‘You’re going to be unstoppable’: Md. school counselors provide support to students during pandemic

National School Counselor Week may be coming to a close, but the work of one Montgomery County, Maryland, counselor to help students get set for their futures continues.

Bethlehem Beru is the resource counselor at Briggs Chaney Middle School in Silver Spring and the leader of a team of counselors.

“Guidance counselor” isn’t used anymore, Beru said, and there’s much more to the job than simply helping students with college or career readiness.

As middle-school counselors, there’s a lot of time spent helping students move through that phase where they’re no longer little kids but they’re not quite teenagers, Beru said.

There’s a good deal of time helping them sort out the changes that they are going through, and part of that includes helping them learn to self-regulate.

“Trying to help them with the skills they need to articulate their thoughts without being impulsive and making decisions that probably aren’t the best,” Beru said.

Attending school during a pandemic is a challenge for every student, no matter what the age. But for middle-schoolers, it’s especially fraught, Beru said. The friendships they have with kids their own age become more important, and with virtual learning, they are separated from their friends.

Children are home and depending on where they live, they may not see their classmates who do not live in the neighborhood.

“And if you don’t have siblings, it’s really lonely,” Beru said.

Some have reported feeling disconnected from what’s going on outside their homes. Beru reminds them that one day this pandemic, and the social isolation that has resulted, will be over.

Beru said she tries to encourage children and tells them, “Once you get through this — because we will get through this — you’ll be unstoppable!”

Beru said this generation that went through these unprecedented times will develop grit and resiliency.

“And it’s hard to teach that in a classroom,” said Beru, who is excited to see what they’re gonna do 10 years from now.

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Beru said it’s tough to gauge how much learning loss students are experiencing, but her colleagues on the academic staff have been diligent — pushing to keep students engaged and connected to their work while supporting them emotionally.

Beru loves the middle-school age.

“Middle school is so much fun! They’re like putty!” she said. Eighth grade is her favorite stage.

She said the best day is when students come back and tell the counselor that they understood what the counselor was trying to tell them back in middle school.

The worst days, Beru said, happen when students pick on each other.

“It breaks my heart when I see kids say or do things that are mean to one another. That hurts.”

That’s where a lot of the instruction and work on becoming self-aware and positive socializing comes in.

There are a number of groups to support students. There is a group to help students deal with grief, a suicide prevention program, a male mentorship group, a minority scholars program where students support each other, and BFF — Be a Friend First, a group specifically for sixth-grade girls.

Beru said students are taught exercises in mindfulness and what are referred to as “brain breaks,” just a bit of pulling back to check in with how they’re feeling and how they’re learning.

She suggests that parents do it too, especially as everyone is working through long days in front of computer screens and keyboards.

While behavior may slide as students grow weary of virtual learning and kids tire of constant contact with their parents and siblings, Beru said it’s OK to keep expectations about behavior high. However, parents also have to cut students some slack.

“Just be mindful of the fact that they are 12 or 13. And they’re in a virtual space, and they haven’t seen their friends in a year,” Beru said.

Plus, they’re going through something no other generation of kids has had to go through.

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