Elizabeth Sutfin on Positive Behavioral Interventions for Elementary Students

As a school psychologist intern during the COVID-19 pandemic, my internship experience has varied greatly outside of the norm. I work for the Kanawha County Schools Elementary Education Department, where we focus on behavior and can be called in to assist in any of the 42 elementary schools in our county. Throughout my internship, we have faced the uncertainty of what school will look like for students and staff with each coming week, whether that be virtual learning, blended learning, or allowing the option of in-person learning five days a week. Waiting until Saturday every week to know what we will be doing the following Monday has compelled us to adapt. For me, part of this adapting has been to focus on what I know I can do, regardless of what color my county may be on the map. Because of that, a majority of my time during my internship has focused on providing individual counseling services to elementary-aged students.

Providing counseling services to students during a pandemic has opened my eyes to the unique challenges that students of the elementary age are facing as their lives and routines are being affected by COVID-19. Primarily, these young students are facing social hardships that impact them in a different way than students at other programmatic levels. Elementary school is a critical time in a child’s life where they begin to build social skills in a structured setting that they will carry on with them into adulthood. Building these social skills virtually, through a screen, or while staying a minimum of six feet apart from others in person can both prove to be especially large obstacles when many of these students are still learning skills such as how to have back-and-forth conversations, how to interpret facial expressions, and how to appropriately express the complex and valid emotions they may be experiencing.

These hurdles students are facing can lead to undesirable behaviors in the classroom and the fact that these undesirable behaviors are consequences of the pandemic means that I have spent a great deal of my time researching ways to help students with these new behaviors and challenges. After all, helping students learn to cope with wearing a mask every day and helping them to understand and remember why they aren’t allowed to high five their classmates were never topics I had to research before this school year. Luckily, I have found COVID-19 related social stories online that can help students learn about topics such as mask wearing, riding the school bus while distancing themselves, and coping with staying home while school is virtual. Research has also led me to utilize the positive behavioral interventions and support (PBIS) framework. By focusing on increasing or building positive behaviors and skills, many undesired behaviors related to the pandemic may thereupon decrease.  

I truly believe this year has been a learning experience for me as much as the students I’ve worked with, and the things I’ve learned to help my students (such as opting to call it “physical” distancing instead of social distancing) have helped me to cope with this huge lifestyle change, as well. As the school year continues, I plan to adapt to any challenges that may rise, continue researching, and continue to be of use wherever I can to reach my goal of positively impacting the quality of life for the students in my county.

Elizabeth Sutfin, M.A. 
Marshall University Graduate College
NASP & WVSPA Student Representative
School Psychology Ed.S. Candidate

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