By Lori Phelan, MSW, LCSW, Sage Certified Clinician™
As graduation is approaching, we are reminded of the end to the school year and the beginning of summer. Many of our students are excited and happy about moving forward into unchartered waters, while others may be ambivalent during this interlude. It’s not only a break from school demands, but also from structure, routines and support. Additionally, this time of year also gives clinicians the opportunity to do some very meaningful work as students typically provide feelings and reactions that allow us to help them better understand themselves.
I am reminded of a story that our Executive Director, John Reilly shared when he was the Clinical Director at Sage Day-Rochelle Park. He had a soon to be graduating senior come limping into his office and asked the student if she hurt herself, she said “no” and couldn’t describe why the limp developed. Aware of the feelings around graduation, he asked her, “Do you know another word that is used to describe participating in graduation?” She didn’t know, so he shared that it’s also called “walking.” A spontaneous limp is one way of expressing a struggle to leave a school. In this situation, the student was able to make a significant connection about her feelings related to moving on and when she walked out of Mr. Reilly’s office, the limp was now gone. As clinicians we often become aware of the unconscious expression of feelings and try to help students understand these feelings. In discussing how a student has handled a transition in the past, we can also help the student develop insight into his/her behaviors. This awareness and processing can lead to improved confidence, self-esteem and behavior changes (i.e., they can walk).
When a student is suffering in some way through an overt symptom, intrusive thoughts, or unexplainable feelings, it can also be important for us to interpret the meaning behind it to help provide some insight and relief. Students can’t always come up with the reasons on their own, so it’s our job is to help them. Clinicians are always asking “What might this be about?” During this time of year, the answer is often uncertainty related to moving on and leaving a place where he/she has succeeded, feels comfortable and supported. Students who are able to put their feelings into words are aware of their feelings, while the ones who are not talking about it but are having a lot of symptoms are the ones with whom we need to be more active. The messages that students receive around graduation and end of year, at all levels, are often positive and hopeful (cards that say “Congratulations” and “You Did It! or books such as “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”). While very well-intentioned, sometimes these messages can be incongruent with students’ internal feelings as they may be feeling anxious, sad or afraid of failure.
As parents, clinicians and school professionals, it’s important to be aware of signs of struggles during this time of year and to pay attention to the following indicators:
- Refusal to participate in graduation and/or end of year activities
- Psychosomatic symptoms (e.g. limping, bodily aches)
- Increase in absences or tardies at school
- Becoming more isolated and argumentative with peers and family
- Disengaging and withdrawing from emotional supports like family, friends and counselors
- An overall lack of motivation, particularly with making plans for the summer or graduation
- Sabotaging graduation or current academic year by failing classes or not meeting other requirements
If you see any of these indicators, it may be beneficial to direct a student to his/her School Counselor, Student Assistant Counselor or Thrive Clinician who can help him/her understand and change maladaptive behaviors, while shifting their sense of ambivalence about transition. Most importantly, the student who gains insight can then face future transitions through a lens of understanding himself/herself. This understanding creates an overall improvement in self-esteem and provides an internal sense of resilience.