It should come as no surprise to school counselors that collaborating with teachers and other school personnel is key to effective results with students.
Patricia Nailor, president of the American School Counselor Association and retired director of school counseling for Providence, R.I., schools, says the importance of collaboration can’t be oversold in working toward student success. “To use an overused statement, ’It takes a village …’” Nailor says. “School counselors have knowledge, skills and expertise that teachers may not have. Together, they can provide the support to make all students successful.”
Two American Counseling Association members presenting at ACA’s 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition in Pittsburgh in March say that when a focus on student strengths is added into the collaboration mix, results can be even better.
About five years ago, in an effort to increase student resiliency, Mary Alice Bruce, professor and coordinator of the University of Wyoming’s school counseling program, conducted a research study on strengths-based classroom interventions. The study focused on third- and fifth-grade teachers in the Douglas, Wyo., school district, who in turn worked with 78 elementary and middle school students. While the results were drawn from third- and fifth-grade students, Bruce says the model addresses resiliency needs for students from preschool through high school.
“As I researched resiliency, I realized that some of the best instructional practices in the classroom could build student coping/adaptive strengths and enhance resiliency without making extra work for the teachers. Thus, our guiding research question was, ’What classroom interventions can build on student strengths, thus helping students to thrive and grow and enhance their academic, career and personal/social development?’” says Bruce, who has also served as a professional school counselor in rural schools, as a math and science teacher in inner-city and rural schools and as a Peace Corps math teacher volunteer in Africa.
The components of Bruce’s “Classroom Counseling Model,” which was the basis for the study, included positive action strategies related to brainstorming, creative problem solving, goal setting, critical thinking and reflection, sensitivity to social learning and friendship support networks. “These educational practices purposefully used by teachers and everyone else, including counselors, parents and community members, can intentionally acknowledge students’ strengths and enhance healthy development and functioning,” says Bruce, who is also a member of ASCA, a division of ACA.
Christin Covello, a doctoral counseling student at the University of Wyoming who will be presenting alongside Bruce and two others in Pittsburgh, says the individual intervention strategies were divided into behavior approaches and cognitive approaches. “The behavioral approaches included such things as social skills training, physical activity, decompression time and environmental reinforcement,” Covello says. “The cognitive approaches included self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-reinforcement and examining attribution styles.”
At the end of the study, Bruce assessed the outcome using the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory with the students. In addition, both students and teachers were asked other questions that involved rating themselves in the areas of goal setting, problem solving and brainstorming. According to Bruce, the quantitative results of the study indicate that using the strengths-based classroom counseling model significantly increases student resiliency, including self-esteem, social competence, sense of purpose and problem-solving skills.
“Resiliency depends on skills related to social competence, respect and caring, decision making, problem solving and goal setting, as established by Bonnie Benard’s seminal works and complementary research,” Bruce says. “As shown by our research project, implementing the components of our model significantly increases students’ self-esteem as well as positive behaviors and developmental assets as rated by the teachers and students themselves.”
Strength over weakness
The key to the study that Bruce headed, says Covello, was adding a strengths-based class counseling model to collaboration. The model focused on concepts of resiliency, positive action strategies useful in any academic content area and structured teaching procedures. “The emphasis is placed on improving children’s self-esteem in order to overcome the stressors they have in their lives,” Covello says. “The point is for teachers to focus on children’s strengths and build off of these strengths instead of focusing on weaknesses. Every child has strengths, and it should be the goal of the educator, whether it is the teacher or school counselor, to uncover these strengths.”
Bruce offers an illustration of using positive action strategies when it comes to brainstorming, which is one of the key components of the model she used in the study. “Brainstorming, an often-used classroom instructional practice, calls for students creatively to offer many choices without judgment, then later analyze choices, as wild and crazy as they may be, to make a decision,” she says. “To create a safe classroom environment and model caring respect, the teacher may warm up the class with an activity related to everyday life and then facilitate the students in transferring those skills to the academic/behavioral content at hand.”
For example, the teacher could get students started by letting them team up and brainstorm Halloween costumes that might win first prize at a classroom party. During the brainstorming session, the teacher would check in with each team, modeling nonjudgment and social support, Bruce says. “Afterward, when listening as a classroom group, the teacher very intentionally states, ’You have choices. We have a lot of hope. When we feel a bit down, let’s remember we have choices and things can change.’”
When that exercise wraps up, Bruce says the teacher can acknowledge social competence, respect and caring by letting the class know how impressed she was with their ability to work well in teams. Transitioning to the academic content, the teacher might next ask the class to brainstorm factors for a math equation, reminding them they have choices in math, too. “The teacher uses existing skills and practices to support a variety of choices that may lead to creative problem solving and decision making, in addition to enhancing students’ social competence, respect and caring among themselves,” Bruce says. “The key is the intentionality of the teacher in commenting about the process during teaching and learning.”
Emphasizing the existence of choices is a major factor in resiliency, Bruce says, because it is reassuring for individuals to realize that they have more than one path to follow. She gives the example of a student who wants to be a doctor but doesn’t possess the grade point average to get into medical school. Realizing that choices always exist might help the student to envision alternative career options as a nurse, an emergency medical technician or a medical supply salesperson rather than feeling he is already at a dead end, Bruce says.
Another important component of the classroom counseling model is building a friendship support network, Bruce says. “Children who are outliers or loners are a worry to me. In my experience, we need to have everyone included and experience a sense of belonging to achieve academically and thrive.” When students feel included, Bruce says, they can focus on academics instead of spending time and energy worrying that they will be left out of the group.
