Social distancing guidelines used to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus are especially hard for teens and pre-teens, whose friend groups at school help mature their public and personal identities. Falls Church City Public Schools is providing some tools to stymie the pain older students are experiencing from a lost social life, while one area therapist is seeing the present mental health challenges make room for positive growth for both the students and systems placed around them.
Rebecca Sharp, Falls Church schools’ executive director for special education and student services, said the school system has started a variety of new resources in order to support the mental health needs borne, in part, from the students’ lack of socializing.
That includes mental health support forms developed in light of the pandemic. The forms are available for families to fill out, where social workers, school psychologists, school counselors and teachers will respond to their inquiries within a day and help tackle the problem families are bringing forward. For high schoolers, they can take small group counseling on an as needed basis.
Summer activity clubs are a remedy offered to middle school students, as well as elementary school kids, and have received an overwhelmingly positive reception, per Matt Sowers, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School’s director of counseling. Henderson Middle created 18 clubs with anywhere from two students to 10 participating in them regularly and occasionally multiple times throughout the day.
“Students simply want to engage with their teachers, staff, and other peers,” Sowers, who hosts a Secret Life of Pets club, told the News-Press over email. “Hearing students laugh, smile, and be present in the moment is a remarkable thing to experience.
After the summer clubs season concludes in two weeks, Sowers continued, the school is trying to plan out how to infuse those activities into the virtual start to the school year to build on the relationships established this summer.
Extroverted teens will probably need resources like that to stay engaged with the grind of the academic year more than introverted ones, according to Think Happy Live Healthy founder Christine Willing.
The former school psychologist-turned-private practitioner specializes in school age clients at her N. Washington Street office where she sees children and teens from schools in Falls Church, along with Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Willing said her more outgoing clients go against the public health grain to get their socialization fix, while the reclusive ones are using it to fall back into old habits where they avoided leaving the house altogether and stunting some of their progress.
Another part of Willing’s practice is its focus on how having a healthy mind is connected to having a healthy body. Younger children in elementary school get their physical activity by going to playgrounds or running around at a park. This somewhat applies to middle school students, too. For teens, however, their exercise typically takes the form of a school sport. Virginia High School League may choose to delay certain programs or even cancel them for the entire year when they meet on Monday, leaving teen athletes without a source of stress relief and structure in their lives.
“It’s having a huge impact on how they manage stress. For these athletic kids, that is their stress management; that is their purpose in life,” Willing said. “It also provides a routine. That’s the main thing we’ve worked on in therapy right now is building healthy routines. If you’re so used to having other people build your routine, and now all of a sudden, parents are like ‘You need to exercise,’ so how you structure and still provide that independence is really hard.”
As expected with teens who are making the gradual transition into adulthood, Willing mentioned it’s their friends who motivate them to organize their day effectively.
One of her teenage boy clients was doing a push-up challenge with friends online, giving the client a regular event to look forward to and a way to interact with others.
These adverse circumstances are unearthing some positive nuggets. Willing noted how the cancellations caused by the pandemic put a temporary freeze on the Northern Virginia area’s perfectionist, hyper-competitive culture that teens experience. It’s allowed them more time to do the things they want to do rather than the things they feel they have to do to advance their lives.
Still, Willing added that it hasn’t quashed all concerns over college acceptance. Some students have expressed anxiety to her over how they will get into college without activities buttressing their application. Others have wondered how they’d pay for college even if they did get in, as their families are some of the economic victims of the widespread shutdowns. High school juniors and seniors, Willing pointed out, are the group that she’s seen with the most compromised mental health at her practice.
Carrying the effectiveness of this summer’s programs into the school year is a big focus for Falls Church schools. Sharp, the director of student services, said the school system plans to continue all its mental health efforts even with the Falls Church recommending a virtual model to begin the year.
Sowers said the counseling team at Henderson Middle plans on creating a needs assessment for students and families. It will help the staff gauge the student body’s mental health status and learn how to support students either through individual or group counseling, or its new advisory program called “Pack Time.” This scheduled time, according to Sowers, intends to let students build a community in the school through social, emotional and academic growth.
For students, knowing what they’re getting into is a major help for their mental health. Willing said when Arlington County schools announced its decision to start the year virtual, it gave students time to mentally prepare and set up a work space in their homes. For Fairfax students, which as Monday when Willing spoke to the News-Press hadn’t yet announced they also planned to start the year virtually, the uncertainty gnawed at them.
But Willing believes the strife of the moment will breed a more resilient generation of children, as well as spur some overdue change to how the education system is handled at all levels.
“Everything’s going to change moving forward — in terms of what college looks like, in terms of what school looks like,” Willing said. “It needed to change for a long time, and now we’re having the discussions of how it’s going to look and how it’s going to change for the better.”