Monthly Archives: October 2018

Life after traumatic brain injury: Lessons from a support group

By Judy A. Schmidt October 8, 2018

Support groups are wonderful opportunities for people with similar life experiences to meet each other, share their stories and encourage one another. Group members benefit from learning coping strategies and everyday tips for dealing with various experiences. For people with traumatic brain injury (TBI), support groups offer informal opportunities for understanding a shared experience that greatly changed their lives, often within a few seconds’ or minutes’ time. They are left with physical, cognitive and emotional outcomes that impact their relationships, work and independence, often leading to loneliness and isolation.

As noted by the Brain Injury Association of America, more than 2.5 million adults and children experience a TBI in the United States each year, and support groups play a vital role in their continued recovery and re-entry to everyday life. A TBI dramatically interrupts life for these individuals and their families. Extended hospitalizations for physical recovery and long-term cognitive training for rewiring the brain alter all aspects of life, with treatment continuing for up to a year after the incident.

 

Effects of TBI

The effects of TBI are varied and highly individualized. The extent of the physical and psychosocial impacts depends on the type of injury (closed, open or acquired) and the severity of the injury. Thus, depending on the area of injury, people with TBI may deal with deficits in memory, executive functioning issues and poor judgment.

Frontal lobe injuries may lead to changes in mood and personality, difficulty making decisions and difficulty with expressive language, all of which are executive functions.

Injuries to the parietal lobe, which helps with perceptual abilities, may lead to difficulties naming words (anomia), finding words (agraphia) or reading (alexia), as well as problems with perceptual abilities that integrate sensory information. The ability to distinguish right from left may also be affected.

Damage to the temporal lobe may involve hearing loss, Wernicke’s aphasia (difficulty grasping the meaning of spoken language), problems categorizing information such as objects and short-term memory problems.

Brain injuries to the occipital lobe, which controls our vision, may lead to visual field problems, distorted perception and difficulty with reading, writing and word recognition.

Injury to the base of the skull at the site of the cerebellum creates difficulties with balance, equilibrium and coordination, as well as slurred speech.

Acute and long-term rehabilitation from TBI involves physical, occupational and speech therapy, as well as cognitive neuropsychological evaluations. As individuals recover from the physical damage, it is important for counselors to be a part of the rehabilitation team to manage adjustment to the physical injuries, acute stress and cognitive disability. In addition, the psychosocial aspects of TBI are very disruptive. They can be long-lasting as these individuals and their families begin to adapt to everyday life. Counselors are needed to provide individual and family counseling, as well as psychoeducation about TBI and recovery.

 

Psychosocial aspects of TBI

The psychosocial aspects of TBI are also related to the area of brain damage. People with frontal lobe damage may have difficulty making decisions, maintaining attention to tasks and controlling impulsive behaviors.

When the parietal lobe is damaged, difficulties occur with eye-hand coordination, reading, math and writing.

Temporal lobe damage interferes with communication skills, learning and memory. Learning difficulties due to recognition and visual field problems may result from occipital lobe damage.

In assisting people with TBI and their families, it is important to understand how psychosocial areas of life are affected and how these areas impact the potential return to daily living. For example, an individual may not return to his or her pre-injury abilities and can experience problems returning to work or school. Difficulties with problem-solving, understanding others’ emotions and social cues, or just being able to carry on a conversation may isolate the person with the TBI and increase his or her feelings of loss. Other areas of life that may be affected include the ability to drive, participate in sports and exercise, which can create deficits in the person’s social life. Problems with executive functioning can lead to challenges making sound decisions. Because safety is a major concern, the individual with a TBI may need to be monitored consistently by family, which can lead to tensions and other problems.

These are all skills that most of us take for granted or complete without much planning and forethought. But for individuals with TBI, family and personal relationships can grow strained, and the ability to build new relationships is impacted. The person’s independence and self-esteem suffer greatly.

