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Tips for School Counselors Switching to Telecounseling

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, high school counselors are in a strange position: They need to keep tabs on their students’ mental health, but they’re forced to do so from afar. So how have they been managing this difficult feat? And what lessons have they learned – so far – from the experience?

Evolve spoke to several school counselors to glean their thoughts on teletherapy for teens during COVID-19. Below are some tips from Yoni Lichtman, LMFT, school counselor and AP Psychology teacher at Valley Torah High School, an all-boys private school in Los Angeles. 

Expect a Different Schedule

Before COVID, Lichtman had multiple, one-on-one sessions with students throughout the duration of the school day. Now, his clients prefer shorter check-ins, which often take place via text or a quick phone call. 

“I’ve realized that many students don’t really want to sit around and schmooze all day virtually,” Lichtman says. 

Why?

First, he points out that the students don’t get to skip class to see the school counselor like they did before. Getting the chance to miss part of class may have incentivized some students, says Lichtman. Now, he doesn’t pull them out of class: he speaks with them after Zoom.

Second, he says, there’s a layer of separation when students are at home. 

“When you’re out of your regular academic structure, and you’re in ‘home mode,’ you kinda just want to chill. Guys who would normally come speak with me or hang out during a break at school – now, we’ll maybe talk for a few minutes and that’s it.” 

And of course, there’s the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon. The less they see the school counselor, the less it’s on their minds to talk.

“When they saw me every day at school in the afternoon, that flow made it more conducive to setting up a meeting and talking, or coming to me later on when there’s a problem. Now, I’m not on their radar as much.” 

Lichtman admits, though, that gender differences might be at play here. While he’s working in an all-boys school, the situation might be different with teenage girls. Studies show in general, females are more willing to reach out for psychological help than males. 

Consider Talking to Clients at Night vs. the Day

Don’t feel like the night is off-limits for check-ins, Lichtman says. Personally, he’s shifted towards scheduling one-on-one meetings with students after 7 or 8pm, for obvious reasons: his four children, ages 9, 6, 4, and 1, are home with him all day. Both he and his spouse work (his wife is also a school psychologist, for LAUSD), and his three older children also engage in distance learning. Lichtman is frequently called upon to serve as Zoom tech support while he manages the younger toddler’s schedule. He also has his own AP classes to teach. 

“It’s a challenge,” he admits. Sometimes, he brings his youngest toddler into class to help with the lesson for the entertainment value. In the evening, when the kids are asleep and he knows he won’t be interrupted, he starts his school counselor role.  

“Of course, it makes for a really long day,” he admits.  

In any case, some students often prefer to talk at night. Evidence show that many people experience more negative mental health symptoms in the evening hours. When there are less distractions, teens may be more prone to rumination, anxiety, and depression. Which may make a teen more likely to pick up the phone in the evening or talk candidly about how they’re feeling. 

Be on the Lookout for COVID-related Stress 

Lichtman still deals with the usual concerns: not showing up to (Zoom) class, arriving late, and not turning in homework assignments. Teachers provide referrals, as they did before COVID-19, and he follows up with the students later. Now he also gets a different kind of referral – those from teachers who notice a student is having a hard time with the pandemic

“If a teacher notices red flags, or that their student seems unusually stressed, they will mention it to me, especially if the student does not have pre-existing issues.” 

How do teachers figure out whether their teen seems stressed over Zoom? 

While Lichtman admits it’s much harder since they don’t have the face-to-face interaction to really sense what’s going on, he says some students actually vent their frustrations in their written essays or other assignments. Spotty attendance is another red flag. And of course, parents still contact Lichtman if they have a concern about their child.  

Realize Every Student Needs Connection   

Every week, Lichtman and his student support team, consisting of several teachers, advisors and even the principal himself, formally reach out to a select list of struggling students. This list gets updated as needed throughout the week. 

Lichtman, though, is a strong believer that every student “needs some sort of connection at this point”—not just the students with obvious symptoms. 

“A student could seem perfectly fine…They may be finishing all their homework, participating during class, laughing, but inside they’re struggling and don’t reach out. Many students who could be dealing with red-flag symptoms might be hiding under the radar.”

Even students with no prior mental health issues may be feeling increased anxiety and/or depression as a result of social distancing and isolation regulations. 

Which is why, as part of VTHS’ new directive, teachers are making concentrated effort to reach out to every single student. Teachers are organizing virtual “Lunch and Learn” sessions, where students can spend their lunch break chatting or studying with a teacher of their choice over Zoom. The goal is for every student in the school to receive a check-in over the next couple of weeks. 

This is also why, In his separate role as AP Psychology teacher, Lichtman allows some friendly banter at the start of class. While other schools implement the “mute upon entry” Zoom feature to eliminate the banter that inevitably arises when everyone shuffles in, he intentionally chats with his students a bit until everyone arrives. 

Because, for many of them, Zoom is the only time they’re seeing each other. “I’ve noticed a certain excitement in our students about sitting together in class, about being together with their peers,” he observes. “Virtual schooling makes it all the more apparent that teens really crave and need socialization and connection, even if they didn’t show it before the pandemic.”

He encourages his students to keep in touch with each other during the week, as he believes they’re not doing so as much as teachers think they are. Lichtman’s school also organizes optional extracurricular activities and programming for the students. So far, they’ve had a Saturday night virtual sing-a-long and an alumni reunion over Zoom. 

Encourage Clients to Go to Sleep Early

During this pandemic, Lichtman says the issue he deals with most is lack of sleep. Adolescents just aren’t maintaining their normal sleep schedules, he says, because they know they don’t have to be as awake during the day as they would during regular school. 

Even throughout the regular school year, most teens don’t sleep enough. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, high school students should get 8-10 hours of sleep per night. However, 75 percent of high school students get less than eight hours per night. Netflix, video games, and texting can keep students up till the wee hours of the morning. 

It’s safe to assume that these patterns are worse during a pandemic. Most Zoom classes start a bit later than traditional school. Plus, there’s no travel time involved. For all these reasons, many teens go to bed late and sleep in in the morning. 

“The lack of structure fosters a sort of carefree, summertime mentality,” Lichtman notes. “This is not a time when most students are feeling especially motivated. They’re very much out of their normal routine.” 

However, lack of sleep is the source of many problems: negative mood, increased anger, lack of focus, depression, and even cognitive deficits in memory and processing.  Which is why Lichtman urges his students to get to bed at a reasonable hour. 

And he appeals to their parents about bedtime as well. Without parental involvement, he admits, teens aren’t likely to comply. 

“At this point in time, much of student behavior is in the hands of the parents, who have to get creative in providing structure to each teen’s day,” Lichtman says. 

At the very least, he advises, parents should institute limits for screen time. He tells parents to install Internet filters and parental controls that turn off their teenager’s phones at a specific time every night.

On the other hand, Lichtman understands the parents’ side too. 

“I realize it’s hard for them as they’re juggling multiple roles,” he says. “They’re stressed out themselves, and they have less energy. They may be relaxing some of their rules just to keep themselves sane. As a parent myself, I can see how the whole situation is overwhelming.” 

He understands that in most situations, parents setting limits on their teens’ devices will lead to conflict. “At this point in time, it’s a battle many of them are not willing to engage in.” 

A popular meme sums up the situation: 

We’ve stopped parenting.

We’re just trying to keep our kids alive.

“It’s what many parents are thinking nowadays,” he admits.

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