Jan. 22, 2021

Werklund School provides counselling to families stressed out by pandemic

Integrated Services in Education clinic expands free intervention services to support psychological well-being
Werklund School again providing free counselling to families struggling during pandemic

With K-12 students across Alberta recently returning to in-class learning, the anxiety and stress levels of children and parents remain high. To support families mental health, the Werklund School of Education’s Integrated Services in Education (ISE) clinic is again offering free counselling to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These psychoeducational assessment and intervention programs bolster the educational and psychological well-being of children, adolescents and parents by teaching self-care and adaptive coping techniques. Dr. Erica Makarenko, PsyD, director of ISE, says that, whether individuals are experiencing pandemic-related distress, sleep disturbances or mood-management difficulties, participants will benefit from increased resilience that will allow them to sustain their social, emotional and mental well-being throughout the pandemic.

“The most common strategies we focus on with children are recognizing signs of worry or anxiety in their bodies and how those feelings affect their thoughts, learning and practicing strategies to reduce feelings of worry or stress, and developing a plan for addressing worries or unanticipated situations in the future,” says Makarenko.

High demand for services

Makarenko says the decision to carry on with the interventions was an easy one as the initial offering quickly filled up and ISE was peppered with additional appeals for help  as well as testimonials about the program’s effectiveness.

“We were hearing from the families we were seeing throughout spring and summer from May through December of 2020 that the children were benefiting from the counselling program and they asked that we continue providing the services.”

In addition, says Makarenko, there were many requests for similar services for adults, which resulted in the creation of the Strong Parents, Strong Kids program.

“For parents, the program focuses on building resilience and caring for oneself to best support their families. Parents learn similar strategies as children for recognizing and managing feelings of worry or stress and how they can support their children in managing these feelings.”

A dedicated team of clinicians

The Strong Mind, Strong Me program is intended for children between the ages of six and 18; interventions last 45 minutes, with parents participating in the first and last five minutes of each session. Sessions for the Strong Parents, Strong Kids program run 45 to 60 minutes. Counsellors and participants meet up to 12 times from January to April via Microsoft Teams. Both programs are facilitated by educational psychology graduate students, under the supervision of experienced registered psychologists.

Kirsten Neprily, MSc20, worked as a facilitator while pursuing her masters and chose to return during her doctorate to continue building her clinical skills and helping families in need.

“I have been able to support children and adolescents through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Using CBT, I have been helping them become more aware of their thoughts and emotions and how those thoughts and emotions influence their behaviour.”

Neprily adds that ISE’s successful move to an online environment is proof of the dedication and flexibility of the clinic and clients. She encourages families looking for assistance not to hesitate to connect.

Reach out! We are a dedicated and enthusiastic team of student clinicians who are eager to work with children and families,” she says.

Mental health must remain a priority

Makarenko notes that despite a COVID-19 vaccine becoming more widely available over the next several months, it would be an error to expect stress and anxiety levels to immediately abate.

“Mental well-being should continue to be an area of attention once the pandemic subsides,” she says. “Mental health concerns in children and youth, especially, were being recognized as an area of focus, even before the pandemic began. Learning to manage and cope with mental-health difficulties is a life skill that should continue to be a priority in schools and beyond.”

In response, the ISE clinic will continue to support the well-being of children, youth and families, even after the pandemic has come under control.

Registration for both the Strong Mind, Strong Me and Strong Parents, Strong Kids programs are now open. Space is limited. Visit the Integrated Services in Education website for complete details.

Erica Makarenko is a registered psychologist and director of the Integrated Services in Education clinic in the Werklund School of Education. Makarenko is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education in the Cumming School of Medicine.