 

Lessons learned

As a rehabilitation counselor for an acute inpatient rehabilitation program, I work with individuals who have TBIs, as well as their families, to provide counseling for stabilization, adjustment to disability and assistance with developing coping strategies. Providing support to these patients and their families as they begin realizing the extent of the brain damage and start dealing with feelings of loss is a crucial part of recovery.

For three years, I facilitated a monthly outpatient support group for people with TBI and found the experience fascinating. Hearing stories of people having car accidents, motorcycle accidents, work accidents, anoxia (deprivation of oxygen) and other unexpected accidents was difficult and often heart-wrenching. Yet these shared experiences forged a bond among group members that was undeniable and very moving.

They shared what it was like to not remember exactly what had happened to cause their brain injury. They shared what it was like to lose track of time and details and to have to trust the information told to them by health care providers, family members and friends. The fact that they each had “lost a period of time” from their lives and hadn’t been the same since seemed to build a sense of trust and caring among the group.

I soon learned that as a rehabilitation counselor, I could understand the medical, cognitive, vocational and emotional results of their injuries, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the daily psychosocial impact that their injuries had taken and continued to take on their lives.

The time since being injured varied among the support group members — anywhere from two years to 18 years. Regardless, the psychosocial effects they experienced were extensive. They talked about their school and work being interrupted, about having to settle for less challenging options or not being able to pursue their goals at all. Some shared tales of broken marriages and relationships, of losing custody of their children.

Others talked about losing their sense of independence because they had to rely on their families for almost everything. Some could no longer live at home due to the need for constant supervision, so they had to learn to live in group homes. Pursuing sports or other recreation choices was hard because of physical limitations. Another significant loss was no longer being able to drive and depending on others for transportation. The lack of money for “extras” was particularly difficult for those group members with children.

Holidays posed another challenge for these support group members because of sensory issues with noise, lights and too many people talking at once. Others discussed experiencing the stigma of having a TBI and being considered “different now” by family members and friends. This was felt particularly strongly at social gatherings, where family and friends made infrequent contact with them. Isolation and loneliness were prevalent themes in their stories. Depression, anxiety and low self-esteem made daily life a struggle.

Research conducted by Jesse Fann and colleagues in 2009 and by Annemieke Scholten and colleagues in 2016 and subsequently published in the Journal of Neurotrauma shows that the rate of depression during the first year after a TBI is 50 percent. The rate is close to 60 percent within seven years after the TBI. So, it is crucial for counselors to have this awareness of serious mental health issues in people with TBI to properly assist them and their families in seeking appropriate treatment.

Members of the support group I facilitated discussed that being on medication was difficult due to the side effects and to the cost of the medication if they had little or no insurance. They felt that cognitive retraining programs and daily psychosocial programs modeled after those for people with serious and persistent mental illness helped tremendously. The aspects of these programs that they reported helping most were receiving cognitive behavior therapy and continuing to learn more about TBI. The psychosocial programs were highly regarded because of the increase in social activities, access to vocational rehabilitation and supported employment services, and integration back into the community.

At times, the support group was difficult to manage because of the cognitive and emotional deficits with which the individuals dealt. However, the members had their unique ways of helping each other and redirecting the conversations. It was very clear that they respected one another.

Our time together as a support group transformed us into a unique family, particularly because the group remained fairly constant in its membership. The members trusted each other and understood the struggles being discussed. However, they also felt safe in correcting each other and being bluntly honest (which people with TBI are). We did have some new members join along the way. They were welcomed with open arms, and veteran members exhibited an unabashed eagerness to help. It was always interesting to hear about the creative accommodations that our members developed to live life each day and how the professionals in their lives assisted them.

As the group grew stronger, the members felt it was important for me to record what they wanted others to know about TBI and people with TBI. Their primary messages were:

  • “Conversation and expressing one’s self can be difficult.”
  • “People with TBI may not like the same things as they previously did, so don’t force us.”
  • “Tasks may take longer for people with TBI, so wait for us.”
  • “Social situations can overload people with TBI.”
  • “TBI affects everyone around the person.”
  • “Those with TBI are still the same people they were before.”

