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The Social Adventures and Experiments of  Tommy Joe Peterson

By Brandon S. Ballantyne February 7, 2017

The idea of this therapeutic short story is to creatively illustrate the various dilemmas that occur from the perspective of a socially awkward young man, Tommy Joe Peterson. Through the story, the reader is able to gain perspective on the thought process and problem-solving skills of this uniquely talented 11-year-old boy.

Whether this fictional story is read by a child or read to a child by a teacher or counselor, the discussion questions included at the end are aimed at facilitating reflection and interpersonal growth. I believe that discussing the responses to the discussion questions will allow for improved awareness and insight into real-life dilemmas and help children to improve their problem-solving skills in a creative, narrative manner.

The target population for my therapeutic short story consists of teachers, parents, therapists and children of elementary through middle school age, particularly those with a mental health diagnosis similar to or consistent with autism spectrum disorder or social anxiety.

Friendship

Hello, my name is Tommy Joe. I am 11 years old. And in my mind, I am not just a boy. I am the world’s most coolest teenage superhero in my school. Well, at least I pretend to be.

Let me tell you about the time I almost saved my friend William from a flying plate of steaming hot lasagna in the cafeteria. Oh, and just so you know, William is only a few months younger than me. This is what happened …

The day started out just like any other day. I woke up at 6:37 a.m. I always wake up at that time to ensure that I get as many cartoons in as I can before I leave for school at exactly 8:02 a.m. I like the superhero cartoons. Batman is obviously the best, and I think I am like him in some ways. Although most adults say I am socially awkward, whatever that means. Clearly, they do not understand my abilities.

Anyway, after my cartoon time, my mother prompted me to participate in what she calls “activities of daily living.” She is a nurse, and I hear those types of phrases all the time. I have gotten used to it. This is the part of my morning routine during which I brush my teeth and comb through my brown wavy hair. I usually place some deodorant under each armpit, but not a lot. I typically do not like the texture, but I tolerate it enough to get at least a little bit of scent on me. Every good superhero needs a scent — at least that is what my mother tells me.

It was almost time to leave for school, so I slipped on my Velcro shoes and placed my bright red turtleneck on so it fit nice and snug, just the way I like it. I refuse to wear anything else but that red turtleneck. I feel most like a superhero in that shirt. Some people tease me for this. They clearly do not understand my abilities.

The bus ride to school is short. I live only four blocks from the school. And as a fifth-grader, riding the bus is the cool thing to do. On that day, the older kids were making fun of the way I was dressed. They always do. They also make fun of the way I only spray certain sections of my hair. You see, only some sections of my hair get messy, so there is no need to hairspray it all down. Only certain sections need a touch-up.

I do not think that the other kids understand my perspective. I don’t mind though. Life can be hard for a superhero like me. Clearly the other kids on the bus do not understand my abilities. And anything is better than riding to school with your parents, although my mother does listen to good music. But that is beside the point, and I do not want to ramble on, so let’s get back to the story of how I almost saved my friend William from an extremely steaming hot plate of lasagna.

I meet my friend William at the same spot every day before going into school. Every superhero needs a sidekick, and William is mine. William is shorter than me, and he refuses to be called Billy. He thinks that William is more formal, and he likes that. He has red curly hair and orange glasses. I do not really know where he got those glasses, but I like them. His glasses usually slip down to the end of his nose, and he has to spend most of the day adjusting and readjusting them. We have every class together. Every superhero needs a sidekick, and at least William understands my abilities.

The day was pretty boring until art class. It is like that every day. William and I count down the minutes leading up to our fourth-period art class. For us, it is more than just art class. It is a time for us to create new supercool superhero ideas. And on this day, the topic of class was “favorite transportation.” This was a perfect topic for superheroes like us.

William and I decided to create a spaceship. This was no ordinary spaceship. This was a supercool spaceship that William and I had imagined ourselves using to explore the outermost limits of our galaxy — beyond the black holes, red dwarfs, supernovas and solar flares.

By the way, space is my other supercool area of interest. William is mostly indifferent to the idea of space travel, but every superhero needs a sidekick, and because of that, I think he would come with me anyway. I guess the only problem would be if William gets motion sickness. I wonder if he gets sick in the car? To tell you the truth, I do not really know how William gets to school each day. I have never been in a car with him. Quite frankly, I only see him at school. Oh well, I do not want to ramble. Let’s get back to the story of how I almost saved William from an extremely overwhelming, steaming hot plate of lasagna in the school cafeteria.

Before describing the scene that would be about to take place in the cafeteria, it is important for me to be able to tell you how our art project turned out. William and I made a spaceship using cardboard, paint and a whole lot of glue. The spaceship was red, just like my turtleneck.

William is exceptionally good at folding cardboard, so I gave him the job of working on the wings. William attached long, narrow wings that seemed as if they would touch the ceiling. We carefully added glue to all the areas that needed to be held together, and then we added more glue, and then more glue, and then one last coating of glue to ensure that this spaceship could tolerate the astronomical elements that space travel would bring to the table. Every good astronaut needs a sidekick.

Our hands were sticky from the glue. It was hard for us to pull our fingers apart. But our spaceship was complete. William and I carefully placed the spaceship in our art closet to dry.

The bell rang for lunch. We hurried out of the classroom without cleaning up the rest of our materials. This was necessary because we need to get to lunch early so that we can sit at the table in the left corner — the one by the ice cream cooler. I like ice cream sandwiches, and it is important to be next to the cooler so that I can get two of them before they sell out. Every superhero needs his energy, and I just happen to get mine from ice cream sandwiches.

William prefers pizza, but they do not always have that. I once had the idea of putting my ice cream sandwiches on my pizza, but I have not been able to convince William to try it with me. And as a superhero, you need your sidekick to be on board before trying anything new. But that is for another story. Let’s get back to this one. I don’t want to ramble.

