Collaborating with therapists to support your students during COVID-19

By Mary Eno

COVID-19 continues to have a devastating impact on our educational institutions. Therapists who work with kids are experiencing these reverberations along with teachers and school support staff, as we work hard to find ways to support our clients who are struggling. And, just like many school personnel, therapists are hustling to learn how to do their jobs online while worrying about when and how we might be able to open our offices safely again. While we might be tackling kids’ problems from different angles, we’re dealing with similar issues and share a common goal: ensuring that all children learn and thrive at school.

As a therapist who has worked for many years with kids who have school problems, I’ve learned that there are enormous gains when teachers, student support staff, and therapists collaborate. Each party has different insights to share and has access to different aspects of a child’s world. Together, we can pool our data points about a particular child to better understand their lived experience. Given the myriad problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, it has never been more important for schools and therapists to work together to support vulnerable students and their families. So how can educators and student support staff best collaborate with outside therapists?

First, check to see if a therapist is on the team. If a child is struggling, check in with a member of the student support team to see what services are available. Ask if there is a therapist already working with the child or if a referral to a therapist is indicated. If the student in your classroom is getting outside therapeutic help, with permission from the child and/or family, find a time to talk with the therapist directly.

Seek information. Often, therapists can provide information about a studentthat can help clarify their struggles and open up a dialogue that will support your work as an educator. With the move to online learning, teachers are missing out on information that was previously conveyed to them in countless informal ways: during walks to the cafeteria, group activities, or through body language. Therapists can help fill in these gaps. They can also assess a child’s functioning and give feedback that helps determine what direction to take. In a therapist, you have an ally.

During the early phase of the pandemic, for example, a school counselor was trying to help a student who was not keeping up with his schoolwork. When the counselor reached out to the child’s therapist, she learned that the therapist was concerned about the child’s mother, whom she had observed sleeping in the background of the child’s Zoom therapy sessions. Concern for the mother’s mental health led the school social worker to secure sorely needed services for the mother. 

Share information. Teachers are at the center of the child’s school experience and often know the child best.  For therapists working with children who are struggling with school problems, the information teachers have to share can make all the difference in the work we are doing with the children we see in therapy. Forming a collaborative relationship with a therapist who also cares about the student in your class can be a deeply rewarding experience for both therapist and teacher, and can make an enormous difference in the life of a vulnerable child and family.

Utilize the therapist’s expertise. This year, every child and family is facing uncertainties, as well as the anxiety and fear that follow. Many children have returned to school traumatized by their experiences, whether they’ve suffered losses or experienced difficulties with online learning. Therapists can work with school personnel to help identify the more serious problems that have arisen for some students by using their clinical training to assess and treat the most vulnerable children. Additionally, most therapists who work with kids are trained to work with families as well, and can use these skills to help mediate conflicts between families and school personnel who might be at odds.

Collaborate on solutions. By working together as a team, new and creative ideas can be generated along with finding ways to follow up and monitor progress. It might help to think of this as a process of strengthening your understanding of the student and family, while solving problems together.

Before the pandemic, a fifth grade student was getting into daily skirmishes with several of her classmates, a longstanding problem that had resulted in a chilly, sometimes confrontational relationship between the student’s parents and her teachers. The school reached out to the student’s therapist to see whether they might collaborate. Hearing the parents and teachers’ frustrations, the therapist proposed that the student’s online peer group be changed, and the student was able to settle in quickly when school began this fall.

We all know that when children are embedded in safe and supportive communities they do better at school. By connecting with a local therapist who has their eyes on a student in your classroom, you can help children experience another essential stitch in the social fabric of their lives.  Sometimes, by a simple phone call, email, or Zoom meeting we can help each other build the kind of community of mutual support we all sorely need.  

Mary Eno is the author of The SchoolSavvy Therapist: Working with Kids, Families and their Schools (Norton 2019), and was on the teaching faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College for several decades. She is a therapist in private practice in Philadelphia and has served as consulting psychologist in multiple schools.

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