During my time with the support group, I learned many lessons. First of all, I learned that life after a TBI requires constant adjustments that must be made each day to be productive and involved. I also came to understand that time does offer healing when abundant respect and empathy are present. But most important, I learned about living life as it happens from a wonderful group of resilient individuals.

 

 

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Judy A. Schmidt is a clinical assistant professor in the clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, and an adjunct clinical assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine, at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. She is the rehabilitation counselor for the acute inpatient rehabilitation unit for UNC Hospital, where she provides counseling services to patients and their families after traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury and other neurological trauma. Contact her at judy_schmidt@med.unc.edu.

 

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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.

Understanding and working with service dog handlers

By K. Lynn Pierce

It happens almost as soon as Emily steps through the door of the grocery store. “What do you think you’re doing in here with that?” an employee demands loudly while moving to block her path. He’s pointing in anger at the black Labrador retriever beside her. As Emily comes to a halt, her service dog, Todd, automatically sits. He’s braced slightly against her leg to help her balance.

“We don’t allow dogs,” the employee states emphatically. “It’s a health code violation.”

“This is a service animal. He provides medical alert to assist me with my disability and is permitted to accompany me by the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA].” The well-rehearsed line flows from Emily’s mouth even as she feels herself flushing, aware that people are staring as they pass. She wants desperately to move farther into the store, out of the way.

“Well, what about your papers or ID? I need to see some proof,” the employee insists, crossing his arms and looking at Emily in clear disbelief.

Emily replies, trying to stay calm. “The ADA doesn’t permit businesses to ask for proof of disability, and there are no registries or certifications for service animals.”

As the employee blusters and scoffs, Emily signals to Todd, who stands and walks with her around the employee. Thankfully, he does not follow them, but Emily still pushes down a wave of panic that he might call the police or that someone else might try to make her leave the store before she can get what she needs.

It’s the end of a long day, but partway to the checkout counter, Emily realizes that she forgot to grab bread to go with tonight’s dinner, so she and Todd head down the front aisle to the bakery. Along the way, Emily does her best to block out the delighted cries, sounds of surprise and conversations that break out as she and Todd pass. Emily hears one couple wondering whether she is a dog trainer because she doesn’t look like she’s blind. What could be wrong with her?

While looking at the choices of dinner rolls on display, Emily is startled by a shrill voice behind her. “Oh, what an adorable puppy! Can I pet him?”

Emily turns to see a woman already reaching toward Todd, who, on cue, backs partially behind Emily as she steps forward in front of him. “No, ma’am, please don’t distract him. He’s working.”

“Oh, it’s all right. I love dogs,” says the woman, now trying to reach around Emily’s leg to get to Todd.

“He is working,” says Emily firmly. “Please leave us alone.”

“Well, there’s no need to be so rude about it. Why would you bring a dog if you didn’t want people to pay attention to it?” exclaims the woman, glaring at Emily as she walks off in a huff.

Emily goes directly to a self-checkout to avoid more interactions with employees. By the time she reaches the car, Todd is alerting her that her heart rate is elevated. Emily sits in the car for a few minutes, shaking and breathing heavily before she feels safe to head home.

This is a common experience for people with disabilities who require service animals. For these individuals, their service animals are their lifeline, but all too often, they experience disproportionate discrimination, invasive questioning and other unwanted attention. Service dogs are becoming more common, particularly for people who have invisible disabilities. Consequently, it is more important than ever that counselors become comfortable working with service dog teams and know how to respond when clients ask whether a service dog would be helpful for them.

Defining a service animal

It is helpful to first understand what a service animal is not. Service animals are frequently confused with emotional support animals and with therapy animals.

Emotional support animals are pets that are permitted to live with or travel with someone who has a disability. They are not required to be trained in any specific way, and animals other than dogs can be designated as emotional support animals.