William and I entered the cafeteria and at a casual but fast pace assumed positions at our table by the ice cream cooler. The cafeteria was loud and chaotic as various students attempted to jockey for position in the lunch line. The teacher on duty was obviously struggling to keep order. I could tell by the look on her face. I did not have this teacher for class, but any good superhero can tell when another person is in obvious distress. I wish I could have helped her, but I needed to remain in position at my table.

This was partly due to the fact that the ice cream cooler is positioned just outside the kitchen, and as kids pass through the lunch line, they typically select their favorite ice cream product to complete their tray. William and I do it backward — we wait for a break in the line, and then we purchase our desserts first. Most kids do not think of going to the ice cream cooler first because it is positioned at the end of the line. Being the most supercool superhero that I am, I had developed this approach early last year. William agreed with me, although he typically does. William is a great sidekick.

The time was right. William and I stood up to go make our selection. I always purchase two ice cream sandwiches. William typically purchases the Italian ice. At least I think he does. Anyway, it was at that moment when we stood up that I began to notice an increase in chaos in the far right-hand side of the cafeteria. I quickly glanced over, and before picking out my ice cream, I noticed a food fight taking place. It was on the other side of the cafeteria, but it appeared as though it was escalating rapidly.

I needed to get my ice cream. I reached down and realized that I could not pull my fingers apart to grab it. Oh no, it was my worst nightmare. My fingers had been glued together from working on our spaceship in art class. It seemed that the harder I tried to pull them apart, the more they seemed to be glued together.

I had one dilemma with not being able to literally pick up my ice cream sandwich, and another dilemma with the rapidly growing food fight that was moving across the cafeteria like a tidal wave. I had to make a decision. I either needed to take cover and sacrifice my ice cream sandwich, or I needed to take the chance of being hit by food and attempt to grab my ice cream with my glued-together fingers. I had to think quickly.

At that moment, I noticed a red substance flying through the air toward William. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, so it was hard for me to tell what it was. But as it flew through the air, I realized that it was a piece of lasagna. It was hot. I could see the steam coming off of it as it whizzed past the heads of various students.

At this point, even the teachers were taking cover. Mr. Jones was under the table, and Ms. Sprockett was hiding behind the soda machine. The flying lasagna was coming our way, and based on my superhero calculations, it was heading directly toward William.

Everything was moving in slow motion. William was frozen in fear. He needed me. I quickly lunged in his direction and raised my hands in an attempt to take most of the blow from the flying lasagna. Every good superhero occasionally makes sacrifices for his sidekick — at least Batman did.

The only problem was that my fingers were still glued together. The lasagna not only hit my arms, covering me in sauce, but it also smothered William. He had sauce and cheese all over him. And the worst part of it was, I didn’t even get my ice cream sandwiches. The last thing I remember was William tasting the lasagna that was dripping off of his cheeks. William is always good at embracing chaos.

I guess even the best superheroes sometimes have trouble rescuing others. But William and I are still friends. He has forgiven me, and there are no hard feelings between us. I guess what I have learned from this situation is that every superhero needs a sidekick. I do not know what I would do without William. He is my best friend. But maybe next time, I won’t use so much glue.

 

Therapeutic discussion questions 

  • According to Tommy Joe, every superhero needs a sidekick. Who is the sidekick in your life? Who do you feel supported by? Who listens to you when you talk?
  • What makes someone a friend? What makes you a friend? What types of things do friends do for one another?
  • Discuss a difficult situation that a friend helped you with. What did they do to support you?
  • Discuss a difficult situation that you helped a friend with. What did you do to support them?
  • The glue on Tommy Joe’s fingers makes it difficult for him to rescue William and pick up his ice cream sandwiches. What should Tommy Joe have done prior to going into the cafeteria that would have made it easier for him to help William?
  • What is a goal you have in your life? What is an obstacle you face in your life? How can you plan ahead to make accomplishing your goal easier?
  • What can your sidekick do to help you reach your goal?
  • If you were Tommy Joe, what would you have done differently in the story? How would making different decisions have affected the outcome of the story?
  • Is there another way the story could have ended? If so, I would love to hear your version.

 

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Brandon S. Ballantyne, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, has been practicing clinical counseling since 2007. He currently practices at Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Advanced Counseling and Research Services in Lancaster. He has experience working with both adolescent and adult clients struggling with moderate to severe depression and anxiety. He has facilitated many unique interventions and group modalities in the area of addressing relationship conflict and negative thought patterns. Contact him at ballantynebrandon@yahoo.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Reach Higher: Bridging the gaps through cultural competency

By Bethany Bray November 4, 2016

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. was preaching to the choir at last week’s Reach Higher Convening when he said school counselors could make a powerful and long-term impact on the lives of students.

“I am here because of the difference educators made for me. I know you make that difference. … You [school counselors] are everyday heroes in our schools,” said King, whose mother was a school counselor.

The Reach Higher Convening, a gathering of close to 200 school counselors, administrators and other education professionals from around the U.S., was held Oct. 28-30 at American University in Washington, D.C. The American Counseling Association was a co-sponsor of the event, the

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

fifth gathering held as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative focused on the bridge between K-12 education and college and career readiness.

While at the convening, King announced that the U.S. Department of Education would expand its School Ambassador Fellows program to include school counselors (starting with the 2017-18 school year). Previously, the program was open only to teachers and school principals. Educators in the ambassador program lend their perspective to discussions about federal programs and are positioned to inform nationwide policy.

The theme of this year’s convening was cultural competence. Workshops and sessions focused on addressing the equity gaps that exist for students from underserved backgrounds.

