How a school based-clinician helps students learn to manage big feelings and cope with Covid
When people ask me what I do for a living I tell them, “I play”. Actually, I am a licensed clinical mental counselor working for Lamoille County Mental Health Services (LCMHS), one of Vermont’s ten Designated Agencies, as a school-based clinician and part-time therapist serving adults.
I do play quite a bit in my work with preschool and elementary students – but there is a great deal more to the role of a school-based clinician. The Covid-19 pandemic also plays a pretty big role in our work right now – and has changed the ways we are able to provide care for our clients and work with our community partners. I am grateful to have this opportunity to share a little about my role as community mental health provider and hopefully, will leave you with an understanding of why I love my job.
I am one of eleven school-based clinicians (SBCs) serving our Supervisory Unions in Lamoille Valley. The role of each SBC varies to some degree based on the needs and culture of each school, the age and needs of students, and the individual qualities each clinician brings to the work. SBCs provide a wide range of direct supports to students and through supportive counseling, individual and group therapy, classroom support, and crisis response with the aim of helping students meet their educational goals and improve their wellbeing. We also provide case management and do our best to support not only the youth but also their family, working with community partners to ensure both mental health and basic needs are addressed. Our role extends to supporting school staff as well. SBCs provide clinical consultation and participate in a variety of school teams. These days, providing wellness focused support to school staff through both formal and informal means is also an important aspect of the work.
I do not need to tell you that things are really hard in schools right now. The pandemic has created innumerable challenges for students, families, teachers and staff, and school systems at the organization level. Masks and testing and quarantine are part of the day-to-day. Stress and anxiety are at high levels due to the uncertainties, constant changes, and challenges Covid continues to throw at us all.
A rise in behavioral challenges and mental health needs coupled with staffing shortages are pushing many students and educators to their coping limits. Students, and sometimes the grown-ups, can be dysregulated. And, quite frankly, some moments feel like pure pandemonium, especially if you take a walk down a kindergarten wing where our youngest learners are trying hard to manage the transition to being both students and members of a larger community. Many are away from their caregivers for the first time, having had disrupted or no preschool experience at all, few, if any, playdates or time with extended family and friends because of the pandemic.
There really is no “typical day” for me as a School Based Clinician. I fulfill a variety of roles throughout the day – and might also respond to urgent and crisis situations. My clinical work with clients is child-centered and trauma-informed. It is largely play-based, incorporating sensory exploration and movement, mindfulness and gratitude practices, expressive arts and bibliotherapy activities, as well as traditional “talk therapy” based on the age, needs and goals of the client.
Many of the students I serve struggle to manage their “Big Feelings” in one form or another which disrupts their learning and, at times, the learning of others. Typical therapeutic goals include increasing self-regulation skills, developing social skills and forming positive relationships, learning coping skills for anxiety, depression, or experiences of trauma, developing a more positive sense of self, learning about emotions and how to safely express and regulate those “Big Feelings”. We might work out a problem or practice new skills through play or guided practice, make sensory tools for a self-regulation toolkit, learn relaxation and breathing techniques, learn and develop coping strategies, process a conflict with a peer, a challenge from home, or worries about Covid. We also recognize and celebrate growth and progress along the way!
The arrival of a second clinician at my school this year (a program success!) has allowed me to work more with students in Pre-K through 2nd grade. I am excited to be able to focus more on our “littles”, offering universal supports for all Pre-K and Kindergarten students through group psychoeducation in their classrooms focused on Social-Emotional Learning and Wellbeing. I am grateful for the teachers who have opened their classrooms to me and helped create additional avenues for prevention and early intervention work for all students, while also addressing individual client goals. So, you might find me doing a lunch time puppet show for preschoolers, a lesson on empathy, teaching a breath or other calming strategy, or reading and discussing a book about kindness with Kindergarteners. I love this opportunity to connect with every student coming into our school system — and most of them can tell you that ‘Ms. Allison’ really loves talking about feelings and helping people learn how to take good care of theirs.
One of the things I love most about being a school-based clinician is being able to work with students in their “natural environment”. I can be a safe point of connection and provide in-the-moment support for all students (client or not) during times of challenge by co-regulating with a child, assisting with a difficult transition, being a problem-solving partner, or by providing a safe space to work through difficult feelings. There are lots of opportunities to teach, model, and support the use of a self-regulation or coping skill in the little and big moments that naturally occur in the school day. So, maybe you’ll catch me doing “Dragon Breaths” with a child who needs to blow off some steam, body squeezes to calm and ground an anxious student, on a mindful “Rainbow Walk”, or just sitting quietly holding space for a student.
It is not all about the “hard stuff”, though. I also get to witness many celebrations throughout the school day – a positive peer interaction, doing well on an assignment, getting through a hard math problem, reading at a higher level, earning a reward break, a successful transition in from recess, entering the building independently at start of day, asking for help, recovering from a “bump”, advocating for a need, taking a risk, trying something new, making a new friend. I relish these moments as opportunities to build connection and share in their successes big and small, to provide positive feedback and reinforcement for trying a new skill, to give smiles (masked), thumbs up, high fives, and hugs when asked for. To say, “I see you”, “I believe in you”,” You’ve got this”, “Great job”, “You’re amazing”. On a good day, and most of them are, I get to bring a little joy and hope to our community.
This article was written by Allison Hayes, LCMHC (she/her). If you would like to learn more about LCMHS, please visit our website at www.lamoille.org
Lamoille County Mental Health Services is one of the designated agencies in Vermont that is charged with the responsibility of providing comprehensive community mental health, developmental and related services to the citizens of Lamoille Valley. Services include individual, family and group therapy, medication therapy and support, emergency and crisis support, developmental, day treatment, housing, vocational, and outreach services to individuals, families and schools.
This article is part of a series collaboratively produced by Vermont Care Partners and its members. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability support.