Monthly Archives: May 2008

Impressing the need for empathy

Angela Kennedy May 15, 2008

Earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy in Florida beat a 17-month-old girl to death with a wooden baseball bat because she was crying while he was watching television.

Last month, national news outlets repeatedly played segments of a videotape in which a group of girls — ages 14 to 17 — berated and savagely beat a female classmate for approximately 30 minutes after luring the 16-year-old victim into a friend’s home. The entire assault was filmed, reportedly with the intention of posting it on the Internet in hopes that it would become popular on such video sharing sites as YouTube.

Extreme examples? Yes. But also examples that have experts and the general public alike asking why empathy is a seemingly endangered quality in modern society, particularly among children and adolescents.

“Empathy can be and must be taught,” says American Counseling Association member Susan Eaves. “Our community suffers tremendously when we are only concerned with our own wants and desires and either don’t recognize the feelings of others or don’t care.” Eaves is a licensed professional counselor and behavioral specialist in the Division of Children and Youth at Weems Community Mental Health Center in Meridian, Miss.

Last month, she presented a free seminar, “Raising Compassionate Children: Developing Empathy,” to give parents specific strategies for helping children develop empathy and improve their emotional intelligence. “Lack of empathy is the biggest complaint I hear from parents and teachers,” Eaves says. “It’s just so evident right now in our society. Parents today are recognizing the problem and seem eager to change the situation but aren’t quite sure how to go about it.”

Eaves believes that low emotional intelligence (or “EQ” as opposed to “IQ”) and the seeming surge of self-centeredness in children are products of our culture putting too much emphasis on academic achievement and not enough on emotional development. Instead of trying to teach toddlers sign language and showing them flash cards, she says, parents should place priority on instilling compassion and teaching empathy.

“Emotional intelligence, we now believe, is one of the most important predictors of success in life,” Eaves says. “There are a whole host of traits that go into EQ — impulse control, delayed gratification, ability to resolve conflict, cooperation, self-motivation and, I think most important, empathy. When we put such a push on academic intelligence, we ignore the development of emotional intelligence in our children. People assume that it comes naturally or that someone else will teach our kids. The schools have tried — there are programs like character education — but parents are missing so many opportunities to develop emotional intelligence in children.”

“Empathy is the one trait that will put an end to all cruelty, violence, aggression and bullying in our children,” Eaves says in explaining why she focuses so much attention on empathy. “If we recognize and put ourselves in the shoes of other people and understand how our behavior affects them, we would absolutely choose to behave differently.”

An escalating lack of empathy

Eaves contends that an individual’s lack of empathy generally escalates over three stages: from self-centeredness to aggression or cruelty and then to lack of remorse.

Self-centeredness

“When children come to believe that their needs are more important than anyone else’s needs, then what you will see is the early signs of lack of empathy,” Eaves says. “When children are absolutely unable to see another person’s wants, desires or feelings, that self-centeredness is the very first warning sign a parent will pick up on. From there, it will turn more toward cruelty.”

Aggressive or cruel behavior

If children view their wants and needs as being more important than anything else, Eaves notes, they are likely to become cruel or aggressive in getting those wants and needs met, and to discount how this behavior affects others. This cruelty can be evidenced on both small and large scales.

Small scale

  • Exhibiting selfish behavior
  • Refusing to help out or clean up after one’s self
  • Refusing to share

Larger scale

  • Being physically aggressive
  • Instigating others to be cruel
  • Bullying
  • Being violent

“We see it and we tend to ignore it, saying that it’s just typical childhood behavior — ‘Kids are cruel.’ I don’t agree with that,” Eaves says. “I don’t think kids are born cruel. They develop that way if we don’t help them develop differently. We overlook those early warning signs and, eventually, those small-scale behaviors will turn into aggression and, in some cases, violence.”

Lack of remorse

The third stage, and biggest red flag, according to Eaves, is lack of remorse. “If they hurt another child and do not feel bad about it — whether it’s verbally, emotionally or physically — if they don’t have any remorse for their bad behavior, that’s a serious problem.”

Key factors

Eaves attributes lack of empathy and compassion for others to three key factors:

Unavailable parents

“As counselors, we have always seen parents who were unavailable or intolerant of their children,” Eaves says. “When you have children who are being raised in homes where their own parents don’t tolerate expressions of emotions, how can you expect a child to be compassionate for other people’s emotions?”

As a counselor, Eaves tells parents they have to make the time to acknowledge their children’s legitimate emotions. The children of unavailable parents are essentially taught that their needs are not important, Eaves explains. In turn, these children come to understand that other people’s needs aren’t important either.

