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Schools, psychologists find virtual ways to help children handle stress

 By Sarah Hofius Hall | The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

In the Riverside School District in Scranton, PA, some of the youngest students log into Zoom at 10 a.m. every weekday and start to talk about their feelings.

As the coronavirus pandemic prohibits in-person discussions, counselors lead the students through deep breathing and coping exercises online, during Mindful Mondays, Therapeutic Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesdays, Thankful Thursdays and Fun Fridays.

The region's school psychologists now meet virtually to discuss how they can address the needs of students. During live lessons online, teachers ask how the children feel – not just if they understand that day's assignments. School districts are also developing re-entry plans that focus on academics and sanitization, as well as student and staff mental health.

"Social and emotional learning is a priority right now, and certainly will continue to be when they return to school," said Sandie Lamanna, a school psychologist. "Social isolation is really hard for kids, being away from their peers and teachers."

Adapting to a new environment

Up until mid-March, each morning at Scranton's Charles Sumner Elementary School began with meditation, and regular yoga sessions for all students helped bring peace to the school.

Now, teachers and counselors reach out to students regularly online, and call parents to check in on students who don't attend the virtual sessions or submit work.

The school district is also developing a care plan for students and staff for their return. When students return to school, staff members plan to look for signs of any issues stemming from the pandemic and unprecedented school closures.

"We don't know when we are returning, but students need to know they're supported and loved here," said Principal Meg Duffy.

Finding ways to work together

School counselors often hold one-on-one virtual sessions with students and their families, helping address what causes stress and possible ways to cope.

"After a family session, you can see the relief in some of these parents' faces, when we work with those parents to help them take a minute, focus and see what we can work on," said Jillian Mishko, a licensed professional counselor who works as a lead clinician for Riverside's School-Based Behavioral Health Team.

"We have to focus as a society on what we can do with ourselves. This is creating a unique time where everyone has to get OK with themselves, sitting with their thoughts and feelings," Mishko said. "Our physical environments heavily impact our emotional state."

Kristy DePhillips, a school psychologist, aims to see that both students and parents take care of themselves. She encourages parents to explain the coronavirus at age-appropriate levels, and let kids write or even draw their feelings. Families should address well-being before academics, she said.

Psychologists will work with a behavioral health team over the summer, helping find ways to address the needs of schools and their students and families. The schools also want to provide resources to students in the summer. Riverside plans to offer an online therapeutic summer camp to some of its students.

During her daily sessions with her youngest students, Mishko reminds them to practice "mountain breathing" – running a finger on one hand over each finger of the other hand, taking a deep breath each time.

"We are still in control of our breathing," she said. "We can take one deep breath."