At 10 a.m. every weekday, some of Riverside’s youngest students log into Zoom and start to talk about their feelings.
As the coronavirus pandemic prohibits in-person discussions, counselors lead the students through deep breathing and coping exercises online, during Mindful Mondays, Therapeutic Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesdays, Thankful Thursdays and Fun Fridays.
Even before school closures and growing outbreak numbers caused students stress and anxiety, educators saw a growing number of children in need of mental health services. Last year, the state began requiring teachers to receive trauma education, and schools began implementing mindfulness, meditation and yoga programs.
Children need those efforts now more than ever, as the loss of normalcy and routine leaves some students feeling isolated and depressed.
Many children see the added stress the pandemic has placed on their families, as parents struggle to work from home, find childcare, worry about food insecurity or deal with sudden joblessness.
“These students recognize a lot of the stress that the parents are shouldering,” said Jillian Mishko, a licensed professional counselor who works as a lead clinician for Riverside’s School-Based Behavioral Health Team. “Even though children are resilient, they are seeing and feeling the effects of the stress their parents and guardians are shouldering.”
The region’s school psychologists — of which there is a major shortage — now meet virtually to discuss how they can address the needs of students. During live lessons online, teachers ask how the children feel, not only if they understand that day’s assignments.
School districts are also developing re-entry plans that focus on academics and sanitization, as well as student and staff mental health.
“Social and emotional learning is a priority right now, and certainly will continue to be when they return to school,” said Sandie Lamanna, a school psychologist who often works in Scranton schools. “Social isolation is really hard for kids, being away from their peers and teachers. For some kids, school is a safe haven.”
Learning about trauma
Up until mid-March, each morning at Scranton’s Charles Sumner Elementary School began with meditation. Teachers and Principal Meg Duffy knew when something bothered students. A muffled “hello” or the tossing of a backpack could mean the student had a stressful morning and needed extra attention.
Earlier this year, the school and community partners began a program to help students who had a family member incarcerated. Regular yoga sessions for all students helped bring peace to the West Scranton school.
Now, teachers and counselors reach out to students regularly online. Duffy calls parents and checks on the students who don’t attend the virtual sessions or submit any work.
“I worry about our kids. I worry about our families. Do they have what they need?” she asked. “I just hope everyone is healthy.”
To help create a school environment that meets both academic and mental health needs of students, teachers are reading “The Neuropsychology of Stress and Trauma: How to Develop a Trauma Informed School.” Along with educators from around the region, the Sumner staff participates in book chats. The book’s author, Steven G. Feifer, joined the group for a virtual session.
Duffy serves on the Scranton School District’s re-entry team, helping to develop a “trauma-informed care plan” for students and staff for their return. Lackawanna County schools will share $7 million in federal emergency stimulus funds to deal with the effects of the pandemic — including mental health needs. When students return to school, staff members plan to look for signs of trauma, separation anxiety and other issues stemming from the pandemic and unprecedented school closures.
“We don’t know when we are returning, but students need to know they’re supported and loved here,” Duffy said.
Focusing on response
Even before the pandemic, more schools focused on trauma-informed education. Studies suggest more than half of children experience trauma — defined as a response to a negative external event or series of events which surpasses the child’s ordinary coping skills. Called adverse childhood experiences, those events could include abuse, witnessing violence, death of a loved one or having a family member incarcerated.
Students who experience trauma have trouble concentrating in class, have higher absenteeism rates and are less likely to graduate. Their health can also suffer.
With schools closed, educators worry about the children who live in unstable home environments. School employees were often the ones to report suspected child abuse or endangerment, and without seeing children face-to-face, the adults worry any potential issues are going unnoticed.
Counselors reach out to children they know likely need help now. Other children, who previously didn’t need extra attention, have sought it.
“One of our biggest concerns is that if students are not in a stable home environment, just being able to reach them has been difficult,” said JT Yarem, Riverside’s crisis counselor and chairman of the guidance department.
During normal times, counselors will see students in crisis situations, including students thinking about harming themselves. Guidance services are still available, just virtually or over the phone now, Yarem said.