“This type of parenting is increasing because it’s a reflection of our society. Parents are busier than ever,” she says. “There is a time to say, ‘Suck it up.’ There’s a time to tell your child, ‘That’s enough. Cope and move on.’ But I think parents, because they are so overworked and so tired, they are doing that too often because they just don’t have the time or energy to stop and deal with their kids. … They are already at their own wits’ ends, so that makes them even more easily frustrated with the child. The child starts crying, (and) the parent can’t take it.”

Overindulging parents

On the other end of the spectrum are overindulgent parents who protect their children at all costs. “They want their child in a bubble so they never have to experience any bad feelings,” Eaves says. “They are the parents that go to the school and yell at the teacher for giving a student a bad grade. They are parents that pitch fits because their child is on the bench during the baseball game. These kids never hear the word ‘no.’ They are endlessly indulged and given very few limits and far too much power in the household. So, now you have a very self-centered child who believes that their needs and desires are more important than anyone else’s.”

These children can be very sweet-natured, Eaves notes, but they are only happy for others when they are happy themselves. “When you have a parent who protects their child from every little disappointment, then the child cannot consider what another’s position might be or what another’s plight might be,” she says.

Exposure to violent media

“This absolutely plays a key role in the development of empathy,” Eaves says. “A video game that is aggressive in nature actually rewards aggressive behavior. The more aggressive you are, the more you shoot, the more you kill, the more points you get. Even though it’s technology and a simulation, the child is still being rewarded for unempathic behavior.”

Helping parents to help their children

In her workshop, Eaves explains six important steps parents can take to increase a child’s EQ and compassion. While the steps should be tailored depending on the age of the child, Eaves notes research has shown that by age 14, it is very difficult to teach empathy. She strongly encourages parents to begin educating their children about compassion and empathy while they are young.

1. Start using an emotional vocabulary.

Eaves encourages parents to talk to their children about the emotions of others.

  • Ask children to identify how other people are feeling. Do they look happy? Sad? Mad?
  • Ask children why they think the person is feeling that way. What might be the reason?
  • Ask children what they could do to make the person feel better.

“You have to teach children how to pick up on emotions of other people as well as their own,” Eaves says. “They have to learn to label and identify other people’s feelings. If a child is unable to pick up on those social cues in others, then they aren’t going to develop empathy. For example, when my daughter was just 1 year old, she had an Elmo doll that would move around. When it fell down, I would say to her, ‘Oh no! Elmo fell down. You should go pick him up and ask him if he’s OK.’ It seems silly, but you have to work on this from day one.”

As for older children, Eaves suggests parents watch a TV show with their “tweens” while the volume button is on mute. “Take, for instance, a Friends rerun. Mute the TV and watch the nonverbal behaviors of the characters and try to determine what they are feeling. You and your child can create your own script to the episode,” she says. “Another way would be to go to the mall and sit down to people watch. As people walk by, ask your child to identify their feelings.”

Those techniques may sound time-consuming and perhaps extreme, Eaves says, “but that kind of work isn’t necessary if you are doing it all along. If you aren’t taking advantage of the small teaching moments early on with your child, then yes, you are going to have to play catch-up.”

2. Model the behavior.

The old line “do what I say, not what I do” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to teaching compassion to children, Eaves says. Parents must walk the walk and talk the talk.

“This is probably one of the hardest things, but if you want your child to be empathetic, you have to be empathetic,” she says. “Don’t let your young kids hear you cuss out another driver on the road. Instead, take a moment and say, ‘That guy just pulled out in front of me. He must be in a hurry. Why do you think he is in such a hurry?’ Be creative and make up reasons. You have to let them see your empathy and compassion for others.”

3. Make reparations and amends.

If a child shows unempathic or cruel behavior, Eaves tells parents to move beyond simply not tolerating the behavior to requiring that the child make amends. “For every cruel thing they do, they must do two compassionate acts,” she says. “Yes, parents may be forcing it in the beginning. Maybe it’s not genuine, but all behavior is learned. Don’t just fuss at them, punish and move on. You have to make them accountable for their behavior, and they must make amends. They have to right their wrong.”

4. Expose children to the less fortunate.

Parents need to tailor this step so that it is age appropriate, but Eaves says even young children should be exposed to those who are less fortunate. Furthermore, she strongly believes that adolescents should be involved in community work on a regular basis.

“They need to be exposed to people who have a hard life,” she says. “Have them work for Habitat for Humanity one Saturday a month or work at a soup kitchen.”

With younger kids, she suggests that on birthdays or during holidays when gifts are typically exchanged, parents might have children collect some of their old toys to donate, telling them that these toys will be given to other boys and girls who don’t have any. Eaves also suggests having children pick one of their new toys to donate. “Again, if you are doing these things all along, it wont be as hard when they are 10 or 13,” she says.

