Scott Greenspan recently received his doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a mental health counselor, he works to create opportunities for schools to be “hubs of wellness interventions.” Scott’s research draws from his own experiences working with youth in a variety of capacities, as well as his understanding of the vital role exercise plays in wellness.
His research has focused on the integration of physical activity within school-based mental health programs as well as gender-affirming school-based interventions for sexual minority and gender-diverse youth. Scott is currently completing his pre-doctoral clinical internship at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston and holds an appointment as a Clinical Fellow at Harvard Medical School.
In this interview, Scott discusses how a social justice approach informs his work and why it matters for schools to focus on gender-diverse youth in sport. He addresses the influence that the COVID-19 pandemic may be having on adolescents and what parents and teachers can do to help. Scott offers practical solutions for integrating physical exercise into virtual learning. You can find out more about Scott on Linkedin and Twitter.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Jessica Janze: Your research focuses on physical exercise and the mental health benefits for kids and adolescents. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your research, and what brought you here?
Scott Greenspan: Personally and professionally, I’m interested in the intersection of engagement and wellness practices, particularly physical activity and how that impacts psychosocial functioning for kids. I have experience coming at it from the perspective of a former youth athlete as well as a former coach and swimming instructor.
Particularly with physical activity, you’re getting a lot of benefits, including a reduction in stress, improved mood, and greater self-confidence. Then there are other added benefits of being on a team and having that cohesion and developing the social, emotional, and life skills.
As School Psychologists, we are well-positioned to promote social, emotional, and life skills for kids. There seems to be a bit of a gap with where physical activity and wellness practices intersect within the field of School Psychology. Bringing physical activity in an integrated way to practice as a school psychologist can provide added benefits for kids and support them with engaging in physical activity as a tool, and potentially, as a passion that they can have for their whole lives as an embedded coping skill and protective factor.
Janze: Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose psychology and how you found yourself on this journey?
Greenspan: I have worked with kids in a volunteer capacity, tutoring, teaching swim lessons, and as a camp counselor. I’ve been interested in child development and how we can support kids. In particular, I was interested in this idea that physical activity can help us in many ways. It can support our mood, support the way that we connect with others, and the way that we set goals.
For me, when I was in college, I started reading more about this link between physical activity and mental health. I decided that I wanted to become a mental health clinician, so I got my Master’s in mental health counseling.
Throughout my time there, I was focused on both clinical practice and research around the role that exercise has in alleviating depressive symptoms. I also knew that there was a whole lot that wasn’t being disseminated. In the US, exercise is not a frontline intervention for depression for a host of reasons that Mad in America covers, I really appreciate that work.
There’s a lot of efficacy for physical activity as a beneficial intervention for kids, and we know that kids are in school for most of the day, which would be a prime place for them to get these interventions and support their wellbeing. I became interested in how schools can serve as hubs of wellness interventions. So, after my Master’s, I worked for a few years as a clinician, but then I quickly applied to PhD programs in School Psychology to engage in this line of work. It’s been essential for me to link that research with clinical practice.
Janze: In what ways would you say that social justice informs your work?
Greenspan: The field of School Psychology is systems focused. Rather than focusing on one client at a time, there’s something impactful about developing interventions for systems. If I can provide an intervention, such as physical activity, that all kids can access, that’s where the social justice lens comes in, because we want to provide equitable education and access for all students. If we can support them with physical activity to enhance their outcomes across domains, academically, behaviorally, socially, emotionally, then that is indeed providing more access for them.
An example I like to provide is that we know that physical activity can support kids with issues regulating their behaviors, right? So, if we are providing all kids in school with physical activity, before the school day and during recess, we might notice that most kids are pretty regulated or maybe a little bit more regulated than they would have been without it.
There might be some kids who need additional support, and we want to intervene effectively so that we’re providing those kids with extra physical activity that they need. An example with attention might be those students are getting increased movement breaks throughout the day. Maybe their other peers aren’t getting that, but those students really need it so they can access the curriculum, and they can feel better about themselves. Then maybe there’s like a smaller subset of students that are showing more behavioral issues, and we’re incorporating physical activity within their individual therapy sessions. We want to ensure that all students have access to that.
