Story and Photo by Kathy McPherson
COVID-19 was not the impetus for adding a mental health counselor to Durham Academy’s Preschool faculty, but the pandemic certainly accelerated a discussion that began several years ago.
Preschool Director Christian Hairston-Randleman said “probably for the last three years or so, we have been discussing the possibility of additional support for the Preschool.” She explained that Lower School counselor Martha Baker has been available to advise or support the Preschool, but Durham Academy’s youngest students, their teachers and parents needed a counselor of their own.
“When the pandemic came about, we had a sharp increase in the number of students and families who needed support, whether from challenges with working in isolation during the remote learning or from parents having difficulty getting students motivated,” Hairston-Randleman said.
“When we transitioned back to school [on campus], there was an increase in angst and apprehension and anxiety for students,” she continued. “We had a group of students who had never been in a structured educational setting because childcare centers and learning spaces were closed or they were still operating remotely. So we had a ton of need and felt that it was time for us to have dedicated support for the Preschool.”
Dr. Megan Klenk, a clinical psychologist, joined the Preschool in August 2021. Her part-time position increased from 10 to 14 hours per week mid-year and will be 20 hours a week in the 2022–2023 school year. Klenk was already familiar with the school — her son, a third-grader, has been at Durham Academy since kindergarten — and she served as a substitute teacher in the Lower School in 2020–2021.
“Megan was onboarded and has been fabulous. In conjunction with that hire, we hired Danielle Wysenski as the learning support for the Preschool and Lower School,” Hairston-Randleman said. “Those two have formed a team, a collaborative effort to provide comprehensive support for students and families. Megan is addressing the social and emotional lens, and Danielle is primarily working with the academic lens. It’s provided a much more comprehensive support system for our families and students and also our teachers.”
Klenk said Durham Academy’s youngest students have definitely been impacted by interruptions in their learning opportunities.
“Some of our kids last year had no school or no formal schooling at all. They were home, and that's not typical,” Klenk explained. “That’s going to change what they had the opportunity to learn. It specifically impacts the kinds of skills that are relevant to being in school and managing your body in a group.
“Even for those kids who were enrolled at DA or elsewhere, pandemic school is not the same thing as pre-pandemic school,” she said. “There is a lot more external management of bodies in space. We’ve had the masks, and just thinking about last year, a lot of classes were split. They had reduced access to peers. They had less access to staff because, remember, we had virtual enrichments. It's sort of easy to forget just how different school has been. That means they have learned different things, either from not being in school or being in a different type of school.”
The stress parents and caregivers have felt during the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the mental health and wellness of young children.
“Our youngest kids are very impacted by this sort of emotional weather of their big people,” Klenk said. “As we struggle with stress, so will they, and sometimes the stress is significant.”
In her work at the Preschool, Klenk spends time each week with group activities in the two pre-kindergarten and four kindergarten classes. She also works one-on-one with students and is available to parents and teachers.
Hairston-Randleman said Klenk works with teachers “to develop classroom support for students who may experience some challenge or difficulty or with teachers who notice that the entire class is struggling with a particular area. She will help teachers plan instruction to support those needs as well.”
Kindergarten teacher Jessica Crowe Whilden ’00 explained that Klenk’s weekly time with her students might involve reading a story or doing an activity on mindfulness or emotions.
Whilden said Klenk is also in Preschool classrooms observing and providing an extra set of hands throughout the week. “Other times she’s in here specifically to guide SEL [social emotional learning] instruction. She is here to teach the kids something that they can practice. … The relationships that she’s formed with my students are invaluable. They love her, they run up to her, they hug her. They know that she is a resource for them.”
Klenk also spends time each week researching preschool curriculums for social emotional learning, a frequently used term that she said involves self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
“I think about trying to strengthen them just the way that being a strong reader will help you learn anything,” Klenk said. “Having strong social emotional skills, particularly with regard to emotion regulation, benefits mental health and wellness and that's what we want. We want our kids not just to be physically healthy to the extent possible, we want them to be mentally healthy.”
Klenk loved children and knew she wanted them in her life — she had worked both as a nanny and as a teacher — but it was a personal experience with the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that drew her to psychology. She had graduated from Brown University, was teaching history in New York City public schools and pursuing a master’s in teaching at Columbia University when 9/11 occurred. Klenk had interests in history and psychology, but wasn’t ready to take the leap into a Ph.D. program. The events of 9/11 changed her mind, and she earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Duke University.
“That spring, after 9/11, I was teaching at Stuyvesant High School and a lot of my kids had been directly impacted,” Klenk remembered. “We saw, every day actually, the remains being loaded onto barges. It was hard. I didn't feel like I had the skills that I wanted or needed to help those kids in the way they most needed to be helped. Because they didn't most need, right then, American history. They just didn’t. That was what caused me to finally make the decision to go into psychology.
“It’s interesting that we’re at a place in our country now where it's not just a few kids but it’s all our kids who are hurting because of a challenge that our country, and in this case, the world is facing, and this time I had some of the skills.”
In March, Durham Academy began a mask-optional policy, and then increasing COVID numbers locally led to DA reinstating a mask mandate just before the end of the school year. Hairston-Randleman said Klenk has been instrumental in helping students adjust to such policy changes.
“When I think about what lies ahead, my hope is that we can continue to draw on the strength of our community and that we can continue to collaborate,” Klenk said. “To do the best job we can for our students, we're going to need to continue to partner with our parents. And we're all going to need to stay flexible because there are things that we don’t know now that we’ll know in the future about what our kids need.
“… We’re all going to need to give each other grace, and we're all going to need to pull together,” she continued. “But I have a lot of faith in the DA community, both on the parent side and the staff and faculty side, now having been a part of both. I believe in our ability to work together to really help our kids as much as they need.”
Hairston-Randleman said the last two years have been really difficult for the Durham Academy community. “Teachers have been asked to serve in a capacity that they didn’t necessarily sign up for and they've all done so graciously and wholeheartedly. It's nice to feel like we’re moving back toward normalcy. Megan has been a champion for our students but also our faculty, making sure that we are considering self-care and taking care of ourselves so that we can be the best educators for our students.”