5. Allow children to feel unhappiness.

“As counselors, we have to tell parents that it’s not only OK, but it’s good for their children to be frustrated, to lose and to hear the word ‘no,’” Eaves says. “When a parent comes in and says that their child had a hard time dealing with X, Y and Z — being told ‘no’ or losing — it means that the child isn’t experiencing that enough. They need to hear ‘no.’ They need to lose. If children don’t understand what it’s like to be unhappy, then they aren’t going to be able to relate to other’s unhappiness.”

Exposing children to these hardships builds resilience and helps them develop coping skills, Eaves explains.

6. Shield children from aggressive content.

“Bottom line, parents need to know what kinds of games their kids are playing,” Eaves says. “They need to educate themselves about the rating system of video games.” She adds that parents should screen video games to ensure that the games are age appropriate and should also limit the amount of time their children are allowed to play the games.

But simply monitoring what their children are watching and playing isn’t a stand-alone cure, Eaves says. Parents need to take the time to actively cultivate compassion and empathy in their children, leading by example in the process, she says. Through her workshops and seminars, she hopes to continue educating parents and child advocates while also passing on suggestions and tips to other mental health professionals about building empathy.

Singing toward solutions

Angela Kennedy May 14, 2008

The curtain rises and the houselights dim. A shy and anxious young woman sits bathed in a spotlight as she wails her confession: “I’ve got problems! I’ve got problems!” Other actors appear around her and gleefully shout out their reply: “We’ve got them too! Welcome to the group!”

Welcome, also, to the opening number of the musical created by American Counseling Association member Aaron Toronto, who first conceived of the idea for Group … For Your Mental Health in 2005 while leading a mock group therapy session during a graduate counseling class at South Dakota State University. “I thought that an anxiety therapy group would be rich fodder for a play. That’s where the inspiration came from,” he says. “I chose anxiety because it’s the most common reason people seek counseling and, I think, seen in the right light, anxiety offers a lot of opportunity for comedy.”

With the creative juices flowing, it didn’t take Toronto long to create a rough draft of the play, which he presented to his adviser, SDSU counselor educator and ACA member Chris Briddick. “I didn’t start writing the play with school in mind,” Toronto says, “but after talking to Chris, he suggested that we should do this as an independent study. I thought, ‘That’s a great idea. Get extra credit for writing a play!’ So we met every week or so about it, and he gave me some great ideas and direction.”

Taking time off to pursue independent study can be risky for a student, but Briddick was confident that Toronto was up to the challenge. “It’s one of those things that, as a professor, you hope that when students step in to do independent studies, that they have the motivation to follow them through and do a good job,” Briddick says. “From day one, I was never concerned that Aaron wouldn’t be able to do this. You could just hear his determination and passion when he spoke about it. And it has turned out to be the most fun I’ve had in my teaching career.”

Toronto collaborated with friend Heidi Grimsley, a composer, to craft the songs for the quirky musical and cast local theater students from SDSU for the production. After several rewrites and rehearsals, the play premiered on campus earlier this year.

In Group, the audience gets to observe group therapy sessions, led by pop psychologist Dr. Bloom, and watch the journey of six panic-riddled clients as they attempt to manage their various anxieties and issues. “Everyone in the group has suffered a number of panic attacks,” Toronto explains. “During the session, they allow time to ‘unpack’ — ‘pack’ being short for panic attack — and share their stories about their anxieties. Although the group members are all connected by anxiety, we do see glimpses of other disorders and issues such as depression, OCD, social phobias, sexual abuse and obesity. However, I wanted anxiety to be the thread that held the quilt together, so to speak.”

In guiding the group members through their anxiety-filled struggles, the egocentric Dr. Bloom, author of the renowned self-help manual, Titanic Panic: Don’t Let Anxiety Sink You, eventually is compelled to face his own demons, which threaten to destroy his career and the fragile world of his clients.

Toronto, who graduated from the master’s counseling program last year and currently works in private practice as well as part time at the SDSU counseling center, says real-life clients inspired several of the characters in his musical production. “I’m a big believer in life imitates art and art imitates life,” he says. “Some of the characters are based on clients that I’ve seen, but one in particular was actually a client of my mother’s. My mom is a psychiatrist, and she saw a client who owns hundreds of pairs of panties because she has a compulsion to change her underwear. I took that idea and exaggerated it a bit for theatrics and to make it funny. The character I created is a woman who must change her panties seven times a day. She does this to get rid of the cooties because her ex-husband cheated on her with seven different women.”

The cast of Group ... For Your Mental Health
The cast of Group … For Your Mental Health.
Aaron Toronto collaborated with songwriter Heidi Grimsley
to create Group.

