As we were working on this magazine issue in July, there were still many unknowns about how the rest of 2020 would play out. What was for certain is that this school year will look different than any before it, which got us wondering what school counselors might have to say about these times. For one, “I think regardless of how it looks for students, it requires them to be brave in a way we never had to be,” Montevallo Elementary School Counselor Abby Whitfield says. We chatted with her more about her back story and her thoughts on mental health in these unprecedented times.

Why did you choose to become a school counselor?

I was in school when 9/11 happened, and my dad lost his job. Even though I had a stable home life, it was a stressful time for our family, and I remember thinking I was doing okay. But sometimes it can impact you and you don’t even know it, and I remember my counselor helped me through that. I decided I wanted to be that person for students. While I was in undergrad I wanted to become a classroom teacher, but while I was doing observations, I realized students all have needs that impact their ability to be successful in the classroom. Teachers do a great job at being their teacher and supporting them emotionally, but is good to have another person in the building who helps and supports students with needs beyond academics.

What keeps you wanting to keep working in the field?

One of the most meaningful parts of the job is when I find out a student is overcoming a struggle we discussed or a behavior is improving. It’s really a fun job too because the kids are so sweet and loving.

What advice do you have for parents as they talk to their children in the uncertain times we are living in in general?

I think it’s important for parents to have grace for themselves because this is an unprecedented time for everyone. There’s also a difference in how we react to news and how we respond to news. So maybe read news and discuss it with another adult, and then go to your children. You want to be factual but also be reassuring with them, saying it’s hard but we are going to get through it and it’s going to be okay. Tell them we are going to take it one day at a time. Controlling what we can when everything seems out of control is so important, and making things seem as normal as they can be within what’s safe.

What advice do you have related to kids and parents going into school in the fall?

Any time news comes out about what will happen in school it’s important for parents to have conversations about what they believe about it away from the kids first and then prepare for how to talk to kids. How we respond to things influences how they feel about it. Remind them that they are not alone in any school scenario; we are all in this together. It’s important for kids to know they are the first group of school-aged children to go through this. They have to be brave, but it will make them resilient. They will have skillsets that can only be built through something like this.

What thoughts do you have for teachers and school staff going into this school year?

It’s important to remember students are coming back from this time of quarantine and no two kids will have had the same experience. Continuously checking in with students is important. No matter what comes up we need to make sure we stay in a routine within the boundaries of what’s safe and maintain some sense of normalcy that helps adults and kids. If you feel down, reach out to someone to talk to.