As the Duke School community adapted to masking, small class pods and distance learning for the 2020-2021 school year, counselors Victoria Goatley and Rachel Wertheimer also helped students manage the emotional challenges of a year unlike any other.
“Every human on the planet was under an increased level of stress over the last year,” said Rachel, the middle school counselor. On top of worrying about themselves or family members catching COVID-19, she said students expressed “a real anger and grief” around losing experiences like athletics and extracurriculars.
For lower school students, concern about the virus often came with feelings of frustration toward those not following masking and social distancing guidelines, said Victoria. Small classroom pods of about 12 students also led to more interpersonal irritations than usual. “I would see that start to happen with some kids where, they were really good friends, but there was something happening and they were starting to kind of wear on each other,” she said.
To help navigate these challenges, both counselors held regular virtual meetings on Zoom with classroom pods in their respective divisions. On campus, Victoria met with lower school students individually in a makeshift outdoor office that offered privacy. Rachel used Google Classroom to share resources with middle school classes, including “Wellness Wednesday” lessons on topics like getting adequate sleep, managing wellness, and coping with sudden spikes in fear or worry.
The unusual circumstances had a few unexpected benefits. Rachel said she found that virtual meetings sometimes “provided a little bit of a sense of safety” for students to communicate more freely than at school. Because Victoria’s lessons with kindergarten pods met outdoors, “I could incorporate nature more into our meditative practices,” she said. “What sounds do you hear when we’re sitting out here? What do you feel?”
Facing another school year shaped by pandemic concerns, Victoria said she expects the counselors to continue working with students to manage anxiety proactively.
“Something I say a lot to the kids is, ‘You can do hard things,’” she said. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, or that you shouldn’t do it.”
Tips for handling stress and anxiety from Victoria and Rachel
Take a breath. Pause for a few moments to breathe deeply and recognize what you are feeling, advises Victoria. Whether the feelings are good or bad, understand that they are valid and not permanent. “Know that those feelings will come and go, and however you’re feeling right now is fine for now.
Lend an ear. When helping a child or loved one cope with anxiety, resist the urge to jump straight to solving the problem. Reassurance and problem solving are helpful, said Rachel, but sometimes simply validating someone else’s feelings is the most valuable way to help. “A phrase I encourage folks to use with tweens and teens, in particular, is ‘Do you need me to help you figure this out, or would it be better if I just listened right now?’”