A school counselor's tips for navigating child mental health As children continue to navigate the most "normal" school year since the pandemic, 2023's School Counselor of the Year shares some advice.

How grown-ups can help kids transition to 'post-pandemic' school life

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1155399753/1158401874" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We are a little more than halfway through what has been the most normal school year since the pandemic began. For many students, the transition has not been easy, and that is where school counselors come in. Amid reports of a growing youth mental health crisis, NPR's Jonaki Mehta spoke with one standout counselor about how to support students through the school year.

MEREDITH DRAUGHN: Good morning, Riley (ph). Have a good day, Joseph (ph).

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Meredith Draughn begins her mornings like most, with a cup of coffee in hand. But as she sips her coffee, she's also greeting about 350 children by name at B. Everett Jordan Elementary, where she works. It's in a rural North Carolina town called Graham.

DRAUGHN: Kids want to feel known and want to feel loved. And greeting them by name is one way we can do that.

MEHTA: And it's also a practice supported by research. Draughn's data-driven approach and her passion for her students have earned her the title of 2023 School Counselor of the Year.

DRAUGHN: Good morning, Julien (ph). Morning, Daniel.

MEHTA: This school year, many students have struggled with mental health, academics and a general sense of connection to their classroom, all things Draughn has seen in her school, too. But she says there's an upside to all those challenges.

DRAUGHN: I think a lot of people focus on trauma changing the brain, but what they miss is that healing changes it as well.

MEHTA: Draughn says there's a lot educators and caregivers can do to help with that healing. Her first tip - have regular check-ins and check-outs with students.

DRAUGHN: Start the day and end the day - like, let's set a goal for the day, whether it be I will follow directions or I will be respectful. And then we would check out and see how those goals went.

MEHTA: Meeting goals, big or small, can create a sense of achievement and control for kids. That's important because when kids feel out of control, which happened a lot during the pandemic, they can have some big feelings.

DRAUGHN: We have really done a lot of explicit instruction with kids of the circles of control.

MEHTA: That's an exercise that visually helps students see what's in and out of their control.

DRAUGHN: And it's just reteaching what we can do when we don't have control over something and how we regain control and regulation over our own feelings and emotions.

MEHTA: Those emotions can be hard to regulate, but they also tell a story.

DRAUGHN: All behaviors, at least in children, are communication.

MEHTA: An outburst might mean a child is seeking adult attention. Draughn says to try focusing that attention on students' positive behaviors.

DRAUGHN: It might seem very elementary for a fifth grader to walk down the hall, hands by their side, being safe. If that's something that they're working on, I might go up to them and give them that positive attention because if that's what they're really craving, they're going to do it again.

MEHTA: Especially since 2020, one of the biggest barriers to regulating emotions in children has been mental health, including anxiety. Draughn has seen more referrals for anxiety at her school, but she thinks that also has to do with increased awareness. Draughn says it's important to make kids aware too, first by helping them identify what the symptoms look like.

DRAUGHN: Really thinking of, what is anxiety? Well, it's your heart rate increasing. You know, those physiological symptoms - you might start sweating, you're getting fidgety, you're getting nervous.

MEHTA: She uses kid-friendly words to describe a feeling that can be complicated.

DRAUGHN: It's extra energy to get out of your body.

MEHTA: To get that energy out, she suggests doing something physical, like jumping jacks or even just allowing a child to fidget freely in their seat. And if jumping through the anxiety doesn't feel right, try breathing it out. Visual aids work really well. Draughn likes to tell students to close their eyes, picture a square and breathe their way along its sides.

DRAUGHN: You're going to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out through your mouth for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and do that four times. And that is forcing your heart rate to slow down.

MEHTA: She says using these strategies regularly and consistently can build good habits that last a lifetime and make kids feel like they belong.

DRAUGHN: What are the two things we're going to do? We're going to tell the...


DRAUGHN: And make good...


DRAUGHN: You got it. Awesome. I know you're going to rock it today, buddy.

MEHTA: Jonaki Mehta, NPR News.


Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.