Counseling strategy lessens covid impact

Brandon Castro, Fremont School Counselor, created a lesson featuring a video showing people doing kind acts and asked fifth grade students to describe what compassion means. He extended the lesson further, stating, Compassion also means being kind to yourself.’

As part of new counseling strategies created with the aim of lessening the impact of COVID on kids, on Feb. 11, 31 fifth graders in their classroom at Fremont School in Merced watched a video called “Kindness Boomerang” by Life Vest Inside,  a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring, empowering and educating people of all backgrounds to lead a life of kindness.

The video opened with a youngster falling off his skateboard, and a workman wearing a life vest helped him up.  The youngster then carried an elderly lady’s groceries to help her cross a busy street, and the chain of kind acts continued until at the end of the film, a waitress serving food outdoors handed a glass of water to the same workman in the life vest seen at the opening of the film.

“Kindness Boomerang” was part of a lesson on Compassion being taught by Brandon Castro, Fremont School Counselor, who asked the students, “What is a boomerang?”

Someone answered, “It comes back to you.”

Castro said, “Yes, a boomerang circles and comes back to you.”

He made the point that the video illustrates that when you show compassion to someone, your kindness comes back to you.

In the next part of the lesson, the students were asked to do a quick write or draw a picture to show what compassion means to them.

Castro told the Times, “It’s National School Counseling Week [Feb. 7-11], and it’s a time when we highlight the efforts we’re making.  We work as a team to help these kids, and I really feel we are better together.”

By working together, Counselor Brandon Castro and Dawn Hubble, School Principal, have implemented a new program on the campus to help students with the impact of the pandemic on their social/emotional well-being.  The program is called HERO Academy, and it has been modified to include re-teaching behavior expectations with emotional support.  It is part of the Merced City School District (“MCSD”) existing District-wide system, Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (“PBIS”).

According to MCSD, “PBIS is a research-based, nationally recognized framework that promotes a positive culture of making good choices on school campuses.  It includes clear expectations for the students as well as incentives and intervention plans, and is part of the district’s effort to reduce suspension and expulsion rates.”

The additional social/emotional support program with lessons on coping skills created by Castro is necessary because the COVID pandemic and the containment measures such as social distancing, school closure, and isolation have negatively impacted the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.  The most common symptoms they are experiencing are anxiety, depression, disturbances in sleep and appetite, and impairment in social interactions, which is an area of great concern.

When asked how the District identified the need for the new program, Hubble told the Times, “When we had summer school at Fremont in 2021, we noticed a change in demeanor in our students.

“At the beginning of the school year, we saw a lot of emotional outbursts and anger-related behavior, and we had always had a very positive culture here.

“The degree of the outbursts varied depending on how old the child was and what coping skills they had before the pandemic.  The behavior might present with a temper tantrum or they would be trying to get out of doing an assignment.  The natural frustration in the learning path was amplified so their sad was really sad, and their mad was really mad.

Describing the challenges of the pandemic for the youngest students, she said, “In the beginning of the pandemic, parents left 5-year-olds in our care but the parents weren’t allowed to come into the gate.  We couldn’t have any of our Round-Up activities. The families couldn’t come and meet the teachers in person.  The way we usually bring in families with care and kindness was more challenging.

“The younger students missed kindergarten because we were shut down, and first grade for them was Distance Learning from home through the use of chromebooks instead of in-person learning on the school campus.  So, for example, as second graders, 8-year-olds went to school, having missed experiences in school that would have taught them how to be students.

“We wanted to implement elements of social/emotional support in our PBIS program.

“So, we launched a new aspect of our Positive Behavior Intervention program, and we have our School Counselor, Brandon Castro, fielding the new system, our Re-teaching Behavior Expectations with Emotional Support.

“We’ve worked hard to support our students and families emotionally.”

Describing how the program operates, Hubble said, “This program has lessons teaching students to name their feelings.  We tell kids it’s okay to feel however you feel, but how are you regulating that feeling?

“We use Zones of Regulation, a nationwide strategy, to teach kids to be able to say, ‘Today I’m feeling grumpy.  I’m in the red zone.’  Then we talk about how they are regulating.  If they’re in the red zone, they may choose to go to a safe corner in their classroom to calm or decompress, or they may need someone to talk to, and if they’re writers, they might want to write in a journal, or some of them may need to use music to calm.

“But if they can identify where they are, we can meet them where they are.  It’s when they can’t identify where they are, we see acting out behavior.  Sometimes, I have to ask students, ‘Are you mad or sad, my friend, because you look mad?’  Sometimes I ask them, ‘How big is your problem?  You look really upset.  Is it something so serious we need to call the police today, or is it something we need to call your parent for?’

“Having these conversations helps students understand that sometimes they’re really over-reactive.  We give examples of a big problem or a medium problem, and after we talk them through it, they can identify whether it’s a big or medium problem.  Sometimes, the other students share that they understand because they had that problem.”

When asked what staff members at Fremont are implementing the new program, Hubble told the Times, “Brandon Castro has four graduate school students working with him whose goal is to be counselors themselves.  A majority of his counselor graduate students are from Stanislaus State University.  The graduate students have to do a specific number hours of observation and field work in their graduate programs, and he has opened the door for them to participate here.  Brandon is the counselor/leader and is mentoring counselors coming into the school district and into the program and teaching them counseling techniques.”

Castro told the Times, “I have these interns observe me, and from there we co-facilitate groups and come up with lessons together until I feel they are ready to do the groups on their own.

“The topics are about skills to regulate their emotions, how to socialize with others, how to have a growth mind set, and how to be goal driven.”

Hubble added, “Self-regulation is a goal with our students this year, so we do it in the classrooms, the cafeteria and the library.

“We run an emotional support intervention class during lunch time between 12:00 and 1:30 at the Greg Spicer Art Center on campus where students can spread out a bit and have a classroom environment.

“There is one class with a skill focus offered every day, and Mr. Castro and his interns run intensive small group support classes for students who really have dire needs for emotional support.

“We also teach these skills to all students in their classrooms once a month.

“We’re teaching how to do deep breathing for calming, and we use a program to teach empathy and caring, and how to problem solve, and there are blocks of instruction where we explicitly teach skills so they can have the tools to help themselves self-regulate.”

Describing her hopes that programs such as this will become more widespread, Hubble said, “We hope to teach how we deal with problems when we’re burned out due to the strain of the COVID experience, collectively.

“What we’ve found is the trauma is not explicit just for children.  It’s also a crisis for our teens, teachers and support staff who have been in this massive shift for more than two years, so it’s also about how do we regulate as adults, how do we stay calm, how are we exercising self-care, how are we supporting each other emotionally.

“The lessons Castro creates are pushed out to teachers, and they uplift all of the support staff and administrators, as well.

“We have a Parent Coffee Hour on Saturdays where we open our doors and listen to our families’ concerns for their children, and the self-regulation pieces will be pushed out for parents at Parents Coffee Hour.  We just introduced it.

“When we’re all speaking a common language, then we’re all addressing the whole child, and that’s what makes this program win.

“How we all heal from this experience in our lives through identifying what we feel and how to regulate our responses may inspire other teams to do the same.”

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