It didn’t take much to confirm what school counselors probably already knew.
Many of their students are lonely right now. They’re worried – about everything. They’re trying to do their schoolwork and stay connected to friends while juggling the weight of caring for siblings or others in their home. Some are hungry. Some are grieving.
Older students are trying to figure out graduation requirements and how to plan for the next steps in their life – no small feat when you’re doing that from home.
While students face some of those issues in a “normal” year, their feelings are amplified this year, their counselors say. No matter how you look at it, it’s a lot.
“Our children are struggling with worries. There is a loss of sense of control right now in their lives,” said Washington Elementary counselor Melissa Porter.
The impacts of COVID-19 are not limited to Tacoma, of course. The pandemic is influencing behavioral health across the state, according to data from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH). Mental health-related visits to emergency departments for children ages 5-17 between April and October of 2020 increased by 24-31%, compared with the same time period in 2019.
To get a handle on specific needs in Tacoma Public Schools, counselors surveyed students electronically with an assessment to collect data on their social-emotional and family needs. While the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction required such an assessment this year, it’s a familiar way to gauge students’ needs and feelings in Tacoma.
Some schools have been doing it for years, although counselors added questions this year to better understand how life has changed for students during the pandemic.
For example, students at Stewart Middle School noted whether they had enough food at home, and if they were responsible for the care of a sibling or other family member. Those issues are in addition to whether they need help handling strong emotions, help with social skills or bullying.
That data allows counselors and administrators to offer targeted support and interventions – getting the right tools to the people who need them.
A primary tool schools use, especially this year, is small-group counseling focusing on a particular need, like help with grief or anxiety. Counselors use cognitive behavioral therapy to examine students’ automatic negative thoughts and how those thoughts affect behavior. They work on how to look for common thinking traps they may fall into and helpful thoughts they could replace them with.
The delivery of that type of work though, and almost everything else counselors are doing this year, is a challenge. Even when you know who needs what, that help can only get provided remotely.
What can you sense through a screen?
“It’s extremely hard to read a kid on a computer screen,” said Stewart counselor Ravi Jaskar. “Kids are willing to share, but there are different levels of sharing. The lowest level of risk is typing something in a chat. Kids are pretty willing to do that. The next level is coming off of mute to speak, but leaving the camera off. We’ve gotten to a comfortable zone of that.”
It’s no big surprise that the best way to read a student remotely is when they speak with the camera on.
“It’s difficult to run a meeting looking at a bunch of blank tiles on a screen,” Jaskar said. “You can’t see if they get it or read their feelings.”
Mount Tahoma High School counselor Nicole Kupfer is challenged by the screen barrier as well. In person during a normal school year, ice breakers and check-ins create the intended feeling of comfort and familiarity, and she and her students can dive right into their work. This year? Not so much. Helping build a connection in a digital world is challenging.
“We have had to push a bit more to participate, to dig past surface level,” Kupfer said.
At Whitman Elementary, counselor Annie Jacot took a whole-family approach of surveying parents to assess the needs of the household. She used the data she gathered to contact each family who indicated they needed help. As a result, she delivered food and connected families with food resources, got students into small counseling groups with her, and referred some to outside mental health counseling. She continues to provide weekly social-emotional learning (SEL) lessons to each class, keeping her eye out for kids who need more help.
During their weekly SEL class sessions with students, Jacot and Porter are both on the lookout for not just what kids say, but what they do through non-verbal signs, such as distraction, withdrawal or disinterest in appearance.
“Students’ behavior has changed from last year, I can see,” Jacot said. “Some are less outgoing now. I make it a point to ask them to have their screens on so I can watch their faces.”
Using both the formal and informal data, counselors use structured activities like small-group therapy and other ways of checking on students and trying to connect. Counselors check in with teachers on student attendance, noting that absences can signal a problem. In response, they’re calling, emailing, sending postcards to simply say, “I miss you. I’m thinking of you.”
