Mental Health Right Now in Wilton Public Schools

In the time “before COVID-19” the social and emotional well-being of Wilton’s students was a prime focus for Kim Zemo, the district’s safe school climate coordinator. But now, with such a seismic shift in how the Wilton Public Schools operate, the mental health of the entire school community is in need of critical caretaking. Our Q&A with Zemo sheds light on what parents should know, what the schools are doing to help students, and advice for handling the stress of the situation we’re in.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  You’re kind of like the thermometer for the district. How are the kids in the district doing?

Kim Zemo:  I’m concerned that as this progresses over time that the needs are going to change. Initially, we thought it was only going to be a couple of weeks. I’m worried about our seniors as the Governor decided today we’re closed until May 20. We’re hearing other states that are closed for the rest of the year, and I think that’s where we’ll end up. So I think there’s more disappointment on the horizon, especially for our seniors. I worry about that.

I worry about balancing the load along with the social isolation and what that does over time. We’re hearing what the mental health issues in China are after the three-month isolation and so I worry at the other end of this, what things are going to be like.

I live in Newtown, so after the Sandy Hook shooting, [we saw] the kids take so much from the parents. So if you’re emotionally regulated, I think your kids will be; if you’re really highly anxious and uptight and worrying, then I think the kids pick up on that.

So it’s so important in times like this, to manage your own self-care as a parent. And the more you can do that, the better everybody’s going to be functioning–especially as moms because we’re such a barometer in our families.

I worry, with our community, everybody’s an overachiever–the teachers, the parents, the kids.

It’s in times like this where we’re not going to be at 100%. We’re not going to be able to do our best, and acknowledging that and letting go and, we’re going to do the best we can. And that’s enough. That’s okay right now. That message has to get out.

But I’m concerned. We’re at the four-week mark, we’re starting to see some of our kids who usually have it together, are starting to struggle in managing it all. So I do worry.

GMW:  Is that a consideration in terms of what’s going to be done next quarter knowing how drastic this is becoming?

KZ:  I think all the schools, even at the state level, they’re looking at what the fourth quarter may look like. Hopefully that decision is going to be made soon.

But I can tell you that, at the leadership level, we are trying. The kids’ social-emotional well-being comes first before everything else. We’re trying to keep that in the forefront as we make these decisions. And what that looks like for one student in one family may be different for another. I think that’s the challenge.

GMW:  You gave advice to parents about modeling and setting that example. For some families that doesn’t really exist. In the typical school environment, those kids know they have a resource if they need it–that school is where they seek safety or support. Have you been able to connect those kids with people in the school that they trust?

KZ:  Our mental health staff is doing a really great job of trying to make sure that we’re connecting with those most at-risk kids. And if we can’t, then figuring out doing a wellness check or finding ways to make that connection. The worry is the kids that we don’t know about, that maybe were okay and now aren’t because of the circumstances–people losing jobs and financial changes and all of that, and the stress that puts on a family. I’m working with each school in terms of, what are the multiple ways that we can get the word out on how to access the support? And then also taking the temperature on what kids’ needs are.

The thing is, it’s changing, from week to week. We’re getting new information. This is going to last longer. The longer we’re in isolation, the more that things may change in terms of anxiety level and different things. Being flexible:  one week a plan we put in place may have to look different next week.

We are looking at hopefully launching a survey for students that’s really going to dig a little deeper, in terms of how they’re managing and where they are emotionally.

Sonya Luthar‘s’ group, Authentic Connections, has developed a tool that schools are using specifically for COVID-19. We’re going to be using that. It’s anonymous, but it will help guide us in where we need to focus.

And then again, maybe doing it again in a few weeks could look different. But we’re making every effort to try to identify those at-risk situations and offer support and connect.

The high school does a weekly Google sheet asking kids, are they okay? Do they need additional support? Do they need immediate support now? Not everybody’s [filling out the form], but we are getting some information on kids that need some support. So that’s one way.

I think teachers are doing a really good job of picking up on if a kid doesn’t seem themselves or is not checking in, and then notifying people. We’re trying to create a bunch of different layers to make sure that nobody’s slipping through the cracks. But it’s a challenge, certainly. When they’re not a captive audience, boy, it’s a challenge.

GMW:  Your job as School Climate Coordinator is not just the students; especially now more than ever, for teachers, it’s incredibly stressful for them too. How are they doing?

KZ:  It’s amazing what our staff is doing and people who are rising to the occasion. What you worry about is how sustainable the pace is. And again, what we’re doing one week then changes the next week. I think that’s really hard. For those that are managing their own families, it’s a challenge. One of the psychologists and I are sending out a weekly newsletter with all sorts of tips on self-care and resources, real simple messages. The staff needs reminders that, if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be good to anybody.