With taglines such as “Putting the fun back in dysfunctional” and “When you’re one step away from crazy, sometimes all you can do is sing,” audiences understand ahead of time that humor will play a major role in the production. But Toronto notes that the play features some realistic and intense scenes as well. In particular, he points to the play’s climax, when Dr. Bloom collapses in his first panic attack during a group session. His attack is brought on by suppressed emotions surrounding his teenage son’s suicide years earlier. “He’s struggling with his own issues,” Toronto explains. “I wanted to show that this world-famous, well-known author and therapist who has helped many people, in the end, he couldn’t help his own son.”

Briddick adds that one of Dr. Bloom’s biggest flaws is that he is determined to help his clients by the book — his book. “But he also has some things that are haunting him as well, so in a way, it’s about how therapists need to stay in check with their own feelings, issues and well-being,” Briddick says. “It speaks to the importance of therapists making sure that we aren’t impaired by our own issues.”

In addition to weaving the true-life message about self-care into the play, Toronto says he tried to keep the dialogue portions of the musical realistic, reflecting what might be said during a typical counseling session. Ultimately, he says, he wanted the characters to be entertaining yet relatable and universal.

“I really wanted to try to get across the point that everyone struggles,” he says. “The characters are everyday people. Some have had events in their lives that led to their anxiety, and some are just anxious because they are anxious. I wanted to show that everyone has issues and everyone has things they are working on, but it’s better to get through these things together than to go at it alone.”

Some audience members may consider parts of the play shocking, but Toronto insists the scenes weren’t included for their shock value alone. One of the most extreme scenes involves the therapy group’s reenactment of a group member’s sexual assault after Dr. Bloom instructs the group to role-play the incident. Toronto received some negative comments about the scene, and he admits the scenario is far-fetched for any true counseling group, but he believes the scene communicates an important point while also provoking thought. “I wrote it to show that the therapist had become so arrogant that he felt like he could do that and it would be OK,” Toronto explains. “It does get out of hand, and it causes a very intense moment in the play. That scene has bothered some people, but I haven’t changed it because I wanted to push the envelope a bit and also show that therapists make mistakes. They are just people too.”

What the (counselor) critics are saying

Of the nine performances of Group held on the SDSU campus, eight played to sold-out crowds, with many people waiting in standby lines in hopes of scoring an open seat.

Briddick labels Toronto’s musical a “dramedy” — part drama and part comedy. “There are parts where you don’t know if you are supposed to laugh or cry,” the counselor educator says. “But what I enjoyed the most was seeing these quirky and humorous characters display incredible resiliency. The first time I watched the performance, I was literally amazed. Each character feels that they are losing control or that they aren’t in control of their lives. But they all are resilient, and they have a true desire to help themselves and others. It’s one of those therapeutic constants that we hope for — that people have the potential to solve their own problems, and maybe they are strong enough to help those around them.”

Howard B. Smith, interim dean of the counseling department at SDSU, admits that he was concerned about how the mental health profession would be portrayed when he first heard about the play. But after watching a performance, he found that the play represented the profession in a positive — yet still human — light.

“Generally speaking, the fact that counseling as a profession is seen more and more in entertainment in society today is healthy and good for the profession in many ways, as it de-mystifies the profession and makes it more real,” Smith says. “Counselors are usually seen as being the caring and helping professionals that they are, which humanizes them and removes some of the stigma or anxiety that getting help can often create. We, as counselors, must be seen as approachable, well-educated and highly skilled professionals, capable of assisting people as they struggle in their lives. In my humble opinion, Toronto’s Group does just that.”

“As a member of the general audience,” Smith adds, “the story line was easy to grasp and follow. It was entertaining, and the lyrics to the music kept my attention. The cast members seemed to fit their roles both physically and in terms of personality, but I would not call it typecasting. As a mental health professional, the maladies of the group members were presented appropriately, without condescension and with good taste and just a hint of humor at the right time to keep the tone of the play entertaining rather than slipping into becoming maudlin. To be sure, there were moments of intensity, as in any group session, but the overacting of the characters, which is often characteristic of dramatizations dealing with mental health issues, was minimal or nonexistent.”

Ruth Harper, a counselor educator at SDSU and the editor of the Resource Reviews column in Counseling Today, says she was captivated by the play’s music and lyrics and left the theater singing “I’ve got problems, I’ve got problems,” the chorus of the opening number stuck in her head. Additionally, she thought the cast did a phenomenal job of bringing Toronto’s characters to life. She did question some of the writer’s decisions, however.

“From the perspective of a counselor, I am always a bit troubled when the therapist is revealed to have as many or more problems than the clients,” she says. “I’m well aware, and happy, that counselors are fully human and that they are not perfect, not ‘above’ others. Yet, it seems that most dramatic depictions of counselors take some pleasure in bringing the mental health professional down to size, to say, in effect, ‘Look who really has issues.’ For instance, the hilarious and flirtatious dance between Freud and the therapist’s mother while the therapist is out cold after a major panic attack can be seen as another over-the-top rendering of a messed-up group leader.”

