Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Ready Are We to Support Kids Through This Trauma?

By Mandy Savitz-Romer, Heather Rowan-Kenyon, Tara P. Nicola & Laura Hecht — September 16, 2020 6 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As the global pandemic threatens students’ academic progress, recent reports have also raised alarms about students’ mental health. Fear, loss, and the anxiety brought on by uncertainty are raising already-high levels of trauma and stress among young people.

It will be tempting for schools to direct resources and attention this fall to bolstering the instructional core, given well-founded fears of learning loss and the widening of academic inequities. But our research suggests that districts need to focus just as much on deploying staff and policies that promote students’ social and emotional development. School counselors have a critical but often overlooked role to play in meeting this urgent need.

According to our survey of nearly 1,000 school counselors from across the country, these professionals faced significant challenges last spring as they sought to support students’ social-emotional, academic, and postsecondary development in a remote learning environment. Schools should now make it a priority to understand what went wrong in the spring, so they don’t repeat the same mistakes this fall.

First, we found that school counselors were not able to spend as much time as usual counseling students about social-emotional issues, career development, or postsecondary plans. This is especially troubling for a profession that was already stretched thin to begin with: Last year, all but three states significantly exceeded the recommended ratio of students-to-counselors. In our survey, 43 percent of counselors reported spending less time providing individual counseling than in their work pre-COVID-19, despite the stress and trauma caused by the pandemic.

While navigating personal stressors brought on by the pandemic, school counselors faced unique professional challenges as well."

Instead, a large majority of the counselors—who regularly worked well beyond their usual hours—reported spending their time tracking down students with low attendance in remote learning and delivering social-service and technology information to families. These are worthwhile efforts, of course, but they limited counselors’ ability to check in with students, assess their well-being, and intervene when necessary.

Second, our results suggested that a lack of direction and leadership from school and district leaders complicated this shift in responsibilities. Approximately 55 percent of counselors surveyed reported not receiving clear directions about their expected role in a remote environment. One midsize, urban school district’s updated memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union never even mentioned school counselors.

While school counselors appreciated ongoing communication from administration and district staff, counselors were rarely involved in planning for remote schooling. Despite their unique skills in supporting students, only 35 percent of counselors say they were asked to provide input about school contingency plans or how to maintain counseling programming. Counselors also reported that training for counselor-specific remote work was not available to them. This problem was especially acute in rural communities, where 1 in 3 counselors reported receiving no training.

Third, like all educators, school counselors struggled to adjust to remote schooling. While navigating personal stressors brought on by the pandemic, school counselors faced unique professional challenges as well. In addition to losing the valuable opportunity to connect with students in informal settings such as hallways and lunchrooms, many counselors received instructions from school leaders not to meet one-on-one with students, provide group or classroom instruction, or even use videoconferencing software because of concerns about meeting confidentiality requirements remotely.

These findings highlight long-standing challenges facing the school counseling profession. For decades, school counselors have called on principals to provide better leadership to counseling programs. Such leadership is now essential. If schools are committed to healing students and supporting their engagement in academics amid a wave of national trauma, they must heed this call now more than ever. To support their efforts, we offer the following recommendations for school and district leaders:

1. Establish a clear plan for school counseling programming and communicate it widely. School and district leaders are often not familiar with counseling models or standards, so they need to take their lead from counselors. Strong administrators understand the assets and expertise of counselors and are careful not to misdirect their time toward tasks that don’t leverage their mental-health training. With counselors’ input, school and district leaders can prioritize the availability of counseling programs and services at the systems level. At a minimum, counselors can identify counseling-related policies and practices that transfer to a virtual or hybrid context. For example, school counselors can join morning meetings to connect with students, partner with teachers to integrate strategies for well-being into classes, and collaborate with other support staff to utilize screening tools to identify depression, trauma, and other signs of distress.

2. Build time for counseling into student schedules. Face-to-face time with students—either virtually or in person when it is safe to do so—is a precious commodity. School leaders will therefore need to be intentional about scheduling time for students to meet with counselors and for counselors to provide mental-health support to whole classes, grades, or schools. Consistent advisory blocks and office hours might offer structured times for students to reach out for additional support. School counselors around the country have set up Google Classrooms and Bitmoji offices to be added to district platforms.

3. Evenly distribute the responsibility of tracking down students. School leaders must avoid the temptation of assigning attendance and noncounseling duties to counselors simply because they are not responsible for a classroom of students. Pulling school counselors away from checking in with students, delivering resources for managing anxiety, and supporting postsecondary planning will leave some students vulnerable to further disengagement.

4. Ask counselors if and how they need support and training to use virtual platforms to provide counseling. In our survey, many school counselors reported having to use their personal phones to call students. Often, parents and students didn’t answer those calls, which appear as if they come from unknown numbers. Access to a school phone, Google Voice number, or other platforms to communicate with students will enable counselors to conduct confidential or sensitive conversations with students. School counselors also need different kinds of training from what is offered to teachers. Training on virtual platforms, strategies that support telecounseling, and legal and ethical considerations are especially in demand. As the college-admission process continues to evolve during the pandemic, school counselors will also benefit from training on policies and practices that have been updated during the pandemic.

While today’s educational context is defined by uncertainty, one thing is for certain: As students return to Zoom rooms or school buildings, they are hurting. We have professionals who are trained and ready to help them heal and develop the social and emotional skills to cope with their current reality. Let’s be sure to take counselors into account in our planning this semester. Our students and teachers are going to need them.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Ready Are We to Support Kids?


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.