How grown-ups can help kids transition to 'post-pandemic' school life
School counselor Meredith Draughn starts every day by greeting the students who fill her campus hallways, cup of coffee in hand. There are about 350 of them, and she knows all their names.
"Kids want to feel known and want to feel loved. And greeting them by name is one way we can do that...Research shows that that helps us build a positive culture and a welcoming culture."
Draughn works at B. Everett Jordan Elementary School in the rural town of Graham, N.C., and she was recently named 2023's School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). The selection committee praised Draughn's data-driven approach and passion for her students.
The award comes at a pivotal time for Draughn: in the middle of the most "normal" school year since the pandemic began. Masking is optional in most schools; quarantine regulations have been loosened; and in May, the Biden administration plans to declare an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
But children are still reeling from what they experienced during the pandemic. Many students have struggled with mental health, academics and a general lack of connection to their classroom. All things Draughn has seen in her school, too. But she says there is an upside to all those challenges.
"I think a lot of people focus on trauma changing the brain...but what they miss is thathealing changes itas well."
Draughn has this advice for how educators and families can support their students as they navigate the transition to "post-pandemic" life:
Establish regular routines and a sense of control
The pandemic disrupted everybody's daily routines, and that lack of structure was especially difficult for children. Draughn says rebuilding routine takes time and consistency.
One way she likes to build consistent habits for students is by setting goals, big or small, like being respectful or following directions. She begins the day with a "check-in," where students share what they'd like to accomplish, and ends it with a "check-out" to see if they met their goals.
"Those successes in small ways can lead to big impacts," she explains. "You're creating a habit, ultimately."
And habits can help give students a sense of control. Pandemic or not, Draughn says, a lack of control is something young people often struggle with,, and it can lead to some big feelings, even outbursts.
"So it's just reteaching what we can do when we don't have control over something and how we regain control and regulation over our own feelings and emotions."
She uses exercises like the circles of control, which asks students to distinguish between things that are outside their control, and things they have the power to change. If the source of frustration is outside a child's control, she redirects their focus to something else that is in their control to help them feel empowered.
Draughn says reestablishing structure, and giving students a sense of control, can lead to better self-regulation and a host of other benefits, including the motivation to show up to school.
Like a number of districts across the country, Draughn says hers is continuing to combat elevated levels of chronic absenteeism, which is when students miss 10% or more of the school year. She says reintroducing school as a part of the daily routine can help students feel more connected to the classroom. That, in turn, gives children a sense of belonging that can improve attendance and set them up for success in later grades.
"Successful habits build a successful life," Draughn says.
Every behavior communicates a need
Children express themselves through behavior—that's nothing new. But Draughn says if educators or parents are dealing with particularly challenging behaviors, it's essential to pay attention to the story those actions might be telling.
"All behaviors, at least in children, are communication."
Draughn points to an example of a child caught stealing food from another student. Rather than place blame, Draughn looks to what that behavior might tell her about the child's life outside of school.
"What is that behavior indicating? Sometimes that is an indication that basic needs are not being met. That is our first question. Not, 'Why did you steal?' "
Children often behave in attention-seeking ways, and that's also true when they're acting out. One way to encourage positive behaviors is to consistently celebrate things like following directions or standing patiently in line.
"If [attention] is really what they're craving, then they're probably going to do it again," Draughn says.
Recognizing and meeting a child's unique sensory needs is another way to reward them. Maybe they can't focus when a classmate taps a pencil against a desk, or when they're wearing an uncomfortable piece of clothing. Draughn once had a student who regularly acted out in P.E. – it turned out the seam at the toe-line of his socks was an uncomfortable sensory experience for him.
"Your brain is gaining information from [all five] senses," she says. "And when you're in sensory overload, your brain cannot gain new information."
To identify sensory-avoidant or sensory-seeking behavior, Draughn simply asks students about their preferences.
"So you either tone down or give them that sensory input [they're looking for]."
How did she help that P.E. student? "We finally settled on Toms and a very sheer sock that he could take off right after P.E."
Tools for helping kids cope with anxiety
In October, a coalition of organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, called on President Biden to declare "a federal National Emergency in children's mental health." Their letter cites a "troubling" growth in the number of young children diagnosed with anxiety and other disorders.
Draughn says she's also seen a higher number of anxiety-related referrals since the pandemic began. But she thinks that's in part due to a heightened sense of awareness around mental health in her community. "Students have always been anxious, now they just have a word to name it."
She says helping children understand what anxiety is, and how their body responds to it, is a good first step to addressing it. She tells them about physical symptoms like sweating, fidgeting and nervousness. Another tell-tale sign is a stomach-ache.
"Anxiety is a natural body response to tell us something's wrong. ... When we recognize it early on, we can put strategies in place to deal with it."
When she's intervening with an anxious child, Draughn uses kid-friendly words to describe what they're experiencing, like "extra energy." Then, she finds ways for her students to expend or redirect that energy, like through exercise or simply allowing them to fidget.
If children feel too anxious or uncomfortable to get up and move, she suggests slowing things down with breathing exercises. You can ask a child to breathe in as though they're smelling a flower, and breathe out as though they're blowing out a candle. Draughn also likes to use a method called "4 x 4 breathing." She asks students to envision a square and breathe along each of its lines: "You're going to breathe for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out through your mouth for 4 seconds, hold for four seconds. And you do that four times."
Another strategy for when life feels overwhelming to children is to make it feel more bite-sized. "When we look at it as a whole day, or hour or a whole class, it can get really daunting," Draughn says. So instead, she asks students to choose an activity or task that feels achievable within a few minutes, like journaling.
And when all else fails, distractions, like playing games or drawing, can be a simple but powerful tool to redirect anxiety—for both kids and adults.
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