Many counselors are already familiar with therapy animals because they are often used in animal-assisted therapy. Therapy animals are simply animals that are used by their handlers to assist others, frequently in mental health or medical settings, but also in courtrooms and during crisis or disaster response scenarios. Often, the facility in which the handler works will impose general training or temperament requirements for therapy animals, but these animals are not expected to do specific tasks.

When it comes to service animals, there are a number of misconceptions. One of the most common myths is that service animals require a special certification or license or official documentation. In reality, there is no registry or certification for service animals that has any legal meaning. Another myth is that service dogs must be a certain breed or size, but there are actually no restrictions. In fact, many small breeds make excellent medical alert dogs and don’t require the space considerations that larger breeds do.

So, what is the definition of a service animal? According to the ADA, a service animal is a dog that has been individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. A disability as defined by the ADA is a legal term, not a medical one. Under the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Service animals are not pets; under the law, they are considered to be necessary medical equipment. They can be in public with their handler because their handler has a right to equal public access under the law, and the service animal performs tasks required by the handler to achieve that access. This means that outside of a few specific limitations, service animals are allowed to go anywhere that a wheelchair, walker or other assistive device can go. Just as wheelchairs are custom fit for their users, service animals are specifically trained for an individual’s needs through a set of trained tasks.

Trained tasks are not actually defined by the ADA. The only thing the ADA clearly states is that comfort is not a task. This is very important, so let me elaborate. Counselors may have cause to think about and discuss with a client whether a service dog would be helpful for that client. However, if after researching categories of tasks, the answer to the question of “What would a service dog do for my client?” is anything like, “It would make them feel better when they experience anxiety,” then the client cannot utilize a service animal.

Because the ADA defines only what a trained task is not, organizations such as the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners provide lists of common tasks. Generally, these tasks are broken down into categories on the basis of what the tasks accomplish (hearing, mobility, guide, medical alert, psychiatric assistance, etc.) or what “kind” of service animal might perform them. Because counselors are not typically experienced in training dogs, it is easier to start with determining broad categories of tasks that counselors believe might be helpful for their client. It is best to focus on tasks that would help the client in public because the point of public access with a service dog is that the dog is actively mitigating the client’s disability and is therefore required. Counselors are likely to find several “bonus” tasks that would provide great additional benefit, but these are best added once it is clear that a service dog is necessary for the client to successfully function independently in public places.

Working with prospective handlers

In assessing whether a service animal is a good fit for a client, a simple first test is to ask:

1) Is my client disabled under the definition set forth by the ADA?

2) Is my client a suitable candidate for a service animal?

3) Are there trained tasks a service dog could perform that would help mitigate my client’s disability?

Often, the first question will provide counselors with the overall answer. If the client isn’t disabled, then that person won’t be able to use a service animal. If the client is disabled, then the focus moves to the question of whether the client is a suitable candidate for using a service animal.

Some basic considerations for arriving at an answer to the second question include whether the client is physically and financially able to care for a dog, whether the client can handle major life changes at this point and the client’s overall degree of resiliency. Service dog programs agree that potential contraindications include suicide attempts by the client in the past year, severe paranoia or psychosis and any other situation that might put the dog’s safety at risk. A good candidate might have a history of bonding strongly with canines. It is also important to determine whether the client is in a stable enough position to be able to effectively use a service animal.

Then we arrive at the question of trained tasks, which is essentially, can the client be helped by a service dog? In assessing a client, a counselor might ask what the client’s disability is preventing the person from doing. A possible answer would be that the client has posttraumatic stress disorder and is hypervigilant. The client experiences flashbacks and becomes stuck in place. Sometimes the client becomes disoriented and cannot remember where he parked. Additionally, at home the client disassociates without warning and cannot get to his medication. He also has nightmares and disrupted sleep.