For example, King posed a question: When you walk into an advanced placement (AP) class in a public high school, does the class makeup reflect the school community as a whole? What about the robotics club or the in-school suspension room?

Only 18 percent of teachers are persons of color, which does not match the overall cultural makeup of America’s student body, King noted.

“We still have not delivered, as a society, on Brown [v. the Board of Education],” King said. “We want students to have role models that look like them. That’s important to how we knit our diverse society together.”

For educators, cultural competence includes knowing – and appreciating – the context in which a student lives, said King. For example, a student who serves as a translator for his or her family may be apprehensive about leaving home for college.

“They [families and students from underserved backgrounds] don’t have the same range of knowledge of what’s possible. … We can affect that through school,” King said.

A school counselor’s role as an advocate, particularly for students who are first-generation Americans, “can change a student’s life trajectory,” said King.

Vivian Lee, an American Counseling Association member and associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, spoke about how each person’s own cultural

ACA member Vivian Lee speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

ACA member Vivian Lee speaks at the Reach Higher Convening on Oct. 28. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

competence is a lens through which he or she views data such as student achievement statistics.

“Cultural competence is a lifelong journey,” Lee said. “It’s a journey we are all on. It enables us to see that the road is more challenging for some. … We need to be able to see, hear and validate the lives of people in groups other than our own. … The time is now for us to begin these dialogues.”

Lee and another member of ACA, Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of American University’s School of Education, were instrumental in organizing the Reach Higher Convening at AU. ACA President Catherine Roland also attending the convening.

“It doesn’t get any better than having the White House, the First Lady and the Department of Education recognize and support the integral role of counselors in helping students ‘reach higher,’” said Lynn Linde, senior director of ACA’s Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research. She has attended all five convening events.

“This convening focused on equity and access issues for all students and the counselor’s integral role in helping all students maximize their potential,” Linde said. “… [School counselors] see the potential in students who don’t always see it in themselves.”

 

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(From Left to right) Jasmine McLeod, school counseling specialist at the U.S. Department of Defense; Laura Owen, researcher in residence at American University; John B. King Jr., U.S. Secretary of Education; Vivian Lee, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Dean of American University’s School of Education, at the Reach Higher Convening in Washington D.C. on Oct. 28. [Photo credit: Steven Owen]

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Find out more about the Reach Higher initiative at whitehouse.gov/reach-higher

 

Press release from the U.S. Department of Education on the inclusion of school counselors in the ambassador program: bit.ly/2dZFCPs

 

ACA President Catherine Roland will share some thoughts about the convening in her “From the president” column in the upcoming December issue of Counseling Today.

 

ACA’s Q+A with Secretary King from this summer: bit.ly/1YBlQZu

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Helping students change with dignity

By John J. Murphy August 26, 2016

“We may need to solve problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward.”

— Edward de Bono

 

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In the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, author Robert Fulghum said he had learned life’s most important lessons as a young child in kindergarten. In that same spirit, this article could be titled, “Most of What I Know About Counseling Students, I Learned From Students.”

As much as I appreciate my formal training, the best lessons of all — the ones that really got my attention and took hold — have come from the young people I’ve been privileged to serve. MurphyThese lessons can be condensed into two practical principles of school-based counseling: 1) Involve students and 2) build solutions from strengths and resources.

As further testimony to the expertise of my youthful teachers, these two strategies are strongly supported by mountains of empirical research in counseling and psychotherapy. More specifically, research indicates that counseling outcomes depend largely on the quality of the client-counselor alliance, the client’s hope for a better future and the extent to which the client’s opinions, values, strengths, social supports, life experiences and other “client factors” are incorporated into counseling.

This article translates these findings and principles into the following steps and techniques of solution-focused counseling, a practical and culturally sensitive approach to helping young people change with dignity.

Step 1: Establish collaborative relationships

The client’s perception of a strong client-counselor alliance is the most reliable predictor of successful outcomes, and client involvement is the key to a strong alliance. The more involved students are in their own counseling, the better the outcomes. The following techniques help to strengthen alliances and improve outcomes in solution-focused counseling.

Adopt the ambassador perspective. Approach every session as a cross-cultural exchange and every student as a unique “culture of one,” with the humility, respect and curiosity that a foreign ambassador would show when entering an unfamiliar country or culture. Good ambassadors look, listen and learn from people before making any assumptions
or suggestions.

Compliment students. Anything we can do to boost students’ hope will improve outcomes, which is why compliments are an important part of solution-focused counseling. Compliments help to reframe students’ views of themselves and their circumstances, and they are often folded into questions in solution-focused counseling. For example, asking a student who complains of being stressed out and depressed, “How have you managed to juggle so many things for so long?” invites a more hopeful and empowering self-perception. Students can be complimented for attending counseling sessions (“It takes courage to meet like this”), cooperating in the conversation (“I appreciate your help and patience in answering my questions”) and trying to improve their lives (“With all you’ve been through, where do you find the strength to keep on trying instead of giving up?”).

Fit counseling to students versus students to counseling. Just as a tailor adjusts a suit to fit the owner, we need to customize counseling to each student rather than requiring students to conform to our favorite ideas and methods. This means incorporating students’ key words and phrases into the conversation, exploring their theories and opinions, and determining what they want from us and our services.

Incorporating students’ language into counseling conversations validates their perceptions and reinforces the client-driven emphasis of solution-focused counseling. For example, if Maria says, “My teacher gets on my back all the time about my behavior,” we could ask, “What have you found helpful in getting your teacher off your back?”

Another way to fit counseling to students is to explore their opinions about the problem and potential solutions. This can be done through asking questions such as, “What needs to happen to improve things at school?” and “If you were counseling people in a similar situation, what would you advise them to do?” A student’s ideas about the problem and its possible solution can be cobbled into interventions that are more likely to be accepted and implemented by the student than interventions that come from other sources.

