In our brand new podcast, Academically Speaking, Laura Perillo — Oak Knoll's Marketing Content Strategist in the Office of Marketing and Communications — sat down with new Lower School Guidance Counselor Melissa Nelson on re-entry anxiety in children as they return to campus this fall under COVID-19 restrictions.
Listen to the Podcast
Laura Perillo: [00:00:00] Our guest today is Oak Knoll's new Lower School Guidance Counselor, Melissa Nelson. Today, we will be talking a bit about Melissa's new role as the guidance counselor in the Lower School, and also ways that parents can navigate potential re-entry and anxiety their children may have about returning to school this fall.
Welcome, Melissa. Thank you for joining us.
Melissa Nelson: [00:00:36] Thanks Laura. I'm so happy to be here.
Laura Perillo: [00:00:38] We're thrilled to have you! Please tell us a little bit about yourself, if you don't mind.
Melissa Nelson: [00:00:43] Sure. I grew up in Massachusetts and studied psychology and dance at Middlebury College in Vermont. I earned my master's then in clinical and counseling psych at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
And I love New York City. I would have stayed there, but shortly after getting my masters, I got married and my husband was in the military. So we moved all over for the next few years and I tried to find counseling work wherever I could. So I worked at a family center and counseled kids, families, couples, in Columbus, Georgia, and I loved that job.
Really the kid part, especially, and then as a substance abuse counselor in a women's prison in Hawaii. I lived in Hawaii for three years. It was really hard to find work there. So that's what I ended up doing. And it was eye opening. I learned, I don't want to work in a prison, but, it was still a wonder experience.
Then, once my husband got out of the military, we moved back to New Jersey. I started working with at-risk youth, in various Newark Public Schools. And that's when I realized I really wanted to work with kids in the schools. So I went back to school again, to Caldwell, and got my postmaster certification in school counseling.
And, I've been counseling ever since. Also, I work as an adjunct professor at Caldwell, very part time, but I have about 14 years' counseling experience and I've worked in various schools, Maplewood, Basking Ridge, Mount St. Mary Academy and, now I'm here, I've worked with kids pre-K through 12th and I'm here and I'm so happy to be here.
Laura Perillo: [00:02:14] Well, welcome. We're thrilled to have you! So, what will be your role as the Lower School Guidance Counselor? What will that entail and what type of support will you provide to our students? If you could talk a little bit about that, that would be great.
Melissa Nelson: [00:02:28] Absolutely. As the Lower School Counselor, my primary responsibility is to support the academic and social, emotional growth of the students.
However, another big part of my job is working closely with the parents, the Oak Knoll families, the teachers, and the staff. With the students, I will see them individually. I'm actually in the process now of setting up a schedule where I can do minute meetings. So right away in September, I want to be able to meet every student face to face one-on-one just so that they can get to know me. I can get to know them. They can start to feel more comfortable talking with me. But then beyond that, I will meet individually with students as they need, or if something comes up. I always am available to anybody. I normally run small groups based on students with similar needs, similar experiences, but because of the COVID restrictions we're not sure if small groups are going to happen right now.
So we'll have to sort of wait and see how the year unfolds. And then another big part that I'll be doing is going into each classroom and teaching social, emotional lessons. They're called SEL lessons. And I am really excited about teaching those this year. I've been working on trying to make them really fun and creative with the kids.
And we just got a new curriculum. It's called Character Strong and it's based on character development and social, emotional growth for the students, the families, the staff, the whole school community. So it's a really wonderful program and I'm really excited about that.
So in addition to those things, with the parents, I'll also be communicating, via phone email, I'll have a newsletter that goes out once a week, again, trying to make up for the fact that we can't meet face to face right now, but still making myself available.
I'll also be running virtual Friday assemblies for the students and the parents. I'll be doing virtual coffees for the parents and, I'll be available at parent teacher conferences. So I really want to make myself accessible to the parents. And, then lastly, I'll be collaborating with the teachers and staff as always.
But I think about my role, what I really want everybody to know is that, I consider myself a resource and I'm here for anybody. So whether it's a teacher, who is having a tough day. A parent who is really struggling with something. Obviously the students who need something, I'm always available and ready to listen, and also for good things, if you just want to come and celebrate something.
