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Educators, counselors focus on mental health as students return to the classroom

After more than a year of restrictions and online schooling, educators and counselors are focusing on ways to assess the long-term social, emotional and mental impact of the pandemic on school children when they return to the classroom. Christopher Booker reports from Fairfield County, Connecticut as part of our ongoing series, “Roads to Recovery.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Educators and counselors are preparing for the start of a school year unlike any other. After more than a year of pandemic restrictions, counselors are focusing on ways to assess and address the long-term social and emotional health of children when they return to the classroom.

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports from Fairfield county, Connecticut, in the latest installment of our on-going series "Roads to Recovery."

  • Christopher Booker:

    Of the many ways counselor Curtis Darragh works to connect with his students the most simple tactic is also one of the most important. He learns the name of each and every student he is responsible for. All 375 of them. Not surprisingly, this past school year at Westside Middle School Academy in Danbury, CT was a bit different. The students only started coming to "in-person" classes in January. And even then, it was part time and Darragh, like every other educator in America – had to change the way he did things. Social distance measures meant no lunch bunch meetings with the sixth graders, no drop-in visits to his office from the 7th graders and the annual 8th grade trip was cancelled.

    For a counselor who was recently named Connecticut School Counselor of the Year, such restrictions were minor compared to other challenges.

  • Curtis Darragh:

    It was really hard as a counselor to read emotions through a mask you know, it would have to kind of like see the kids, his eyes and like, are you crying? Are you happy? 'Oh no I'm glad.'

  • Christopher Booker:

    How much of a change did you see in the students between before the pandemic and now wherever we are?

  • Curtis Darragh:

    I think there is a lot of fear. It's a lot of fear in some of the kids eyes and like schools meant to be a safe place, a safe haven for them to feel comfortable and for them to feel connected to teachers and and other students and you know maybe they had their first crush and stuff like that, and we didn't see any of that this year.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Missing such hallmarks of middle school were part of a larger deficiency through this past year, Durragh says that fundamentally, the pandemic has put enormous stress on a central aspect of middle school development known as SEL.

  • Curtis Darragh:

    So S.E. L or social emotional learning has a lot to do with kids being connected. So here at Westside and Danbury public schools and in education nowadays are trying to really connect students to, you know, know what a good friend is or how to approach people with manners or kindness and knowing who what your strengths are on the inside and how you can bring that out and right now a lot of kids, especially in the pandemic, are not connected. They're disconnected.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sitting down with a group of 7th and 8th graders, you hear the same thing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Did you feel like you were connected or did you feel like you were disconnected?

  • Tatum:

    Disconnected. Some days I just had my friends on FaceTime during class, just not really to talk to them just so that I had like company. So I wasn't just sitting in my room alone in a meeting.

  • Patrick:

    Exactly

  • Samuel:

    Doing you work at home is way different. Like you have to always be there for your teacher to have your camera on. It's hard because I have a sister so you could hear her. And every time I unmuted, you could hear my sister in the background. So it was pretty tough.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Did you find you had good days and bad days? Some days you'd say, oh, this feels OK and other days maybe didn't feel OK,

  • Students:

    yeah

  • Tatum:

    It definitely got like lonelier because you don't always have someone to turn to and talk to you, because when you're in your room alone or like in a meeting, you can't just turn and talk.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And the story is the same with teachers as well.

  • Jan Hochadel:

    the best word to describe it is overwhelmed. There's a lot of stress, there's a lot of anxiety, definitely a lot of exhaustion. And one of the things that came out most this past year was that. Feeling of being disconnected

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jan Hochadel is the president of the AFT Connecticut the state's teachers union.

  • Jan Hochadel:

    Unless you were in the school building or in those classes with those students, nobody can fully understand what these educators went through.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And this says Hochadel, is changing the way Connecticut is thinking about the upcoming school year. Again, returning to the concept of Social Emotional Learning – but not for the students, for educators.

  • Jan Hochadel:

    If the educators are in touch with their feelings, their emotions, and then they have the empathy to then understand their students better I know it's an overused analogy, but when you're flying on an airplane, you have to put your safety mask on first, then you can help others.

  • Christina Cipriano:

    When we think about the toll that the pandemic has taken on students well-being, I immediately say we need to start by also thinking about the all of the adults around them.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Christina Cipriano is the Director of Research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence with Yale University.

  • Christina Cipriano:

    When we can start to understand and think about how each student and each teacher, each adult in our school community, , how they're handling the current times, noting that that may be different today than it is next week, next month and next year. And using that information as an opportunity to evolve how we're interacting with them, the instruction that we're providing to them and able to support them in the long term.

  • Christopher Booker:

    One homegrown tool Connecticut is utilizing is called the RULER program, a curriculum that was developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER is an approach to social emotional learning centered on the 5 skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, understanding, labelling, expressing and regulating,

    It's been used by teachers around the country for almost 15 years. Traditionally, this was done in person, but the Center began offering a virtual 6-week training in 2019 to accommodate educators who could not travel to the in-person training. With the pandemic, the training was offered exclusively online, but with an influx of billions of dollars in pandemic-related education aid through the cares act and the American Rescue Plan, RULER is seeing unprecedented demand.

  • Christina Cipriano:

    We know that you cannot support students in an authentic and healthy way. If you yourself as an adult have not learned how to regulate your emotions, cannot label them effectively and cannot be an authentic expression. We have an opportunity here to take perspective and to learn from the varied experiences of others. And even if we ourselves did not experience a loss at a scale that our neighbor did or that someone across the country did, there is a great opportunity here and a hunger to learn from that experience so that we can all support each other to heal in a healthy way.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And that, in and of itself, presents the unbelievable challenge as it relates to September. If you have these teachers who, like everyone else, have gone through this trauma, the disruption, the anxiety, and they're not OK and not having space to talk about being OK, that seems remarkably complicated.

  • Christina Cipriano:

    Absolutely, and it will continue to ripple because it's going to show up differently in student behaviors and teacher behaviors as we move through next school year and arguably beyond. Right. We have little precedents to understand what this will look like. But when we look to, you know, previous traumatic events, again, not the same thing, but looking at what was happening in New York City and surrounding areas after 9/11, what was happening after Hurricane Katrina, we know that the ripples of impact lasted for years.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Ripple effects that counselor Curtis Darragh will be looking out for

  • Christopher Booker:

    What do you think the students will be like in September?

  • Curtis Darragh:

    I think kids are going to be coming in here hopefully with like smiles on their face and like, you know, after a nice, enjoyable summer. Unfortunately, there's a lot of kids who didn't do well academically, so those are the kids I'm going to have to really touch base with and talk to and make sure they have a plan and set in place for their current current current grade year so that we can get them back on track

  • Christopher Booker:

    It's a tall order for Darragh who splits 750 schoolers with just one other counselor.

  • Curtis Darragh:

    We're going to need a lot of work going forward in the fall of of making sure we can connect those kids on a social and emotional scale. You know, they haven't seen friends in a very long time. They haven't been with each other in a long time. I think we are we're ready. We're prepared. As you know, I never know what's going to come through the door, but we're going to be definitely ready come fall. I know it is going to be a lot of work, but I don't think I was born to do anything else. I love I love kids and I love seeing their growth from sixth to eighth grade.

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