A panel of mental health professionals who work in the Scarsdale Public School system gathered Tuesday, Nov. 10, to discuss a topic dominating discussions among parents and educators alike: How are our students doing mentally and emotionally?

Sponsored by the Scarsdale PT Council, the high school and middle school PTAs, Elliot Cohen, the school district’s director of psychology and a psychologist at Scarsdale Middle School, moderated a panel discussion on student mental health and well-being, particularly on the middle and high school levels. Panelists included Dr. Merav Hasler, SMS Cooper/Fountain house psychologist; Samantha Swanko, a newly hired youth outreach worker at SMS; Allison Hartman, youth outreach worker at SHS and Dr. Peter Faustino, psychologist at SHS. Questions and topics discussed were based on pre-submitted questions by parents.

Cohen opened the conversation by making viewers aware that the district’s Mental Health Plan, a subsection of Scarsdale Schools’ Restart Plan, which all school districts across New York State were government-mandated to submit before the school year began, can be found on the district’s website (scarsdaleschools.org) if residents wanted to learn more.

“It is an ambitious plan which seeks to foster well-being, while simultaneously working to ameliorate mental health problems. It informs our practice, and it informs some of the things that you’ll probably be hearing this evening,” Cohen said, before opening the floor to the panelists with the questions: “From a mental health perspective, what are we seeing? How are our students doing? Are they well? To what extent are students struggling with emotional and social issues, or not?”

“I think students are okay,” Faustino said of SHS students, But that changes daily, or it goes through phases.” He discussed the fluctuations of emotions that both students and parents faced as the severity of the pandemic and political situation of the country shifted from March to the present. “It’s unpredictable,” he said, speaking to the ways in which student mental health is shifting to respond to unprecedented and uncertain events in their lives. “I think that’s what you hear from experts … And that adds to the challenge of managing the students who are struggling with emotional and social issues.”

Hasler, who along with Faustino and Cohen served on the Mental Health Restart Committee, provided a perspective from SMS: “We were anticipating more troubles than what we’re actually encountering,” she said. “I really am finding that students are so thrilled to be back in school, even in the hybrid or part-time model, that a lot of the social isolation, the sense of loss and just lack of structure, I think a lot of that [has] resolved itself.” Hasler said she believes most of the stress for middle school students emerges when they are working at home and expected to either be on Zoom or in asynchronous work, which can be difficult without a parent supervising and encouraging the student.

“How do we manage all of the adult responsibilities that parents have to take care of as well as oversee the schooling? I think that has created a bit of stress and taken a toll on families. But as far as I’m seeing, children are really doing quite well, and I’m very pleased to see the resiliency and how they’ve bounced back and how they’ve acclimated,” Hasler said. When having discussions with students about how this year will be different, she said she tells them, “This is the year of flexibility. This is the year to experiment with things and to be a little more forgiving and a little less rigid about how things are going.”

“I think children have understood that,” she added.

Discussing how they support students’ wellness in the classroom, Hartman said a survey distributed to parents at the beginning of the school year aided in identifying students, and families more broadly, that would need additional support. Previously developed relationships with students and their families were also maintained.

“On every grade level we have had access to our kids,” Hartman said. “We pushed into their freshman seminars and into civ-ed. And we introduced ourselves. They know where our offices are, they know what we do and why they might access us. We’ve destigmatized coming in. [They can] just come hang out, to process what’s going on in a class and [get help to] organize themselves academically… or if they’re just feeling overwhelmed and they might not understand why. Helping them identify [that need is important], especially for tweens and teens [who might find it] challenging to identify what they’re actually feeling and thinking.”

Hartman also pointed to the role that teachers and friends play in the process, explaining how teachers have identified students who suddenly had poor grades or seemed “off” during a Zoom call. “Teachers [have been] reaching out to us and saying, ‘Can you check in with so and so?’” Hartman said. “Friends are coming in and saying, ‘I’m really worried about my friends.’”

Hasler discussed how, at the middle school level, many resources have been put into infusing the topic of personal well-being and development into the general curriculum. “We also have the CORE program at the middle school, which is still relatively new. It allows for students to connect in a small group with a teacher, and have a trusted adult in an environment that’s not academically taxing … We’ve seen how that fosters a lot of important relationships for kids, helps them be seen, helps them be heard, just a space for them to be.”

Similar outreach is done on the middle school level as in the high school, where counselors enter classrooms to introduce themselves and the resources they provide.

“I find that every time coming back to my office from a lesson, I’ll get to my desk and there will already be a student at my door [who] then seizes the opportunity to say, ‘I really do need to connect with somebody.’ When we push into the classrooms, I know the students respond to that,” Hasler said.

Families are also encouraged to call the school psychologists with any questions or concerns that they may have, whether it be asking for someone to check up on their student, or advice on what they can do. According to Hasler, many parents avail themselves of that resource.

Social connections

Regarding social connectivity and creating spaces for students to connect with others safely, Swanko said, “Something I’m seeing is our teachers are getting creative with school projects … I’ve heard this from a lot of sixth grade students, that they’ll have projects where they have to do a presentation [to] a peer in the class, for example. The feedback I’m hearing is that they’re saying, ‘Wow, I made this new friend.’”

Counselors also take the hands-on approach to introduce students to one another, either in a classroom or lunchroom setting, as well as encouraging students to get as involved as possible in school clubs or sports. “They’re low commitment in the sense of if your child wants to jump on a Zoom meeting and check [a club] out, he or she or they are not obligated to remain [in the club] for the entire year. Just let them go and see what their comfort level is,” Hasler added.

Both Hasler and Swanko said they are hearing students speak about difficulties and awkwardness in communication with their peers. Hasler pointed to the importance of in-person, face-to-face communication for child development.

“Kids socially these days are really relying on social media. That’s almost how they socialize. But we know that that only goes so far. It doesn’t help with a relationship development,” Hasler said.

“A lot of what socializing is is learning communication skills and communication really does start in the household,” Swanko added. “Make sure you’re practicing that open communication, engaging in small talk. Having those conversations at the dinner table can really help your child feel more comfortable to take those skills out into the real world or into the school environment. So they’re comfortable to introduce themselves and know how to start a conversation and carry a conversation,” she advised. 

Screen time

Hasler said what most concerns her, aside from the pandemic, is the type of social interactions happening on screens.

“I don’t think all screen time is equal and I think we also have to consider that this generation of kids grew up on screens. [Academic] screen time obviously has to be prioritized over some of the other screen time, [but] you need Zoom breaks,” she said, recommending to make that part of a family routine. “We need to help model and set those limits. At this adolescent age group, they’re not thinking ahead, they’re not able to plan and think consequentially, and a lot of mistakes … are happening at the expense of people’s feelings on the Zooms. So even though it seems like the child’s whole universe is on Snapchat or video games, we need to help model and set limits.”

Families that are able to successfully do that, she said, see “a big increase in the child’s well-being” and those students have “less conflict with other people.”

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