10 National School Therapists Share How They’re Preparing for the New School Year

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

For our Perspectives series, we are interviewing diverse school therapists from around the country on how they’re preparing for the 2021-2022 school year.

Heading into the 2021-2022 school year, parents, students, and educators alike are feeling the pressure for a return to normal. The last year and a half has seen students removed from their classrooms and placed in front of screens instead, all while having to process the loss of loved ones, the loss of family income, and separation from their friends and school.

Educators are working hard to prepare for the challenges the year ahead may bring. In order to get a better idea of what guiding students through those challenges may look like, we spoke to school guidance counselors, occupational therapists, and speech therapists about how they are preparing for the year to come.

 Kathleen Walls

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Kathleen Walls

  • Position: Psychologist and director of a school-based behavioral health team
  • State of Residence: Pennsylvania
  • Accreditations: Psy.D
  • Worth Noting: Author of multiple books

What Needs Do You Anticipate Students Having?

Some students will feel anxious or overwhelmed about their reintegration into the classroom, meeting new peers, relearning expectations and regulations, and dealing with social nuances. For some students, returning to the school building and the classroom allows them to return to a safe place and provides them an opportunity to share information that they have been holding onto and keeping to themselves. 

As an inner-city public charter school located in the city’s busiest police precinct, Southwest Leadership Academy (SLA) students face many challenges that our neighboring suburban school districts, and in fact, many other schools throughout Philadelphia, do not experience.

Southwest Philadelphia has been rocked by the city’s exponentially escalating gun violence. Students have heard gunshots, witnessed violent criminal actions, or seen police activity regarding the crime. Many of the same students have seen social unrest rage out of control. The students also became acutely aware of social injustice involving the police.

As a result of these factors, many students were not permitted to participate in routine activities such as walking to the store or going outside. Loss of everyday freedoms can be devastating for preteens. Thus, the return to school is also a return to socializing.

The African American community has suffered disproportionately more from the pandemic. Many SLA students live below the federal poverty level, which means they reside in a community where nearly every child has a loved one or knows someone who has either been stricken with or died from COVID-19 complications.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

SLA hosts an annual “Mental Health Week” to educate the SLA community members (i.e., students, staff, and families) about mental health, provide them with self-care tools, and make them aware of resources within and outside of the school. Because we reopened under a hybrid model on April 19, 2021, we were able to collect critical information that has informed our actions for the upcoming school year. 

Thus, “Mental Health Week,” which was initially slated for the end of September, has been moved to the beginning of the school year due to the many social-emotional challenges associated with returning to school after a long separation. The SLA Behavior Health Team (BHT) recognizes that members of the SLA community will have a variety of thoughts and feelings as they return to the school building and begin interacting with others on a regular basis.

School administrators, along with the BHT, will provide a space during professional development for teachers and staff to address their concerns prior to the students’ return. Professional development sessions will also highlight social-emotional and mental health topics such as separation anxiety, social anxiety, and performance anxiety.

The BHT also wants to be sure our teachers and staff are trauma-informed and cognizant of potential mental health issues and/or other serious problems stemming from being isolated during the pandemic, as well as possible exposure to different types of abuse, social injustices, and community discord. The BHT looks to create opportunities to bring social-emotional health and mental well-being to the forefront of professional development and the SLA community as a whole.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

With the return to school and the unknowns of what individuals experienced over the past year, we are making the above changes to assist in the overall health and well-being of the SLA community members. Mental Health Week will allow us to discuss and address possible fears, nervousness, and anxiousness schoolwide. 

The program also reminds the community that it is “okay” to experience these thoughts and feelings and provides community members with in-school and outside-of-school resources to assist in their overall social and emotional health. As challenges emerge, with the return, the BHT is prepared to assess and thoroughly address each of these challenges so that the students can focus their minds on learning. 

Whitney Delmore

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Whitney Delmore

  • Position: School counselor and social worker
  • State of Residence: Louisiana
  • Accreditations: MSW, LMSW

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

With 100% in-person learning, that also opens the door for more student crises since we are dealing with students who have been away from school and perhaps social surroundings for so long and it might be a readjustment to them.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

To prepare for this, I developed a Crisis Team and appointed a group of staff members to serve as the Crisis Team Members. Social-emotional learning (SEL) support is an important piece of our scholars’ success and overall well-being.

