For school counselors, the challenge is reaching students who are struggling

Monitor staff
Published: 1/9/2021 1:46:31 PM
Modified: 1/9/2021 1:46:14 PM

In June, Weare Middle School counselor Chris Beede and one of his counselor colleagues took four middle school students fishing on a school-approved “counseling field trip.” They were outdoors, distanced in separate canoes, but were also together, for some key social interaction that he felt the students had been lacking during the pandemic.

A fishing trip is unusual for a counseling session, but Beede has had to be creative this year to connect with students who may not be engaged in class or responding to emails or phone calls from school personnel.

“The kids who aren’t responding are the ones who need support,” Beede explained.

COVID-19 protocols have changed the way school counseling personnel typically operate. Casual drop-ins, – a key way to check in on students’ wellbeing – aren’t happening in the same way this year, as many schools are operating in remote or hybrid models. Now, as the pandemic is taking a toll on students’ mental health, counselors are having to get creative with how they engage with students.

At Riverbend Community Mental Health, most youth referrals in a typical year come from school counseling departments. With many schools remote or in hybrid models this year, the center is not receiving as many school referrals.

Instead, psychiatrist and children’s medical director Diana Weiner says that the cases the center receives are more severe – issues like depression, substance use, hallucinations or thought disorders that are already developed by the time they arrive.

“We are getting kids who are a lot sicker than we would have typically gotten, where they probably would have been referred to us much earlier if they were seeing a school specialist,” Weiner said. “We are having a kind of crisis of kids with more severe disturbances, because they are not getting help earlier.”

At Merrimack Valley High School, school counselors have been doing in-person counseling sessions with masks and distancing, as well as sessions online. Kevin O’Brien, school counseling administrator at the high school, said not having the same frequency of drop-ins has made it harder to connect with students.

“The biggest difference between being hybrid, remote or all-in is providing opportunities and capturing the foot traffic,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have foot traffic – if you are remote there are no students in the building and if you are hybrid at best there are half the students in the building.”

To increase contact, Merrimack Valley High School’s counseling department has begun sending an anonymous survey to all students every other week, asking how they are feeling. If a student indicates on the survey that they are struggling, the school will follow up with a counseling appointment. O’Brien says they’ve successfully gotten responses this way, and he may continue the method even after the pandemic.

But he said communicating remotely is still a challenge.

“It’s not the same thing. You can’t read body language, which is huge in counseling,” O’Brien said. “We have kids who come to our offices and we know them, we’ve known them for years, but on these types of (online platforms) it’s tough.”

Weiner said students are struggling with unfamiliarity in their school environment this year. Some students who are learning remotely have never met their teachers in person, some are having trouble learning online, and others are feeling bored and tuning out.

Weiner said consistent routines, at home and in school, are important to children’s mental health, and hybrid learning models and unexpected shutdowns can be destabilizing.

“They need to know that some things are predictable, and to be honest that’s probably been one of the biggest struggles we’ve seen this year – the back and forth,” Weiner said. “The not-knowing, ‘am I going to school next week? Am I not going to school next week?’ They find it hard to settle and to start to get into a pattern that sets them up for learning.”

Students are also feeling isolated and distant from their friends, Weiner said. And with online communication increasing, the potential for cyberbullying also increases.

“They are not developing new relationships with people, they are becoming increasingly distant from people they were friends with,” Weiner said. “They are feeling very isolated, they feel that nobody really understands what they are going through, they are frustrated by being home.”

Concord High School, which has been remote since Nov. 30, has seen “significant numbers” of students not being engaged and participating in their classes, principal Mike Reardon told the Concord School Board on Monday. He said it’s “too easy” to place blame solely on the coronavirus.

“When we are in a normal mode of school, for kids for whom school does not come easily, every time they go into a classroom, every time they go around the corner in the building, there is an adult there to support them to get them back on the right path,” Reardon said. “Now that we are in a remote setting, we are in a situation where maybe it’s just too easy to get up at 10 o’clock in the morning rather than for your 7 a.m. class. Or if you miss a series of classes in a row, just to give up.”

Interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy said Concord teachers and administrators are meeting constantly to talk about students they are concerned about, to make sure they get support.

“They are often left alone, the parents may be working, they may not have their screen on, their teacher may not be able to see their eyes,” Murphy told the school board. “That’s where our school nurses, our school counselors, our school psychologists are all assigned students to follow up on.”

Weare Middle School’s counseling team has been trying out Flipgrid, an interactive video discussion platform, where staff can post prompts on topics like “perspective” and “hope” and students will post a video response. Beede said it’s a good way to connect with the kids, who are used to using similar platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

“We are just getting into that. It’s a few weeks in, it’s very interactive, the kids have very insightful things to say,” Beede said. “It kind of meets them on their own comfort level.”

Weiner said the most concerning group of students are those who may be in unsafe home environments but aren’t as accessible to school counselors and social workers who could notice the problem. Earlier this year, the Granite State Children’s Alliance put together recommendations for educators on recognizing potential signs of abuse or neglect in children during video classes, including scanning the student’s physical appearance for bruising or injury, checking their background for signs of substance abuse or family dysfunction and perceiving changes in the student’s mood or communication.

O’Brien said Merrimack Valley initially refrained from doing house visits last spring, but their policy on that has changed with time.

“If it comes down to knocking on a door, we’ll knock on a door,” O’Brien said. “We haven’t done a lot of that, but if it comes down to it, that’s what we’ll do. Because we believe it is very, very important.”

In the meantime, Weiner recommends that if a parent is worried about their child, they should talk to the child’s primary care doctor or call their school counselor and address it, rather than assuming it’s normal teenage or pre-teen behavior.

“This is really about tying to keep them safe and trying to keep lines of communication open about kids who aren’t doing well,” Weiner said. “They should bring it up to someone – they shouldn’t just assume its a phase and we are all tired of this.”


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