To address social needs, some schools host a Lunch Bunch, where dozens of kids log in weekly just to talk with each other on Teams. This is an especially important need for sixth graders, who started at their new middle school this fall without having met most of their classmates in person.
“We just want to let them talk to other kids. It sounds so simple, but during the remote school day there’s no passing periods, no chance of talking in the hall. Kids need an opportunity to socialize,” Jaskar said. “During Lunch Bunch, they talk about anything and everything. We play Pictionary. There’s lots of talk about animals, which kids find a very safe thing to talk about.”
While running groups remotely has its challenges, it’s offered some unexpected insights as well.
When working with students in one small group, Kupfer noticed that whenever one particular student turned on her microphone, it was hard for her to speak over the others at home in the room with her.
“It has opened my eyes to the level of focus she needs to be able to participate in school and group,” Kupfer said.
Overall, Jaskar and Kupfer say they think the group counseling they’re doing is helping kids.
“I feel like I am making a connection, but I wonder if it’s as much as if we were in person,” Jaskar said. “Either way, these groups give students a smaller environment with a couple of adults and a small group of kids. They feel heard. I think that’s helpful. It’s good to be with an adult outside their home.”
At Mount Tahoma, where more than half of the students who responded to the needs assessment reported being lonely due to impacts of COVID-19, Kupfer says that her kids need to be able to talk to someone.
“Regardless of whether we talk in a group or on the phone one-on-one, having a relationship with an adult is important,” she said.
That work and those relationships will grow in importance as the pandemic continues. Now, Washingtonians are in the “disillusionment” disaster phase, which will likely continue for the next few months, according to DOH. In that phase, depression, exhaustion and substance abuse are common behavioral responses from people. (See side bar for resources to help those who are struggling with mental health due to the pandemic.)
The little things
Reminders come daily that progress on the social-emotional side is happening for elementary and secondary students. Jacot noted kids say to her that they’re doing better than earlier in the school year, while Porter said by and large, her students report having care and love in their life, no matter what.
For Kupfer, some days it’s the little things that keep her hopeful.
“One thing that I am really proud of students for this year is reaching out and staying in contact when they are struggling and having a hard time,” Kupfer said. “While I do feel limited on how much I can do to help them, I see it as a positive thing that they are communicating, ‘Hey Mrs. Kupfer, I’m having a really hard time in this class,’ or ‘Can you help me get extra help from my teacher?’”
Kids’ resilience in 2020 has made a strong impression on Jaskar. “Some kids are struggling a lot. But I also see how resilient some are to being able to adapt and change to a virtual world,” he said. “Everyone is trying to make it work. We’re getting there.”
Struggling? Get help with these resources
If you want to talk, text or just get more information, resources are available to help you and your family through the pandemic.
- If you need someone to talk to about stress due to COVID-19, call Washington Listens at 1-833-681-0211. Someone is available to talk from Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.
- Ingredients of Resilience
- CDC guidance to support your mental health and well-being
- Warm Line for people living with emotional and mental health challenges: 877-500-WARM (877-500-9276)
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line provides confidential text access from anywhere in the U.S. to a trained crisis counselor. Text HEAL to 741741 (24/7/365)
- Crisis Connections connects people in physical, emotional and financial crisis to services. Call 866-4-CRISIS (866-427-4747)
- Teen Link: call or text 866-833-6546
- National Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.
Additional resources specific to children and teens
- Teen Link: 866-833-6546. Chatting and texting options are also available.
- Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families
- Finding the Right Words to Talk with Children and Teens
- Discussing Coronavirus with Your Children
- Supporting Homebound Children
- Virtual sessions and resources for parents in English and Spanish
About Tacoma Schools
Tacoma Public Schools is the only district designated an Innovation Zone by Washington State. A leader in implementing innovative schools and programs to meet the diverse needs of every student, every day, TPS serves approximately 30,000 students from preschool to grade 12 and at nearly 5000 employees is one of the largest employers in Tacoma. Learn more...