“Vulnerable. Who knows what that word means?” Cyndi Bryant asks, standing at the front of a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders. “It means when you aren’t prepared for something, so you’re pretty weak,” comes an answer from the front row.
It’s 8:30 on a Friday morning – another day of masked, physically distanced schooling at N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. The topic of the moment is self-esteem – not something a middle schooler is typically eager to discuss. But this is life amidst a global pandemic, when so much of what is “normal” has become so difficult. Everyone is searching for ways to cope, and the Day School has taken a decidedly proactive approach.
Since late August, Cyndi, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers for CJFS, has been visiting the Day School each Friday. She’s there to help students in Grades 1-8 learn to manage the stress brought on by the COVID-19 crisis –– and the stresses of life in general. Cyndi’s visits are part of the school’s new Social and Emotional Learning program, launched in August with support from The Birmingham Jewish Foundation.
Like schools everywhere, the Day School suddenly closed its doors in March, which meant missing the last three months of in-person instruction. The teachers knew that when their students returned, they would be behind in their studies. They also knew that the pandemic affected every aspect of children’s lives and could interfere with learning.
“This summer, we had the opportunity to attend a three-day mental health conference,” says the Day School’s Head of School, Debra Abolafia. “By the end of the conference, it was clear that no matter when or how school resumed, the children would be impacted by the pandemic –– everyone would be impacted –– and we would need to focus on the mental health of everyone involved,” she says. A first step was checking in on all the families. “We wanted to understand the losses our families were experiencing and see how they felt about returning to the classroom.,” Debra says.
“As a small school, we don’t have a guidance counselor,” she continues. So teacher Frumie Posner, who attended the conference, stepped up to become NEMJDS Wellness Support Coordinator. Together, she and Cyndi are teaching the students new ways to face social and emotional challenges. “Cyndi and Frumie have been an amazing team, and Cyndi has connected very easily with all of our classes,” Debra says.
The program provides the students with a space for processing their own concerns about the “new normal,” whether it’s the discomfort of wearing a mask, fears about the virus, limitations on social activities or the many ways the pandemic has affected their families, friendships or school. It is as educational as it is therapeutic, Frumie says. “The boys and girls are learning that taking care of their emotional health is important, and it’s a positive experience for them. Cyndi speaks to them in a way that’s very relatable, and it’s always a great day when she is here.”
The students are encouraged to work through issues as they come up –– and to learn from the experience. “We’re working on skills they can use throughout their lives, such as recognizing their feelings, appropriately expressing themselves and tolerating frustration,” Cyndi says. The program also makes Cyndi available for one-on-one sessions with the children, parents, and teachers if needed.
The Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers of CJFS provide in-person and remote counseling for individuals and families of all ages. Medicare and insurance are accepted. To learn more or make an appointment, contact Clinical Director Marcy Morgenbesser, firstname.lastname@example.org or 205.879.3438.