For this client, possible trained tasks to be used in public might include a “watch my back” command, in which the service dog would alert the handler to people approaching from behind, and a “search” command, in which the dog could search an enclosed area such as an office for other people. The dog would also be trained to respond to and eventually alert the handler to flashbacks by sensing shifts in breathing and body language or other cues specific to the client. For example, the dog could be trained to lick the handler’s face if it does not receive a response from the handler. It could also alert other known people, such as the client’s spouse or co-workers, that the client needs assistance. In responding to a flashback or other episode, the dog could be trained to lead the handler to the exit of the building, either automatically or upon receiving a “find the way out” command. In instances in which the handler can’t locate his car, the dog could be trained to “find the car” and lead the handler there.

Some bonus tasks performed at home by the service dog might include waking the handler from nightmares and retrieving medication from a known location. The dog could also use the known “search” command upon returning home if the handler was concerned that an intruder might be present. Perhaps the handler also has a secondary concern of mobility issues from knee and back problems. In that case, more mobility tasks such as balance feedback and bracing to help the handler get out of chairs could be added to the service dog’s responsibilities, along with some named items for retrieval such as “phone,” “remote” and “keys.”

This service animal would clearly be a huge comfort to the client, but we can recognize that it would be performing many tangible trained tasks beyond comfort, thus setting it apart from a regular pet or an emotional support animal. This is what justifies the animal working with its handler in public as medical equipment under the law.

Getting a dog

What steps should be taken after determining that a client would be helped by a service animal? Most handlers are best served getting their first dog from a program rather than attempting to train the dog themselves, unless they possess extensive training experience or have connections to the right people to provide the training. The organization providing the service animal will likely want documentation and a release of information from the counselor if the client’s disability is related to a mental health-based diagnosis rather than a concern that is primarily medical. Be aware that scam programs do exist. It is important to look for red flags, such as programs that want a large sum of money upfront or that won’t allow prospective clients to visit a training or to be connected with current clients.

Accreditation bodies such as Assistance Dogs International can help limit the risk in choosing an organization. These accreditation bodies assist training programs by setting standards for the required level of obedience training, thus helping to ensure that the animal will be safe to work in public. They also have agreements concerning their obligations to clients should needs change or challenges arise.

When choosing a service animal organization, clients should read and understand the contract as well as the policies and practices of the program thoroughly before committing because there may be fundraising requirements or extensive policies regarding gear, care, travel and so on. Generally, clients will have custody through an organization that maintains ownership of the dog. Therefore, it is important to ask for information concerning who makes the call on when a dog retires, whether animals retire into handler care and what the process is for getting a successor dog, in addition to all of the requirements for being a handler through the organization.

The experiences of handlers

Very little research is available on the experiences of service dog handlers. There is prevalent stigma against service animals, however. In her 2017 study of just under 500 handlers, sociologist Meghan Mills found that the majority of participants (68 percent) reported discrimination during daily tasks. Mills also reported that 77 percent of respondents indicated the legitimacy of their service dog had been questioned, and nearly half said they had not used their service dog in public “sometimes” because of unwanted attention.

The experiences of handlers appear to be affected by factors such as gender, race, age and geographic location. It is common for handlers to experience negative reactions from their friends, family members and communities. This can be especially true for those with invisible disabilities who may already have the legitimacy of their illness questioned regularly. Service dogs are not as common as other assistive devices, and this can draw additional attention. The social norm in the United States of pet dogs being prohibited in most public spaces compounds this experience. Even when handlers start with strong support networks, the constant discrimination they face over time can lead either to their exclusion by others or to self-imposed isolation to avoid these experiences.

Because people tend not to understand public access laws or how to interact appropriately with service dog teams, handlers are often characterized as demanding or rude for protecting their legal rights or safety. In online service dog forums, handlers regularly ask how to be strategic about telling strangers not to distract a dog who needs to be watching for medical alert (for example, a dog trained to give early warning for a seizure). These handlers do not want to endanger themselves, but they have been told that they are being unreasonable to expect strangers not to talk to, bark at or call their dog.