Although Harper found that moment of comic relief entertaining, she is concerned about depictions of counselors in the media and arts. “Counselors are often portrayed as (a) too flawed, (b) having no boundaries, (c) displaying limited knowledge of the code of ethics and (d) overemphasizing the value of cathartic breakthrough. I would love to see more realistic portrayals of mental health professionals and their work.”

Briddick, one of Toronto’s biggest fans, sees the flawed characters as human and relatable to the general public. “Aaron took the subject of group counseling and made it known to a much larger audience,” Briddick contends. “One of my fears was, as many people do when they write about counseling, that it might not paint counselors in a positive light. But everyone I’ve talked to said that it was funny, yet at the same time, very respectful of the characters’ issues and the profession. It’s Aaron at his very best as an artist and, in my eyes, as a student. I think it’s going to go places. It’s just that good.”

Group’s future

With the overwhelming success of the play on campus, Toronto has been shopping Group to area production houses and performance art festivals. “We are submitting it to the New York Fringe Festival — it’s like the Sundance of the theater — and I think we have a good shot at being at that,” says Toronto. The play was also selected for a short run this month at the Washington Pavilion, a major playhouse in Sioux Falls.

But Toronto hasn’t completely forsaken his counseling roots for a shot at fame on a larger stage. He recently presented a workshop at the South Dakota Counseling Association Conference on the use of themes and scriptwriting in therapy. He encourages all counselors to tap into their creative sides and incorporate their “outside” talents into their practice. Toronto hopes to present his story and the process of creating Group at next year’s ACA Conference in Charlotte, N.C.

Synopsis of Group … For Your Mental Health

Act I opens with Mel, the newest character of the group, introducing herself by singing “I Got Problems.” Marta and Trent, veterans of the group, then confront each other’s unwillingness to share. Sensing the tension, Dr. Bloom suggests an “emotional devotional,” a therapeutic technique he created to help the group sort through complex emotions. “Emotional Devotional” is a rap spoken over a hip-hop beat. Once the emotional air has cleared, the audience turns to Marta. She reveals that her anxiety this particular week is due to seeing her ex-boyfriend — whom she still loves — at a restaurant with another woman. She searches for a way to overcome her intense fear of her own beauty in the song “Being Beautiful.”

Next is the character Alex, who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and belts out “I Change My Panties,” which details her need to switch undies seven times a day. In her mind, her compulsion helps her “wash away the cooties” brought on by a cheating husband.

The widower Harry is up next in the group. After losing his wife in a car accident, he is reluctant to approach or even speak to women. His goal last week was to just say “hello” to a coworker. He tells of his backward success in “She Said Hello to Me First.”

Afterward, the group gives the “pack” — short for panic attack — report. Alex then suggests that Mel “unpack” or talk about her most recent panic attack. Mel refuses at first, but does so after a tension-filled moment in which Trent questions Dr. Bloom’s ability to help the group. Mel compares a panic attack to love at first sight in her song “I Wish It Was Your Charms.”

The next song takes on a more serious note, as Trent shares his experience in a mental hospital in “Count Thirteen.”

Alex, who’s been trying to tell her very conservative parents that she’s divorced, confronts her emotional roadblocks in the song “Mom and Dad, I’m A Democrat.” Harry and Ben comically role-play her parents. As Act I comes to a close, Ben shares some shocking news with the group. Because of his obesity and diabetes, he is dying. His doctor urged him to lose weight or tempt fate. The group rallies around Ben in the song “One Step Away.”

Act II opens with several group members encouraging Ben to join Belly Busters, a weight loss club. They are all standing outside the door to Belly Busters, but Ben is reluctant to enter the building and sings “You Can Leave Me Here on the Sidewalk.” Eventually, with support and a bit of tough love, Ben walks inside and his life is transformed. The humor doesn’t last too long as the group reconvenes the following week and Marta confronts her past rape through a role-playing song, “Seeing Red.” This highly charged moment leads to Dr. Bloom’s first panic attack. While unconscious in the hospital, Dr. Bloom dreams that his mother and Sigmund Freud dance a psychedelic tango in the song “To Much Id.” Once recovered, the group members talk Dr. Bloom into joining his own therapy group. He does and shares the root of his anxiety — the suicide of his teenage son. The group members embrace the doctor, and the play ends with the song that also began the play, “I Got Problems.” This time, however, the famous Dr. Bloom sings along too.

— Synopsis courtesy of Aaron Toronto

Conspicuously inconspicuous

Jim Paterson

Michael Firch spends a lot of time in the halls of Milford (Del.) Middle School and its busy cafeteria chatting with students, gathering information and spotting problems. One thing the veteran school counselor quickly notices amid the confusion, clamor and camaraderie is the student who doesn’t fit in — the child who sits quietly by himself in the cafeteria or walks to classes alone, seeming almost to flinch as other students pass nearby.