Another way that I incorporate social justice within my work is a focus on supporting sexual minority and gender diverse youth. We know that LGBTQ youth are a population of students that experience increased bullying and victimization within the school setting. An aspect of my work that I focus on is LGBTQ experiences with sport and physical activity within the school setting. We know that those students are feeling underrepresented within that aspect of the school.
For example, they feel that individual sport coaches might not be as affirming of their identities, or they can’t use the locker room or bathroom of their choice. If there are problems with bullying and victimization, some school staff and peers might have trouble intervening in it. With the data that I’ve gleaned from engaging in focus groups and surveys with this population of resilient students, I’ve been working on developing interventions and conceptual models to support or affirm practices for LGBTQ youth within the school sports sector as well.
Janze: Can you talk more about how your research informs work with the LGBTQ population?
Greenspan: I’ve been fortunate to engage in a host of studies focused on LGBTQ experiences in sports and physical activity. What we found in my research is that the majority of LGBTQ students that we surveyed or engaged in focus groups feel unsafe within the physical education context in schools.
They feel that there are a lot of structural barriers, particularly a very hyper-aggressive masculine sport culture that can take over, and they feel uncomfortable and pretty oppressed in that environment. Gender segregated policies make it so they can’t use the appropriate changing room, and they experience a lot of isolation and homophobic and transphobic remarks in those environments. A number of the participants in my study talked about mental health concerns such as feeling excluded, rejected, and having both low self-esteem and difficulty forming positive relationships with peers and staff in the physical education and sport environment.
Things that helped were being able to use a locker room of choice based on their gender identity, wearing a gender-affirming uniform, and the option to just not participate in certain activities that make them feel uncomfortable, such as swimming or a sport where they might have to reveal a part of themselves they don’t feel comfortable with. With that data, I was able to develop a professional development program for physical education teachers that provides them with information about what these affirming practices can look like. We then provide them with follow-up consultation with a school mental health professional so they can think about ways their classroom supports these students and gives them what they need.
Janze: During the coronavirus outbreak, schools are closed. With kids staying inside so much more than usual and interacting less with peers, what impact might this have?
Greenspan: I think kids and adults alike are just trying to make meaning of this and are struggling with the adjustment to being inside, having our worlds flipped upside down, and worrying about loved ones. It’s undoubtedly a nerve-wracking time.
We know having less social connection can cause feelings of isolation. As someone who works with kids, I think a lot about how that can be a risk factor for developing feelings of sadness, depressive symptoms, and increased anxiety. That’s certainly is something that I worry about because they don’t have all the buffers in place to protect them against those things. They’re not able to go outside as freely or engaging in coping skills that might distract them, like laughing with friends at recess.
Coupled with that, they’re engaging in more screen time and electronics. We know from the research that blue light admitting screen devices can disrupt sleep patterns and suppress melatonin. So then they’re getting less sleep, which also affects their mental health. It becomes a bit of a vicious cycle.
It’s hard for kids to engage in planned physical activity because there are more barriers to getting outside to public parks and to using playgrounds. Also, that unplanned physical activity, the idea of just doing some chores outside or gardening, people are a little bit more nervous about that, especially when people are close together in urban areas.
Janze: What do you think would happen if kids started getting more physical exercise at this time?
Greenspan: I think that if kids start getting more physical exercise, we are going to see a greater focus on schoolwork right now. We know that schoolwork is all virtual, so I think we’ll be able to see that gain.
I also think that we would see less irritability. For some kids that are feeling more isolated, I believe that physical activity could increase their mood. I think that it will make them feel better and also provide them with some agency over their activities.
Physical activity is something that they can choose to do at a time where they’re feeling like everything is kind of controlled for them. That’s something that they have a lot of agency and autonomy over, which we know can also protect against some of those negative feelings as well.