Obtaining feedback from students is another way to ensure the provision of student-driven rather than counselor-driven services. The Outcome Rating Scale and Session Rating Scale — two four-item client feedback scales that take one minute to administer and score — provide ongoing snapshots of students’ perceptions of counseling progress and alliance. Collecting feedback from clients during every meeting, and adjusting services based on this feedback, has been shown to dramatically improve counseling outcomes regardless of one’s theoretical orientation.

Step 2: Develop practical goals

In addition to providing students with a sense of hope, purpose and direction for the future, goals help them persist in the face of setbacks and obstacles. Effective goals share several characteristics that can be summarized in the 5-S guideline: significant, specific, small, start based and self-manageable.

Significant: The most important feature of a counseling goal is its personal relevance to the client. Good goals are goals that matter to students, and we can develop these goals by asking questions such as “What are your best hopes for counseling?” and “What is the most important thing you want to change about school right now?”

Specific: Goals also need to be specific and concrete so that students, counselors and anyone else involved can tell when they are reached. The following sample questions help counselors partner with students to develop specific goals: “If we videotaped you being less anxious at school, what would we see you doing?”; “What will be happening next week to let us know that we’re on the right track?”

Small: Practical goals are small enough to be attained, yet challenging enough to inspire action. Questions that help in this regard include the following: “What will be the first small sign that things are moving in the right direction?”; “You rated school as a 2 on a 10-point scale. What would a 2.5 or 3 look like at school?”

Start based: When asked what they want from counseling, most students tell you what they don’t want: “I want to get in less trouble at school” or “I want to be less depressed.” When students state goals in negative terms, we can ask the following “instead of” questions to encourage goals that express the start or presence of something desirable rather than the end or absence of something undesirable: “What will you be doing in class instead of getting in trouble?”; “What would you rather be doing instead of being depressed?” In addition to being more noticeable and measurable than negatively worded goals, start-based goals are more motivating because they focus students’ attention on moving toward what they want (solutions)
rather than away from what they don’t want (problems).

Self-manageable: Students may initially focus on how other people should change instead of considering what they could do differently (“My teachers need to back off and chill a little”). This perspective, accurate as it may be, usually impedes solutions by holding others responsible for changing while placing oneself in a passive and powerless role. When this occurs, counselors can acknowledge students’ perceptions while inviting them to consider what they might do to improve

the school situation: “What have you found helpful in getting your teachers to back off and chill?”

Step 3: Build on what is ‘right’

Instead of emphasizing what is wrong, missing and not working (problems, deficits, limitations), solution-focused counseling invites students and others to notice and build on what is “right” with students and their lives (successes, strengths, resources).

Build on exceptions. Struggling students typically are aware of their failures and problems at school, which is one reason why building on exceptions is so effective in grabbing and keeping their attention. Exceptions refer to the “good times” at school — times when the problem could have happened but did not. These nonproblem occasions are minisolutions that are already happening, just not as often as people would like.

Building on exceptions is a core technique of solution-focused counseling that involves three steps: 1) eliciting exceptions (“When is the problem absent or less noticeable?”), 2) exploring the conditions under which exceptions occur (“How did you make that happen? What was different about your approach?”) and 3) expanding their presence and frequency at school (“What will it take to make that happen more often at school? Are you willing to try that approach in another class?”). This strategy is based on the practical idea that it is more efficient to increase what students are already doing than it is to teach them brand-new behaviors from scratch.

Many students are surprised to learn that they are doing “something” right, and they become more hopeful when they realize that they already have what it takes to turn things around at school. On a more personal level, building on exceptions encourages struggling students to change the question from “How can I be more like other students?” to “How can I be more like myself during my better moments?”

Build on other student resources. In solution-focused counseling, all students are viewed as resourceful and capable of changing. It is our job as counselors to help them identify and apply the “natural resources” in their lives toward school solutions. Natural resources include heroes and influential people (family, friends, actors, athletes); resilience and coping (students’ abilities to cope with life’s adversities); values (students’ deeply held beliefs); special interests (cooking, sports, movies); and community support systems (places of worship, neighborhood groups, clubs). These resources, individually or in combination, can be woven into respectful Branding-Images_Studentsinterventions that improve school behavior while respecting students’ cultural heritage and life experiences.

Let’s look at a quick example involving Ben, a 10-year-old student who loved baseball. After a few minutes of general baseball talk, we explored similarities between the challenges of school and the challenges of baseball. For instance, we talked about how long the baseball season is and how important it is to not let a few bad games ruin the entire season. Ben agreed to try a baseball experiment at school that involved “stepping up to the plate every day” and doing his best, knowing that he would sometimes “strike out” and have bad days. Ben improved his classroom behavior over the next two weeks, and his teacher commented on his impressive turnaround.

This example captures the general nature of building on student resources — identify an available, naturally occurring resource in the student’s life and link the resource to a school solution. Because every student offers a unique set of resources, resource-based interventions are constructed one student at a time with no preconceived notions about what they should look like. You are not likely to find them in treatment manuals or lists because a) they cannot be selected or developed before meeting the student, b) they evolve from the student-counselor relationship and are often formulated on the spot in collaboration with the student and c) they are based completely on material supplied by the student — which is precisely why they work so well. I describe these techniques and many others in greater detail while offering more than 50 real-world illustrations in the new third edition of my book Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools (2015), published by the American Counseling Association.

Solution-focused counseling rests on two main values. First, students should be given every opportunity to be actively involved in their own care because they are the very people for whom school-based counseling services are designed. In addition to honoring core principles of multiculturalism and social justice, giving clients a voice in shaping and evaluating counseling services results in better outcomes. Second, all students are doing “something” to help themselves — if only to keep the problem from getting worse — and these assets and resources can be applied toward school solutions. Without denying the reality and pain of school problems, we can improve outcomes by identifying students’ strengths and resources and incorporating them into the counseling process.

