As the school counselor at The Children’s School, an independent school serving students in Midtown Atlanta, it is my job to deliver a mental health program that is developmental and proactive. I am also often called to step into a leadership role to respond to crisis situations or emergencies that impact one individual or the entire community. I have done this through a collaborative approach, working with teachers, parents, leadership staff, and children to deliver a comprehensive social and emotional learning (SEL) program that meets the changing needs of our community.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Social and emotional learning can go beyond 30-minute lessons, and instead be a systematic approach to building a community that is defined and shaped by the character, care, and respect of the people it represents. The social and emotional learning program at The Children’s School, aptly nicknamed “BCC” for Building Character and Community, is a key component of the experience for both students and adults on campus, and it is woven into academic and supplemental activities in both our day school and after-school programs.
Social and emotional learning can go beyond 30-minute lessons, and instead be a systematic approach to building a community that is defined and shaped by the character, care, and respect of the people it represents.
Teaching Life Skills through Social and Emotional Learning
The Children’s School has a unique BCC “toolbox” of life skills or strategies we teach through explicit social and emotional learning lessons. I facilitate some of these lessons during classroom visits to each classroom. Other lessons are facilitated by teachers using lessons and resources I provide, curated from organizations like Second Step and Responsive Classroom to meet the specific needs of our community. The program is designed to promote positive character and teach critical life skills using a play-based approach. One favorite game I play with students is called Moon Ball. It’s a game that teaches students the ever-increasingly important skills of communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, and goal setting through a group game with the objective of reaching the highest possible amount of times the group can bop a beach ball into the air before it hits the ground.
While this game is one that creates a fun time filled with laughter, it also presents moments of frustration and conflict as the group strives toward their collective goal. The key with learning through activities like that is to pause throughout the game and afterward to reflect on with students what they are observing, what I’m observing, what’s working with their approach, as well as what’s not working. One goal is for each student to learn, through experiential activities and reflection, skills to cope with emotions, communicate, build relationships, control their bodies, and advocate for themselves and others. Other goals include helping students develop a mindset of self-efficacy and self-esteem and giving them tools to behave in ways that help them be successful learners, good friends, and caring citizens.
Most of these lessons are taught in the classroom and designed for the entire class. Other lessons are offered to small groups of students either self-referred or referred by teachers or parents. Some lessons are offered to an individual student through one-on-one counseling sessions with me and reinforced by their parents and are sometimes extended through work with a specialist outside of school.
We decided to emphasize lessons and activities that helped students stay connected with their teachers and peers and taught strategies for coping with emotions.
Responding to Coronavirus
Back in March, as schools closed down and learning shifted from face-to-face to remote, part of adjusting meant figuring out what our students, parents, and teachers would need to cope with the unknown nature of a pandemic while also figuring out a whole new way to learn. We began by determining what social and emotional learning and mental health supports could pivot to a remote learning format. Next, we identified which skills we wanted to hone in on to best equip our students and families to cope with COVID-19, uncertainty, and the social isolation of quarantine. We decided to emphasize lessons and activities that helped students stay connected with their teachers and peers and taught strategies for coping with emotions. We also provided parents with information and tools through blog posts on topics including how to help children cope with social distancing, how to talk to children about COVID-19, and the importance of self-care for parents as they worked to figure out how to suddenly balance homeschooling with other demands and uncertainties. I continued to offer social and emotional learning lessons virtually using both synchronous and asynchronous lessons and posted lessons and discussion topics on my school’s counseling webpage.
We offer professional development to help teachers learn ways to integrate lessons around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
Preventing and Responding to Race-Based Trauma
The BCC program at TCS is culturally responsive, and care is taken to instill in children and adults love and respect for one another that is greater than hate and prejudice. One of our core beliefs is that everyone has the right to show up as their authentic selves. We hold as a mantra “I can be all me all the time.” This is a belief that is supported and nurtured by the development of affinity spaces for faculty and staff members that will soon extend to our children and families. We offer professional development to help teachers learn ways to integrate lessons around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. We also integrate explicit anti-bias and anti-racism objectives into learning opportunities in the classroom and ensure students’ mental, emotional, and social development in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion by teaching skills emphasizing self-efficacy, coping skills, empathy, and advocacy.
This summer, after the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Abery, I collaborated with other school leaders, including our director of Diversity and Inclusion to offer resources to families* interested in having conversations at home about race, systemic issues around justice, and equity. We also offered a safe virtual space for adults in our community to reflect and share and process the traumatic examples of systemic racism we witnessed over the summer.
We hold as a mantra “I can be all me all the time.”
