School Counselors on How to Help Students Recover From Pandemic Stress

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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