The worry is, as the numbers grow in terms of people impacted, what’s that impact going to look like for staff and staff’s families. It’s trying to stay a couple of steps ahead to what might it look like in a few weeks from now if we have staff members that are sick or their family members, preparing for that.

It is not only supporting students but trying to support staff and making sure that we can connect people with the proper resources should they need it.

GMW:  One of the tools you’ve used, at least for the high school level, was a video you sent to students, with messages and greetings from teachers. What was the intent behind the video?

KZ:  A staff member forwarded a video another school did. Myself and another colleague, Kevin Slater, at the same [said], ‘Hey, we can do better.’

The idea was, we’re a couple of weeks in, and we miss the kids. I had a [live video] advisory session with my kids this week and it was so great to see them–for me it was really a good lift. So we wanted the kids to know how much we miss them. What’s so important right now is continuing to build relationships and connecting with our students and our families.

This was one way to show that, in a visual way. Which I think is so helpful with this isolation right now. We’re actually in the works of doing another one, with a different theme–how are we managing, what coping skills are you using–which we think would be a great tool to remind kids about how to cope during this in a fun way.

[To view the video, click here.]

I think we’re going to try to put something out every few weeks, to just keep that connection going. Maybe using some of our student leaders to do that on a regular basis. To remind kids about the tools that they can use and access. Reminding everybody that, as hard as it is right now, this is temporary. It’s not going to be this way forever; even though we don’t know how long, it will come to an end. It’s just this way for now.

That language–for now–is so important. Anytime the kids are sharing how difficult it is, or things that they find hard, it’s just that way for now. It’s not going to be this way forever. But our teenagers live in the here and now, so it’s hard to imagine being anything more than how it is today. So it’s a good reminder.

GMW:  Are there similar things being done at the other Wilton schools, whether it’s video messages or something else? We highlighted some of those things in GMW’s “Kindness in the Schools” article with teachers who had done drive-bys to her class or mailed notes or postcards, and things like that. It’s hard–everybody has so much added responsibility on top of the stress and on top of the ‘not normal’ that we’re living in. But are there things like the high school video in the works for kids at the other schools?

KZ:  The middle school is working on a video right now. [Editor’s note: As GMW and Zemo were speaking, Middlebrook principal Lauren Feltz emailed her students and families with a similar video of greetings from teachers.]

Each building is approaching it in their own way. I’m working with the mental health staff to say, ‘How are we connecting with kids? How are we making sure we’re not missing [things]? What are the avenues that we can look at supporting our families and students?’

At the elementary school they’ve started class Zoom sessions where the kids can see their teachers. That’s so important for our little ones to have that grounding. I think that Cider Mill, the school counselors send out a weekly check-in document to see what the students’ needs are that week. I think Miller-Driscoll was doing something similar, but it would probably go more to parents at that age than the younger ones.

GMW:  You gave some good advice earlier to parents. Any other tips or things they can do?

KZ:  The biggest thing, no matter what it is that you’re addressing, whether it’s with the kids or a teacher or whatever, [is understanding] that right now, how unprecedented these times are and that we are in crisis mode. That everyone is really doing their best. Everybody’s managing in their own way and that it’s all okay trying to be nonjudgmental in how we approach things. And what [stress] looks like for one may look different for someone else–even the kids in your home, how one child may be reacting versus another. Just starting from that place of, everyone is really doing the best they can under the circumstances.

And for yourself, giving yourself, being nonjudgmental with yourself, that there are some days when we’re not going to get the Parent of the Year award, and my kids are probably playing too much video games during the day when I’m working–but they’re going to be okay in the long run.

We’re all going to be okay and actually, maybe better than okay. What are some of the silver linings? I’m getting some time with my kids in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and we’re having family dinners that we don’t always have the opportunity to do. Being able to step back and see that, as difficult as it is, there’s some good stuff that’s happening too.

GMW:  And resilience skills, there’s some skill-building going on.

KZ:  Yes. Even with our seniors and our college kids who have to be home during the semester and how hard that is. It’s building resiliency, and [learning that] sometimes life throws you curve balls–that the important part is how do you manage in times of difficulty? Because sometimes things don’t work out the way we had hoped, and being able to manage that is really a life skill we want our kids to learn. And boy, they’re learning it when they’re under our roof. That’s a great opportunity.

This is where mindfulness is so important, if there was ever a time to practice it, because there’s so much unknown and it’s really about, What do I need to do to support myself and my family for today and really not thinking further than today. Being present in the moment relieves the stress and anxiety about all this stuff that is unknown that we can’t control. It’s a practice we can do with our kids–let’s just focus on today. What can we look forward to today? How can we make today a good day?

Then before you know it you’ve got three weeks of todays under your belt. That’s one way to manage. If you look too far out, it gets overwhelming, right?

As disappointing as a lot of the things that have happened are, we will get back to normal and we’ll move forward.