I hope this article was successful in showing that solution-focused counseling in schools is far more than a set of techniques. It is instead a new and different way to approach young people, problems and solutions.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

John J. Murphy, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Central Arkansas, is the author of several well-regarded books, including the third edition of Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, published by the American Counseling Association. Contact him at jmurphy@uca.edu and learn more about his work at drjohnmurphy.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The counselor’s role in ensuring school safety

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2016

Samantha Haviland was a junior and a peer counselor at Columbine High School in April 1999 when two of her fellow students brought weapons to school, killing 12 students and one teacher before dying by suicide.

The massacre at the Littleton, Colorado, high school is often cited as the event that launched an era in which U.S. schools practice lockdown drills as often as fire drills. In less than two decades since, phrases such as active shooter, rampage violence and post-Columbine have become part of the American vernacular.

Haviland, a past president of the Colorado School Counselor Association and director of counseling support services for the Denver Public Schools, doesn’t usually disclose her connection to Columbine to the students with whom she works. But it is undeniably an experience that she still carries with her.

“What it does do is remind me, every day, of the vulnerabilities of our school communities and our students and the need for mental health,” Haviland says. “It is very sad to see that 17 years later, we struggle with the exact same thing — and worse. … What I do see is a lot of heightened awareness from school staff and a lot of fear, both from students and staff. It can be scary to go to work every day with the knowledge that this is now an [issue].”

Today’s reality is that school counselors and school administrators need to have well-crafted crisis plans ready to go. But equally as important, Haviland says, is the attention that school personnel should pay to the smaller, day-to-day issues that affect a school’s safety, from racial microaggressions and bullying to dating and relationship violence.

School counselors need both preventive and reactive tools in their toolboxes, and “there’s no magic wand for any of it,” Haviland asserts.

A visible presence

Violence can be defined as anything that is done with the intent to harm someone else, says Zachary Pietrantoni, a licensed school counselor who just finished his doctorate in counselor education and supervision at Southern Illinois University. In school settings, conversations about safety should take into consideration that violence can be physical, such as fighting, or nonphysical, including aggressive behavior that is verbal, psychological or carried out over social media, Pietrantoni says.

The antidote to school violence — in all its forms — is an inclusive and resilient school environment in which counselors play pivotal roles, say many of the professionals interviewed Branding-Images_lockersfor this article. One key way school counselors can foster a culture of safety is by making themselves a familiar face and ready resource for students, parents and school staff.

“Make yourself the person they turn to,” says Kevin Curtin, an associate professor of counseling at Alfred University in New York state. “Be present, be visible. You want everyone to know that you’re the go-to person.” That might mean helping a parent or colleague to better understand a student’s mental health diagnosis, or talking through a challenging situation regarding a particular student with a teacher, he says.

Although school counselors are part of the leadership in their school buildings, Curtin thinks the word facilitator is a better fit than leader. “Establish a relationship with everyone,” he advises. “You have to work with all the teachers, specialists, parents, the principal and the assistant principal. You need to collaborate effectively with everyone. Make sure you’re a contact point. It’s a unique role. … While you’re not the ultimate boss [in a school], you need to be a leader for everybody.”

School counselors can foster this mindset among students by being highly visible throughout the school, says Curtin, who spent 17 years as a counselor and clinical director at an alternative school in Rockville, Maryland, for students who were identified as being at risk. “You want to go from classroom to classroom during the first week of school every year and introduce yourself,” says Curtin, an American Counseling Association member who is a certified school counselor and licensed mental health counselor. “I used to joke that I should have rollerblades because I was constantly roaming. I was visible. I made sure I knew every student and their families. I wanted to be trusted. … I wanted them to know they could come to me, and I wanted my colleagues to feel the same.”

Haviland says the role of the school counselor is to be a unifying staff member who builds relationships throughout the school building so that everyone feels safe and included. The goal should be to create an environment in which each student has “at least one positive relationship with a staff member. It doesn’t have to be the school counselor. It could be the janitor,” says Haviland, a member of the American School Counselor Association and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, both divisions of ACA.

Carleton Brown, a certified school counselor and counselor educator who researched school rampage violence for his doctoral dissertation, notes that perpetrators of school violence often lash out because they feel it is their only avenue to “be heard,” either by their peers or by society at large. That is one of the reasons, he says, that school counselors should strive to create opportunities for all students to feel heard, including helping them to establish relationships with trusted adults in the building.

“Create a sense of belonging [for students], a sense of ‘I belong here at this school’ — a personal stake in the school and the school environment,” says Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and past president of the Arkansas Counseling Association, a state branch of ACA.

The importance of staff-student relationships also comes into play in a phenomenon that law enforcement officials term leakage, Brown says. This is when a student clues a friend or classmate in to his or her plans for violence, such as telling the peer to stay home or avoid a specific area of the school on a certain day. If that peer is comfortable with a school staff member, he or she is more likely to come forward and report any potential threat, says Brown, a member of ACA.

The simple truth is that students always know of goings-on in the school that staff members don’t, notes Mark Lepore, a professor at Clarion University in Pennsylvania who was a school counselor for a decade. “When you ask teachers if bullying is [happening] in their classrooms, you’ll most likely get a ‘no.’ But if you ask students, they can tell you where it occurs, who is involved, how often it happens,” says Lepore, an ACA member. “It’s just this world that students are privy to, but we, as adults, miss it.”