Janze: Can you give readers some tips for helping them stay active? Some practical things during the coronavirus outbreak?
Greenspan: The US department of health and human services suggests that kids get about one hour of physical activity per day. In light of COVID19 quarantining, that might seem hard to do and, in some cases, not at all possible. What I would like you to do is think about feasible ways that we can engage kids in physical activity where it adds up to that 60 minutes, or close to that 60 minutes, because I think that can be done.
I work a lot with schools and think about how we can support kids in engaging in movement breaks throughout the day, and similar things can be done at home, particularly around the school schedule. If there’s a break from schoolwork, maybe you can do 10 minutes of running in place or playing catch with a ball or doing crab walks around the house. Some kids might have homes with large enough ceilings where they can do jump rope.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be an hour all at once, but there’s a lot that kids can do embedded throughout the day. Be creative about it. There might be some kids who want to play hopscotch or jump around or run in place or do lunges. They might want to show you what they’re learning in physical education. There’s a whole lot of ways that we can provide physical activity in the home.
Additionally, since the weekdays are kind of structured like school right now, we could provide kids with a recess time. It might need to be a little bit different than what they’d have in school, but that time could also be embedded in the day.
Janze: Do you have any advice for parents right now who may be at home with their kids during this unprecedented time?
Greenspan: This is a time where folks are consistently grappling with this adjustment, and there is so much newness and unpredictability. We know that when there’s no way of telling what the future holds that it can cause a lot of anxiety. I want to normalize that.
Pretty much every person on this earth has some level of heightened anxiety about this situation. Our routines have been completely flipped upside down. When you think about kids and families, their routines are so different. Kids aren’t going to school; parents might be with their kids 24/7 right now.
When we look at it from a physical activity and wellness perspective, kids are most likely not engaging in as much physical activity as they were before. We know that when kids are not moving, it can impact their mental health. They might have some more difficulty focusing or may have increased irritability.
Physical activity is something that we could predictably implement into home routines to support kids. The days are so busy, so parents might also consider setting cell phone alarms for movement break time. It’s also really great when parents have discussions with kids about how they’re engaging in their own physical activity.
This is a time where parents who were, at one time, gym rats and going swimming a lot and doing yoga classes are now sort of having to adjust for themselves. I think it’s a great lesson about how they can be flexible, no pun intended, and figure out ways that they can engage in physical activity with their kids.
Janze: The majority of students are accessing some sort of online learning platform. What kind of tips would you suggest to educators providing activity during virtual learning?
Greenspan: First and foremost, it’s really important that educators are checking in on their students’ wellness, asking about their sleep, if they are able to move around, etc.
For educators who are video chatting with students, they could also provide those movement breaks, through the video chat modality and engage students in that way. I also know that some PE teachers are providing online resources for students while they might not be able to access the school gym.
One of my favorite examples is for teaching elementary kids math. Teachers just have them hop the numbers count out loud. It’s a simple example of how you can infuse physical activity within the academic curriculum.
Janze: Do you have any resources that you can provide to our readers if they want to learn more about options to help kids stay active while we’re all stuck inside?
Greenspan: Absolutely. For teachers, some great resources would include the Boks Program. They provide before-school physical activity, and they have a fantastic guide for suggestions. You can take a training and become a Boks certified teacher. So that can be something great to do during this quarantine period.
Another resource that’re great for schools and families are Go Noodle, which provides movement breaks for students through music videos and dancing, and kids enjoy it. Another is Brain Breaks, which is all about engaging in movement breaks throughout the day in more of a structured way.
With that said, teachers and families can also develop their own movement break cards. So maybe they want to create a set of index cards and write different types of movements that kids can engage in, and their child can pick a card from a stack to engage in that movement of the day or the movement of the minute or the movement of the break.
We must be creative right now in how we’re delivering physical activity. I would also suggest using schools as resources. The physical education teachers are still working, and I’m sure that they’d be glad to provide suggestions for families. It’s also really important to consider what school and community resources you have available as well.