Preparing Students for a Safe Summer
By Lisa Ciappi, Executive Director and Jerry Barone, Chief Clinical Officer
As June rolls around each year, students and teachers alike are typically counting the days until summer break. This year, given the challenges associated with learning and teaching over the last 15 months, the need for a period of rest and renewal is greater than ever. At the same time, the pandemic-induced exacerbation of mental health problems calls for a greater level of vigilance and planning as educators dismiss their students for the summer.
Every year at this time, as students and educators are winding down, Effective School Solutions (ESS) clinicians who work within our school-based Tier 2 (mild to moderate) and Tier 3 (severe) mental health programs are gearing up to develop and implement summer safety plans for participating students. In this year-like-no-other, ESS would like to offer some suggestions for how school districts can maximize the health and safety of their young charges during the summer months.
Individual Safety Plans
An individual safety plan is a short-term plan that addresses a student’s specific behavior and includes tips to keep the student safe. Safety plans are used to help vulnerable students navigate the time of year when the structure and resources provided within school systems are less available to them. The goal is to maintain and consolidate clinical gains, and to minimize a decline in functioning over the summer.
A student’s individualized safety plan is designed to facilitate structure, to identify resources, and to specify potential stressors as well as coping strategies. A one-page safety plan can include:
- A sample daily schedule that outlines times for self-care, family meals, online activities, seeing friends, doing chores, exercise, etc.
- A list of safe places where the student can find a sense of calm and security when stressed. This might include the child’s room, the home of a trusted neighbor, friend, or relative, or a favorite place in nature such as under a shady tree in a community park.
- The phone numbers of “safe people” who the child can reach out to for emotional support and help as needed.
- A list of fun and enriching activities to facilitate focus and relaxation, such as bike riding, playing games with friends, playing a musical instrument, seeing a movie, swimming, walking the dog.
- A wish list of family activities to plan with parents and siblings.
- Anticipated stressors over the summer, e.g., being home alone and feeling lonely or scared, an older sibling leaving for college, not being invited to a party, being teased, or bullied online or in person.
- Actions that can be taken to address stressors, as well as a list of the child’s most useful distress tolerance strategies, such as deep breathing, listening to music, writing in a journal, playing with a pet, taking a bubble bath, calling a grandparent, etc.
Students who receive school-based Tier 2 and 3 services typically need more extensive safety plans. They should be re-assessed toward the end of the school year to determine what level of care is needed over the summer. Some students may only need outpatient therapy and medication checks, while others might require a higher level of care such as a partial hospital (PH) setting or an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Referral information should be offered to parents and caregivers, with appointments already in place before the end of school wherever possible. Lists of community resources, including emergency services, should be compiled, and offered to families so that parents are not at a loss for how to access help for their children.
A Safety Checklist for School Professionals
There are a number of options that districts can consider to ensure that students have the necessary supports in place to maximize well-being and safety.
- For Tier 2 and Tier 3 students, contact parents to assist with summer appointments and emergency contact numbers. Reinforce the importance of continuing counseling sessions and medications over the summer and inform families about school resources that will remain accessible over the break. All clinical, special services, and administrative office phone numbers should have outgoing voicemail messages that give clear directives about where to access emergency services; email “out of office” messages should also contain this information. Develop a personal safety plan with each student. Schedule a brief clinical assessment appointment for August so that changes in status can be noted, and treatment plans can be updated when school resumes in September. All recommendations and referrals should be clearly documented in each student’s file.
- Consider asking teachers to identify those students from the general population who appear to be struggling the most and offer these students one or two counseling sessions to develop individualized safety plans before school ends. Review these plans with parents as well.
- Consider using federal COVID-19 relief funds to lengthen the hours-per-day and weeks-per-summer availability of ESY programs, and/or to broaden them so that more students can be included. Typical ESY regular check-ins with parents.
- COVID-19 funding can also be allocated to maintain “crisis clinician” and case manager hours over the summer. Clinicians can field urgent calls from parents and students, can do regular outreach with the most vulnerable students, and/or can run “vacation clinical” drop-in groups that help students stay connected to the school and remain under clinical oversight.
- School-based camp/daycare services can be expanded to help children maintain structure over the summer, and to provide parents with much needed relief.
- Lists of community resources, including emergency services, community health centers, food banks, camps, recreational activities, and tutoring opportunities should be compiled and offered to parents so that they can help their children maintain structure and support over the summer months.
The pandemic has underscored the critical role that schools play in our communities, a role that reaches far beyond academic instruction. Students and their families rely on teachers and school communities to provide structure and emotional support, to supply nutritious meals, to offer medical and mental health services, to offer opportunities for recreation and for socialization. By attending to summer safety plans, school professionals acknowledge the scope of their impact on students’ lives.
Wishing you all a restful and safe summer!