by Sarah McGowan, TT Report Writer and Producer
Just a month after the tragedy in Newtown, crisis prevention and community response are rightfully on everyone’s minds. Effectively addressing this social issue in way that builds the stronger communities we need is now at the center of an often-polarizing national debate.
How do we ensure we don’t lose another child to gun violence on in our schools?
It’s a complex search for answers – many of them controversial like more armed officers on campus and federal expansion of the school resource officer program. But there already exists a promising resource that, though already implemented on a national level, is often overlooked or underutilized: our legion of highly skilled and trained school counselors.
As mental health professionals, school counselors are trained and equipped to develop emergency plans, provide triage during crisis, offer much needed aftermath support and perhaps most importantly, develop strategies to improve the cultures and competencies of our school communities. But theirs is an uphill battle, and historically, one that has received little acknowledgment or even understanding.
All states have a school counselor requirement but they differ from state to state when it comes to how many are mandated at each grade level. And while the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a minimum ratio of 250 students to every school counselor, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the national average is almost twice that.
Arizona, California, Minnesota and Utah have nearly triple the number of recommended students, while Wyoming, the District of Columbia, Vermont and New Hampshire have the lowest ratios. Some have enough, and some have two few, but almost universally, most school counselors aren’t being utilized to their full capacity or advantage.
Dr. Stephanie Eberts teaches school counseling at Texas State University. After nine years of work on the ground with youth as a school counselor, six of which were in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and then as a consultant for youth intervention programs, she says the decades-old misconceptions about school counselors often keep them from being effective at the very things they’re trained to do.
Twenty-five years ago, a typical school counselor did one-on-one counseling from behind a desk. This individual-focused model of helping some, but not all, students meant that school counselors were not fully integrated into the fabric of school climate and culture.
“Though some really good counseling work was being done, it used to be talked about that if you didn’t want to be in the classroom as a teacher,” explains Eberts, “you could go get a school counselor job and shuffle some papers until you retired.”
Besides this unfortunate perception, reduced budgets and over-crowded classrooms, the need for school-wide interventions and programming has demanded big changes of the field. It’s something that the ASCA has been working to address for over a decade.
These days many school counselors find themselves in charge of creating class schedules, implementing high-stakes testing, stepping in to cover an absent teacher or help with discipline problems. Too often they are seen as an “additional body” or another administrative aid to help with tasks both inappropriate and irrelevant to their level of expertise and training, rather than an integral piece in the puzzle of school community health.
Unlike almost all other school personnel, school counselors are a specialized breed of support staff trained exclusively to work within the parameters of the school system and the community. They focus on the three major tenets of the ASCA’s model: social-emotional learning, academic guidance and career-based guidance.
“Not only do they have a level of expertise in the mental needs of the school community,” describes Eberts, “but they also build programs based on the developmental needs of their students, as well as the geographic, socioeconomic and academic needs of their communities at-large.”
School counselors perform extensive needs assessments that can include data points like questionnaires and conversations with students, parents, teachers and staff, and school data on attendance, free/reduced lunches, interventions already in use, and students who are referred for behavioral issues or poor academics. By synthesizing important site-specific data, school counselors are well equipped to figure out what a school needs, what kinds of interventions are most appropriate, how they should be implemented and then how they should be measured to track effectiveness so they know for certain that any given strategy is actually working.
Eberts underscores the importance of tracking measurable success. “It helps you to advocate for your program because we have the potential to be pulled in a lot of different directions. So if you can prove what you’re doing is effective, you’re not going to be pulled into other things that aren’t the best use of your time.”
The result she says, is that school counselors, if given the opportunity, can build very specific programs to meet the unique needs of their student, parent, teacher and administrative populations. They might be in the form of small group work within the classroom, assembly experiences for the entire school body or parent support to help families access the resources they need. It’s a sociological approach that has the potential to offer the critical link missing in so many of our communities – connectedness.
Eberts knows first hand how important that connection is. As she says, Hurricane Katrina was not just a community emergency or tragedy – it was a complete and total breakdown of every essential piece of community infrastructure. Rebuilding within her school’s community rode on the fact that prior to this natural disaster, she had worked with the students, parents, teachers and administration in her school community to establish open lines of communication, understanding, and most importantly, trust. She says it made their recovery infinitely more effective and efficient.
Eberts sees a lot of parallels between the hurdles her families faced then and those that our country faces now.
“With economic downturn, we see how much pressure families are under,” she explains. “If the tension and anxiety is in the home, it’s going to come to school as well. The kids are facing the economic downturn just as much as adults. Whatever is happening in the community – all of that is going to show up in our schools.”