“You worry about whether those students will reach out to you,” he said.
Finding ways to cope
With the stress of children learning from home or as they face unemployment, some parents may struggle with increased drug and alcohol abuse or domestic abuse, the counselors and psychologists say.
They often hold one-on-one virtual sessions with students and their families, helping address what causes the stress and possible ways to cope.
“After a family session, you can see the relief in some of these parents’ faces, when we work with those parents to help them take a minute, focus and see what we can work on,” Mishko said.
Normal distractions for kids or their parents — such as playing sports, attending church, hanging out with friends or shopping — are off limits.
“We have to focus as a society on what we can do with ourselves. This is creating a unique time where everyone has to get OK with themselves, sitting with their thoughts and feelings,” Mishko said. “Our physical environments heavily impact our emotional state. When people are at home, they think about family stuff, the things they need to work on. When you get to leave your house, you walk away from it for a bit. If you’re unable to leave, if you’re so paralyzed by this fear, it becomes a very stressful place to be.”
Kristy DePhillips, a school psychologist who works at Wayne Highlands, aims to see that both students and parents take care of themselves.
Some children feel grief for canceled sports seasons, field trips and other end-of-year activities.
She encourages parents to explain the coronavirus at age-appropriate levels, and let kids write or even draw their feelings. Families should address well-being before academics, she said.
“If a kid is struggling to concentrate and has anxious tendencies, the child can’t learn new information,” she said. “If kids are preoccupied by a perceived danger and threat that COVID-19 may have triggered, they’re not going to be able to focus on academics.”
The psychologists will work with the behavioral health team from the Wright Center for Community Health over the summer, helping find ways to address the needs of schools and their students and families, Lamanna said.
The schools also want to provide resources to students in the summer. Riverside plans to offer an online therapeutic summer camp to some of its students, and Mishko and her colleagues will continue to work with families on finding ways to cope.
During her daily sessions with her youngest students, Mishko reminds them to practice “mountain breathing” — running a finger on one hand over each finger of the other hand, taking a deep breath each time.
“We are still in control of our breathing,” she said. “We can take one deep breath.”
Coronavirus, stress and coping
Tips from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
Information and communication
- Keep updated about what is happening with the outbreak and additional recommendations by getting information from credible media outlets, local public health authorities, and updates from public health websites.
- Seek support and continued connections from friends and family by talking to them on the telephone, texting or communicating through email or social media. Schools may have additional ways to stay in contact with educators and classmates.
- Minimize exposure to media outlets or social media that might promote fear or panic. Be particularly aware of (and limit) how much media coverage or social media time your children are exposed to about the outbreak.
- Focus on supporting children by encouraging questions and helping them understand the current situation.
Scheduling and activities
- Keep your family’s schedule consistent when it comes to bedtimes, meals and exercise.
- Make time to do things at home that have made you and your family feel better in other stressful situations, such as reading, watching movies, listening to music, playing games, exercising or engaging in religious activities (prayer, participating in services on the Internet).
- Have children participate in distance learning opportunities that may be offered by their schools or other institutions/organizations.
- Recognize feelings such as loneliness, boredom, fear of contracting disease, anxiety, stress and panic are normal reactions to a stressful situation such as a disease outbreak.
- Help your family engage in fun and meaningful activities consistent with your family and cultural values.
Self care and coping
- Modify your daily activities to meet the current reality of the situation and focus on what you can accomplish.
- Shift expectations and priorities to focus more on what gives you meaning, purpose or fulfillment. Give yourself small breaks from the stress of the situation.
- Attempt to control self-defeating statements and replace them with more helpful thoughts.
- Remember you are a role model for your children. How you handle this stressful situation can affect how your children manage their worries.
Sarah balances life as a reporter for The Times-Tribune and as the mom of two little girls. A graduate of Ithaca College, Sarah started covering education in 2006. She has received awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, Inland Press Association and Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association. She lives in Clarks Summit with her husband, their daughters and their sweet pug, Sadie. Reach her at email@example.com, 570-348-9133 or @HofiusHallTT.