At TpT, we’re lucky to have a community of incredibly dedicated educators with a wide range of expertise, knowledge, and experience to share. This month, as part of our Teacher Voices series, we had the chance to speak with Nikki about her work as an elementary school counselor. She shared her approach to addressing students’ mental health and how educators might support their students’ social-emotional needs (particularly during this unique back to school moment).
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I just started my 16th year!
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up and reside in Northwest Ohio. Starting back in early elementary school, I loved writing stories and illustrating. I wanted to write children’s books. (Later in life, I would be able to apply my talent and love of writing to my Teachers Pay Teacher resources!) Throughout my school years, I was often recognized for my strong writing ability from fictional stories to poems to research papers and reports. At the time when I graduated from high school, I decided to pursue a major in Journalism.
It did not take long for me to switch my major to Psychology. I wanted to better understand people, how they think, and the reasons behind behavior. It intrigued me very much. Even more so, I knew I wanted to help people. I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. Then, I started graduate school to pursue a mental health counseling degree. By the end of my first semester, I changed my path to school counseling. When I first started grad school, I hadn’t pictured myself working in a school or with young students. When I opened up my mind to that field and really considered it, I knew it would be a great fit for me.
I graduated in 2005 and later that fall, I started my first job as a part-time elementary school counselor in four school buildings. In 2009, I accepted a full-time elementary counseling position in a neighboring school district, which is where I am today. I work with an amazing team and feel very blessed.
In addition to my role as a school counselor, my other favorite role is being a mom to two beautiful children, Everly and Lincoln.
Can you describe the work you do as a school counselor?
I learned very early on in my career to expect the unexpected and be flexible. No two days are the same for a school counselor, which I like! I work directly with numerous students from day to day. I push into the classrooms regularly to teach social-emotional learning (SEL) and life skills. I also facilitate small focus groups throughout the majority of the school year, covering topics that include anxiety, stress, and anger management, resilience-building, family changes, self-control, and social skills. I usually run three to four group sessions per day over many months. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that the percentage of students who sign up to participate in my groups has continued to increase. Last year, nearly 50% of the students in my building were signed up for a focus group with me. Needless to say, I keep very busy!
Can you talk to us about your approach to addressing students’ social-emotional and behavioral needs?
First, the foundation to connecting with and impacting children is making sure they feel the genuine care and concern that you have for them. Once that is established, you can really start to reach them, build rapport, help, and teach them. I also know the value of instilling self-esteem and a sense of self-worth in our students, which is another important foundation. I work with students to help them identify their abilities, strengths, and talents. We focus on having a growth mindset (versus fixed mindset) and understanding that mistakes and failure provide opportunities to learn and grow. I listen to students and try to understand their concerns, worries, beliefs, and perspectives, keeping in mind that a child’s perspective is their reality. I help students to identify their feelings and emotions and validate how they are feeling. I emphasize that however they are feeling inside is normal and okay.
I teach students about focusing on what they can control rather than what they cannot control (and even trying to let go of what they cannot control). Students cannot always control the tough or challenging situations they find themselves in, but they can control how they THINK about the situation. They learn about the difference between negative thoughts and positive thoughts (that are realistic and believable). I help students to identify negative thoughts (self-talk) inside their brains and then change them to positive, more helpful thoughts. Students can control how they respond to the situation and whether or not they choose to talk to a supportive, caring adult who might be able to help them navigate the situation and manage their strong feelings. There are so many great coping strategies to help students with emotion regulation. I especially love learning about and incorporating mindfulness strategies in my lessons and counseling sessions with students.
I also try to figure out the “why” behind the behavior and emotions. Why might the child be acting this way or expressing such strong emotions? I try to dig deeper and figure out what might be going on in the child’s life and in their past that could possibly be a contributing factor to their behavior. Oftentimes, that means working together with teachers and families.
Why do you believe that teaching about mental health and coping strategies is valuable and beneficial for students?
Mental health is a large component of overall health and wellbeing. At a very young age, students can (and should!) begin to understand what it means to have mental health, just like we teach about healthy eating habits or exercise for physical health. It’s helpful to teach students that it’s okay to not be okay.
With that being said, there are many strategies to help them navigate whatever they are going through. Equipping students at an early age (the earlier, the better!) with coping strategies is a large contributing factor to their mental health and wellbeing. We can explicitly teach these coping skills early on and review and reinforce them year after year through counseling and curriculum. If students learn and practice them at school and home, then hopefully these strategies will become more of a habit and automatic response. Later on down the road, the student who might have otherwise responded or reacted in an unhealthy way now has a “toolbox” of healthy strategies to choose from.
What are a few key points educators need to understand about stress, trauma and their effects on student learning?