“For individual students who are unprepared, perhaps have disabilities or (are) even shunned by others, a teacher may say, ’Oops, Coty does not have a pencil. Who can help him?’” Bruce says. “If no one responds, the teacher can model caring (by saying), ’Let me give you one today.’ Soon, other students respond and receive appreciation from the teacher for shaping kind behaviors. I have observed many classrooms come together as caring communities as a result of the thoughtful kindness of teachers in building a classroom support network.”
Beyond feeling alienated from their peers, today’s school kids face an astounding number of issues and problems, Covello says. “From the media to technology to state and national (educational) standards, kids are being bombarded with stimulation, not all of it being positive. Many kids are left at home unsupervised for hours while their parents must work to provide for them. Numerous kids are bullied by peers who may be their age or older. With the state standards being such a high priority, kids are faced with a lot of pressure to achieve high scores instead of focusing on learning from their mistakes.”
Concentrating on strengths trains students to focus on the positive opportunities available to them, whether now or in the future, as opposed to the negative circumstances in their life, Covello says. “Focusing on strengths of children allows them to feel better about themselves as people and helps to limit the negative thoughts they have about themselves. These children are able to get along more effectively with their peers, and they learn to work together to achieve goals.”
Nailor, who is also a consultant in public schools and adjunct instructor at Providence College in the graduate program for school counselors, agrees. “It is important to support student success by focusing on their strengths and helping them do the same,” she says. “I have often said that I dislike the term ’at-risk.’ I prefer to speak of students as ’at-promise.’”
A focus on the positive might also help students achieve more than is expected of them, Covello adds. “By shifting gears from their weaknesses to their strengths, you help them to become resilient not just in the short term, but in the long term, and to build that resiliency for their entire life.”
Resilience is crucial to succeeding in life, Bruce says. “In the face of societal challenges and life’s adversity, students experience anxiety and stress that affects their motivation, social competence and academic achievement. Resiliency is the capacity to handle challenges and then move forward in school and life in general. People’s strengths build their capacity to cope and adapt.”
“Resiliency is of importance to our youth today in part because of all the negative stressors that are a part of their lives,” Covello adds. “Our youth must bounce back from the challenges they face on a daily basis in order to succeed in our challenging world. If youth are unable to be resilient, they often struggle to be successful and keep their heads above water.”
Finding the time
The preparation and support of school counselors is top-notch, thanks to ASCA and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, says Bruce. But if she could offer one bit of advice to school counselors, it would be to emphasize their expertise in processing rather than dealing with content. “Counselors can support teachers in stepping beyond the usual academic content and talking directly with students about their actions,” Bruce says. “For example, the algebra teacher can encourage students by reflecting on the process. ’There you go with great problem solving! So, what did we do here? First, you brainstormed the factors, and then you analyzed and chose one of the factors. Next, you solved the problem. And that was our goal, to solve the problem. You have skills in decision making, problem solving and goal setting. Pat yourselves on the back.’”
Counselors who would like to begin collaborating with teachers should approach them with an attitude of appreciation and respect, Bruce says, keeping in mind that counselors need the help of teachers — as well as administrators and parents — to care for children’s well- being. “When I listen to teachers, I wonder aloud to them, ’How can I help? How can I best support you?’” Bruce says.
Bruce acknowledges that, faced with continued pressure to focus on academic content and higher test scores, teachers can face burnout and become less open to conversations about change. Covello adds that another barrier to collaboration is lack of time on the part of counselors. “It seems school counselors are routinely piled with so much paperwork and administrative duties that they are not allowed enough time to collaborate with all of the classroom teachers within their schools. Meeting state and national standards has become such a high (priority) that taking time to enhance self-esteem and focus on strengths has been moved to the back burner in many cases.”
The solution, these experts say, is not to give up. School counselors should listen to and support teachers, as well as advocate for themselves and children by making it known that school counselors need to spend more time helping students.
Bruce and Covello offer 10 worthwhile tips to help guide school counselors in their work.
- First, take care of yourself, Bruce says. “I need to take care of myself so that I’m able to provide that caring and listening to take care of everyone else,” she says. “The priority has to be myself so that I’m in a well, healthy, functional place, and then I can really reach out to other people and provide the support they need.”
- Reach out to students within your school each day, Covello says. “It’s amazing what a positive impact a warm smile can have on a student.”
- Consistently ask for feedback and then carefully consider personal change, Bruce says. “Teachers, administrators, aides, lunchroom workers, bus drivers, the nurse, social workers, parents and students themselves can all offer helpful feedback to the school counselor related to how best to support students by means of the school counseling program.”
- Search out the strengths in every child with which you work, Covello says, and let the child know you recognize and value those strengths.
- Don’t forget the importance of working as a team, Covello says. “Administrators, classroom teachers and other staff in the school should serve as vital team members in achieving the goal of improving the education and lives of the youth within your school.”
- Be seen in the school, Covello says. “Take time to be in the hallways during transition times, and drop by classrooms.”
- Use your special gifts as a counselor to bring others together and build a global caring community, Bruce says.
- Remember what it was like to go through school yourself, reflecting on the challenges you faced, Covello says.
- Breathe deeply before responding during those emotional situations, Bruce says. “Sometimes things can get volatile in schools. If I’m breathing deeply, that’s my first step toward mindfulness and thoughtfulness and being very present.”
- Keep in mind what a wise therapist once told Covello: “There is no such thing as a bad kid. You must find the good.”
Bruce, Covello and their colleagues will present “School Counselors Collaborating With Teachers to Effectively Develop Resiliency in Elementary and Middle School Students” on Saturday, March 20, from 7:30-8:30 a.m. at the ACA Conference in Pittsburgh.
Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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