“I worry about these students for a number of reasons,” says Firch, middle/high school vice president for the Delaware School Counselor Association and a member of the American School Counselor Association, a division of the American Counseling Association. “I wonder how the isolation impacts them. If they are unable to develop or unleash their potential, we may never know what they can contribute.”

School counselors at all levels say they are very conscious of students who seem unable to find a spot to belong, and the counselors believe it is critically important to help these students connect to others. “Schools are very social places, and if students do not fit in, they can become more and more reclusive and angry,” says Dominick J. D’Andrea, a counselor at Christopher Columbus Middle School in Clifton, N.J., and middle school vice president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. “That can lead to acting out in class, having disputes with classmates, failing grades, truancy and escalating discipline issues.”

Wendy Rock, the senior counselor at Hahnville High School in Boutte, La., warns of even more serious consequences if a student feels alienated. “If we have a student who is not fitting in, we have many support systems — counselors, advisers, mentors, teachers and community agencies. But we are not perfect,” says Rock, an ASCA and ACA member and president-elect of the Louisiana School Counselor Association. “A Columbine or Virginia Tech incident, or a suicide, which I think is the most extreme consequence if the student continues to feel isolated, can happen here or anywhere else.”

Others worry about these students joining gangs to find a connection or moving toward destructive behavior to express their frustration. “They can also become depressed or seek illicit drugs and self-medicate,” D’Andrea says. “They can totally shut down and refuse to perform.”

ASCA member Colleen Baldrica, president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association and lead counselor for St. Paul schools, says education of all students is key because bullying is often the reason for the isolation — or the result. “The No. 1 goal for schools is to keep the student safe — and that often means from other students,” she says.

And, like Firch, many counselors worry that these students suffer emotionally and may not get the same opportunities to reach their full potential.

Taking action

Understanding the potential consequences of allowing students to remain isolated, many school counselors are making assessments, offering counseling, using resources both inside and outside of the schools and even utilizing other students to help connect troubled young people to their schools and classmates.

Shirley Redcay, a school counselor at Bryan Elementary School in Plant City, Fla., and elementary school vice president for the Florida School Counselor Association, invites students who seem isolated to lunch along with another student who is struggling. She then has the students play a game in which they can express their feelings and discuss goals.

Redcay, a member of ASCA and ACA, says isolated students often simply need to build confidence. “Many times they are not picked because they don’t exude a sort of OK-ness. That can cause other students to avoid them,” she says. “When they build confidence and have some success, that gives them some boldness and make other students feel more comfortable with them. My plan is to empower them by teaching social skills and problem-

solving strategies and then providing a positive, nonthreatening environment so they can use the skills successfully, build confidence and begin making a connection with other students.”

Rock says many of the techniques useful with younger students also apply in upper grade levels. When dealing with a high school student who is isolated, however, she believes it is important to begin by meeting directly with the student. “Individual counseling is where we start,” she says. “We identify reasons why the student may not be fitting in. Are they choosing not to fit in, or are other students excluding them?”

Mara Zigurs, a social worker for Bryan Community, an alternative school in Lincoln, Neb., uses a tool called TeenScreen from Columbia University to assess students. Other counselors use their skills and other assessment tools or seek help from mental health professionals to make sure the student doesn’t suffer from more serious problems.

“Often the students who are isolated are the ones with fairly severe behavioral or learning challenges,” says Elizabeth Bartron, an elementary school counselor at Salem School in Salem, Conn. “For those children, we use social stories, social skills in small groups.”

Social situations are key

ASCA member Carol Tomkalski, a counselor at Woodbury Middle School in Connecticut, says the reasons for student isolation can vary broadly, often according to gender. “Social issues are at the root of all evil during the middle years. Girls can be very cruel, and the advancement of technology has made it even worse,” she says in reference both to the anonymity of online communities and the speed at which a person’s reputation can be damaged by someone ridiculing her online. She believes boys are more likely to resolve an issue with another student by arguing, getting into a physical confrontation or working things out, whereas girls who are shunned or mistreated will often withdraw socially.

To intervene, Tomkalski sets goals for isolated students — for example, having them sit with someone at lunch, contact a club sponsor or attend a meeting. She also talks with them about their interests or helps them find things they might want to do. After identifying students who appear to be isolated, counselors should also assess these individuals to see if other issues may be affecting them.

ASCA member Mary Pat McCartney, a school counselor at Bristow Run Elementary School in Bristow, Va., says she asks isolated students to do “homework,” which might involve practicing a skill such as joining a conversation. McCartney has these students maintain a chart that monitors their efforts, and she also connects them with a social skills counseling group.