To that end, school counselors can play a key role in making connections and building rapport with — and between — students, Lepore says. For example, counselors can help teachers facilitate weekly check-ins, in which a small amount of class time (for example, 15 minutes every Friday) is spent on a safety topic. This might include a lesson about social-emotional skills or an open-ended discussion about how safe students are feeling, he says.

“When [teachers and classrooms] check in every week, it seems so simple, but it makes a difference,” says Lepore, a licensed professional counselor and licensed clinical social worker. “Having this meeting every week sends a message to students that [staff] do care and issues can be talked about. There’s a lot of opportunity for counselors to be a part of that process.”

Pietrantoni, a national certified counselor and ACA member, worked as an elementary school counselor at a Title I school in Topeka, Kansas, where a program called Cool Tools was used. Students were introduced to a different “tool” each week involving a positive social behavior or characteristic, such as how to make friends, how to ask another child to play or how to be respectful or friendly. For example, one week the tool was trustworthiness, so the entire school focused on behaviors that demonstrated and fostered that characteristic. Each classroom would discuss that week’s tool and engage in role-playing. School counselors put up posters about the tools throughout the school and visited classrooms to review the week’s lesson with students.

Reaching those who are ‘at risk’

School counselors can also play an important role in ensuring school safety by working with teachers and other school staff to identify and reach out to students who are struggling. This includes students who are often truant or absent, have behavioral issues or are socially isolated.

For example, Lepore says, a school counselor or other staff member can be “assigned” a struggling student to interact with on a daily basis. The counselor or staff member would check in with the student at some point each school day, such as during lunch or as students enter the school in the morning.

During his time as a school counselor, Curtin regularly performed these check-ins with certain students. In some cases, the meetings were scheduled, such as when he ate lunch with a student or asked a student to stop by his office each day before lunch. Other times, he simply made a point of being in the hallway at a certain time of day when he knew the student needed to pass through. Regardless, he made sure to interact with the student daily.

“I used to have a big jar of candy [in my office],” Curtin remembers. “It’s just something little, but one piece of candy, right after lunch, if a student was meeting a goal. Something as little as that [can provide] positive reinforcement.”

As an elementary and middle school counselor in suburban Pittsburgh, Lepore facilitated peer mediation programs and an initiative called Circle of Friends, which grouped students who possessed healthy social skills with students who needed to work on those skills. First, parental permission was obtained. Then these “circles of friends” were grouped together for lunch or school events such as field trips. The interactions helped curb negative behaviors and made struggling students feel included, Lepore says.

“Teachers are already so overworked,” he adds. “They often tune stuff out when asked to do more, but if they can see results, [programming] will be embraced. It’s finding the right program and the right fit, and [also] involving parents the whole way.”

Service learning and volunteer projects are also effective tools for helping students experience a sense of belonging and community, Lepore says, and this can curtail potential problems down the road. For example, students in Lepore’s school wrote cards and letters to the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The police department responded and sent officers to visit Lepore’s school. What started out as a gesture of thanks became an unforgettable experience for many students, he says.

“Service learning is a really great vehicle for changing behavior and promoting [student] engagement. … Sense of belonging is a key factor in how students will achieve. Does a student feel they belong? If not, what can we do to fix that?” Lepore says.

Fostering a safe environment

The approaches school counselors take to cultivate a safe environment must be tailored to their schools’ unique needs, Haviland says, and the first step in that direction is assessment. She suggests that counselors create and administer student surveys with questions related to bullying and other safety indicators, such as whether students feel they have a teacher or other school staff member they can talk to when needed.

After reviewing the responses, counselors can help their schools create programs to meet the needs that students identified in the survey. This might range from concerns about dating violence among the student body to a need for additional extracurricular activities for students to get involved in, Haviland says.

Haviland recommends that school counselors administer safety surveys at their respective schools a minimum of once each year because the makeup of the student body and the perceived needs are constantly changing. “Have a pulse on the needs of your students at all times,” she emphasizes.

Pietrantoni says that forging partnerships with community groups such as nonprofit or advocacy organizations, churches and counseling agencies can be conducive to addressing specific needs in a school. For example, if bullying of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is an issue within the school, the counselor might facilitate a partnership with a community LGBT advocacy group to organize a schoolwide assembly focused on equality or to establish a gay-straight alliance, Pietrantoni suggests.

Another avenue for counselors to monitor the pulse of their schools is to create advisory councils that include students, parents and school staff, Pietrantoni says. This approach allows school counselors to gain multiple perspectives on issues going on in the school and the community at large.

“Not relying on one perspective will help broaden [a school counselor’s] program and perspective. This will give you eyes and ears in different areas,” says Pietrantoni, who begins a position as an assistant professor of counselor education at New Jersey City University this fall.

Crisis intervention and threat assessment

Creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive school culture requires that school counselors take a multilevel approach. At the staff and administrative level, this might include organizing teacher trainings, collaborating with a school resource officer and spearheading parent outreach. In working directly with students, it could range from organizing schoolwide programs on social-emotional behavior to providing group counseling with students who are at risk. As a whole, “school counselors are the leaders in creating a healthy environment,” Haviland says.

One key piece of the puzzle for Curtin was ensuring that his therapeutic team and school staff were trained in crisis intervention. The training helped staff de-escalate potentially volatile situations, such as when students became frustrated over something and were “about to lose it,” he says. Curtin worked at an alternative school where many of the students had emotional or behavioral disorders, so those situations were relatively common, he says.

The crisis training not only helped school staff learn how and when to intervene but also taught them empathic listening skills, says Curtin, who facilitated the trainings.

Another important skill to foster among school staff is the ability to identify warning signs that might indicate a student needs extra attention, Curtin says. These signs may include behavioral problems such as physical fighting or destruction of property, bullying or being bullied, suicidal tendencies, drug use, social withdrawal or isolation, impulsiveness, expressions of violence in writings or drawings, and outbursts of uncontrolled anger.

