The School Savvy Therapist in the Pandemic: How to Support Students’ Success: A Guest Post by Dr. Mary Eno

It’s November, and like every year, my phone is ringing off the hook with calls from parents whose anxious kids have passed the “give it time, they’ll adjust to school” window, and really need help.  In this pandemic year, with all the zoom classes, hybrid schedules, mask-wearing elements, more students are feeling more anxious more of the time. How can we help students be successful?  Parents need help knowing how to respond to their student’s fear and disappointment about the year, and you can find ideas about that here, but that’s only part of the equation. For the other partners on the team—the therapists and school personnel—who have tirelessly been working non-stop since the lock down on behalf of students, I am truly delighted to share with you this guest post from my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Eno, author of: The School-Savvy Therapist: Working with Kids, Families and Schools (Norton Publishing, 2019). Dr. Eno shares with us here her thoughts about the challenges facing students this year and how counselors and therapists on the front line can make a powerful difference. Inspiring for us all.

Q & A by Mary Eno, Ph.D.

Author of The School-Savvy Therapist: Working with Kids, Families and Schools (Norton Publishing, 2019)

How to be a school-savvy therapist in the time of Covid-19

The pandemic has dramatically altered the workaday world for kids, families and school personnel. As we struggle to adjust, we can safely assume that students will be impacted differentially and some problems will be exacerbated as they relate to:

  • rates of anxiety and depression in school-aged children
  • economic and health challenges for families already on the poverty -line
  • school systems with limited budgets struggling to provide extra support (e.g., technology for remote learning)
  • special education students with IEP’s (or those whose needs are yet unidentified) using new platforms that are especially challenging for those lacking resources or who are less tech-savvy
  • variability in teachers’ ability to use new platforms
  • persistent boredom or frustration among some kids
  • absence of in person support from caring teachers, student support team members, coaches and more
  • balancing kids safety and social needs, and the contraction of familiar activities such as sports, music, and theater
  • school as a safe haven for some kids

Families and school personnel have their hands full. Therefore, therapists working with students and their families must dig deep and be creative. We can help families navigate difficult choices—whether that’s about when and how to let kids engage socially with their peers, how to help children pace themselves for online classes or set boundaries around social media. For students with special needs, online learning is less tenable. Children can easily lose confidence when they can’t focus on screens and many children with disabilities require touch to motivate them and reinforce what’s being taught.  Nonetheless, public school children still have the right to free and appropriate education and a plan for how students can get access to services they need. Therapists can play an important role in helping families navigate the special education system by seeking relevant information about services, working closely with families, and collaborating with schools

How are teachers impacted?

While families are intensely challenged in supporting their child’s learning, teachers and school staff carry an unprecedented share of the responsibility for the wellbeing of children. Teaching was already a demanding job before the pandemic, and even more is required of teachers now. Those who teach in person will fear for their health, as well as the health of their students and colleagues. They will be tasked with enforcing new and ever-shifting safety procedures, often without adequate resources. Those who teach online have to learn how to instruct children who they can only see on video, and will simply miss what they love most—being with their students.

The bottom line is that teachers will be working harder, and with less support. A teacher doing online instruction said that she hasn’t stopped working since the middle of March when her school shut down. And one superintendent said, I’m pretty sure after this that any superintendent of schools could solve the Middle East crisis.”

It will also be much more difficult for teachers to sort out what’s going on in individual students’ lives without the efficiency and ease of informal encounters. And one school counselor said, “So much of learning is in the moment, making those connections in person. It just doesn’t translate the same way online.” Informal connections are largely absent in this new world, leading one urban public school superintendent to lament, “We have to get back to in-person teaching, we have to put our eyes on them!”

In addition, some students will return to school traumatized by their experiences during the pandemic and teachers will be on the front line of handling situations that arise as a result. In anticipation, one school counselor said that teachers in his school are being instructed in trauma-informed responses, including behavioral problems that emerge online.  This is something therapists can help with, too. When applicable, let teachers know that you are there to help support the child and family and be a resource for those who might not be familiar with this kind of intervention or framework.

What does this all mean for therapists?

It has never been more important for therapists to try to build communities of support for vulnerable children and families. As one student support person said, “Even if it is inconvenient, this is the time [for therapists] to push. The relationship between the outside therapist and the teacher, guidance counselor or any people in main supporting roles in a child’s life is so valuable.” By bringing our clinical skills to a child’s school-related problems and collaborating with school representatives, we can collectively form better plans for how to help. Therapists who work with children and families already know from experience that participating in these conversations gives us a chance to learn more about child’s world, and therefore develop more holistic solutions.

Some therapists might feel hesitant to contact a client’s school, perhaps due to fears that they will impose more meetings on overburdened teachers, or that they’ll say something wrong or embarrassing. Try to hold that anxiety at bay. Now is the time to lean in and be proactive. Additionally, try to stay informed about services that might have been expanded in your district. In one urban public school district, support for parents and in-home services increased greatly.  Some schools created weekly schedules for both parents and kids, and provided parental support via Zoom on where to get supplemental meals, how to motivate their kids to complete their work, and so on. See if these types of services are available in your area, and make sure the kids and families you see in therapy know about them.

What’s the first thing I should do if I want to work with a child’s school?

When problems arise for a child who is in school or online, first ask the child and/or parents who to contact at the school and how best to do it.  Often it will be the child’s teacher or advisor, and sometimes the school guidance counselor, social worker, school psychologist, or parent liaison. Take some time to think this through with the child and family. Be sure to secure proper permission and documentation to facilitate the connection.

