Episode 10: The counselor and teacher finding hope and growth in kids

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Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

More than two months into quarantine, it remains unclear when or how children will return to classrooms. How will they be evaluated? Would they be prepared to pick it up and start working on math and spelling? How would they cope with 'time lost' and be able to reconnect with their classmates and teachers? On this episode, a Wesley Family Services school counselor and a Pittsburgh Montessori teacher give us a glimpse into their students' lives now and how the adults are feeling about it, too.

JOURDAN HICKS: The first week of May was Children’s Mental Health Awareness week. And school social workers across the country made videos for their students to remind them that these are weird times. And it’s OK to have big feelings.

CLIP: “Hello Chipman scholars. This is Mrs. Davis. This is Children’s Mental Health Awareness week and each day this week we’ll be sharing a coping skill that you can use if you find you are in a mood that is not one of your best moods. And we all have those moods….”

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Pre-coronavirus, Suzy Zunser-Campbell spent her days surrounded by 1st and 2nd graders in a classroom. She’s a counselor at Wesley Family Service’s alternative elementary school in Upper St. Clair. The kids she works with were already dealing with a lot: trauma, anger management, anxiety, depression. And then the pandemic started. Since her school closed, Ms. Suzy - as her students call her - has been connecting with her students over Zoom, having group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling. It’s called telehealth.

What is Ms. Suzy seeing in the children she’s serving? And what is she doing to try to help children’s mental health during a pandemic? Here’s her story.

My classroom is very interesting. I love the children that are in there. I think that's been one of the more difficult things about being in quarantine, not being around them.

The kids, they came up with this really cute little thing that they'll say to me...we call it koala hugs. And they'll be like, ‘I'm sending you a koala hug!’ And so they'll even give themselves that self hug, like that pressure. So in a way, it's really, really positive because they're giving that positivity to themselves while they're directing it toward me.

Before the coronavirus, we were working a lot on anger management, frustration tolerance, a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy to help the children learn different ways of controlling their body, being in control of their feelings and being comfortable with their feelings. A lot of children, I think, before second grade sometimes feel a lot of shame and guilt associated with feeling angry or feeling sad. And so really trying to empower these children so that they feel comfortable with the feelings that they're experiencing, the sensations that they're experiencing.

When the coronavirus started to really become known, I became pretty nervous about what was going to happen. How are we going to create a structure that's similar to the program before? Of course, we can't expect these families to be able to implement seven hours a day. That's not realistic. That's not fair. That's not reasonable to ask them with everything that they have to put into their schedule. So we started by just implementing kind of a check-in in the morning that would go for about half an hour to an hour. And then we implemented individual sessions and then we have our group therapy in the afternoon.

The families have been absolutely amazing and we've also been very flexible. So if one family's like, ‘This is a lot, what can we do?’ We'd be like, ‘OK. So instead of you doing four days of group therapy, what if we just have them attend one?’ Or, ‘Would you like me to make an even smaller group on Friday?’

It took a lot of work. I would say that the first couple weeks of doing telehealth, I felt very stressed out because I was really concerned if the families were going to buy into this form of therapy. The families have been phenomenal. I am so blessed to be able to work with so many families from so many different backgrounds that are so willing to put forth so much effort for their children's mental health support.

And the children, for everything that's been happening, they're doing amazing, especially with children who really struggle with their physical and verbal aggression. They definitely are really tired of telehealth. And I really feel for them because I know how much they would rather be in the classroom, how much they'd rather be sitting with me in my office. In my office, I have a lot of toys in there, a lot of stuffed animals, board games, and it's a lot more sessions that involve them just playing and just talking about how they're feeling.

Sometimes when children have been through some really traumatic and difficult situations, they don't want to talk about that. And so just being able to sit with somebody and just being able to play and talk about things that are happening in their day to day and kind of creating that safe space for them.

I was concerned about that trauma piece. Would they feel comfortable still talking about that at home? I think sometimes children feel afraid that if I share this, I might be letting my family member down because I don't want them to think that I'm mad at them or I'm feeling upset with them. My individual sessions go really well. My children, they really look forward to that one-on-one time with me. I have a few that would rather be playing video games. But a lot of them are really excited because it's like that time that they get to see me. It's that special one-on-one time from another adult. And it's a lot of positive attention, a lot of positive reinforcement, a lot of specific praise, them being able to talk about things that they did and not feeling judged or put down for if they were making some poor choices, because we'll just talk about it and examine it and talk about, well, what could you have done differently?