New handlers in programs or on their own will practice being assertive and calm, repeating the law and educating in the face of people yelling and threatening to call the police. As a result, handlers can put unreasonable expectations on themselves and their dogs to be flawless. Handlers may be concerned that an off day or a small mistake could make their access and the access of other teams more difficult.

Working with teams

Counselors who understand the role of service dogs have a unique opportunity to model positive social interactions for handlers. Showing respect through appropriate etiquette to service dog teams is a simple step that will communicate understanding and put service dog handlers at ease.

The core of service dog etiquette is not interfering with the animal’s focus by talking to, petting or otherwise engaging the dog. In the same way one would not comment on a person’s wheelchair or cane, it is rude to focus too much on a service dog or to ask too many questions. The presence of a service dog, as necessary medical equipment, is not an invitation for conversation about the client’s disability or about service dogs (either in general or about the handler’s in particular). Handlers may be sensitive to these questions because they commonly are asked by others in inappropriate settings. As with any other client, it is best to build rapport first, then ask more probing questions once a relationship is established. In support of building a therapeutic relationship, I’d recommend that counselors say something along the following lines: “I’m not going to ask you things I don’t need to know about your service animal, but is there anything you would like to tell me about how you want me to interact with you as a team while we’re working together?” This would be a polite way for counselors to align themselves with these clients while also signaling understanding of and respect for their boundaries.

If counselors are aware that a client is a service dog handler, it is important to think in advance about the potential barriers the team may face in a counseling setting. For example, if the waiting room becomes uncomfortable because another client is being too curious or is distracting the service dog, consider whether there is another location where the client could go to wait for the session. Educating other counselors and staff in the practice on basic etiquette is also important because it removes the responsibility from the client. If a client who is a handler is going to participate in a group, spend time beforehand discussing how the client would like to be supported in setting boundaries with the other group members. This step could improve the outcome.

As previously noted, many service dog teams experience frequent discrimination. Over time, some handlers become fearful of entering new environments because of the potential of access concerns or other negative interactions. Some handlers have been threatened or experienced violence simply for having a service animal. Conflict may also result from the handler not allowing people to pet or interact with the service animal or from refusing to be illegally removed from a building. Many teams have been attacked by pet dogs or by dogs that are claimed to be service animals. It is worth counselors evaluating for trauma responses within this demographic because, over time, the constant alienation can build up, even without the experience of acute incidents.

Handlers may also have lost the support of family or friends or access to some of their spaces because of this treatment decision. Loss of access can be due to lack of ADA coverage (as is the case in religious spaces) or due to elements of specific environments in which the social cost of advocacy may outweigh the gain of access. It is important that counselors not place the burden of education exclusively on handlers and understand that in some situations, there is no clear path forward to gain access once it has been denied. This means that counseling with handlers may involve elements of grief counseling.

There are interventions used in training programs that can deepen the bond in a team and help handlers be more effective in using their service dogs. Some of these interventions target specific symptoms, whereas others address interpersonal and environmental processing through the team bond. Counselors working with long-term clients who are handlers may be served by seeking consultation and supervision in this area.

 

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K. Lynn Pierce recently started her counselor education and supervision doctoral program at Pennsylvania State University. She is a service animal handler of four years and provides consultation and workshops for mental health and related professions around service dog inclusion and integration. Contact her through her website at klynnpierce.com.

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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.

Working with foster and adoptive families through the lens of attachment

By Somer George October 4, 2018

“He just got kicked out of his second preschool program! We’re nearing the end of our options here. What do we do?” I could hear the desperation in the mother’s voice as she described the past few months with the 5-year-old she and her family were fostering and would soon be adopting.

“He threw a chair at the teacher and punched a little girl, and nothing we do seems to make it better,” the father explained, describing the detailed behavior plan on which they had collaborated with a well-meaning social worker.

“And it’s not just at school,” the mother continued. “Even when he’s home with us, he often gets out of control. He even peed on his dad’s lap” — her voice lowered to a whisper — “on purpose!”