Special groups at Ernesto Serna School in El Paso, Texas, bring isolated students together to talk about their fears and goals and what they are going to do to work on them. “I’ve found that once a student gets involved in this sort of group, they generally stay involved,” says ASCA member Tammi Mackeben, a counselor at the school, which serves first- through eighth-graders. She also connects individual students with activities that they might enjoy and makes the activities’ advisers aware of the students’ difficulties so the advisers can provide additional support.

Raising a student’s status

D’Andrea believes isolated students at every level of school often benefit from being given other responsibilities by school personnel — writing on the board, passing out papers or being a messenger, for example. “These are activities other students recognize, and they identify this student as a class leader who is held in high respect by the teacher. Then they want to connect with this student,” he says.

Megyn Shea, a counselor at Gaiser Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., and president-elect of the Washington School Counselor Association, says counselors’ efforts to help isolated students often need to be collaborative. “For example,” she says, “if we know of a student who is not making friends, we will ask teachers to strategically seat the student or pick work groups where it is likely they will make a connection with someone.” Counselors, teachers and administrators should work together to identify isolated students, she says, and then invite them to a special alternative lunch activity, where they can play board games and interact with one another, facilitated by a counselor or school psychiatrist.

“We chose this time because lunch can be a very difficult time for students who have made few or no friends,” says Shea, a member of ASCA. “This is a safe place for students to gain confidence, meet others and work on social skills.”

Rock says counselors may determine that outside resources are necessary. She sometimes finds students individual or group counseling and encourages them to use a “Cope Line” telephone support service that helps them deal with their problems.

Classmates can help

Another method that may help is to engage others students in reaching out to their more isolated peers. This can smooth the path for the struggling student and increase the self-esteem of the student who is assisting. “We may ask students who are very mature and responsible if they wouldn’t mind eating lunch with an isolated student or sitting on the bus with them, just including them somehow,” Rock says.

Counselors can also take the lead in encouraging the entire school community to work together to change the school climate. “Students should notice when someone needs their help,” Shea says. “We want students to pay attention to other kids — and to do something about it. For example, we ask that if students see someone sitting alone, that they invite them to sit with their group.”

Likewise, Shea notes that isolated students often are the objects of bullying. She reminds students to step in or to report such incidents when they see them. “We want kids to be aware that they can impact their community,” she says. “We want them to know what it looks like to be a responsible citizen.”

Bartron emphasizes social skills and respecting differences in her classroom lessons and encourages teachers to use the same sort of language “to teach empathy and help develop problem-solving techniques.” If a student is being shunned or harassed and the issue is severe, she also asks parents of students on both sides of the issue to come in to discuss the situation.

“We have no tolerance for meanness at our school,” Tomkalski says. “We have created a culture of respect and understanding. When a student is feeling isolated or rejected by their peers, we respond immediately to the situation. Kids need to feel connected.”

Asking for a favor

Richard Yep May 3, 2008

Richard Yep

Each month, I share with you some thoughts, update you on what the American Counseling Association is doing and, sometimes, offer some personal reflections. This month, I am asking for a favor.

In some respects, I think ACA is one of the “best kept” secrets from those who could stand to benefit the most. The past 12 months have been critical in laying the groundwork for new endeavors, as well as following through on leadership decisions made in previous years. ACA is clearly “new and improved” — something we must continue if we are to maintain our position as the world’s largest body of organized professional counselors.

Our clout at the legislative and regulatory level, as well as the impact we are making in terms of delivery of services and resources to professional counselors, remains strong. However, we need something else, and that is why I am asking for a favor.

We need to increase our numbers, and not just to raise more revenue. More members will mean even greater clout in the public policy arena. It also means that those who join agree to abide by the ACA Code of Ethics, something that points to professionalism and protection of the public. Increasing our membership
means reaching a greater audience with the information, services and resources that ACA provides.

As some of you know, we recently launched a series of “members-only” podcasts on the ACA website (counseling.org). We were also overwhelmed by the response to the call for programs for the ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in Charlotte, N.C. (March 19-23, 2009). Our efforts to realize counselor licensure in all 50 states came closer to reality when a California Senate committee recently allowed us to clear yet another hurdle. Our efforts at the federal level in terms of mental health parity, Licensed Professional Counselor recognition and the largest-ever allocation of funds for the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program ($52 million) also demonstrate that we are on the move. 

We can do even more, but we need to increase our membership in ACA. That is why I am asking each of you to do me a favor. Find one colleague (not five, not 10, not 100 — although that would be nice) who you think would be a good candidate for ACA membership and ask them to join. This won’t cost you a cent (unless you sponsor them!), and it is a great way to invite them to be a part of the larger
professional counseling community. Let your special invitee know how important this decision is, both to the profession and for them as a professional counselor, counselor educator or emerging counselor. In addition, tell them about the opportunities that await them if they choose to join any of the 19 ACA divisions as well.