“Counselors are the front line in being able to identify potential risks and train others,” says Brian Van Brunt, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. He says all school staff, including teaching and nonteaching positions such as sports coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and janitorial staff, should be given training in crisis intervention and mental health first aid.

“Nonclinicians are key. The same people you’d want to know CPR are the people you’d want to be trained [in mental health first aid],” Van Brunt says. Why? Because it’s equally likely that a student will become violent or suicidal on a school bus or on the playground as in a classroom, he says. When trained properly, these “first responders” can intervene effectively to stop potentially violent situations from escalating. They can also refer students who need counseling.

Van Brunt, who holds a doctorate in counseling education and supervision, started his career as a private practitioner. He eventually became the director of a college counseling center before moving into the specialty of threat assessment. As he explains, threat assessment is different from the typical mental health evaluations that counselors do, which usually result in a diagnosis and treatment plan. With threat assessment, a practitioner determines how likely a person is to repeat a violent incident or follow through on a threat that he or she has made. In school settings, this often comes into play when administrators are deciding whether to allow a student to return to school after being suspended for a violent or behavioral incident.

“You need to get to the underlying question of whether that person is a danger to someone else. … You need to determine whether or not the person is a risk,” says Van Brunt, the author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness, which is published by ACA. “[Threat assessment] is asking very different questions than a mental health assessment.”

Van Brunt presented a threat assessment case study at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. The case involved a female student whose bra strap was snapped by a male classmate in the hallway. In response, the female stabbed the perpetrator in the arm with a pencil.

Both individual and systemic issues need to be considered when conducting a threat assessment, Van Brunt emphasizes. In this case, the female student was surrounded by a group of male students in a dark hallway when the incident occurred.

“Often we need to look at both the individual and the community and ask questions about how we reduce this behavior going forward,” says Van Brunt, a past president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “Consider the circumstance. Was this a reasonable reaction or not? … Why was the hallway dark? Why were these students left unsupervised?”

In this situation, a counselor should also consider — and possibly introduce school programming focused on — the bigger, systemic issue of how the student body understands (or doesn’t understand) personal and sexual boundaries, Van Brunt adds.

“This is where I think counselors have such a wonderful, diverse [skill set], building rapport and understanding the issue of cognitive distortion, how we understand things, how we put things together,” he says. “A lot of these [threat assessment] cases center on how people are thinking about things, which is really what counselors do best — helping people think differently when they choose a path [and] getting them to the solutions they want to go to.”

Brown agrees, noting the difference between making a threat and posing a threat. He suggests a team approach can be helpful when conducting threat assessments in schools. In addition to school administrators and school counselors, it can be beneficial to include school resource officers, law enforcement professionals and mental health counselors from the community on these teams. Having multiple viewpoints is vital, he says.

Determining whether a student poses a threat “is difficult for one person to answer,” asserts Brown. “My suggestion, when it comes to threat assessment, is to look at it from a holistic, integrative and multiteam way.”

Although it is important for school staff to look for warning signs of potential violence, Brown emphasizes that there is no “all-in-one checklist” of behavioral cues to monitor. He points to a 1999 FBI report by Mary Ellen O’Toole that analyzed 18 different U.S. school shootings.

“One response to the pressure for action [after a violent incident] may be an effort to identify the next shooter by developing a ‘profile’ of the typical school shooter,” wrote O’Toole, a former senior profiler for the FBI. “This may sound like a reasonable preventive measure, but in practice, trying to draw up a catalogue or ‘checklist’ of warning signs to detect a potential school shooter can be shortsighted, even dangerous. Such lists, publicized by the media, can end up unfairly labeling many nonviolent students as potentially dangerous or even lethal. In fact, a great many adolescents who will never commit violent acts will show some of the behaviors or personality traits included on the list.”

Instead, Brown suggests that school counselors take a holistic approach and consider the wider circumstance of a student’s full personality, home life, family dynamics, social situation and past interactions with peers and staff when assessing the potential for future violence.

“What research says is [that warning signs] are all a factor, but they are not the sole factor,” Brown says. “Some of the students who committed these acts [school shootings] were bullied or they were the bully. … That doesn’t mean that every student who is bullied will commit these acts.”

Curtin agrees. “It is important to understand that warning signs should be viewed in context. They do not necessarily mean that the young person is predisposed to commit violence,” he says. “Instead, I try to convey the notion [to graduate school counseling students] that warning signs are an opportunity for school counselors to check out and address any concerns or issues the child might have in order to determine an appropriate intervention.”

This is especially important to keep in mind in situations in which students have trauma in their backgrounds, Lepore says. “It’s changing the focus from looking at a student [and asking], ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What have you been through?’” he says.

School counselors “have a unique opportunity to know the students, their families and their unique situations,” Lepore continues. “We have more information [about a student’s background] than the teachers or administration have, and that can be of use for the betterment of the students and the school.”

Resiliency and response

Counselors are also key players in a school’s response to trauma or violence. This could involve any number of scenarios that affect the school community, from the death of one of its students to an act of violence (such as a shooting) in the local community or an act of mass violence that happened elsewhere but is widely reported in the news. Depending on the situation, it can be beneficial for school counselors to go classroom to classroom to discuss the incident and answer students’ questions about grief, self-care and other mental health issues, Brown says.

School counselors can also orchestrate “stations” throughout the school — safe places, such as the library, where students can take a break and talk to a staff person — following a traumatic or violent incident that affects the student body, Brown says. In such circumstances, counselors may need to meet with teachers and administrators to discuss the importance of temporarily relaxing school rules, postponing tests and altering academic schedules to enable students to freely seek the help they need, he adds.