In preparing for the call or zoom meeting there are a number of questions you can ask yourself:

  • Why am I calling?
  • What specific questions do I have about the child?
  • What do I need to know about the school to better understand the child’s problem?
  • What does the school need to know about my professional background and the work I am doing with the child?
  • What ideas do I have about best supporting the child at school?

Listen, learn, and take every opportunity to strengthen the family’s relationship with the school.  A comprehensive list of best practices and checklists for therapist-school communication, including the ins-and-outs of participating in family-school meetings, is available in my book, The School Savvy-Therapist.

Should therapists change the way they work and communicate with schools? If so, how?

Therapists will need to be more explicit and deliberate in the work we do, since we often won’t be able to rely on the informal connections or side conversations that happen naturally when people are face-to-face. In our conversations with children, we will miss hearing about lunchroom interactions and problems on the playing field. School personnel will be hindered as well, in what they observe online or in-person due to masks and social distancing and anxieties created by each. One experienced therapist recommended that we ask more questions rather than less, questions that we might not normally ask, beginning with a phrase such as—“I don’t want to make any assumptions here so I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

To adapt to this new reality, we need to do more preparation and planning. For example, if you plan to participate in a family-school meeting online and were hoping to informally touch base with the teacher beforehand, this will need to be scheduled. If you anticipate tension or hostility in a meeting, it will be important to schedule a meeting or phone call with a trusted school representative in advance to discuss mediation strategies, rather than try to come up with them on the fly.

When meetings begin, it is even more important to clarify the issues and establish goals, making things explicit, rather than implicit. It may be helpful, for instance, to establish who is facilitating the meeting and let everyone know what you’re hoping to accomplish.  Lists and agendas, which may once have been optional, might be more important now, as Zoom or general fatigue sets in.

When working with teachers, keep in mind that, as stated above, their workload has intensified. If a teacher doesn’t get back to you, the first assumption should be that they may be stressed and overworked, so try again, leaving times that you are available, or seek ways to communicate digitally. Try to make it easier for them, lifting some of their burden that, in turn, will make it easier for them to teach and support their students.

Are they any upsides to all these changes?

As one school administrator said, “Educating kids will never be the same. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital tools by a decade in the last six months.” Despite the serious disadvantages associated with online education and communication, many children and adults have become adept at using digital tools as a substitute for in-person connections. In particular, the use of video-conferencing platforms is now the norm rather than the exception. As a result, therapists can more easily attend online school meetings without the logistical problems associated with traveling to the school. By participating in meetings with school personnel who share concerns about a child who is struggling, we have a chance to observe how the child’s school world fits together and understand and clarify what role we can play.

Perhaps another positive outcome you may find is that parents have an increased awareness and appreciation for what it takes to instruct their children, given the sudden school closures last spring and challenges parents faced as a result. Increased appreciation of teaching and teachers may result in more patience and willingness on the part of parents to engage and collaborate with their child’s school that therapists can support.

For many people, this crisis has also allowed us to hit the pause button, giving everyone the chance to stop and reevaluate some entrenched problems that kids were facing. In one case, a 5th grader who was getting into daily skirmishes with a few of her classmates and described as “impossible” by her teacher showed a brightened mood during the initial move to online learning. Realizing that she was benefitting from not being around the classmates that triggered her disruptive behavior, the child’s therapist, in consultation with her family, lobbied the school’s division direction to change her online social group to help improve her functioning even more. When school began this fall, she settled in quickly. Her behavior improved, as well as her family’s relationship with the school.

I’m struggling to feel like I’m being effective.  Can I really add value?

Yes, absolutely, now more than ever. In one child therapy case conducted over Zoom, the therapist observed that the child’s mother was sleeping nearby during the afternoon sessions. In collaboration with the school counselor, the therapist was able to share her concern about the mother’s possible depression. As a result, the school social worker reached out to the family to assess the situation and was able to secure additional social services. As the school counselor said, “[Therapists] can provide valuable feedback. If we talk with a therapist and they have interventions we can try, we can work as a team”.

Kids, families and those who work in schools are not only dealing with uncertainties and fears but also grief and loss, something that therapists are trained to assess and respond to even as we try to handle our own grief and loss. Through clinical skill, patience, empathy, and striving to adapt as best we can to these unparalleled circumstances, therapists can play an essential role in supporting families, kids and the schools they attend. Therapists certainly won’t have all the answers, but by being flexible and open, we can help strengthen the community ties that benefit us all.

Summary recommendations for therapists:

  • Now is the time to push to connect with schools to help build communities of support for vulnerable children and families.
  • Using skills and knowledge, therapists can help kids and families navigate difficult choices during the time of COVID-19.
  • Seek information about activities and resources in the schools your clients attend.
  • When school problems arise, online or in person, seek permission from the child or parents to reach out to the school.
  • Prepare for the call, when contacting the school.
  • Be more explicit and deliberate in the work you do, ask more questions rather than less.
  • Prepare and plan for conversations with school representatives or family-school meetings.
  • During online meetings with teachers or with family and school representatives, clarify issues, establish goals collaboratively, make the implicit explicit.
  • When calls to teachers or others are not returned, try again. Make it as easy as possible for them to get back to you, Be patient.
  • Remember that we can add value, now more than ever.
  • Look for ways to strengthen ties between kids, families and schools.

Click here to purchase Dr. Eno’s book, The School Savvy Therapist: Working with Kids, Families, and Schools.

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