Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.
Last September, Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer and colleagues from Boston College issued one of the first reports on the impact of school shutdowns on school counselors and student mental health.
Now, the group has issued a new study that examines the experience of counselors during the pandemic and why supporting these professionals is so important. Savitz-Romer also shares ways for teachers and parents to work in partnership with counselors to prepare for the start of school.
“I think the growing attention to student mental health has prompted all educators to think more holistically,” Savitz-Romer says. “The pandemic afforded everyone a chance to pause and think about a student’s life beyond schools, and I’m hoping that will continue.”
Here are some of the ways schools and families can prepare for a new school year filled with uncertainty, and support the counselors at school who can help.
A Fear of Return
While some schools returned to in-person learning last year, many students opted to remain learning from home, and Savitz-Romer says schools need to be prepared to support the many students who will be stepping back into classrooms for the first time in nearly 18 months.
“The isolation and disconnect that students experienced was so significant I expect there will be transitional challenges,” she says, adding that schools will need to be prepared for students dealing with new school-related phobias.
For those students returning to school and a typical five-day-a-week schedule, Savitz-Romer says teachers will be an important bridge in making their transition successful.
“Kids might be showing up with a lot of reluctance, and teachers will need to think about how to take this into account in the classroom,” Savitz-Romer says. While the beginning of the school year often affords time for community-building and time for kids to settle in, teachers should be prepared to spend even more time on these areas this year.
Time and Space for Transition
Savitz-Romer says she hopes schools will think creatively about how to make the transition back to the classroom as supportive as possible for students’ mental health.
One way might be to adapt an existing program that already helps with transitions. For example, many schools have programs in place to support students returning from hospitalization for both physical and mental health related issues, offering empty spaces where kids can take a break or catch up on work.
“I wonder if there are lessons with those kinds of setting interventions to create space for kids to self-regulate or calm down and feel safe, so that it’s not just entering the building and going to your classroom,” Savitz-Romer says. “Knowing that this space exists would go a long way for parents who are concerned.”
Get to the Root of the Problem
Figuring out where a student’s anxiety stems from is going to be extra important this year, and Savitz-Romer advises that schools educate parents and caregivers about ways to help their children identify their fears.
“Ultimately, some of the social anxieties kids are feeling are rooted in other stresses, so it’s important for families to try to figure out what’s really stressful. Is it about catching COVID, or is it about making friends?”
Counselors can be a great resource for educating parents and caregivers, but schools need to make sure that connection is made as oftentimes the role of counselors can be misunderstood by students and parents.
“Lots of times, kids don’t know why counselors are there, maybe thinking they are just for academic support or college planning, and unfortunately caseloads are so high, counselors might not have even met some students,” Savitz-Romer says.
Let Counselors Do Their Job
In her study, Savitz-Romer found that too many counselors were called on to perform non-counseling related work that took away from their time to attend to students’ social-emotional issues.
For example, counselors are often the first asked to fill in the gaps of administrative duties or teacher absence, including lunch coverage or proctoring exams. Now, with the added demands of the pandemic, the stakes are too high for counselors not to be able to do their job. “Counselors need to have very clear role clarity,” Savitz-Romer says.
She hopes districts will use the additional federal funding they are receiving through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to not only hire and train more counselors, but also additional staff to relieve counselors of extraneous duties — like lunch duty.
“School and district leaders need to position counselors to be able to do their job. They are an untapped resource that gets underutilized in so many schools while being overused inappropriately,” she says.