I nodded my head, empathetic to the immense strain this family had been under for the past several months. The mother and father were friendly and confident, well-educated and sincere. They had wanted to do something good for the world by fostering and adopting children in need. They had so much to offer. And yet here they were, barely surviving each day and feeling the shreds of normalcy slip through their fingers as this little boy pushed every emotional button they had, leaving them exhausted and discouraged.

My years of experience working with the Secure Child In-Home Program and the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center helped me to frame their experience in terms of attachment. The situation they were in was not unique among parents who had adopted a child or made the decision to provide foster care, the initial good intention and early excitement slowly turning to exhaustion and sometimes regret. Often, these children who need it the most push away every offer of help and comfort that is provided to them.

Where healing happens

So, what do we do when parents who have adopted a child or are providing foster care come to us, asking for advice or counseling for their troubled child? Certainly, there is benefit in providing these children with play therapy, giving them a chance to form a new relationship and to express themselves through their own language of play.

And yet, that strategy speaks to only one side of the coin. Attachment theory tells us that children heal best in the context of secure caregiving relationships. And parents are the ones who provide the day in, day out caregiving, wielding the most influence on the development of new patterns in the child’s relationships and behaviors.

According to attachment theory, a child is biologically wired to turn toward a caregiver in times of distress. When the child’s emotional needs are met, the child develops patterns of soothing and regulation that are essential for healthy development. When these emotional needs are denied or rebuffed, however, or if the child experiences the caregiver as frightening, the child learns dramatically different adaptive strategies. The child may become withdrawn and inhibited or bossy and aggressive. These patterns aren’t quick to change when a new caregiver comes along. Add to this the trauma of abuse and the loss of a biological parent, and you have a situation full of misunderstanding and relational strain.

New caregivers often come into their role with little awareness of the child’s experiences and the patterns necessary for surviving a young life filled with turmoil, anguish and uncertainties. When these coping strategies show up in the new relationship, parents are (understandably) distressed and often seek help to “fix” the child’s confusing and challenging behavior.

What these parents may not realize is that their own ability to read through the confusing signals and meet the child’s emotional need is the place where most of the healing will happen. If the parents can provide both a secure base from which the child can explore the world and a safe haven for the child to return to, the deeply rooted patterns of behavior and interaction will begin to shift. This is not a quick and easy process. It is messy to be sure, often following a pattern of one step forward, two steps back. However, if parents are given the support they need, it is certainly an attainable and worthy goal.

The counselor’s role

So, what is the counselor’s role in helping form new patterns of interaction, leading to more emotional stability and better child behavior? How can we help move these relationships toward greater security, helping each family to become a haven of safety for children who have experienced significant neglect, rejection, fear and loss?

I’d like to offer some suggestions for counselors who desire to help these parents form stronger relationships with their children and experience a reduction in the difficult behaviors that create such chaos.

  • Provide empathy and understanding to parents. Often, by the time parents seek out a counselor, they have already been through a great deal of distress, frustration and turmoil. Yes, they are coming to receive help, but first they need to feel heard and understood without being judged. Parenting is extraordinarily difficult, and parenting a child with extensive emotional needs is even harder. Take the time to empathetically hear these parents’ concerns and welcome their expressions of distress.
  • Educate parents about normal development and the impact of trauma/loss. Sometimes foster and adoptive parents have already successfully raised biological children, so these difficult behaviors on the part of the child they are adopting or fostering don’t make sense to them. What they did with their other kids doesn’t seem to work with this child. Spend time teaching these parents about how their child’s brain may have developed in a dramatically different way due to the impact of neglect, trauma and loss. Talk about the fact that forming new secure relationships takes time and how important their role is in this process.
  • Help parents to practice observation skills. We human beings so naturally take in information and draw conclusions without even realizing we are doing it. Unfortunately, we aren’t always right. Parents who are living in highly stressful situations may have trouble stepping back and paying attention to what is happening in the moment. Help them to slow down and notice their child’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice before making assumptions about what the behavior means or how to stop it. With foster and adoptive children, parents often say they don’t know what is going on inside the child; this is often the most important place to help them learn. It is essential that they obtain a developmentally accurate view of the child’s inner experience, feelings and thoughts in the context of the child’s earlier experience and relationship patterns.
  • Invite parents to pay attention to their own experience. How does mom feel when the child is screaming that he hates her? What is dad’s experience when his request to come for supper is repeatedly ignored? As parents become better at observing their child, it is important that they also attend to themselves. What are they feeling in these moments, and what is their body language and tone of voice communicating to the child? Help them to consider their own needs and to find ways to regulate their own strong emotions that are activated when the child is pushing them away.
  • Encourage parents to think about what the child is feeling in these difficult moments. So often, the focus of parents is on how to manage the child’s behavior. Traditional strategies that use rewards and punishment are rarely successful with children who have experienced neglect, trauma and loss. Although the child’s behavior doesn’t make sense at first glance, there is often much to be learned if we slow down and pay close attention.