Laura Perillo: [00:04:43] Great. Thank you so much. The year 2020 has certainly been anything but normal. Please explain why your role as a guidance counselor to our younger students is now more vital than ever before.
Melissa Nelson: Yes. OK. So I've often been asked, "what do you do as an elementary school counselor? Like, are elementary school counselors even necessary?"
And let me tell you that all school counselors are vital, but elementary school counselors are especially important because we're the ones that help build the child's foundational sense of themselves as a student, but also as a person in this world. So developmentally, elementary school is a time where students begin to develop their academic self concept, their feelings of competence and confidence.
Not only as learners, but also as social people who have to navigate friend groups and family dynamics, decision making skills and life skills and character values. So my role as a school counselor is to support all of that. And yeah, it's critical. It's fundamentally important, but then you add COVID and now school counselors are even more because in addition to all their "normal mental needs," children are now experiencing this worldwide pandemic, which we know is causing rates of anxiety and depression to rise in children and adults. You know, just day by day, children are exposed to death and negativity and the stress throughout society. Fear — they're constantly seeing these things and feeling them, whether it's through the news or their family or peers, or, you know, they're, they're getting it.
So with all that additional stress of social distancing and hybrid learning and all the things that they're exposed to, it's a lot to ask.
Laura Perillo: [00:06:25] Right. And that leads me to our next question, actually, which is this fear — students may have this re-entry anxiety about coming back to school — they might be nervous about contracting COVID-19. They might be concerned about leaving their home for an extended period of time, or they're just nervous to go to school with all of these new precautions. That are in place, such as mass desk shields, no group projects remaining, physically apart from their friends. And could you talk a little bit more maybe about this and the steps you would take with a student who came to you with some of these worries?
Melissa Nelson: [00:06:59] Absolutely. And you're right. Like those, all those things just in and of itself navigating those is stressful because it's new, it's different and it's hard to be away from your friends. Right. Especially after you haven't seen him in so long. So first and foremost, I just want to say my overall job is to prevent the distress and, and regression, identify any signs of trauma or mental health concerns, and then intervene where there's a need, but specifically dealing with re-entry anxiety, I would start by working with the child as if it was any other type of anxiety. and sadly, this is going to be very common this year. And the way I handle it, anybody working with anxiety is to listen to them and to offer a very calm and patient demeanor because right away, it's a moment of crisis.
If you're really anxious, you need something, some sort of rock, some sort of grounding presence. So that's the very first thing. I've worked with a lot of people with anxiety, a lot of children with anxiety. And, what you need to know is that it can't be fixed. It's not a quick fix. So it requires a lot of patience and time and honesty and trust.
So, you know, I'm coming into a situation where I'm new and that's a little tricky. So the first thing I'm going to do is try to establishing trust with the child, make sure they feel comfortable talking to me about what's going on. It's hard enough to even know. I mean, we've all been anxious, you know, sometimes you have no idea what is going on until after the fact you're like, Oh, I was really anxious.
Right? So as a child, it's even that much harder. So I talk openly with them and honestly, but in a developmentally appropriate way about what's going on. And I try to validate their experience and empathize with them because their anxiety is real and understandable, specific steps I would take — I would help them identify their maladaptive thoughts because anxiety is a lot of what ifs, right?
And you spin yourself into unhelpful patterns and thinking, so you try to help them identify that. And you also try to help them identify how the anxiety is manifesting in their body. and sometimes that's easier to access them the thoughts. So for instance, if you can have a child identify, "Oh, every time my stomach starts to hurt, that's when I'm feeling anxious," then you can start to work with them.
Okay. If you're telling me starting to hurt, how do we take some deep breaths? And we just get some air in there and we loosen, and then you can do some simple activities to help them ground and come back to the present. It's like, that's just sort of a gateway to like get in there. one of the things I like to do, that's very quick and easy is five, four, three, two, one.
Tell me five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste, and having those senses brings them back to the present moment. Helps them just have a little break from that whirlwind going on inside their mind, and then you can begin to go from there.
Another big part of working with anxiety is not letting the anxiety win. Right. Anxiety is a survival mechanism that we all have to help us. So, you know, there's a big tiger in the room. And my body's going to say, don't go there, avoid that tiger. Don't go toward the tiger. and that's a natural reaction and a healthy reaction.
