American school counselors described a generation of students who missed crucial periods of social and emotional development during the pandemic, in an article we published Sunday.
In a New York Times survey of 362 members from the American School Counselor Association, they said they were worried about basic skills like children’s ability to learn and make friends, and about alarming increases in anxiety, suicidal thoughts and vandalism. But they are also reassured by the progress children have made since schools reopened, and their willingness to seek help.
“I don’t think Covid is going to destroy this generation,” said Dr. Jennifer Havens, chair of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at N.Y.U. Langone Health. “I do think kids are resilient. But it has really increased the stressors on kids. We need to figure out how to help them.”
Here are eight things the counselors suggested:
Restart group activities
Extracurricular activities provide a sense of normalcy, counselors said, and a way to detach from computers and practice collaboration and conflict resolution. In some communities, they have been limited even as schools are open.
“We need to increase the social play time for our younger students, not increase the amount of academics. Students need to work through self-regulation and social skills to catch back up, and we are seeing this impacting academic growth.” Sarah Flier, Willow River Elementary School, Hudson, Wis.
“Middle schoolers now more than ever need and want to have extracurricular activities that don’t include the computer. Popular things at my school are sports, Lego leagues, Destination Imagination (a science competition), drama, chorus and band. Family game nights, doing puzzles together, doing community activities as a family, or even sitting down for dinner without technology can help students gain social-emotional skills they need to be successful.” Laura Donica, Indian River School, Canaan, N.H.
Hire more staff
In the survey, three-quarters of counselors described needing more staff in schools to address children’s social and emotional needs. This month, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called students’ mental health “America’s silent epidemic,” and called for more school counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses.
“We need help. We need more counselors hired. The ratios need to be mandated and not just recommendations. This is not sustainable at this level.” Cassie Cerny, Weston Elementary, Weston, Wis.
“We put our money into what we prioritize. I think the ratios of school counselors and social workers clearly illustrate the level of priority.” Melissa Ostrowski, Penn Manor School District, Millersville, Pa.
Offer places to take a break
Many counselors mentioned creating spaces where students could take a break when they got overwhelmed. They called them wellness rooms or reset areas, which have couches, fidget toys, stress balls, snacks and calm-down activities.
“I created and used calming bottles and stress balls for all grade levels to help students keep their focus and stay calm even when I couldn’t assist them. Teachers also came to request them for their individual classes.” Therese Farmer, Wisdom Educational Consulting Services, Capitol Heights, Md.
Teach social and emotional skills
Social-emotional learning — things like managing emotions, working toward goals and practicing empathy — has become an integral part of school. In the survey, eight in 10 counselors said they teach it to the whole student body. Counselors said it works best when teachers incorporate it throughout the day. In some places, it has been targeted by conservative politicians and activists who have said it is a distraction from academics and teaches “left-wing ideology.”
“Providing students with adequate mental heath services needs to be just as important as any other aspect of school. Students who are struggling with anxiety, depression or grief are not able to learn and grow to their fullest potential. Unfortunately in our state, school counselors have been vilified at times.” Laurenne Hamlin, Concord Intermediate School, Elkhart, Ind.
Use therapy tools
Many counselors said they had begun doing schoolwide lessons on issues that have become more severe during the pandemic, like managing anxiety or improving executive functioning. Some suggested sessions that encouraged children to use art or storytelling to process their experiences of the pandemic.
“Students have responded very positively to opportunities to use art to express and process their feelings of the last two years and current feelings of anxiety and worry. I have relied on the work of local nonprofit OKYou.org for curriculum and training.” Jess Firestone, Buckman Elementary School, Portland, Ore.
“We need more opportunities for kids to talk about the pandemic and how it impacted them. Not all students had a horrible experience, and that shouldn’t be minimized either. All students need the opportunity to unload about their pandemic experiences.” Helen Everitt, Davis Drive Middle School, Cary, N.C.
Limit technology use
Nearly half of counselors surveyed said students were using the internet in school-inappropriate ways more than before, after having increased access during remote school. These included cyberbullying, buying vape pens on social media, looking up sexual topics, playing video games during class, and doing TikTok challenges like vandalizing or stealing school property. They suggested more limits on cellphone and internet use, and teaching children how to put what they see on social media in context.
“I’m concerned about their inability to stay off their phones and social media. I recommend social media literacy classes.” Brian Chaapel, Francis Scott Key High School, Union Bridge, Md.
Support parents and teachers
Family members and teachers can be a buffer for children who are struggling, but it’s harder when they are struggling too, counselors said. They suggested classes, books and videos on how to support children, and more help connecting families with community resources for mental health as well as necessities like housing and food.
“I really believe we need to engage our families and community in the conversation about social and emotional needs. I know families in my small community are wounded and not very aware of their own struggles, much less how the family trouble impacts students and limits adult capacity to be a buffer.” Sarah Swanson, Tukurngailnguq School, Stebbins, Alaska
“More mental health support for teachers — teachers must be grounded and able to provide a safe class environment for the children.” Ann Reavey, Sabot at Stony Point, Richmond, Va.
Expand community mental health care
Counselors do preventive work and address short-term needs. For more serious issues, they refer students to mental health resources outside of school. But often parents encounter wait lists or can’t pay for treatment.
“More mental health hospitals, community resources and therapists are needed. A student referred for anxiety may have to be put on a wait list. Worse, if a student is in crisis and needs a mental health evaluation, the amount of beds available within the community are extremely limited.” Shannon Donnellon, Clarkston Junior High School, Clarkston, Mich.