Both students and teachers look forward to summer as a time when their lives are less regimented by alarm clocks and bells and packed schedules. At the same time, now more than ever, many students can benefit from the creation of a distinct summer safety plan that provides some structure and predictability and specifies available resources.
Throughout its history of providing mental health services in schools, part of ESS’s clinical protocol has been the development of summer safety plans for students enrolled in Tier 2 and Tier 3 programs. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has added to the mental health challenges that students had already been experiencing over the prior decade, and since many more students are struggling both academically and emotionally, it might be helpful for districts to consider developing summer safety plans for a wider group of students.
Why A Summer Safety Plan?
Schools and teachers play a critical role in our communities and the current, often contentious, conversations about parents’ rights, appropriate curriculum, and book banning only underscore this reality. Structure and routine are essential components of healthy development as they provide a sense of safety within which a child’s self-regulation capacities, social skills, and academic achievement can grow. And, of course, it is the nation’s schools that provide much of the structure and access to resources for ten months each year.
Summer camps, sports teams, art classes, and recreational programs of all kinds can go a long way to provide much needed routine and structure under the watchful eyes of caring adults. But not all students have access to these, and they may only provide a few hours a week of support.
A good safety plan, however, can be far-reaching even though the plan itself should be brief, preferably no longer than one page. A good plan is specific and strength-based, and identifies predictable stressors, effective coping strategies, and contact information for supportive people in the student’s life. Students already receiving Tier 2 or 3 services should work with their school-based clinicians to develop their plans, identifying warning signs of worsening mental health problems and summer treatment options. Teachers can be invited to identify other at-risk students who might benefit from sitting down with a school-based clinician for a session or two to develop their own plans.
Other students identified as low risk can develop a plan with an outside practitioner, within a health or SEL class, or as part of a school-wide end of year wrap-up exercise. SEL, health, and other teachers can be trained to conduct a safety planning exercise with a general (non-clinical) population of students as many parts of the plan are not clinical per se (see components below). School-based clinicians could be asked to develop a summer safety plan template that non-clinical staff can use with the larger student body.
What are the Components of a Good Safety Plan?
The hallmark of a good safety plan is that it is individualized for a specific youngster. However, the following categories should be considered for inclusion within all students’ plans:
- A sample daily schedule that specifies times for self-care routines, family meals, exercise, online activities, seeing friends, doing chores, etc.
- A list of safe places where the student can find a sense of calm and security. This might include the child’s room, the home of a trusted neighbor, or a favorite place in nature such as under a shady tree at a community park.
- The phone numbers of “safe”, supportive people (both family and friends, both peers and adults) to reach out to for emotional support when feeling stressed.
- The phone numbers of existing professional support systems, e.g., the child’s therapist, a pediatrician, a youth counselor or advocate within a religious organization, a sports coach, etc.
- A list of fun summer activities to facilitate a positive mood and to reduce stress, such as bike riding, playing games with friends, playing a musical instrument, watching a movie, swimming, playing with a pet, watching funny movies or clips on YouTube, etc.
- Anticipated stressors over the summer, e.g., being home alone at times, an older sibling leaving for college, not being invited to a party, a classmate or neighborhood friend moving away, being around a neighborhood bully.
- Warning signs of distress in the student’s own words: what are the thoughts, behaviors, feelings that might signal an exacerbation of depression, anxiety, inattention, mood dysregulation, suicidality, behavioral problems, etc.
- Strategies for how to address certain stressors directly (e.g., planning something with a friend instead of staying alone at home; how to react when confronted with a bully and/or how to avoid bullies whenever possible; participating in helping an older sibling get ready for college or helping to plan a going away party to cope with the feelings of loss; taking initiative to plan peer events rather than waiting to be invited to someone else’s event).
- A list of distress tolerance skills that the youngster has successfully used in the past, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, listening to music, writing in a journal, etc.
One important consideration in developing a summer safety plan is to anticipate possible barriers to implementing any aspect of the plan. For example, if a student identifies a “safe” person who will be away for much of the summer, he should select a different person. If the student finds deep breathing helpful when anxious or scared, but needs prompting, perhaps she can ask a clinician or teacher to record a deep breathing practice on her phone or can download one from the internet. If the student’s household tends to be somewhat disorganized, he might need help adhering to a daily schedule, or might need to create a very stripped-down version of a summer schedule.
Finally, children should be actively involved in the development of their safety plans to ensure their “buy-in” but also to optimize the practicality and feasibility of each component of the plan. Clinician-child, parent-child, and teacher-child discussions that contribute to the formulation of safety plans themselves are both therapeutic and revealing of the child’s challenges, strengths, and coping skills.
Partnering with Parents to Maximize Summer Safety
School-based clinicians who work with higher risk students and their families should educate parents about the importance of maintaining their child’s prescribed medication regimen and participation in community-based therapies throughout the summer. It is important to note that some prescribing psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, pediatricians, or neurologists might recommend a reduction in medications over the summer. For example, without the need to focus on schoolwork, a prescriber might want a student to reduce or eliminate ADHD medications over the summer. Similarly, given reduced stress for many students over the summer, a prescriber might suggest reducing anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication. And, if a student is stable and not considered to be a moderate to severe risk, community-based outpatient therapists might suggest less frequent therapy sessions to honor a family’s desire for a less hectic summer schedule.
Districts can also provide caregivers with a list of community resources (including emergency services, recreational activities, tutoring services, food banks, etc.) and a contact person/number for school-based mental health support available over the summer. Extended School Year (ESY) programs can be suggested for more vulnerable students who might benefit from that level of school engagement and support, and administrators might consider broadening admission guidelines and extending daily hours for such programs.
Prior to summer break, districts might consider offering a parent workshop or newsletter on summer planning. Parents should be encouraged to resist an “anything goes” approach to summer, abandoning bedtimes and household routines. While it makes sense to alter bedtimes, to lighten certain expectations, and to allow for more unstructured time, it is still important for children to follow clearly articulated rules and routines as this will support their ability to self-regulate and their overall well-being.
Summer Safety Planning for Educators and Caregivers
As we think about safety planning for vulnerable students as well as the broader student population, it is also important to consider the health and well-being of both staff and parents. Educators and parents of school-aged children were amongst the most stressed individuals throughout the worst of the pandemic, and many have still not recovered from that intense and prolonged period of stress.
Summer can be a season for purposeful and specific restorative activities for the important adults in children’s lives. Parents and teachers should be encouraged to develop their own healing and revitalizing plans for the summer, the more specific the better. How often have you said to yourself, “the summer is almost gone, and I haven’t done even a fraction of the things I’d hoped to do.” A specific summer plan that includes designated blocks of time for social activities, for alone time, for health and movement-oriented activities, for being close to nature, for self-reflection, for learning something new, etc. can help maximize the healing opportunities of summer.
The staff of Effective School Solutions wish you a safe, relaxing, and restorative summer!