Milford adds eight counselors for student emotional support

Students arrive for the first day of class at Harborside Middle School, in Milford, Conn. Sept. 1, 2021.

Students arrive for the first day of class at Harborside Middle School, in Milford, Conn. Sept. 1, 2021.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

MILFORD — The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened students’ need for social and emotional support in schools — and city school officials say the district has answered the call at its elementary schools.

For the first time in the district’s history, each of the eight city elementary schools have a school counselor — paid for with COVID relief funds from the state.

“We believe it’s incredibly important,” Amy Fedigan, the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said about having a counselor at each elementary school. “That’s why we are making this investment for each elementary school to have a school counselor.”

Fedigan said the primary work of the school counselors will be to develop strong relationships within the learning communities with the students, families and our staff.”

Sean Smyth, the supervisor of student development and wellness at the elementary level, said he has been working with all eight elementary school counselors that have been hired.

“We really managed to hire a wonderful group,” he said. “We have a really great mix of experience. Some of them are right out of college, but all of them bring tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and I think they are going to be a great asset to our students.”

Fedigan said the funding the schools received from the state helped them accelerate and bring the counselors to the schools quicker.

“For now, we’re going to apply some of that funding to pay for the counselors and then these positions will be moved over to the general funds budget over the next three years,” she said.

A big part of a school counselor’s role is to be proactive, and one way they are doing it is to develop a comprehensive school counseling curriculum that they are delivering to all students and all classes, Smyth said.

“It will help them have those positive social and emotional skills going forward, as well as, being a support for students who may need extra support because of the pandemic or whatever is going on in their lives,” he said.

Fedigan said Public Act 1963 requires students to have access to comprehensive student counseling programs and Milford schools are committed to building a strong curriculum to support pre-K through grade 12 students.

“Some of that work that Mr. Smyth is leading is going to provide a framework for our students to develop skills for learning, developing, habits of learning, relationship skills and to also understand how they are learning and growing and how their interests might change,” she said. “So that career continuum and learning beyond preK-12 can be supported. When we were all younger, that was more of a discussion and exploration only in high school.”

“The skills and habits you need to be successful in high school and after high school start now, start with our youngest learners,” said Smyth. “We want to develop them now when we have them in their developing ages.”

The eight new school counselors work primarily in three main areas, said Smyth. The first is academic achievement, the second is social-emotional learning, and the third is career counseling and post-secondary options as well.

Delivering a comprehensive student counseling program is one of the primary responsibilities elementary school counselors have. But school counselors are also responsible for short-term counseling by working with students on specific needs or working in a group setting.

“They will also refer them to more long-term counseling if that is needed for certain students,” he said. “In addition to that, they will also collaborate with families and administrators on what kind of programs they can do to help students in certain areas.”

School counselors do observe students, but they do not make assumptions of what the needs of the students and their families are, Fedigan said.

“We take cues from what we see children doing in our classrooms as they are learning and that we also partner closely with families who can provide a tremendous insight into what their children are struggling with or what might be very helpful,” Fedigan said.

The pandemic has increased the need for more social and emotional mental health support in schools, but it differs from school to school, Smyth said.

“People who I know that are in the mental health field and have relationships with people who actually treat mental health for students and children in facilities around the state, and they have waiting lists, so there’s a lot more need for it overall,” Smyth said. “So the timing for the schools to bring this on is terrific.”

Smyth believes counselors are just as important now as they were during the pandemic.

“For 20 months, we’ve been in a situation where people live in fear of getting sick. They’ve had disruptions to their regular routines, disruptions to school, parents may have lost their income or even worse, someone experienced loss because of the pandemic,” he said. “So all of those factors impact our students more so than they ever have because of the pandemic, and it’s heightened the need for emotional and social-emotional support across our schools.”

As schools provide mental, emotional and social help to their students, Smyth believes it will make this group of students the most resilient group of young people around.

“As we support them through this, they are going to be the most resilient group of young people around because they’ve been through all the challenges,” he said. “They’ve had to learn how to cope with a situation that kids before them didn’t have to. I think we are definitely building resilience in these kids.”