Counseling and Student Support: Monitoring Health and Well-Being When We’re Away From Campus

It’s a vital time to be independent. As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, NAIS schools immediately capitalized on their autonomy, flexibility, and creativity to spring into action in service of the students and families in their communities. In addition to launching distance learning programs seemingly overnight and making Zoom and Google Hangouts household names, schools have made crucial decisions about supporting the social-emotional needs of students and families. In many parts of the country, we are roughly two months into quarantine, with no clear end in sight. On the one hand, a much-needed summer break is around the corner; on the other, none of us can predict what summer will look like for our students, nor can we rely on our ability to welcome students back to campus in the fall.

Prior to the pandemic, educators may have taken for granted their role of being the daily “eyes and ears” not only for students’ academic progress but for their health and well-being. Now, educators’ ability to implicitly monitor during daily staples such as advisory and lunch has disappeared. As SATs and revisit days are canceled and other anxieties bubble to the surface, a focus on student health and well-being has never been more important. Schools can’t afford to let this work take a backseat to other disruptions just because our away-from-campus status may make it feel unwieldy and overwhelming. 

As this school year comes to a close and we look ahead to the start of a new school year that’s still shrouded in uncertainty, schools need to begin thinking about offering social-emotional supports and remote counseling in a longer-term way. Even if and when schools do physically reopen, the need for virtual counseling may likely continue—or even increase. Two months into quarantine, many students—and parents—who may have been coping reasonably well are hitting a wall. Many are worrying about whether summer will be “canceled” and further, whether they’ll be able to start their next school year in a normal way. Through my counseling work with independent schools, I’ve developed some tips and strategies that might be helpful to counselors and health centers—as well as all faculty and staff members—as we navigate this complex, uncharted terrain together.

Tools and Rules of Engagement

Moving counseling sessions from an in-person setting to online is a big shift, regardless of whether you’re an older tech newbie or a younger person who’s comfortable with connection via screens. Most kids enjoy being able to teach and guide adults, so think of this as a developmental opportunity for them. Know that it’s OK to ask them questions. Also, don’t be afraid to use the telephone with students or parents: It’s a great backup if Wi-Fi falters and an option if you can’t face another video call (“Zoom fatigue” is real).

There are several platforms, including Zoom, that counselors are using. To conduct individual counseling online, doxy.me provides a convenient, user-friendly platform. Developed specifically for telemedicine, it is HIPPA-compliant. It also offers a virtual “waiting room” where students can check in, so you can see when they’ve “arrived.” Like Zoom, doxy.me is free with upgrades that include notifications when a student is in your waiting room.

Many boarding schools are offering counseling to their students who live in other states and countries. While professional licenses are normally not valid across state lines, many of these restrictions have been relaxed for psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists, as well as for college counseling centers. Each school will have its own culture, legal counsel, and practices; many are flexible given the extreme circumstances and pressing needs. Check with your administrators about how your school intends to proceed.

Private Space

Be sure to consider where adults and students are able to have their conversations. If you live alone or in a home with a separate, private room or office, it’s easier and requires less effort to conduct sessions and have confidential conversations. If you don’t have a private room, consider how you might create a space in which you and students can feel comfortable talking. Some counselors have been getting creative in finding quite safe space to chat, even conducting meetings in the privacy of their cars.

Remember that students, no matter the size of their homes, now have limited privacy as well. Any counselor will tell you that some parents in their communities, especially in middle and secondary schools, don’t even know their children meet regularly with a school counselor. If your student has their own bedroom, that’s likely where they’ll meet with you. And even for those in private rooms with closed doors, there may be a sibling on the other side of the wall or a parent dropping in to say “hello” to a child they haven’t seen or heard from in hours. Prepare yourself for hushed tones, interruptions, and spontaneous meet-and-greets with family members you may not have already met.

Professional Boundaries

Virtual counseling places us smack in the middle of our students’ homes, a practice discouraged under normal circumstances. By now, your school should have established general expectations and norms for students. Among them: get dressed (though it’s a stretch to require a uniform, even if your school typically does) and participate in counseling sessions from spaces other than a bed (even if in a bedroom).

It’s also important to acknowledge that this is a crisis affecting everyone, counselors included, and to understand that one of the many things students may be stressed and anxious about is the adults in their lives. It’s good to talk about it, if they ask, and reassure them that we are OK.

Meet the Parents?

Keep in mind that parents are also experiencing the primary and secondary effects of this crisis. Even if your counseling office’s primary focus is on student well-being, it’s a crucial time to reach out to parents. Many are struggling with their own anxiety and how to manage working from home (if they’re still employed) with their kids around all day. Some schools have been offering webinars on parenting or a telephone or online drop-in hour for parents in your school community. Now, more than ever, families need our expertise and support.

Supporting Basic Needs

This is an economic crisis as well as a public health emergency. Remember that many struggling families are reluctant to ask for help. Know your community, and be aware of which families are most vulnerable financially. The financial aid office is a primary source of information about need but not the only one. And the economic crisis is a rapidly evolving situation. An adviser, for example, may hear from a student that a parent has been furloughed or laid off. Encourage faculty and staff to log that kind of information in a confidential central record or report it to a designated point person who can maintain family privacy while flagging parents that may need assistance. If your school has the bandwidth to establish an emergency reserve offering grocery gift cards or other relief, make that known and encourage parents in need to ask for help. While your school would never expect to account for all families’ needs or rescue them from financial hardship, it may be able to help in ways that are both pragmatically essential and psychologically meaningful.

If you’re a day school serving local families, post links to food banks and other resources for families who need quick, accessible information. Review your financial aid data and other evolving information such as parent job loss, and consider reaching out to your most at-risk families with discrete support such as gift certificates or referrals to professionals willing to donate their legal, medical, mental health, or other professional expertise.

As time goes on and uncertainty continues, our self-care is going to be critically important in the long haul as we take care of our students and try to anticipate student needs. Know your limits. Schools are assigning learning time that constitutes roughly half the time that school and homework hours typically take up. This rule may be useful for all of us, until things return to “normal” or we acclimate to this novel mode of learning and working.

Author
Deborah Offner
Deborah Offner

Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist/school consultant.
 

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