Supporting Students in Pandemic Times: A Team Approach to Socioemotional Health

Hopes were high for many that the 2021-2022 school year would be a return to normalcy. In reality, the school year has been far from normal. 

I am hearing from school counselors, psychologists, and social workers that the need is unparalleled in their buildings. At the same time, all staff is being asked to take on more responsibilities outside of their role and cover positions that are vacant due to staff shortages. 

Through all of this, the work of student support services staff remains imperative for the well-being of all students. 

The roles of school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers can seem similar to those working outside of the field. While they overlap, they each play a distinct and integral role in supporting the whole child. 

Using the School Reentry Guide as a best practices source, let’s review each of the three roles and how they support students in this difficult year.

The Role of School Psychologists

School psychologists support students in learning and teachers in teaching. They are experts in mental health, learning, and behavior. They are a go-to person for looking at data, creating systems and structures that support learning, and creating interventions that will support students academically and behaviorally. 

During this school year, many school psychologists will be spending their time working with teams to use data to determine students who may need additional support, to consider how that support might best be given across all levels, and to collaborate with teachers, administrators, and families to make sure that students have what they need.

The Role of School Counselors

School counselors work with all students to improve student outcomes. Their role is to lead, advocate, and collaborate to promote equity and access for all students through a comprehensive school counseling program. This includes core classroom lessons, small group counseling, and individual counseling including creating closing-the-gap plans to systematically address gaps in student outcomes. 

During this school year, many school counselors will be proactively increasing their social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum by collaborating with administrators and teachers to increase time spent teaching and learning SEL skills for all students. 

School counselors will also respond to student and family requests for counseling and hold small group counseling sessions based on need.

The Role of School Social Workers

School social workers are the link between the home, school, and community. In some school settings, social workers provide individual and small group therapy. In other districts, school social workers work with families to access community resources to meet their physical and mental health needs. 

During this school year, many school social workers will be reaching out to families who may need assistance with food, housing, or other basic needs. They will be working with families to access mental health care and working with schools to remove barriers that prevent students from being successful.

Supporting the Whole Child Through the Covid-19 Pandemic

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) released a joint document titled “School Reentry Considerations: Supporting Student Social Emotional Learning and Mental and Behavioral Health amidst Covid-19.” In this document, the associations worked together to help schools plan for the upcoming year. 

Working together, the student support services team will collaborate to make sure their efforts are reaching the needs of all students and that they are not duplicating their work. In team meetings, they look at data, review requests for resources from parents and families, and consult with one another to choose the best response to both schoolwide and individual needs. It takes a team of support professionals to ensure that all students can be successful. 

All students, more than ever, need social-emotional skills. Social and emotional learning includes five major competencies: 

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making 

SEL skills comprise lifelong learning that changes and grows as we reach different stages of life. Because of this, all students from pre-K to adulthood benefit from SEL instruction. The student support services team will work together to create a schoolwide plan for intentionally incorporating SEL skills.

Making time to connect with one another and to rebuild relationships has been crucial to rebuilding a positive school climate, especially when so much of school has been virtual these past two years. We can’t assume that all staff members have the knowledge needed to create time and space for intentional relationship-building within their classroom. 

Oftentimes, school counselors, social workers, and psychologists will work with staff to help. This could include creating lesson plans that staff will teach, going into the classroom to support communication and connection, or using strategies like Restorative Practices.  

Some students need more. There are times that students need additional support through one-on-one or small group counseling. The student support services team works together to identify which students need additional support and creates a plan for making sure that happens. 

Even with intentional support in the school, there are times that a family may need a referral to outside services in order to access therapy or other mental health supports. Some schools offer therapeutic onsite through co-located services.

Supporting Staff and Families Through the Covid-19 Pandemic

While the child is always the first focus of student support services personnel, we also recognize the importance of the adults in a child’s life. 

Many school counselors, psychologists, and social workers collaborate with their school administrators to plan staff mental health well-being activities. These might be coping strategies shared in a staff meeting or wellness programs, including physical activity or time to connect socially with colleagues. 

I’ve seen several schools create wellness bingo where staff completed different challenges like going to bed early or taking a walk. None of these activities can solve the intense level of stress surrounding the pandemic, but they can help the workplace be a more positive environment.

Student support services staff also work with families. It might be something like a basic need for food or shelter or supporting a parent in finding mental health services for themselves, especially in the wake of a job loss or childcare struggles. Many schools have created wellness activities similar to those provided for staff that families can access.

Coming Through the Pandemic Together: A Call for More Student Support Services

The work of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is challenging. There is always more to do.

It’s important to note that many schools do not have access to a counselor, a social worker, or a psychologist. Some institutions may have one or two of these positions, but not all three. They may have incredibly large caseloads or be shared by multiple schools. 

The recommended ratio for school counselors is 250-to-1, but the national average is 424-to-1. I have had over 650 students as the only counselor. For school psychologists, The recommended ratio for school psychologists is 500-to-1 but the national average is a staggering 1,211-to-1. There are ten million students in schools with no social worker

Coming together, in spite of large caseloads or missing team roles, is essential for meeting the needs of students. Each day, student support services teams work collaboratively to make the 2021-2022 school year better for the whole child and for the staff and families who support them.

Rebecca Atkins, MEd, NBCT

Rebecca Atkins, MEd, NBCT

Writer & Contributing Expert

Rebecca Atkins serves as the central office leader for school counseling in a large southern school district. She served as a school counselor for 12 years and is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences.

Along with Alicia Oglesby, she authored the book Interrupting Racism: Equity and Social Justice in School Counseling in 2018. She shares her ideas on her blog CounselorUp.