The student was a 10th-grader with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) whose increasingly ritualistic behavior was causing him to miss his Zoom classes.
“Before, when this boy was in school, he was often late moving between activities, but it was manageable,” says school psychologist Aura Abing (M.Ed. ’12). But at home, away from his normal routine, “sometimes it would take him up to an hour just to go from his room to downstairs.”
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Like others in her field, Abing, who coordinates mental health programs and assessments in the 10,000-student South San Francisco Unified School District, where students are still doing 100 percent distance learning, reports “a big ramp-up” in anxiety in kids with diagnosed OCD and other issues.
“What happens with kids with anxiety is that they get really overwhelmed with all the pieces that are required and then get stuck,” Abing says.
The solution, in this instance: The school decided to let the boy concentrate on just one activity that he likes: music and performance.
Many school psychologists, unable to provide clinical services, one-on-one counseling, or assessments, are shifting their roles, finding different ways to help families whose lives are in chaos.
“If you're trying to go out there and talk about the nuances of coping when people don’t have internet or they’re dealing with how to get food, then it's not exactly helpful,” says Prerna Arora, Assistant Professor of School Psychology and Director of Teachers College’s School Mental Health for Minority Youth and Families (SMILE) Research Lab. “So we're focused on meeting people where they are and giving them the services they need right now in this crisis.”
The loss of structure and control during the COVID pandemic has been especially hard on many special-needs students. Kids with autism, for example, may have trouble sitting still in front of a computer for a long period of time.
What happens with kids with anxiety is that they get really overwhelmed with all the pieces that are required and then get stuck.
— Aura Abing (M.Ed. ’12), school psychologist, South San Francisco Unified School District
To help these students, Abing’s district created a social/emotional task force this past summer, hired additional counselors and psychologists, and purchased digital materials needed to conduct virtual psychological and educational assessments.
“The biggest concern is just making sure that we're able to identify the needs accurately of the students, because we’re not in a typical learning environment,” Abing says. “Accurately figuring out those needs virtually is tough, as is finding the right support for kids.”
In many districts, those problems are compounded by playing catch-up in a crisis that few people initially thought would last this long.
“When we ended in March, we stopped all testing, so that was two and a half months of evaluations that carried over to this year,” says Mizpah Achampong (M.Ed. ’07), a school psychologist in the Muscogee County School District in Columbus, Georgia.
About half the 30,000-student population in the Muscogee County district now attends class in-person full time, enabling Achampong and other school psychologists to meet with students masked-face to masked-face. But with the backlog, they’re not yet seeing students with issues that might have arisen since the pandemic. And Achampong worries that teachers grappling with a new online curriculum, unfamiliar technology and hybrid classes may lack the time to focus on students who are struggling while out of sight.
“Teachers are trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how do I teach kids virtually and in person simultaneously,’” Achampong says. “To ask on top of that, ‘How do I put these interventions in place for students that are struggling’ — well, that’s something we’re still learning.”
— Mizpah Achampong (M.Ed. ’07), school psychologist, Muscogee County School District, Columbus, Georgia
“Teachers are trying to figure out, ’Okay, how do I teach kids virtually and in person simultaneously,’” Achampong says. “To ask on top of that, ‘How do I put these interventions in place for students that are struggling’ — well, that’s something we’re still learning.”
Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been progress. In San Francisco, Abing says that the boy with OCD has been faring much better on a simplified schedule.
“This student was saying, ‘I have three or four classes I have to get to,’ and we said, ‘OK, then let’s just focus on one.’”