We could be working more on that anger management piece. But I think the children need more of like, I can do this. I can be in a good, healthy place. And a lot of families have been reporting like the children are doing really, really well at home with managing their moods to the best of their abilities. One of the things that I've noticed the most, and I would like to hear more from teachers and other mental health providers about this, is children having more of that access to TV, having more access to electronics. Because I notice that they'll almost go into a crisis because they have to stop playing their video games, because they have to stop playing a game on the computer. And I know parents are doing the best that they can.

I found a really great social skills story that examines the COVID-19 and it examines how children are engaging at home and what it's like to be doing telehealth. So I showed that to some of my children. And we talked about, ‘How do you think it makes other people feel when you're playing video games or you’re engaged in computer games when you're doing a zoom session?’ rather than saying, ‘Well, you shouldn't be doing this, you shouldn't be doing that.’ But for them to know that other children are going through this, too, and other populations of people, even, you know, teenagers, children across different age groups as well.

It is such a difficult time. I don't think that a lot of us really thought that in May we would still be in quarantine, going into June. We're still in quarantine and we're still not really sure of what's going to happen when we all return to school or what's going to happen in the next couple of months with mental health.

I know that some of my families were expressing to me that they appreciate having that telehealth piece because it gives their children a chance to engage with other people outside the household. I felt very sad for a period of time because I just felt for these families. It was just so much that they were having to deal with. And then on top of it, having also to deal with how much effort it takes to have a child in a partial hospital or have a child in outpatient or intense outpatient -- they are just going above and beyond with handling this pandemic.

And the children are handling it really well. Sometimes the children will bring up to me that they do feel sad about the virus. And we'll just talk about what are some different activities that they can engage in. So next week, the kids want to create a bucket list with me. So we're going to create different things that they can do during the summer while they're in quarantine. We talked about creating a bingo chart. So if the child goes out for a 10-minute walk, you know, that's B. And then once it's all filled, you get bingo. And the kids were like, that's a really good idea. We'd really like to do that.

So really trying to help them see the positive things that have come from this virus. I think that it's absolutely amazing just to see the beauty that's come out of telehealth and how much they continue to support each other, even though they don't want to be doing group therapy right now. They'd rather be playing with their toys, playing their games, doing something a little bit more active. But to see them really put forth that effort. All these children, they're phenomenal. I'm just really proud of them and how they've been managing everything with what's been happening.

JOURDAN HICKS: If you need help managing your child’s anxiety related to COVID-19, Wesley Family Services is offering online mental health support groups for school-aged children. You can learn more on their website: wfspa.org. You can also call the Allegheny County warmline, staffed by mental health professionals who offer support over the phone for free. The number is 1-855-284-2494.

After this short break, we hear from a Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher about what it was like to go back into her silent classroom to pack up for the year.

Elyse Thimons teaches 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders at Pittsburgh Montessori, a public school in Friendship. Last week, she was assigned a time slot to put on her mask and go pack up her classroom for the year. For our podcast, we asked her to read her an essay she wrote about what that was like.

I walked into a room today in which time had stood still. The calendar still read March. A morning message was still written on the board.

While this was the classroom that 24 of us called home, it did not feel like home. The hum of life and the echoes of laughter were missing. The heartbeat was missing. The children were missing.

I’ve often thought of the beautiful souls that have graced this room in its 100-year lifetime. Of the discoveries made, the moments of inspiration and the obstacles overcome. How many smiles and hugs these walls have silently stood witness to. But today was different. The children were not here.

As I packed boxes, I reflected on how different it felt this time around. I was not packing for a relaxing summer after goodbye hugs had been given and end-of-year picnics had been had. I was packing alone, in a mask with unanswered questions and empty arms.

But then I reached for the small box on the top of a shelf and smiled. This was my “Happy Box,” the place where I put the little things that made me smile throughout the year. The hand-drawn shark, the sweet poem, the thank-you note from colleague-turned-best-friend.

And I smiled. Because I realized that the children are here. They are always here. They are here in the worn-down crayons. They are here in the dog-eared pages of the books. They are here in the memories. And they are here in my Happy Box.

I realized that this is not forever. The sun will rise and the soul and light will return to this room. And we will celebrate. And we will learn. And we will hug. And we will make the heart of this room beat again. The children will be here.

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Mila Sanina and Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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