As I look back on how different the 2020-2021 school year has been, I am using those experiences and hiccups to prepare for the 2021-2022 school year. As a second-year school counselor and social worker, I’ve learned the key to preparing is pre-work: calendaring, writing down ideas, and laying out the pre-plans of the upcoming school year. Another key is thinking and planning on your feet or in the moment because after what we've learned from this past year, anything can happen and we have to be prepared for anything.

Transitioning to 100% in-person learning here in Louisiana gives us counselors the opportunity to provide extensive SEL Support. We have implemented a program, Move This World, that we will now focus more on in classrooms. In preparation for overseeing this program as well as ensuring our teachers are implementing the curriculum, I have scheduled time for observations and weekly updates to all staff at our campus.

In addition, student check-ins and group pre-work includes creating check-in documents for students on my caseload and developing content and curriculums for student groups.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

As one of our new core values states, We Spread JOY! Student and family engagement activities are another component that continuously requires pre-work. Preparing for student and family engagement activities for the upcoming school year includes scheduling and locking in events and activities in advance with my IDEA Bridge Team as well as developing creative ideas.

This ensures that our scholars are having fun at school while learning through these activities and events that can also include family. Our student and family engagement events also allow us to address the needs of our families such as food insecurity, clothing, housing, and gives us a chance to connect families to community-based resources.

Soon the halls of IDEA Bridge will be filled with scholars eager to learn, I am beyond excited to bring a little JOY throughout the school year!

Alison Hickman

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Alison Hickman

  • Position: Psychologist and director of a school-based behavioral health team
  • State of Residence: Ohio
  • Accreditations: MSW, LMSW

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

I'm working on identifying and implementing ways for the students to relax and recharge by engaging in self-care. This also means supporting the teachers in this effort as well. Taking care of ourselves is one of the best ways to help our students.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

I plan on reviewing data from the past few years to identify ways the counseling program can become more efficient and effective in its day-to-day work with students. What are the trends and patterns we're seeing in student needs? What interventions worked/didn't work? What small changes can we make that will have a positive impact on our students?

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

I'll be pursuing professional development to learn new skills to bring back to the school, share with colleagues, and use in my daily work with students.

Taylor Nelson

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Taylor Nelson

  • Position: School counselor and academic coach
  • State of Residence: Virginia
  • Accreditations: Ed.D

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

After a year of hybrid learning and too many Zoom meetings, the constant change has affected the students and it has affected the staff as well.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

In order to be an effective school counselor, I must be the best version of myself professionally and personally. Taking the summer to regroup and practice self-care is essential for school counselors before entering the 2021-2022 school year.

As I mentally prepare for the start of school, I am constantly wondering how can I be there for students who haven’t even entered our school before or students who haven’t talked to a member outside their family in over a year. Therefore, I added more fidget tools to my office and signs that express that perfectionism is not the goal, showing up and trying your best is.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

I’m prepared to offer a safe space for students who need to debrief, process their school day, and talk through skills to help them be successful. It is going to be a difficult year for many, but the opportunity to help my students build resilience is a privilege.

Barron Whited

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Barron Whited

  • Position: School counselor
  • State of Residence: Pennsylvania
  • Accreditations: MS Ed.

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

I'm creating surveys for students to see what workshops and careers they are interested in so I can provide this information for them.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

I'll be establishing a list of resources that can provide emotional support for students.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

One of my goals is to develop support groups such as Young Fathers Support Groups and Grief Supports.

Nicole Sedan and Monica Jackman

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Nicole Sedan and Monica Jackman

  • Position: School speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist who work closely together to provide students with integrated services
  • State of Residence: Florida
  • Accreditations: Nicole Sedan, MS, CCC-SLP; Monica Moore Jackman OTD, MHS, OTR/L

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

The uncertainty that is characteristic of the school environment has been amplified even more during the COVID pandemic. Now, we are focusing on preparing ourselves emotionally to fully be present and open for our amazing students and the resilient teachers who have overcome incredible obstacles the past year.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

Years ago, we would develop painstakingly planned lessons to prepare for the new school year, but never got to fully implement them because we would instead find ourselves meeting students right where they were, by creating and providing therapeutic activities in context to respond to their evolving needs and emerging strengths.

Over the years we began to develop tools, strategies, and evidence-based therapy practices that could be individualized and modified to ensure the inclusion of kids of all abilities, interests, and cultures and used to support success with ever-changing social and academic challenges.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

We have learned that when we fully listen, when we are mindful and aware, when we follow their lead, that is all the preparation we need to help our students feel connected, engaged, appreciated, and successful.

