Being present: (actively) listening to children when their world is upside down

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As School Counselors at The Harley School, we continue to see first-hand the heightened sense of vulnerability among our children as a result of the pandemic. We also know that their already fragile sense of well-being can be susceptible to family stressors as well as local, national, and global events outside of their control.

Today’s students are bombarded with information, much of which they may not be ready to hear or internalize. Our task is to understand how each child is affected and then work to create a safe, secure, and inclusive environment for them, as the “goings-on” in their own world can feel overwhelming.

For privacy protection, the following is a fictional student example but one with real life ramifications:

We became aware of a middle school student when their teacher/advisor came to us directly, noticing that their normally outgoing student seemed withdrawn, had declining grades, and recently dropped out of extracurricular activities.

We met with the student—with the option of also including the teacher—to share observations, offer support, and gain insight into the situation. In that meeting, the student disclosed having a disagreement with their best friend who they have known since kindergarten. The student wondered if the disagreement meant they were no longer friends. Additionally, the student’s parents have not allowed them to have a smartphone, so the student was feeling socially isolated.

In our meeting we validated the student’s feelings and emotions. We talked about using learned coping skills for when they’re feeling left out. For instance, by asking, what are some activities that give them joy or provide a healthy distraction? Sometimes simply verbalizing thoughts is a big step forward. We offer to role play a conversation with their friend, mediate a conversation, and help problem solve. We also suggest considering if there might be something going on in their friends’ life that would affect their behavior. We continue checking in with the student to monitor their behavior.

To evaluate a student’s risks for challenges in school and in life, we utilize a number of tools in our training. One of them is school-wide student surveys. These provide the “big picture” of overall student well-being as well as pointing out potential needs from a social-emotional programming standpoint.

Children carry more than backpacks on their shoulders. It takes courage to come to school each day. They have a lot of questions. They have big feelings. They need to feel loved and understood. As critical partners, we work with our parents/caregivers to help our students navigate through their challenges. These are some suggestions:

Before broaching a difficult subject with your child, we suggest you ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this subject developmentally appropriate for their age?
  • Is it the right time to talk about this?
  • Are we using the right tone?

As much as we want to “fix” things, we need to:

  • Help children identify their feelings
  • Validate their emotions; reflecting back acknowledges that you have “heard” them
  • Check in with ourselves—some issues are hot buttons for adults. You don’t want to get more reactive than your child, but you also don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the issue.
  • Be active listeners.
  • Model how to weather big emotions. Children are always looking to their parent/parent figure.
  • Understand that sitting in silence—as uncomfortable as it may be—can be healing.
  • Be optimism wrapped in care.

For the most serious challenges, we are fortunate to have a critical resource in Monroe County. The Consortium for Trauma, Illness & Grief in Schools (TIG) provides education, training opportunities, and support to assist schools with effectively responding to the needs of children, parents, teachers, and other school personnel in times of crisis. At Harley, for example, we have an internal TIG Team that collaborates, not only with support at our school, but with other Monroe County Schools as well.

Schools have a unique responsibility to help support students’ success in the areas of academics, behavior, and wellness. By addressing students’ holistic needs across prevention, early intervention, and recovery, we empower them to achieve their unique potential and thrive.

Mary-Pat Cleary, M.Ed, CAES, The Harley School, Lower School Counselor
Emily Cady, MA NCC, The Harley School, Upper School Counselor

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