Focusing on our Students' Mental Health

As I was back to school shopping this year for face masks, I reflected on just how different this school year will be. As a school counselor, how can I best support students? In what ways can I support school staff? What can I do to help parents? So many questions and I do not have all the answers. So I started researching. What I discovered was that a lot of other mental health professionals are also trying to figure out the answers to these and so many other questions. And while there are many unknowns that we must cope with daily, here is what we do know...
We know that Covid-19 is impacting everyone’s mental health and children and teens are no exception. Between increased stress, anxiousness, depressive symptoms, or experiencing the emotions accompanying grief, helping children and teens with emotional regulation is so important right now. While responses to this crisis may look different for each child, here is what the American Psychological Association shares are some of the more common changes to look for:
  • Changes in sleep
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Mood shifts. This could look like increased worry, anger, or aggression depending on the child.
  • Increase in disruptive behaviors
  • Lack of interest and becoming withdrawn
  • Reluctance to participate
  • Behavior regression
  • Personal hygiene changes
  • Headaches or other physical responses

We also know that although our society is collectively going through a crisis, we are resilient. Stress is a direct crisis response, so decreasing stress by calming our mind and body’s reaction will lead to better mental health outcomes. Using coping skills will do just that. There are a variety of coping skills that can be utilized both at home or at school and will vary depending on age. Some common coping strategies I recommend include:
  • Breathing Exercises
    • Box Breathing (4 counts inhale, 4 counts hold, 4 counts exhale, 4 counts hold)
    • Blowing Bubbles for younger students. This ensures they are taking slow deep breaths to make the biggest bubbles.
    • I also have younger students pretend that they are holding a flower and birthday candle in their hand. They take a deep breath and smell the flower and then they pretend to blow out the birthday candle really slowly.
  • Drawing, Coloring, or Journaling
  • Yoga or Mindfulness Meditations
  • Exercise
  • Something that gets their hands moving such as Playdough, Silly Putty, slime, or kinetic sand
What is so great about coping strategies is that often when students are doing them, they will feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their feelings. A student may be playing with slime as a coping strategy and we will begin by talking about how the slime feels. I will then use that as an opportunity to ask the open question about how the student is feeling and that leads to a deeper conversation about their emotions and what can be done to feel better.
What I also know is how impactful reading books together can be. This can spark conversations by asking children how they think the characters feel and then asking how the child themself feels. For older children, having them do a Circle of Control can also be beneficial. This is done by drawing a circle and having them write on the inside of the circle what they can control and on the outside having them write what they cannot control. Doing this will help organize their thoughts and worries and help with developing a plan (if needed). Simply listening can help children feel comforted. Keeping a routine as much as possible during this time will also help your child feel more peaceful.
Lastly, we know the importance of getting support if you notice changes in behavior or mood in your child. I love that West Side Montessori (WSM) places such an emphasis on the whole child, which includes their emotional and social development. As a school counselor at WSM,  I have the opportunity to meet with students for individual or group counseling sessions along with giving lessons to entire classes. This year, more than ever before, a school counselor will be an extra support person at school for students, staff, and families. While the unknowns will likely continue, what remains steadfast is that mental health professionals are here to support you and your family. 

 Emily Jetter
 K-8 School Counselor 

Mental Health Conversation