Counseling Today, Features

Conspicuously inconspicuous

Jim Paterson May 14, 2008

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.”