In essence, students get a double dose – not only do they struggle with and mirror the pressures they feel at home, they must also navigate and cope with those on campus. Developmentally, she says, youth are often moving from one crisis to another, which is why the role of a school counselor is so critical to the connectedness and health of the campus community.
Usually it’s the personal crises that arise on campus, but as with any social setting, what’s personal also has context in and influence on the group.
When a youth is struggling with something, the school counselor is equipped to offer triage support by helping the youth move from crisis mode into a calmer place where their thought process is more rational and functional. “School counselors aren’t doing any kind of therapy, per se, but they help lower the reaction,” she explains. “And they probably don’t give themselves enough credit because they do it on a day-to-day basis.” Crisis, it seems, is something youth grapple with every day and its management plays an important role in the mental health of the student body.
Eberts explains that a lot of students would come to her because they didn’t do well on a test and were spiraling out of control – sometimes in a matter of minutes before her very eyes.
“High-stakes testing days are a really bad time for schools – it’s palpable.” Since test scores determine how much funding a school receives, enormous pressure exerted on administrators and teachers trickles down to the students and families.
So from academic expectations, peer pressure and bullying to the boundary pushing and poor decision making that mark adolescence, youth are in a constant battle – and one they often hide from others. While we tend to think of crisis on a larger “meta” scale, like a school shooting or a natural disaster, she affirms that “these students are legitimately in crisis,” and in as much need for intervention as the many kids today who are coping with homelessness, abuse or addiction.
Eberts acknowledges that there is no “magic wand” to change complex social issues like violence and poverty, but she is adamant about the school counselor’s ability to use collaborative strategies that create communities within our schools. “By building those kids up we can help create a safe environment so school doesn’t have to mirror what’s outside of it.”
It’s in this delicate dance of navigating the developmental, social and emotional processes that our school counselors are most fulfilled and will report feeling the most job satisfaction. But whether they get the opportunity to do enough or as much of it as they would like is another story entirely. If allowed the time to do these critical things, the school counselor is fulfilling the ASCA’s vision by becoming embedded as a key stakeholder that everyone on campus knows and is clear about the pivotal role s/he plays in the school community.
So rather than task a school counselor with high stakes testing, Eberts says a more appropriate and effective use of both time and talent would be having them implement student groups where kids learn strategies and techniques for stress reduction. By lowering the stress, the students are able to think more clearly, perform better and thus yield the tests results the administration wants.
When it comes to bullying, school counselors are well versed in youth social and emotional development, so they’re able to assemble comprehensive approaches that might include a school-wide experience (like Teen Truth Live) followed by group work (like the Difference Maker Summit) on campus that helps students learn how to build community rather than play into the social games that lead to exclusion and compliance. Rather than dealing exclusively with discipline issues, the school counselor should be helping students learn the social-emotional skills that empower them to become campus leaders rather than resigned bystanders.
And in the all-important equation of school safety and preventing future tragedies, the U.S. Department of Education is clear about the potential of these models. “We believe that school-based counseling programs offer great promise for improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of students with mental-health issues,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said.
“We do a lot of band aiding. We do a lot of blaming kids,” says Eberts. “We’re not looking at them as developmental creatures who are doing what they’re supposed to be doing developmentally. We have adult expectations of them while treating them like they’re children, rather than giving them some sort of say in what’s going on. Giving them the opportunity to share their experiences is really important.” In that way, she explains, “we can be role models for them in areas of coping and managing.”
The good news is that it doesn’t take a huge line item in a school’s yearly budget to effect these changes in school climate and culture.
“You don’t necessarily have to have money,” explains Eberts, “but great relationships.” The collaborative model simply sets the stage for how to help students learn their own community building. And since school counselors are already in place in most schools, she points to the fact that a lot of really good work can be done by creatively leveraging existing relationships and tapping into the community.
“Even if the community has limited resources,” she says, “it’s pretty remarkable what people can do together.” She has hope that as awareness of the interplay between mental health, the developmental stages of youth and community needs grows, so too will the understanding of the unique purpose and potential of school counselors.
She says the change is already manifesting. “There are some great programs out there where schools are really utilizing their school counselors, but we’re not to the ‘promised land’ yet. Our best advocates are the school counselors who aren’t necessarily running around telling everyone how great they are, but who are really making an impact on their campus for others to see and want to emulate,” she explains.
“I hope that we’ll be able to reach administrators and parents who aren’t seeing those effective programs to show them what can be achieved when school counselors are doing what they’re trained to do.”
To learn more about the developmental needs of youth (see Introduction) and strategies for creating safer, more cohesive communities (Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 8), BUY THE BOOK: Teen Truth – Why Youth Have Something to Hide.
To learn more about the important role school counselors play on our campuses, visit www.ascanationalmodel.org
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[image courtesy of Flickr user ftmeade]