Saddleback Valley September–December 2020 Elementary Counseling Report
Katerina Sorrell, MA, NCC, PPSC, LPCC, is a school counselor in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) in Orange County, California. She creates interactive and collaborative content for students and parents at five elementary schools. First published on Mrs. Kat's School Counselor Nest, here is her winter 2020 edition of the Elementary Counseling Report.
My goal as a Saddleback Elementary “Roving Counselor” is to provide students with critical mental health and social/emotional intervention when necessary, but to prevent the need for such services when possible by promoting healthy thinking and behavior, which will also elevate academic performance.
Strangeness and Stress
Well, the Fall 2020 school term was—how to put it—unusual to say the least!
Counseling in this season of COVID-19 uncertainty has been both professionally challenging and personally rewarding.
For many of the families I serve, a lockdown pandemic was almost the last straw, adding a final layer of difficulty on top of family lives that were already struggling under the burden of financial hardship, relational instability, and emotional distress.
When the school year launched in a virtual learning environment, I had to think of ways to engage families early and often in order to help decrease home life stress, maintain student performance, and foster a feeling of connection with me as a counseling resource in case they began to feel overwhelmed.
First, I shot a “Welcome Back!” video featuring many of the most animated personalities from the five campuses I serve, then published it and promoted it to parents and students through email.
Next, I compiled dozens of outside resources and ideas on MyKidCounselor.com, making them available to students and parents with suggestions on how to use them to promote household harmony and academic success. I used these resources myself in my virtual counseling sessions with students struggling with distance learning challenges and mental wellness issues stemming from isolation and COVID anxiety.
Back to Campus
A few weeks later, it was back to campus!
I had to creatively brainstorm for ideas to:
I purchased multiple costumes and interacted with students each day during drop off, pickup, and breaks. I flew around as a butterfly, dragon, or angel, or rode around as a dinosaur cowboy, interacting with students with high energy.
When my intern and I did this, neither students and parents, nor teachers and staff, understood the method to the madness. To them it looked like we were just goofy, crazy counselors! But there was significant psychological science behind it.
Using this strategy, I was able to identify particular students who were experiencing issues they hadn’t vocalized and get them into helpful counseling sessions! Whatever it takes!!
A Principal’s Perspective
“The counselor is in! We may be in a pandemic, but we are in good hands with counselor Mrs. Kat Sorrell,” says Cielo Vista Elementary School’s Principal, Frances Hansell. “Kat’s inspirational words of encouragement during this time of crisis and her uplifting message of resiliency and hope resonates through her Motivational Minutes. Here are three affirmations she shares with students to keep going with a positive mindset: 1) It’s okay to feel nervous about trying something new. 2) Don’t try to figure it all out, just move forward. 3) You cannot always control the situation, but you can control your attitude. So glad the counselor is in!”
Because September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, at the end of August I gently nudged my colleagues to do a video with me called “It’s OK to Not Be OK.” A happy, upbeat melody underscores dozens of individual photos showing every counselor in the District posing alongside creative, homemade signs with the theme in English or Español (“Está Bien No Estar Bien”). The project gained such a groundswell of support that our District Superintendent, Dr. Crystal Turner, participated, encouraging viewers with words of compassion and hope.
The video closes with numbers for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Teen Text Helpline.
Knowing that “we” are stronger, smarter, and more capable than “I,” I began collaborating closely with my Saddleback Valley Unified School District counseling counterparts, Nancy Marroquin and Rozie Sundstedt, to develop original, creative resources and programs designed to impact thousands of students and their families at 15 elementary campuses in the Saddleback District.
One of the results was that we also hosted free, live, virtual “Fall Fest” and “Winter Fest” events for our students, featuring fun activities like live, in-home scavenger hunts. This fostered interaction among students and brought back a sense of normalcy and play especially for those students who have been unable to return to campus even for half-day sessions because of personal or family health concerns. (And yes, we will continue to do these events through spring 2021.)
In December, I wrote a script for a new video called “Holiday Greetings & Helpful Tips!” Several of my fellow counselors and I recorded the clips, then I produced and published the full video just in time to help our students and their families de-stress during our first pandemic holiday season. We taught them how to do an emotional check in, how to use the “belly breathing” technique to calm themselves down during moments of anxiety, how to practice mindfulness, the importance of having an attitude of gratitude, and finally a simple technique to refocus negative thinking into positivity. Everyone loved it, and the video has received many hundreds of views throughout our district and beyond!
Rockstar Former Intern
It is such a privilege to finally work side-by-side as a peer with Nancy Marroquin, my elementary school counselor counterpart serving Gates, Lomarena, and Olivewood Elementary schools. Nancy served as one of my very capable interns last year, and when a new SVUSD counseling position was suddenly created, it was a perfect match. Nancy’s excellent formal education combined with her extensive hands-on training with me during the 2019–2020 school year made her the perfect candidate for me to recommend when I served on the hiring committee. And now Nancy is a shining star, proving we made exactly the right choice!
Rockstar Current Intern
Because I see the enormous social and emotional burdens being carried in the minds and bodies of young people today, I believe every student in every school should have access to a qualified school counselor—one who has been immersed experientially in true mental health counseling, going beyond the mere academic advising which for decades has been considered the primary job function of school counselors. In order to help meet the growing need for such highly trained professionals, this year I have once again taken on the responsibility of helping to foster the next generation of awesome school counselors by providing a second year of on-the-job training for Christine Gomez, an amazing school counseling intern finishing her MA in education at Concordia University Irvine. Say “Hi” to Christine!
Each day of the week I travel to one of five different campuses, and as I engage in face-to-face counseling sessions with students, both in-person in my offices and virtually via Zoom, I look for ways to enhance my overall reach and impact. This semester I accomplished this by focusing more intensively on parents. I designed and implemented a new online parent consent form allowing convenient digital signatures, and also contacted Orange County’s Child Guidance Center (CGC) to put on multiple parent webinars. The CGC presented “Parenting During Quarantine” and “Coping with Anxiety During COVID-19” in both English and Español, and the parents who attended were extremely appreciative.
Scope of Impact
In fall 2020, I was able to conduct Intervention and Crisis Counseling, Psychological First Aid, and Skill-Building Strategy sessions were conducted with students, both in-person and via remote technology, across a broad spectrum of topics and concerns:
Exciting January 2021 Development
As of this writing in January 2021, Christine and I are excited to have added a new dimension to our in-person counseling work. We have begun entering classrooms through the Extended Learning Program, leading fun and interactive body movement exercises designed to both activate kids’ bodies and de-stress their minds. So far, we’ve been able to get in front of 300 students in 10 classrooms on all five campuses. The students are responding very positively!
See you in the spring!
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