Marie Kueny

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Marie Kueny

  • Position: Licensed school counselor
  • State of Residence: Wisconsin
  • Accreditations: MS in Educational Psychology
  • Worth Noting: Founder and CEO of Compassionate Educators

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

The ever-increasing rate of trauma that families and children have and continue to experience from the lockdowns, loss of income, lack of access to basic resources such as food and medical care, in addition to many children being isolated from friends, family, and community supports, means that we need trauma-informed environments and social-emotional learning at unprecedented levels.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

To prepare ourselves for this year, it is especially important to plan for support and self-care. The pandemic left many teachers more isolated than ever before while work-life balance became nonexistent as the classroom and homes collided into one space.

Creating an intentional plan can make a big difference in our mental health. This includes putting self-care onto our calendars and making it as much of a priority as getting grades done. For me, prioritizing myself means making family time on the weekends a non-negotiable, getting as close to 6-8 hours of sleep as possible every night, and doing one small thing each day that makes my heart smile. When I plan my week in advance with my own needs in mind, I can show up more present and attentive for my students.

Academically, I am expecting wider achievement gaps which means preparing for differentiation across all levels, grades, and subjects. Flexibility will be our best friend as we model adaptability. I once had a friend who lived by the motto, "Prepare for the worst, but expect the best." I believe that phrase will serve as well as we prepare for whatever the new year brings.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

This year will not be "business as usual," but maybe that is ok. Maybe it's a time for us to reset priorities and make sure that our personal needs are being addressed along with paying diligent attention to our students' well-being.

Raven Shelton

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Raven Shelton

  • Position: High school site manager
  • State of Residence: New York
  • Accreditations: LMSW
  • Worth Noting: Author of multiple books

What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

Students will be re-entering buildings with additional emotional baggage. I anticipate an increase in anxiety (the CDC explained that to be safe you need to keep your distance and now we are coming back into a school building surrounded by others), depression (feeling defeated in completing schoolwork), and students struggling to engage in person with teachers and peers.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

2020 has definitely reshaped our NYC School System as well as our student's outlook on life. One way I am preparing for the upcoming school year is by offering additional support groups for students—specifically for those who have lost a friend or relative due to COVID. Within these groups I plan to provide psychoeducation on coping with loss, understanding grief, and creating a community where students can support one another.

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

I am also preparing to provide resources on social-emotional learning to teachers on how to create an emotionally positive classroom.

Sarah Harell

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Verywell / Christian Alzate

Sarah Harell

  • Position: School counselor and social worker
  • State of Residence: Louisiana
  • Accreditations: MSW, LMSW


What Needs Do You Anticipate Your Students Having?

After a rough and uncertain year, we are being intentional about making sure our students have all needs met inside and outside of the classroom.

How Do You Plan on Meeting Those Needs?

We will continue to implement our SEL curriculum, Move This World, which helps our students learn to process their emotions and develop coping skills as they adapt to the twist and turns of life. We are also preparing to meet the basic needs of our students and families by securing food bags, personal hygiene kits, and clothing for the upcoming year. Lastly, we have developed a calendar of community, student, and family engagement events to build community beyond the classroom.

Aside from SEL, our schools will also still be taking COVID seriously and implementing safety measures such as:

  • Masks highly encouraged and recommended while on campus and the bus 
  • Hand sanitation before entering buildings and throughout the school day
  • Sanitation of frequently touched surfaces
  • Social distancing to the extent possible
  • Requesting that families self-screen at home and report COVID-19 symptoms and/or test results before coming to school and stay home if exposed, symptomatic or positive
  • Fostering two-way communication with families
  • CDC recommended air filtration upgrades including the installation of ionizers (air purifiers) across campus, upgraded MERV filters and increased outside air intake

What Are You Hoping to Accomplish?

One of the calendared events I am most excited about is “Challenge Day," which will be our first year participating in the international initiative. “Challenge Day” is a day designed to ignite a school culture where students feel safe, loved, and celebrated.

Our goal is to build empathy while shifting students toward school connectedness and inclusivity. This event will take place in the first week of school and it will be a pivotal moment in creating a collective healing circle for students and staff after returning from a very difficult year.

As the school social worker, I am confident this school year will be one of the best years ever. We are focused, ready, and excited.

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