While teaching standards and academics might seem like a priority for educators, it is important to understand that a student’s ability to attend, learn, and participate in class may be strongly hindered by factors such as stress, anxiety, and trauma. Oftentimes, we do not truly understand what students are dealing with in their everyday lives and the extent of their negative experiences. Those students who are living with chronic, ongoing stress from day to day are not in “ready-to-learn” mode. They are often experiencing the stress response in their bodies—what we know as the “fight flight freeze response.” Because the statistics are so overwhelming, you should view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or might be exposed to chronic stress. While educators cannot control the problems or issues students bring to school each day, what they CAN control is being a caring, supportive, and stable person in these students’ lives. Having even just one caring, supportive relationship is a large factor in building resilience in our students and helping them bounce back from tough situations.
What do educators need to be conscious of as they navigate the uncertainty that this back-to-school season brings? What kinds of stressors will students and their families be facing during this time that educators should be aware of?
We know our students have been home for the past five months. We may not know what they have gone through and experienced during this time. We also have to keep in mind that we may not ever learn what these students faced or are currently still facing. Families do not always disclose and even when they do, we might not get the full story or understand the extent of the impact on the students. Some possible stressors or potential trauma that students and/or their families may have faced or be facing include any of the following: financial stressors (change in family income or job loss), domestic violence, abuse, neglect or lack of basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), parental separation or divorce, death of a loved one, lack of structure/routine, lack of rules/expectations, and even general stress at home as the adults try to juggle their own jobs while also navigating and supporting their child’s/children’s academics and learning.
If educators have any concerns with a student’s behavior or how they express emotions, it might be helpful to reach out to the school counselor, social worker, or other support person in the school or district. It might also be helpful for teachers to talk with that child’s previous teacher to determine if the current behavioral concerns are new or if they were observed during the previous school year as well.
Are there specific approaches to student support they should be prioritizing this year? Are there any activities for students (either for online classes or that students can do independently) that you recommend educators try?
It might be really helpful to collaborate with the school counselor or social worker on conducting a needs assessment with all students. It would be a helpful way to quickly determine any concerns or possible “flags” among students and their families. Also, educators should work together to create a trauma-sensitive school environment where all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported. District-wide trauma training for all staff would be really beneficial.
There are also many excellent online, digital activities that students can complete independently, and numerous resources are available on Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT). Many TpT Teacher-Authors have extensive hands-on counseling and SEL experience in the schools. A huge bonus is that there are numerous digital resources available on this website.
Do you have any advice for educators who want to be there for their students but who might also be dealing with their own stress?
Educators invest so much of their time and heart into teaching their students. Self-care is extremely important. Self-care is necessary for their own mental health. Educators cannot be their best when their own stress level is very elevated or mental health is suffering. Stress can lead to burnout and higher turnover rate. Some more basic needs that should be met to help maintain mental health is eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercise or physical activity. In addition, participate in hobbies and activities outside of school that make you feel happy and fulfilled. Know when to stop working and put down the laptop for the evening (I’m still working on that myself!). Ask for help. Identify support people in your life who care and will listen to you, including family and friends. Talk to them. Just as we would teach our students, focus on what you CAN control in your classrooms and try to let go of what you cannot control. Remember, it is okay to say “no” sometimes. Lastly, consider talking to an outside counselor to help improve or maintain your mental health.
If there was one thing you wanted other teachers to take away from this blog post, what would it be?
I have a few things! Make SEL a priority in your classroom and school. As noted above, focus on what you CAN control and try to let go of what you cannot control. Also, your students need to believe that you like them. If they feel like or sense at all that you do not like or want them in your class, they will not do their best or be their best for you. Keep in mind that those students who might be more challenging to like or who test your patience are probably the ones who also need your love and caring the most. Be that stable, consistent, caring person in their lives. Lastly, we as educators need to believe that all students can be reached and can grow or progress with the right supports in place.
Are there additional resources, articles, books, or podcasts that you’d recommend teachers look into?
CASEL is considered to be a helpful resource and might be worth exploring. Two books that I highly recommend include the following: Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kristin Souers with Pete Hall and Mindset: The Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. While I have not personally utilized them yet, there are free SEL programs available to teachers and educators online that have received positive feedback and reviews, including “Sanford Harmony” and “Choose Love.”
Last but not least — what’s one thing that makes you smile? 🙂
My two children at home and my school kids!
I love being a school counselor! It is a blessing to make a positive impact on kids every day, and I am thankful for having the gift to do so. My counseling approach includes cognitive-behavioral and solution-focused. A question that often guides my plans for supporting students and families is, “What is best for the child?” It was an honor to receive the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award in 2014 from my district.
You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.