Supporting Student Mental Health Challenges During COVID and Beyond
Reflections from Head of School Kim Ridley and School Counselor Molly O'Connor
As the counselor, I’ve been reading about the TikTok School Challenges that have been popping up all fall and thought to myself 'I’m so grateful that I work at Fayerweather' (if you’re not familiar with them, check out this article for a summary of the social media-inspired vandalism that has been taking schools by surprise this fall). At the same time, I’ve never been busier with student, parent, and teacher requests for conversation than I have been this fall - big things, little things, seemingly unrelated things - and it is clear that everyone is on much rockier ground than usual. I’ve talked with other counselors, in the Boston area and nationally, and I’m hearing the same thing from them. This article (Chalkbeat) and this article (NYTimes) nicely capture the surprising emotional intensity that schools have felt this fall. While Fayerweather is by no means in the throes of TikTok School Challenges, we are seeing what schools across the country are seeing - our students are fragile. They are having a hard time navigating age-appropriate conflicts without an adult. They are having disproportionate reactions to disappointment and frustration. They are more physical than usual at recess. They are more sensitive to normal physical play at recess. They are offended easily. They are confused socially. They are anxious and worried about seemingly “ordinary” things. They are looking for adults to talk to way more than usual. They are wanting our attention in a distinct way. Our students are coming out of a period of intense adult attention, of 1:1 connection time with same-age peers, of carefully curated playdates and friendships, and they are getting easily overwhelmed by their current surroundings. It is exhausting for everyone, most notably the students.
With all of this fragility in mind, I signed up for a consultation group this year with Lynn Lyons, author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents. I get to give her monthly student case studies and ask for her advice on how to best support them, both as parents and teachers. It’s amazing! She beats the steady drum of “don’t accommodate anxiety, it makes it worse” (I’m simplifying, she says it much better). I couldn’t agree more, and yet, it is a daily struggle to help students face anxieties in the moment, with other students wanting our attention, when it’s so much easier to accommodate and move forward. So we are doing a constant dance to assess in the multitudes of moments, how do we best support this student in this moment? We are working hard to be both wisely proactive and compassionately reactive, and we are already seeing amazing growth in some students readjusting to life in a busy, bustling school again. Other students are finding the adjustment harder, and that’s ok. They’re not alone, and we are here to ride out the transition with them. We appreciate your continued partnership as we navigate each individual student’s emergence out of Covid life.
With this in mind, Kim and I brainstormed some general recommendations to best support your child’s growth and development, as well as some of the qualities of the strongest parent partnerships we’ve had over the years:
Listen deeply and ask questions that will help your child practice using their thinking and problem solving skills.
Reach out to teachers for clarity, guidance, and support. Assume that your child only has one perspective on any given situation, and there is always more to a story. Trust that we are always balancing multiple perspectives.
When your child brings something hard home from school, role model being calm while validating their feelings. They often want a listening ear more than a concrete action from you. We know it makes you feel better to spring to action, but it’s not always what’s best for them. As a counselor, I sometimes remind myself of the phrase “don’t just do something, stand there.”
Communicate your support and belief that your child can successfully take on challenges. Solving problems behind children’s backs is ultimately not helpful for them. We want each child to believe the statement “I am a capable person.”
Encourage your children to take risks and make mistakes rather than retreat, whenever possible.
Anticipatory guidance is the process of anticipating the skill sets and mindsets that your children will need to move from adult-directed to student-directed situations. Where are your child’s opportunities to face challenges and successfully navigate them? Scaffold them now. If you’re not sure what’s age-appropriate, ask us!
Seek therapeutic support when children experience significant challenges that negatively impact the way they show up in school with teachers and friends. Reach out to Molly if you’d like help with this process.
If the topic of navigating anxiety in a family is of interest, please come to the next PA meeting on November 10. Jarvis and Molly will be there to discuss a recent article about “how to re-pattern a family’s dynamic to reduce kids’ anxiety” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise An Adult, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, and the 2019-20 PA book club book Real American: A Memoir. We will use that article as a jumping off point to talk about the fragility and anxiety that we’re seeing at school this year and brainstorm with you around how to best support our children.