But if the child's feeling that about a stimulus, that isn't a tiger or a metaphorical tiger, and it's actually something positive like school, then we want to help them learn that right now, that anxiety actually isn't helping you. And we can learn to take small steps where you feel a little nervous, but you're still safe.
So it's a very gradual process. But if you let the child's anxiety win by saying like, no, I'm not going there and just avoid and don't go to school, right, or say, okay, we're not going to go today. Then that anxiety wins and it gets stronger. So it's just learning to help them in the moment slowly realize that they have control that they can be safe and that there's not, you know, the anxiety isn't magically going to go away. And that's okay. That's not the goal. A lot of people think like, all right, I'm anxious, this is bad. I need to stop. And that's not it. I say there are no bad feelings.
It's just what we do with them. But on the flip side, that doesn't mean tough love, either. You're not, you know, throwing your kid out of the car and being like, deal with it. You know, we got to get through this. It's all about praising the small, all steps and gradually giving them confidence so that they can take on more and more.
And one thing I want to say to the parents, if their child is very anxious, they can start the process of transitioning back to school right now. In fact, the sooner, the better, because you just start with small moments. It's kind of like systematic desensitization a little bit at a time, so that things aren't so new and scary.
Maybe you pack your backpack together. Maybe you put on your uniform, maybe you drive by the school. Maybe you just go on an off day and walk around the school grounds, so that when the day comes, it's not so much new all at once. And in those moments, if your child starts to get really stressed, just back off, start smaller.
And just build your way up gradually so that it's not that giant flood. And I also want to say to the parents, I understand how frustrating it can be when your child seems irrationally anxious and afraid, and if you find yourself as a parent or guardian or family member on the verge of blowing up, I encourage you to do whatever self care you need to be able to stay calm.
Because we've all been there where your child's frustrated and you're frustrated and that just exacerbates the problem. So just don't, you know, take your pride out of it. Step out, let somebody handle it and they can stay calm and then you can regroup, right? It's a team effort. It takes a village.
Laura Perillo: [00:12:53] Well, thank you for that. I definitely learned a lot from that. In general, what are some signs? Can you talk a little bit about some signs of anxiety, depression, and you mentioned trauma in children. What are some of those signs?
Melissa Nelson: [00:13:08] Yes, it's really important to know the signs so that you can be proactive and help your child if they're struggling.
But I do want to mention that not all children exhibit signs, even though they are experiencing them. And they certainly don't all exhibit the same symptoms. So just know that these are sort of general. But that doesn't mean that there's something wrong. If it's not following this protocol or your child doesn't seem to be following these symptoms.
And, also once again to the parents, it doesn't reflect poorly on you as a parent. If your child has anxiety or depression, I really want to emphasize that because unfortunately our society still has so much stigma and I think parents get embarrassed and they don't know what to do. They feel like it's their fault.
So it is not. And, I am a judgment-free person and my office is a judgment-free zone. So you can call me, we can talk anytime if there's questions. So, some of the common symptoms are, and a lot of these overlap with anxiety, depression, and trauma. But basically any kind of regression, for instance, if the child starts to revert back to bedwetting or thumb sucking, those are pretty intense signs.
Depression can be lack of interest in things that you used to like, social withdrawal, could be fatigue. Both depression and anxiety have changes in eating and sleeping either more or less. Usually with anxiety. There's a lot of anxiety comes up right before bedtime. So that's another example where you can kind of use all the things I was talking about with the first day of school, have a consistent routine keen for bed.
Start early, make sure you're in a good space. So you're not alone is and tired. Do the same thing. The pattern and consistency is really helpful. Um, irritability is a big one. So, especially in young boys, this often gets misunderstood. Well, we'll say, "Oh, he's acting out, he's being aggressive."
And oftentimes boys, when they're irritable are actually depressed and it's partly society's message saying, you know, this is as a man you're not allowed to cry. You're not allowed to be sad. And partly I think because kids are frustrated, they don't know how to communicate and they're feeling all these things and, and they're feeling very alone.
So just be aware of that as well. sometimes that doesn't, it's sort of counterintuitive that irritability is actually sadness. anything else I can think of? Oh, increased sensitivity lead to rejection is another one. So if you're really noticing that all of a sudden they're very clingy or feeling extra dramatic, if you say no or something can't happen, that could be a sign that maybe they're going through some other stuff.
