Living through these uncertain and stressful times during this pandemic is a bit like a game of Jenga. With every move, it can feel a bit like everything might just come tumbling down.
That may be why Elementary Counselor Olivia Hyten has taken up the wooden strategy game, virtually, with her students from Monarch PK-8.
“It is definitely one of the highlights of my week. I love getting to sit down with a small group of kids,” Hyten said.
As you can imagine, playing Jenga remotely is a bit more challenging.
“I put the computer next to the Jenga and be like – count the row and tell me left, right or middle,” Hyten said.
While every move is still fraught with danger, the excitement of the game keeps the students’ minds off of the real life crisis in our community and often opens great conversations where students open up about their concerns during these difficult times.
“We have had great discussions,” Hyten said. “The kids were pretty open and honest.”
She says that some have shared that they are worried they won’t be ready for the next grade, while others are worried about the news they hear about COVID-19.
“[One student] said, ‘I’m really scared. I heard that a 5 year old had died,’” Hyten shared. “He was concerned that his younger cousin has asthma, so I addressed it briefly in the class setting and then reached out separately to his parents. They had no idea that he was worried about his cousin.”
Hyten says that she tries to give students and their parents strategies they can use to navigate these unprecedented and sometimes scary times, all of which are aligned with the Guidelines for Talking to Children About COVID-19 from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
“My lessons are focused on emotions and feelings and trying coping skills, focusing on the positive and what they are thankful for still to really help their attitudes,” Hyten said.
Below are a few of the tips from NASP and the advice that Hyten provides to parents:
Take time to talk and keep explanations age-appropriate
“Sit down and have a conversation with your kid. Don’t just tell them it is going to be okay and it is going to pass,” Hyten said. “All of those things are okay to say, but at the same time it isn’t enough. Kids want more information. Break it down for them. Give them resources that are kid and developmentally age appropriate of how they can have those conversations with them.”
Stay calm, listen and offer reassurance
“I’m trying to keep it positive,” Hyten said. “Really trying to help them focus on those positive moments and not focus on the negative. We don’t want anyone to go down that rabbit hole.”
“For instance today, I did a whole lesson for third graders on the power of yet,” Hyten added. “They watched a video and then I did a FlipGrid where they had to record themselves talking about something they were working on or they are trying to improve upon or they’re not good at yet and what they are going to do to get there.”
Hyten has also created videos focused on mindfulness.
“It was way out of my comfort zone,” she said with a laugh. “I taped myself doing deep breathing and going through this entire exercise and then I got into the class a little after they were able to do it. A lot of them said they felt a lot calmer afterwards.”
Monitor television viewing and social media
“We don’t watch much news or television because it is a lot of doom and gloom stuff, so we try to keep it away, but they hear bits and pieces, even if it is on the radio or whatever. Kids often know a lot more than we think,” Hyten said.
Be honest and accurate
“I’m not going to sugar coat it and I’m not going to make it doom and gloom either,” Hyten said. “It has to be a pretty good balance of acknowledging where they are at and saying that is okay where you are at – but we are all going to get through this together.”
From time-to-time she’ll even share her feelings, so they know they are not alone.
“I told them that for me it was a rollercoaster,” Hyten said. “I really didn’t think we would be going back, but at the same time I still had hope because I missed them and wanted to be back at work. Now that the hope is gone and I have to go to that new reality, we just have to get through this and get through it the best we can.”
Be aware of your children’s mental health
“I get a lot of phone calls and emails from parents. Sometimes it might be about a kid who is not sleeping and is worried all the time and getting really frustrated and angry and their whole personality is changing a bit,” Hyten said. “I work to provide the parents with different coping skills that they can do at home, giving them resources about what are some steps you can put in place to help your kid control their anger and try to stop it before it gets to that next level.”
One of the most effective exercises that she has given to parents is having students imagine their “happy place.”
“I give parents directions,” Hyten explained. “[The happy place] can be imaginary or it can be real. It can be a castle in the clouds. It can be a deserted island. It can be anything they want it to be.”
“[You can do the exercise] their bedroom,” Hyten continued. “It can be super simple. We have them close their eyes and take some deep breaths and have them say ‘what do you see there?’ ‘What do you hear there?’ ‘Who is with you?’ ‘What do you smell?’ ‘What are you seeing around you?’ You are taking them out of this crazy world that we are in right now, which is so overwhelming for so many people. We are taking them to their happy place where they can calm down and rest better.”
“I’ve done it with a handful of parents and every single one of them has gotten back to me and said, ‘that was fantastic. That really helped my kid out. She slept for the first time in two weeks, all the way through the night, without having to jump in my bed or being scared,’” she added.
Stay connected to school
With classes now being offered remotely, Hyten is working to engage students both during class and during special extra-curricular opportunities like “Lunch Bunches.”
“I’m just trying to create lessons that are meaningful and helpful to the kids and their families,” Hyten said.
She says that she is missing the in-person connections she would typically have with students at Monarch PK-8.
“The amount of hours that I am spending on this device in front of me is insane, Hyten said with a laugh. “As counselors, we are such social people. We want to have those connections. We are doing everything we possibly can to get those connections real.”