If a traumatic event affects a large swath of the study body, the school’s counselor may want to arrange for additional counselors from the community or other schools to come on-site to provide services to the students. Likewise, if a particular class or student group is affected, it can be helpful to have a counselor or other mental health professional sit in with that group all day to offer support, Brown says.

As with threat assessment, school crisis response is most effective when it involves a team, Brown says. He suggests these teams include the school’s counselors, principals and administrators, teachers, other staff relevant to the situation and, in some cases, parents.

“The team will assess ‘how do we handle this situation?’ You want to prepare and respond in a way that makes the students feel safe, feel heard [and feel] that we’re not just going on with everyday life. You need to give students an opportunity to talk about it and mourn,” Brown says.

“The team [dynamic] is very powerful [in crisis response],” he adds. “It’s not fair for a school counselor to feel that all of this is on his or her shoulders. … The school counselor shouldn’t be the sole person responsible for the emotional welfare of a school.”

Parents as part of the safety equation

A significant amount of research shows a connection between student achievement and parents who are involved and engaged. According to the counselors interviewed for this article, a similar connection exists between parental engagement and safe school environments.

“Parents are key players in your schoolwide approach [for safety],” Curtin says. “Bring them in for meetings. Include them in planning. Empower them to help.”

Curtin suggests that school counselors include parents on any team that creates or revises a violence prevention or school improvement plan. Counselors should also keep in touch and work with their schools’ parent-teacher organizations and other parent groups, he says.

The driving philosophy is that a safe school is born out of community, Curtin says. His advice to school counselors: “Build relationships, be present, have good prevention programs and know the warning signs [for violence]. Help the at-risk and be there for them.”

 

 

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School safety and violence statistics

  • In 2014, there were more than 850,000 nonfatal victimizations (including assaults, thefts and other incidents) among students ages 12 to 18 at schools across the United States.
  • About 7 percent of U.S. high school students reported being threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun or knife on school property in 2013.
  • In 2013, approximately 22 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. Females reported higher percentages of being made fun of, being called names or insulted, being the subject of rumors or being excluded from activities on purpose. A higher percentage of males reported being pushed, shoved or tripped at school.
  • In 2013, about 8 percent of U.S. high school students reported being involved in a physical fight on school property during the past year.
  • In 2013, approximately 7 percent of U.S. students ages 12 to 18 reported being cyberbullied during the school year. A higher overall percentage of female students reported being victims of cyberbullying.
  • In the 2013-2014 school year, about 88 percent of U.S public schools had a written plan for response procedures in the event of a shooting; 70 percent of those schools with a plan had drilled students on the use of the plan.

— Source: The National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Parents are part of a school, too

By Bethany Bray August 22, 2016

A school counselor’s first and foremost focus should – of course – be their students. However, to maintain a healthy, safe and resilient school community, school counselors need to include parents in the equation.

Counseling Today spoke with several counselors who have experience in school settings for an upcoming article on school safety. They offer the following tips to include and engage school parents:

 

Pick up the phone: Call parents when there is bad or good news to share about their child’s achievement or behavior, says Mark Lepore, a professor at Clarion University in Clarion, Pennsylvania who was a school counselor for a decade in suburban Pittsburgh.

For example, Lepore’s school had a “catch a student doing good” campaign in which parents were notified when a student met a goal or exceeded expectations.

“[Most schools] only call home when there’s a problem. We really put parents on the defensive,” he adds.

Zachary Pietrantoni, a licensed school counselor and assistant professor of counselor education at New Jersey City University, also suggests that counselors call parents regularly to check in.

“Having those conversations with parents is important,” Pietrantoni says. “A lot of times parents are hesitant to reach out because most of the communication [from a school] is negative. Don’t hesitate to reach out with good stuff too. Be proactive.”

 

Go online: Another way to keep parents connected is to ensure that school counseling programs maintain useful and updated websites that promote the program and share contact information, says Kevin Curtin, a former school counselor and associate professor of counseling at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. School counselors should be sure to include information about program staff and the services offered to students and families, he says.

Use the website to “describe the initiatives that you do,” Curtin says. “Welcome parents and families and talk about your philosophy, your goal of creating community. Describe your role. Make your program known.”

 

Organize events with family needs in mind: Most of all, Pietrantoni says, “Invite parents to everything.” This can go beyond the academic and social events that schools often host, such as back-to-school nights or ice cream socials, he says. A counselor’s role can also extend to organizing activities such as weekend social clubs or sporting events at the school, all with an eye toward building community and keeping families engaged, Pietrantoni says.

When Pietrantoni was a counselor at a Title I school (a school that receives federal funding due to a high population of students from low-income backgrounds), many of his students’ parents worked multiple jobs and weren’t available during the school day. Organizing events on weeknights after dinnertime or on weekends can engage parents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit the school, he says.

Lepore suggests school counselors could arrange to have child care available during school meetings and other events for adults as way to make it easier for parents to attend. After-hours programming could include parenting classes, anti-bullying programs or support groups for parents of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Lepore says.

Curtin is a proponent of school counselors offering occasional evening office hours, making themselves available so parents can come in to ask questions or talk about concerns. As a counselor at an alternative school for students at risk, Curtin led ongoing multifamily group therapy sessions for students and their families at the school in the evenings. He acknowledges that this model might not be feasible at large public schools, but he points out that school counselors can still facilitate extra programming for students and their families, even if the school counselors can’t lead the programming themselves. “Making [this programming] an option outside of school hours would be a wonderful thing,” he adds.

 

 

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Counselors: What tools do you use to engage parents in a school community? Share your ideas in the comment section below.

 

Look for Counseling Today’s cover story “The counselor’s role in ensuring school safety” in the September magazine.

Students with their backpacks getting into school. First Day of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.