Laura Perillo: [00:15:49] Wow. Interesting. I didn't know any of that. Thank you. So, how do you help children develop strategies to cope with strong feelings that they have?
[00:16:00] Melissa Nelson: Yes. I'm so glad you asked that because coping is huge. If we just sat around and talked about how we felt we would get nowhere, right? I'm a huge advocate of talking about our feelings, but the next step is learning tools to deal with them.
So to me, coping strategies are so important for children. It's what empowers them to learn, to say, "Hey, I can control myself. I have some control here. I don't have to be overwhelmed by this mountain of fear or the, you know, heavyweight of feeling sad. I can deal with it." But the trick is with coping skills is to teach kids that they're not magic.
I think I, my boys included, you know, I'll try all these things with them and they just roll their eyes. They're like, "Oh mom, please I've tried the deep breaths. They don't work." I hear that a lot. It doesn't work. What you need to do is try them all. And try them at a time when you're not in a heightened state, right.
When you're actually anxious or depressed or whatever's going on, that's a really hard time to start testing things out. So when you're feeling good, try different coping skills and, and notice, you know, so with your children, try them with them and notice what they like, what they don't like naturally, there's going to be some that they're like, no, no, I'm just not going to do that.
Fine. No, there's a billion coping skills out there. So. you try them all, you find the ones they gravitate towards. As long as you have a sort of toolbox of variety, then that's what you need. So that they're accessible. They're familiar with, with them so that when the moment comes again, it's not new.
They think, "Oh yeah. Okay. I'm going to go do my breathing or I'm going to go journal or I'm going to go, you know, color" or whatever it might be. And they know what to do. But something that I learned about coping skills a long time ago, that really helped me was that there are lots of different types of coping skills.
There's different categories. And some people really gravitate toward certain categories. So the five basic categories are movement, processing, sensory, distraction and relaxation. And so I have a deck of cards that I like to use with kids. And they're out there and they're color coded by those categories.
So the kids will just go through them and say, "Oh yes, I like this one. Or that one. That one seems good. That one. Definitely not." And then you look and sometimes you can see, Oh wow, you're really, you really like movement. And you really don't like this. Right. So that's important because as they're trying to figure it out, going forward, you realize with, with some kids, certain coping skills are really going to be helpful.
And others that would actually be detrimental. I'll give you an example. If there's a boy who is really anxious and he has gotten through the cards and he realizes that he really likes distraction. and he really does not like processing. Then you would know that coping skills for him that would be helpful would be things like if you're feeling anxious, maybe you need to watch a movie or read a book or write a story, draw color, something to distract your mind from what's going on.
Versus processing, which might be like journaling, talking about it in the moment. Those things would actually just heighten his anxiety. He doesn't want to focus on it. Then, whereas somebody else, you know, that might be really therapeutic for them. So I think that's important to know. And the last thing I just want to say with coping skills is that one strategy is not going to get it done.
So you picture yourself in the moment. Boom, there's your anxiety. It's a giant mountain. And you're just like, "Oh my gosh, I'm overwhelmed by this." Just in trying to sit down and take five deep breaths. you're not going to get it done. And that's why people are like, "Oh, they don't work." I like to think of it as chipping away at one coping strategy and maybe it reduces your anxiety just a little and then you do another, and it's a little more so it's, it's a process and basically it takes persistence patience and some trial and error.
Laura Perillo: [00:19:50] Right. Wonderful. Besides re-entry fears, what are some of the other biggest hurdles facing young students these days?
Melissa Nelson: [00:19:59] Kids have to deal with so much right now. And I really empathize with them. I think with the social distancing, one of the big things is trying to maintain and uphold friendships because I've noticed this with my boys and their friends. It's hard to maintain a friendship when your friendship is based on doing things and interacting.
Boys don't want to just like, sit and talk on the phone and know some girls don't either. So, you know, riding your bikes, it's old. And then it's like, well, how do we maintain this? So the social distancing, I think is one big hurdle for them. Another one is just for all children, like missing out on fun activities and life milestones, like graduations and birthday parties, or even family traditions, a lot of families, you know, travel to see distant family relatives.
