South Orangetown Central School District

Stephanie Mueller joined the District as its Elementary School Counselor at the start of the 2019-20 school year, and serves students at both William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School. “My mission as a school counselor is to inspire students to become lifelong learners, creative thinkers and caring and responsible citizens,” explains Mueller, who previously served as a middle school counselor on Long Island.

What is the role of an elementary school counselor?

SOCSD’s comprehensive developmental school counseling program provides education, prevention and intervention services from kindergarten to high school. As the elementary school counselor for WOS and CLE, I am a Tier 1 support to every student, meaning that I work with every student. During the elementary school years, children begin to develop their academic self-concept and feelings of competence and confidence as learners. Children are beginning to develop decision-making, communication and life skills and character values. It’s also a time when students develop and acquire attitudes towards self, peers, social groups, school and family. I push into every classroom throughout the school year to lead lessons on character development, career readiness and social skill development. My aim is for students to gain the social emotional skills necessary to become successful young adults and lifelong learners. I also have the pleasure of working directly with whole classrooms on hosting school-wide events and assemblies which promote a positive school culture.

Early identification and intervention of children’s personal and social needs is essential in removing barriers to learning and in promoting academic achievement. With input and referrals from teachers and parents, I provide individual and small group counseling on a variety of topics, such as academic achievement, anger management, changing families, friendship, grief, self-esteem and social skills. I absolutely love developing relationships with students through my classroom visits and counseling sessions. By being a constant fixture in their school lives from kindergarten on, it is my hope they will feel comfortable to come to me if anything should arise down the line.

Children need to feel safe in order to ask for help. During the first few weeks of kindergarten, students are introduced to the student support team at WOS. Through constant interactions in the classroom and during the school day, we form those positive connections that are needed when an issue arises. Then, children transition over to CLE where they are introduced to another wonderful support system. We hope to keep showing kids we are here for them because, as we’ve seen over the years, there is such a need for social and emotional support for young children. It is so important to address concerns when they first arise than to hope they go away. We work directly with parents, providing support and resources, and are also able to provide outside referrals to great service providers and therapists in the area. If you are concerned about your child and do not know what or who to ask please reach out to any member of our team, we are here to help!

How has the school closure and shift to distance learning changed your approach to counseling?

At first, virtual learning and virtual counseling seemed so abstract but I believed the most important thing I could do was provide a sense of normalcy for students, parents, and teachers. Since the first week of virtual learning, I’ve been seeing students individually and in small groups, popping into classrooms and doing grade-wide activities such as virtual Lunch Bunch. I knew that consistency was key, so I reached out to parents and arranged all the services I was providing in school virtually.

Through teacher referrals, I’ve been connecting with more and more students to help them with whatever they are struggling with. I’ve seen distance learning as an opportunity to reach as many students and parents as I can. One shift I am noticing is the need for mental health support as a result of unexpected life changes due to the pandemic. For so long, mental health has been a taboo topic but it’s just as important as our physical health. I am very excited to be raising awareness to such an important topic through our participation in Mental Health Awareness Week (May 18-22, 2020). Each day a member of the CLE and WOS student support teams is hosting a read aloud of a book pertaining to mental health. I also arranged a virtual spirit week full of activities students and their families could do each day to promote positive mental health. I think this is a great time for us to focus on making sure everyone is ok and giving students and their families the necessary tools to promote positive mental health within themselves. It is so important to make sure our children have the tools necessary to work through feelings that may arise and know how to ask for help.

What key concepts or strategies are most helpful for students during these challenging and uncertain times?

Tips for Children:

  • Set a schedule – having a consistent schedule is a great way to help us stay on track and feel a sense of normalcy. Set your alarm or plan to wake up at a certain time, schedule schoolwork, lunch, play, dinner and free time. When we don’t stick to a schedule, we tend to feel out of sorts/confused.
  • Remember to do the activities you love or try something new! Just because we have to stay home to stay safe doesn’t mean you can’t ride your bike, read books, or play in your backyard.
  • Connection is key! Try to Facetime your friends and family as often as you can. Seeing their faces should make you feel a little more connected to others.
  • Talk to your parent or trusted adult about what you are worried about. If you want to talk to someone else, think of the trusted adults at school- your teachers, school counselor, school social worker or psychologists- we are here to help!

Tips for Parents:

Try your best to be patient with your children. Not returning to school will bring up feelings of grief and loss. Students are missing their school, friends, teachers, end-of-the-year celebrations, and goodbyes that provide closure for another year complete. These feelings can present in many ways, there is no right way to feel at this time. There may be tears, anxiousness, anger, or any other combination of feelings. The most important way to support children is to listen with an empathetic ear. Here are some other tips:

  • Listen to all feelings without judgement. Know that recovery from these feelings does not work in a linear fashion, there will be ups & downs, some days better than others.
  • Find healthy ways for those feelings to be expressed such as writing, drawing, or art projects
  • Incorporate your existing health coping skills your family already uses such as cooking, gardening, dancing, or singing when feelings are low.
  • Keep schedules as consistent as possible.
  • Remind your children that this is temporary. It might not be back to how it way but this stage is not forever.

Stephanie Mueller