Belonging During a Pandemic

MAYA Consulting
5 min read

Rakima Parson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Play Therapist a part of Centered Counseling and Consulting PLLC. Last fall, we met Rakima after attending her learning session on Keep Cultural Bias Out of Performance Reviews at Equity Space: Designing for an Inclusive Community. We were thrilled to reconnect with Rakima and to discuss what it means to be a life-long learner, how caregivers can best support children at-home during quarantine, how to create belonging across communities during the pandemic, and the value of sweat.

MAYA: What are some of the biggest inflection points on your journey in education?

Rakima: My personal educational journey really helped me gain a lot of insight about myself and others. As a child I experienced both chronic and traumatic stress. While I did perform slightly above average in school, I was easily distracted and had very little interest in school work. My academic performance was very much impacted by my experiences outside of school and I never really felt like I was a part of the school community. When I got to college, at first, it was really challenging academically and financially. Once I found flow and a major I was really passionate about, things got a little better for me. Once I graduated I went immediately to graduate school. Things clicked in graduate school. I gained a lot of joy and am now truly a lifelong learner. It took time for me to feel emotionally safe in the world in order to enjoy learning and the learning process.  I spend a lot of my own time learning about mental health, education, nutrition and policy and I invest my own funds into training to try to help satiate my desire to learn more. You could not have told the teenage-me this. But again, it’s because now a lot of my social and emotional needs have been met in adulthood that were not met when I was a child. I’m able to have more bandwidth and capacity to learn. Those experiences coupled with my training really helped me to choose to work as a mental health counselor in educational settings. I understand both personally and professionally the impact that trauma and other mental health experiences have on performance and achievement. 

MAYA: If you could make a single improvement to our schools, what would you change?

Rakima: In a perfect world we would have ongoing, comprehensive training on trauma for education policy makers, administrators, classroom educators, and parents. Ongoing is the keyword. We can’t have a one-size-fits-all, training approach because that doesn’t take into account campus culture or the culture of the communities surrounding the campus where the children live. Trainings on trauma need to be customized. It’s important to have more hands-on consultations with individual campuses to provide ongoing coaching around how to navigate some of the things they’re seeing in the school and also how those things are impacting educators as well. 

MAYA: In your opinion, how can caregivers best support young people at home right now during the coronavirus pandemic?

Rakima: Caregivers can start by actively listening to what their kids are saying and validating their feelings. Children desire feeling understood and heard. It is also huge to be mindful not to dismiss what’s going on in an attempt to shield kids. But when kids do hear rumblings about it they’re less confused when we choose to address it by talking about it in a developmentally appropriate way. I also want to encourage caregivers to be careful not to overload children with information and monitor how much news children are consuming. Again, we don’t want to ignore that something’s happening. There have been big changes. Therefore, another big piece that can help stabilize children is knowing that children do really well when they know what to expect. A lot of our anxiousness as both children and adults comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next. With this pandemic, we don’t know a lot about what’s going to happen next, but we can create consistency in routine at home to help us know what to expect. Creating a visual routine chart that children can put on their walls and they can point back to to have an idea about what their day-to-day life is going to look like is helpful, even while we’re social distancing or quarantining. Caregivers also have to give themselves grace and recognize their chart may not look like the person next to them. It doesn’t have to be 19 categories that you’re creating. It could be two things, right? Something very small, but just enough for children to have an idea of what’s happening for the day. It might look like two big blocks, 8am to 12pm and 12pm to 4pm, giving kids the opportunity to be able to have an idea about what’s going on in the day or even just the week can help them to not feel as anxious about all the changes. 

MAYA: What is the biggest lever of change in creating a genuine sense of belonging within a community? 

Rakima: When speaking about community, we have to start with mutual respect. That does not mean that you and I agree on everything or behave the same way, but we have mutual respect for one another in building that sense of belonging. With everything that’s going on now, listening to people and respecting what they have to say, validating those thoughts and feelings. Belonging also comes from shared experiences. We can create activities or things that can be done that can give everybody an opportunity to participate and be successful. If we’re talking about belonging in school settings, oftentimes there are certain children that due to behaviors or academic performance, they’re left out and they don’t feel like they’re a part of the community. Building out several opportunities throughout a week or a month where everybody has an opportunity to participate and everybody can feel successful in their own way while participating in an activity can help children feel like they belong. The other part that I wanted to note is as challenging, hard, and devastating as the pandemic that we’re facing feels, everybody around the world is experiencing it. It’s a shared experience. Students that are accessing their classrooms on a laptop. They’re experiencing it and their teachers are also experiencing it. So it’s pervasive regardless of socioeconomic status or where you live. Everyone’s experiencing this right now. As a community, it’s something that children can see that, “okay, everybody’s dealing with this.” Unlike before this happened, there were certain things that children were coming to school with and they might be the only person in their classroom that had experienced that. Now it’s devastating and it’s not easy, but this pandemic is a shared experience that ultimately, if we are intentional about how we go about staying connected during this time, it can help contain that sense of community. 


MAYA: When you’re not working for excellence and equity, what do you enjoy doing?

Rakima: I like people, food and being outside. I enjoy socializing and spending time with my husband. I’m from New Orleans, so I love to cook and I cook a lot. I like to be outside as much as I can. I think sweating is really healthy for us, and it’s been therapeutic for me after a long day of work. I go out in the sun and heat and sweat, releasing the worries of the day, then come back and pull it back together. 


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