Q: How does physical distance affect your counselling job?
A: When we´re in school, I get to know the students through interactions in the playground or the corridors and on excursions. I can observe them in class and on their breaks and can often see if someone is having a tough time by the way they are behaving. I also have a lovely, quiet, wellbeing room that the students come to when they want to talk. Obviously, physical distance makes this difficult. Luckily, we have an excellent group of caring and observant teachers and tutors at SEK Dublin who, due to the small class sizes, have strong relationships with the students and are very quick to notice if someone is having a difficult time – even if it is through a computer screen. We also have daily meetings to discuss student concerns, so if someone is experiencing difficulties, all the teachers are alerted and I will either contact them for an online chat or provide some resources to support the tutor.
Physical distance creates another challenge, particularly for a counsellor: When I sit to talk to a student in the wellbeing room, I learn a lot from what they say but even more from their body language. We all reveal so much of what is going on in our heads through the way we sit, where we look, what we do with our hands or our feet etc. Indeed, part of the reason we all find video calls so tiring is because we have to work harder to decipher meaning when we don´t clearly see those social body language cues. Therefore, talking to a student online can be challenging. I like to use visuals aids to help them to express themselves more clearly and to help me really understand what they are experiencing.
Q: Do students struggle or feel shy when talking to you over their computers?
A: When we chat online, students see themselves on the screen as they talk. Having their own image in front of them is quite off-putting as they are more self-aware and shy.
Some students are sharing a room with a sibling; some work on the laptop in the kitchen surrounded by members of their family or in their parent´s office. It can be difficult for them to find a quiet and private place to sit and talk. Many students don´t want their parents to worry more than they already do, so are not comfortable with their parents knowing that they are talking to the school counsellor. They try to deal with things themselves. I would always encourage students to talk about their feelings. It really helps.
Q: How is school managing the students´ emotional support? Are there any strategies or plans to help improve their frame of mind whilst confinement?
A: The school is in regular contact with parents and students. We are all learning as we go along but SEK Dublin has been very quick in adapting to the needs of students. After the most recent survey, screen time has been reduced, more breaks introduced and there are daily exercise, art or yoga classes. Tutors are now checking in with their students every morning to make sure they are coping with this strange situation and with their new virtual classrooms. We have created a Wellbeing blog with information and tips on managing stress, exercise, relaxation and much more. The school social media is updated regularly to help students feel connected to each other and to their teachers. The teachers themselves are constantly adapting their classes to student needs and many have completely redrafted units to incorporate more off-screen, creative and fun activities tailored to this unique situation to enhance student wellbeing.
With all this uncertainty, concrete plans can be a waste of time. For SEK Dublin, the plans are to keep seeking feedback, keep researching, keep reflecting and reassessing, keep meeting and discussing and keep using everything we learn to adapt and find the best way for our students to thrive.