Counseling thru COVID-19: Are you starting to provide counseling services online?

Just like many of you, I have been combing the internet for online counseling resources during school closures.  Students in my state ended the ‘19-’20 school year attending classes virtually and most have started the ‘20-’21 school year online as well.  Everyone was surprised to go home for Spring Break and not return to their brick and mortar school site for the remainder of the school year and many continued to be surprised that school closures have lasted this long.  Teachers, school staff and parents all scrambled to make the best of an unexpected global pandemic.  However, those already working in the virtual learning and online therapy fields thrived and were inundated with friends and colleagues questions on how to make this all work!

I have been a School Psychologist for 17 years and worked in varying settings from traditional public schools to medical and private practices to teletherapy.  When I began working online and providing teletherapy services in 2016, I was excited but also skeptical.  I was surprised to learn that teletherapy or “telehealth” had been around for almost 20 years and was used most often by military institutions such as the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  As a military spouse and new teletherapy provider, I was encouraged to discover that in the 2018 fiscal year alone, the VA provided 2.29 million telehealth episodes of care to 782,000 veteran patients.  Now, I know veterans are not the same as elementary, middle or high school students, but it was encouraging that this “new” way to provide services was not entirely new.

Preparing for teletherapy was exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  I did not consider myself a “techie” but learned tips and tricks along the way (and googled many questions…LOL).  Counseling resources were available digitally and keeping them organized in an easy-to-access manner was something I learned very quickly.  The thing that excited and also surprised me the most was that student rapport could be established with only meeting online.  There appeared to be a level of comfort and familiarity with online meetings and getting to know someone virtually.  All of my students would be considered digital natives as they do not know a world without technology.  

Students today are used to playing online games with friends or chatting or messaging online for social interaction.  My teletherapy students would appear eager and excited for our counseling sessions.  I noticed some appeared more open and less anxious than they may have been in a face-to-face session.  Many were able to be in a comfortable setting and often had pets or personal items (i.e. favorite stuffed animal, action figure, etc.) with them that appeared to relax the student.  Often students would assist in building rapport by a show-and-tell process which was very enjoyable and helped to get to know the student better.  Parents and teachers would report that students made positive comments and skills we practiced online were transferring to school or home environments.  This was very encouraging and, at times, helped when some sessions did not go as planned.

A Maya Angelou quote “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between” perfectly captures online counseling sessions!  Not all sessions will go as planned.  There will be technology issues; there will be students who do not participate; but I learned to remain calm, be prepared and go with the flow.  If the student was having a rough day, I could switch things up and adjust exactly as I would do if that happened during a face-to-face session.  For the technology difficulties, I was very thankful that the platform I was using had live, online tech support.  

The best piece of advice I can give as an experienced teletherapist is…practice, prepare, remain calm and most importantly…you CAN do it!  I encourage you to try providing teletherapy services and I believe that you will be pleasantly surprised just as I was four years ago.  Now, I work online full-time as the Director of Clinical Services at Lighthouse Therapy, an amazingly supportive company.  Lighthouse Therapy was started by a passionate Speech Language Pathologist who has over 25 years experience and close to 10 years in teletherapy.  Lighthouse Therapy’s mission is to match students with the right therapists to provide the highest quality online Speech & Language, Occupational, and Behavioral & Mental Health Services to maximize student outcomes.  For more information, go to www.lighthouse-therapy.com.

 

– Written by Erin O’Connell

Erin O’Connell is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) who has been serving students for 17 years.  She received her B.A. degree in Elementary Education/ Exceptional Student Education from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida in 1999.  She earned her Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida in 2003.  Erin also completed a continuing education advanced series in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) through the Florida Institute of Technology from 2009-2011.  Erin is licensed and/or certified as a School Psychologist in Florida, California, and South Carolina.  

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