Rebuilding relationships, connections helps students readjust to in-person learning

Counselors walked into this school year with open arms—and a plan to help.

After 18 months of uncertainty in students’ daily lives, the TPS counseling team members from across the district know what they need to do to support students academically and emotionally.

“I hope to re-establish connection,” said Lincoln High School counselor Jake Clausen. “I want to let them know they are welcome, wanted and needed. I want to let them know Lincoln is a place that is their home.”

For our youngest students, bringing back structure and routine to the day will help students get on track.

“We’re prepared. We know our kids will be looking for getting that consistency back,” said Sherese Gamble, school counselor at Lister Elementary. “We will focus on building relationships and connections with students.”

At Lister, that means starting the day with morning circles,” where students talk about how they’re feeling and establish some goals for the day. Each day includes a 30-minute social-emotional learning lesson and closes with a talk in the afternoon to assess the school day and prepare for the next.  

Lister also provides students with a mindful moment bin—a container with a puzzle, a fidget toy, a journal and a card describing a breathing strategy. Using tools like those help students develop coping skills to regulate their emotions and be ready to learn.

Variety of tools available
Laura Allen, TPS director of Whole Child, said she expects to see some differences in what students are feeling and experiencing this year versus last year.

“Students have been through trauma,” Allen said. “Maybe they lost someone to COVD-19. Maybe they are newly homeless due to a changed family situation. They’ve been through a lot. This year, I expect there will be increased need to support mental and emotional well-being.  We are fortunate to have mental health community partners like Comprehensive Life Resources, Consejo, Multicare and SeaMar who accept referrals for students and their families.”

She anticipates a continued need to provide proactive supports like helping students build relationships with the adults in their school, greeting them warmly to help them feel connected, and checking in on emotions every day.

“I can’t tell you enough how strongly relationships matter. They’ve been isolated,” Allen said. “To warmly welcome them back and help them feel connected again is critical.”

Gamble expects to see some anxiety about the return to school and struggles in students’ lives play out in behavior.

“When kids are struggling, it’s hard for them to ask us to love them. We have to reteach, have grace, be honest and encouraging. When you feel those nerves or anxiety, that can come out as undesired behavior. They’re really asking us for help and grace and time.”

TPS’ focus is in line with data that indicates 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.

Pieces of the plan
Another tool schools will use is small-group counseling focusing on a particular need, like help with grief or anxiety. Counselors use small groups to help students notice automatic negative thoughts and how those thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors. They work on how to look for common thinking traps they may fall into and helpful thoughts they could replace them with.

To help carry the load, TPS added six new counselors to its staff this year, three for elementary schools and three for middle and high schools.

TPS can also help connect students and families to local mental health agencies. 

For both of their parts, Clausen and Gamble are thrilled to be back at school with the comfort brought by students streaming through the doors in the morning, getting ready for a full day of in-person school.

“Lincoln is loud and joyous and fun. That loudness fuels my soul,” Clausen said. “I feel peace and purpose here. I am super excited for this year. As long as I suit up, show up and am willing, we can do this.”


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.


  • If you need someone to talk to about stress due to COVID-19, call Washington Listens at 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.
  • Warm Line for people living with emotional and mental health challenges: 877-500-WARM (877-500-9276)

Crisis support

  • 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 HOME to 741741 (24/7/365)
  • Crisis Connections connects people in physical, emotional and financial crisis to services. Call 800-576-7764
  • Teen Link: call or text 866-833-6546. Chatting and other options are also available.
  • National Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. 



Media Contact

Dan Voelpel, Executive Director of Communications | 253-571-1015 |

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...


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