I know the economy is forcing people to look more carefully at how they spend their money. People want to know there is value in what they are purchasing, so I think we need to give them a guarantee. Let your “one” person know that if they are not satisfied with what they receive from their one-year membership in ACA, then they can contact me personally for a full refund of their dues. If your colleague needs more information about what ACA has to offer, send them to our website at counseling.org to browse.

Last but not least, thanks to all of you for your support of ACA. Our members are our most important asset, and I look forward to our being able to meet your professional needs.

So please help me with this one favor I have requested. I would very much appreciate your efforts in this endeavor so we can make ACA a little less of a well-kept secret!

As always, I hope you will contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions that you might have. Please contact me via e-mail at ryep@counseling.org or by phone at 800.347.6647 ext. 231.

Thanks and be well.

The informed counselor

Brian S. Canfield May 1, 2008

There are hundreds of theories and approaches to counseling and psychotherapy documented in the professional literature. Counselors often ask, “What theory works best? What approach will best meet the needs of my clients?”

Along with my students, supervisees and colleagues, I often struggle to make sense of this reality. Like many in our field, my approach to counseling practice draws from a number of sources. I have found many of the concepts and techniques from person-centered, systems, family of origin, structural, strategic, communications, rational emotive, Gestalt and existential approaches — to name just a few — very useful in my work with clients.

The particular theory we employ reflects our assumptions about the nature of people, problems and change — concepts that are either well thought out or muddled and confused. There is nothing magical or sacred about any particular theory. It merely provides a conceptual frame to guide our work. As most counselors recognize, “theory” is only useful to the extent that it informs our work and better equips us to help our clients.

Related to theory, the field of counseling has become infused with perspectives emphasizing “multicultural” and “social justice” issues. In recent decades, these issues have emerged to occupy a position of dominance in the consciousness of our profession. For some counselors, multicultural and social justice issues are the raison d’être for their work. For most counselors, however, these issues offer useful perspectives and an ethical foundation for working with all clients.

In the final analysis, articulating and prioritizing social justice issues presents some challenges — often an expression of personal values rather than a consensus within the counseling profession. Regrettably, I have heard from many counselors who view the dominant voices within the multicultural and social justice movements as “one-sided,” reflecting a politically liberal and biased perspective. This is unfortunate, because insights into social justice issues and an awareness of the challenges and complexities of living and working in a multicultural society are important to everyone. I hope this conversation will continue. In particular, there is a tremendous need for research that better informs counselors about multicultural and social justice issues. Not just radical diatribes and “soapbox opinions,” but real research that expands our skills for helping others.

Some folks consider “research” — particularly research in the scientific method vein — to be a restrictive and lineal Western concept. As such, much of what passes as “research” in the counseling field has little empirical basis and often reflects, intentionally or unintentionally, opinion rather than objective and systematic inquiry. Any form of research has its limitations, but if we consider research in the broadest sense, we are endorsing a systematic process of inquiry that minimizes bias and seeks to establish qualified facts. For many of us in the counseling field, well-conceived research provides the best hope for the future of counseling practice. A greater emphasis on research — in particular, research on counseling outcome effectiveness — will greatly enhance our credibility as a profession.

Counseling has always been more “art” than “science,” so expanding our research efforts will not be an easy undertaking. Nonetheless, without a systematic evaluation of the work we do, professional counseling will remain in the eyes of many a dubious and largely unproven activity and, consequently, a marginal part of the larger mental health care industry. As counseling professionals, we cannot allow this to happen. Every counselor can take the following steps to enhance the level of professionalism in the field of counseling:

  • Maintain membership in the American Counseling Association, your state branch and the national division that best reflects your primary work setting or practice emphasis. Become as active within these organizations as possible. Insist (or at least strongly encourage) that your students, supervisees and associates also maintain membership in these organizations. The organizations publish the research and utilize resources on our behalf.
  • Subscribe and read professional counseling journals. Distinguish between articles that present facts and objective data from “opinion pieces” that advocate a particular political agenda or bias. Contact journal editors and editorial board members requesting a greater emphasis on articles that better inform counseling practice through research, particularly in the area of outcome effectiveness.
  • Hold counseling association leaders accountable to ensure that association resources focus, first and foremost, on advancing the profession and practice of counseling and the career needs of counselors. Insist that ACA, its divisions and branches maintain a neutral position on political issues and issues of social conscience that do not directly relate to the counseling profession, the needs of our clients and the professional interests of counselors. To do otherwise divides our membership and impedes our effectiveness.

If you have any questions or comments, I welcome your e-mail at canfield@sandiego.edu.