And get together and they're missing out on those connections and all those losses can really start to add up. so that children feel socially isolated and depressed. And beyond the ramifications of social distancing, you know, there's the challenges of remote and hybrid learning. we saw last spring. That it was really difficult for a lot of students to stay engaged and stay motivated. It's just not the same as having that face to face with your teacher. Even though I will say I think the Oak Knoll teachers do an amazing job of trying to keep remote learning, engaging, and active. But it's just not the same.
So trying to navigate that and then certainly students who are lacking some resources. They don't have the same connectivity. That's another huge stress that they can't keep up remote learning the same way that other peers can. Additionally, families might be grieving over the loss of loved ones during this time or financial stresses. There's a lot of unemployment now because of the pandemic. There's just all these factors that the parents are experiencing and they're exhausted and stressed out. And so that sets a tone in the house. And the young people are absorbing all of this. Again, no blame. We're all doing the best we can.
This is what's happening though, and you're not alone in this. So beyond managing the stressors sort of provided thank you by COVID. I think in general too, the kids are just facing so much increased stress in today's world.
The sports I think have become incredibly competitive and intense. As have other school activities and hobbies like drama, art, fencing, rock climbing, music — whatever it may be. It seems like now every child activity is geared toward, like this high level of achievement, versus just being able to try something. How many parents have told me stories where they, their kid wants to try something and they're told they're too old to start now.
Right? It's like, well, they're a child. If you can't start now, when could you start? And so children have sort of gotten used to this schedule, a lot of activities and working really hard and going from this to that. And then all of a sudden COVID hits and now there's nothing. And that also is confusing, right?
Because what am I doing? I'm used to going, going, going, and now there's nothing. And I supposed to just be okay with that. There's also, of course, you have to mention technology. Social media screen time, remote learning. I know the schools are very sensitive to that trying to, not to overwhelm the kids with screen time, but it is remote learning.
So just the children having to navigate all that and, you know, digital citizenship just, wasn't a thing when we were younger, right? And now that's another big responsibility and a whole set of tools and skills that kids need at a young age and oftentimes before they're developmentally even prepared for that.
So, you know, and that sort of goes with, technology. In general, access to the worldwide web is a wonderful thing, but it's a blessing and a curse because then they're, again, they have all this information. That's wonderful. It teaches them things, but they don't have the life experience to give it the context that it needs sometimes.
And that I think is very stressful and confusing. But overall, I would say it's just the increased speed at which kids are expected to operate and at which everything happens now. So you know that the amount of material there they're supposed to cover — the depth — they just have so much that's expected of them at such a young age.
But that's why I love my job because I get to be the person that says, you know what? You are perfect exactly as you are. And I feel like they just don't get that message very much anymore in the world. It's always more and more and more. So to say, no, you're doing great.
Laura Perillo: [00:24:41] Right. And that really brings me to my last question, which you really touched on. Do you think that there's more pressure these days on students, you know, COVID aside, and then you put COVID into the mix? I would assume this just adds to the importance of mental health services even more.
Melissa Nelson: [00:25:00] Absolutely. Yes, all the pressure. I mean, the thing is, when I was a high school counselor, it blew my mind to watch these kids for college and the amount of things that they would put on their plate and their resumes and their applications.
And that's very like easy for us to understand, but I see the exact same thing happening at the elementary level. You know, these kids. It's sometimes just hard for us to see it because we forget, we take so many things for granted, but they are still developing these fundamental tools, how to make decisions, how to have healthy relationships, how to communicate boundaries and all these things.
And then on top of that, we're asking them to, you know, oh, navigate these websites and go here and, you know, click on this and read this and analyze this. And it's like, wow, it's just a lot for them. So, yeah, I think there is a lot of pressure, but one of the things that drew me to come here is that this community I feel is very special and unique in that way, in that the teachers are very in tune with the students.
And it seems like they, they really are truly supportive over just demanding and that only promotes more growth, for the student and confidence. So I am so happy to be part of this team.
Laura Perillo: [00:26:17] Well, thank you so much. That is all we have for you today. Thank you, Melissa, for your time and expertise. We look forward to having you on our show again, soon.
Melissa Nelson is the Lower School Guidance Counselor at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child, a PK-12 private Catholic school in Summit, New Jersey. She received her bachelor’s degree in Dance and Psychology from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and her master’s degree in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, New York. She earned her post-master’s school counseling certification at Caldwell University in Caldwell, New Jersey, where she also taught as an adjunct professor.