distance learning. Teachers must tackle yet another instructional shift with the advent of concurrent learning. Long-term plans will be needed to address the significant learning gaps fostered by pandemic closures and in the immediate term schools are charged with welcoming students back to school buildings after a year of social isolation, trauma, loss, and loneliness. Knowing the significant challenges faced by students during the COVID-19 closures, school staff are asking ourselves: How do we begin to help children heal?
To target supports, the counseling team at my school surveyed our students to better understand their concerns about returning to school. Many reported worries about getting sick, or unintentionally making others sick at home or at school. They feared their peers would not wear masks consistently or practice social distancing in our small school building. Many expressed concern that their social skills had waned after months of isolation. Those staying virtual worried they might get lost in the shuffle and suffer academically. Many students said they could not wait to see their friends and teachers in person again. This feedback, as well as ongoing consultation with parents and community members, helped us outline a strategy as a school to support our students as they returned.
Strategizing a Return to School
Much like how schools were forced to overhaul their instructional model when virtual learning began, schools must now rely on the best available guidance to create a system of support for the students who are returning to our campuses, as well as those staying at home. With little precedent to look to, schools can draw from what we know about resilience (Youth.gov) and recovery (Bartlett & Steber, 2019). They can build on promising practices tested in virtual learning to address student mental health needs as we re-open schools. Below are possible considerations for schools as they begin to craft and implement their return-to-school student support plans:
Keep students and families informed and provide opportunities to engage with school staff
While some students and families may be excited to return to the school building, many may have questions and concerns about safety protocols and new routines. Schools should consider providing multiple opportunities for students and families to receive information and engage directly with school staff (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). Both before they return, and during in-person school days, schools can provide students with developmentally appropriate lessons on cleaning procedures, mask wearing, social distancing and other safety protocols, as well as consistent reminders on where they can find information, resources, and support.
Schools can also engage with families in different ways through webinars, PTA meetings, email newsletters, direct phone calls and, if appropriate, socially distant in-person meetings at community centers or other community hubs. Schools can rely on an understanding of their community as they offer engagement opportunities at different times of day convenient for working parents and with any needed language interpretation. Schools should remain mindful of engaging the voices of families of color, who have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021). Keeping students and families informed, heard, and supported throughout the return to school can help build an environment of openness and security in an uncertain time. Schools should consider methods for gathering ongoing feedback from students and families as they move forward with re-opening, to better understand what is, and is not working, and where gaps in communication and services exist.
Build relationships and community
During the COVID-19 school closures, school staff went above and beyond reasonable expectations to develop relationships with students, many of whom they had never met in person, and the positive impact of those efforts showed. Students consistently named relationships with adults at school (Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy) as a bright spot in their distance learning experience. Reminding students that they have these strong relationships to rely on as they return to school can help them feel supported and known. Teachers and school staff can focus on addressing the needs of the whole child by modeling empathy, encouraging students to share their feelings, and instituting SEL practices (CASEL, 2021) like classroom circles and morning meetings to create routines that promote security and sharing. Schools can consider ways to help students feel connected to the broader school community, like broadcasting video to communicate school announcements, and student recognition programs; and hosting and supporting virtual clubs. Schools may capitalize on existing structures like homerooms or advisories to promote mentoring, or consider creating small groups of students that are mentored (Chiefs for Change, 2020) by an identified teacher, also providing an additional socialization opportunity with students in their group. Depending on the current instructional model, schools should take care to consider how to equitably include both students remaining virtual and those returning to school in all initiatives and programs.
Promote efficacy and empowerment
Students are emerging from a year of unknowns in which many aspects of their lives felt completely out of their control. Schools can consider taking a proactive approach to promoting efficacy (EducationLinks, 2020). among their students as they guide them in returning to school. Supporting students in developing self-management and student skills, as well as coping strategies, can help promote the sense that they can manage struggles, work through them, and bounce back. Teachers and school mental health staff can create supported opportunities to discuss the toll of the pandemic in small group discussions or town hall events. They can acknowledge the complex feelings that accompany reopening. Staff can provide students with instruction on emotional management strategies like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and positive self-talk. Schools can consider instituting school-wide “mindful moments” or other initiatives that encourage self-care and holding space for calm. To promote agency and empowerment, school staff can take time to acknowledge the unique expertise and perspective (Facing History and Ourselves) that students now have, as people who have navigated school during a pandemic. Staff should ask them for ongoing feedback and infuse their voice in decisions whenever possible.
Address student mental health through a trauma lens
The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing school closures have been unique, in that no student in the country remained untouched in some way. Schools should expect that a high number of students will return to school with social-emotional needs and behavioral issues. Students who have been without services -- school-based or otherwise -- will need support as they navigate the process of rebuilding a new normal. All staff should be encouraged to appreciate that the academic and behavioral challenges they observe might have their roots in trauma and need not be handled in a punitive manner. School counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers can provide Tier 1 intervention approaches (National Association of School Psychologists, 2020) and psychoeducation to strengthen self-regulation, help-seeking, and coping skills for all students. After the initial re-integration phase of school return, schools may use their multi-tiered systems of support (Kearney & Childs, 2021) to identify students in need of Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions, which may require collaboration with families or other community partners.
Following a year of great loss, the reopening of schools signals a much anticipated first step in the return to normal for many students and families. However, school leaders and educators recognize that the students returning through their doors have been forever changed by their experiences during the pandemic in ways that continue to impact their daily life and feelings of safety. For many students, school represents a feeling of belonging and security. Schools must accept responsibility to develop networks of strategies and programming that support students’ growth and wellbeing, while remaining nimble to flex their practice based on need. Schools can rely on emerging best practices and ongoing feedback from the community to tailor supports and services as they move forward through this unique school year.
This blog was developed by Laura Goodwyn, school counselor at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, VA with valuable input from Frank Rider, Kelly Wells, and Greta Colombi.