The Roadmap to School Reentry
Our school’s leadership team began to plan for students’ return to school in the spring before the 2019-20 school year had ended, with my focus being on establishing the social and emotional learning roadmap to reentry. The plan to support students and adults was trauma-informed and started with identifying the mental health and social and emotional learning supports that already existed and the ones that needed to be added. I knew that the change and the stress that children and families had endured over the past five months from the double pandemics of COVID-19 and racism would have an impact on our students mentally, physically, and behaviorally. So, I prepared by establishing three goals outlined below:
- Establish a strong plan for social and emotional support for the first six weeks of school and beyond
- Have a plan for recognizing and responding to stress in students, faculty, and staff members
- Adjust adult expectations
When faculty and staff returned in the fall and before students started the school year, I partnered with a licensed psychologist in the community who offered wellness checks with faculty and staff members. I led adults on campus through mindfulness and breathing exercises and provided a list of mental health supports available to employees. Those activities were followed up with resources faculty and staff members can use to assess their stress levels and coping skills and create personalized self-care plans as well as resources to seek professional counseling services, if necessary, through our employee assistance program.
The school’s leadership team also worked together to establish a “tap in/tap out” system that enables teachers to take breaks throughout the day while other staff members step in to supervise their students.
The school’s leadership team also worked together to establish a “tap in/tap out” system that enables teachers to take breaks throughout the day while other staff members step in to supervise their students. There was an image circulating on social media toward the beginning of the school year with a daily checklist for teaching during COVID-19. The first item on the list was “make them feel safe” and the last item on the list, after items like “make them laugh” and “make them feel loved” was “teach them something.” Part of adjusting adult expectations has been to help teachers have more grace with themselves and remind them that teaching during a pandemic requires a paradigm shift along with prioritizing what children need most at this time.
Once students arrived, the focus in the classroom was to rebuild community and provide a sense of safety and belonging by establishing classroom routines, structures, and clear expectations, including expectations around safety and COVID-19 (physical distancing, mask-wearing, hand-washing, etc.). Lessons emphasized getting to know one another, learning about classmates’ similarities and differences, and learning to express and cope with emotions. Classroom structures like our morning meetings also provided space for students to process and reflect on change and their emotions and closure for last school year.
After five months of remote learning and summer break, one area of focus for our school is on creating opportunities for community. Opportunities for students to be in community with their classmates and teachers are offered through twice-daily classroom meetings where students and teachers have opportunities to play, laugh, share, process, and plan as a class community.
Each class has its own set of classroom agreements children and teachers build collaboratively during the first six weeks of school, and teachers across all grade levels offer team-building activities and opportunities for students to gather either as a part of the curriculum (group work) or informally for lunch bunches or chat times.
The Children’s School gives our families the option to choose between on-campus and remote learning and the flexibility to move between the two options as the pandemic unfolds. We create opportunities for students learning remotely to connect with their friends and teachers at school—including having a buddy who is physically at school partner with the student learning remotely to work on a group project together, have lunch together, or just have unstructured time to hang out together. Later this month, we will kick off a spirit week with daily themes that reinforce our community’s character values, and there will be a virtual assembly for spirit- and community-building.
Parent partnership has been a key component of our social-emotional learning program. Parents are provided with materials, conversation starters, and resources to help them continue the conversations around character development at home.
Parent partnership has been a key component of our social-emotional learning program. Parents are provided with materials, conversation starters, and resources to help them continue the conversations around character development at home. Parents also have opportunities to engage with faculty and staff members and other parents through virtual grade level parent gatherings and parent association meetings. Virtual parent education offerings like book clubs and parent workshops facilitated by mental health counselors in the community offer parents an additional way to connect, partner, and build community. Additionally, on a webpage dedicated to social emotional COVID-19 resources, as well as on the school counseling webpage, parents have access to social emotional activities to participate in with their children at home, articles, book lists, and community resources. I also offer parent conferences virtually for parents who would like to speak with me about a concern they may be having.
As a school counselor and leader, it has been even more important for me to prioritize my own self-care and have an active plan for keeping my reaction to stress in check. I have had to adjust my own expectations, accepting non-closure and unknowns, and embracing the reality of the many stressors we are facing. What challenges me the most is not being able to feel like there’s enough time in the day to do everything I would like to do to support my school community. What has helped me is drawing on the same skills I teach my students: understanding my stress signals, having solid coping strategies, prioritizing what’s important, being flexible, and asking for help when I need it. I have learned to “do my best and leave the rest,” and that both gives me the fortitude to do the work ahead and keep me grounded in what is most important.
*Resources for families interested in having conversations at home about race, systemic issues around justice, and equity.
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