Have the parents set aside quick assumptions and, instead, help them to observe carefully, giving consideration to what the child might be feeling. The child might look and sound angry at first glance, but might he or she instead be feeling scared or sad? The child already has emotional and behavioral sequences established that, once activated, run automatically. These unintentional and automatic patterns need to be shaped into healthier ones.

  • Ask parents to think about what the child needs from them. Does the child need to feel heard and validated? Does the child need comfort, protection and co-regulation of automatic well-learned patterns? Does the child need the parent to stay close by and help him calm down because he feels out of control? If the child is anxious, might she need the parent to provide soothing rather than correction?
  • Encourage parents to try new strategies aimed at fostering connection. Instead of putting the child in timeout, try bringing him in close for a cuddle and some conversation. Instead of sending the child to her bedroom to calm down, try going with her and staying close by. Remind parents that new approaches may not work right away, but with persistence and practice, they can begin to make a significant difference.
  • Facilitate parents’ exploration of their own attachment histories and how this influences interaction with the child. We know from research that a foster child’s initial relationship patterns are often a mismatch for a parent’s natural caregiving patterns. We also recognize that parental patterns of attachment have a strong influence on the child’s patterns. Increased reflection on these experiences can help us become better caregivers.

Invite parents to think about how their own experiences with caregivers have influenced the way that they react and respond to their child. What expectations do they hold? What automatic reactions are happening outside of their awareness? What automatic reactions happen outside of the child’s awareness?

  • Celebrate small (and large) victories. The little moments are the big moments. Provide plenty of affirmation and support for parents as they try new approaches and persevere in the day-to-day tasks of parenting. Acknowledging their efforts and celebrating successes, however small, can go a long way toward giving them the courage to continue through the hard times.

Working with these families can be immensely rewarding. They are often highly motivated and desperate for support. As counselors, we need to be aware of our impulse to provide a “quick fix” to try and make things better. We can make concrete suggestions, but we also need to recognize that the process of building stronger relationships and changing behavior takes time.

The type of relationship that we build with the child’s parents can itself be a catalyst for change. We can provide a place where the parents feel safe expressing their distress and their shortcomings, knowing that we will support them in their efforts to help guide their child on the path to healing.

A different path

As I continued working with the family mentioned at the beginning of this article, I could see the changes taking place. They began having more positive interactions with their child and seeing new qualities in him that they hadn’t noticed before; they were thinking about him in a different way. Their own self-reflection helped them to catch themselves before they reacted and think more about what he needed from each of them.

“I noticed that the collar of his shirt was often wet from him chewing on it. I stopped reprimanding him for this and realized that it meant he was feeling really anxious,” the mother told me one day.

“Yeah, and this was a sign that we needed to pick him up and give him some reassurance,” the father quickly added. “It really seems to calm him down.”

The mother continued: “I think that before when he was anxious, his behavior would spiral out of control. And the behavior chart was part of what contributed to his anxiety, which just made things worse instead of better. I don’t think we need it anymore.” As she spoke, she glanced at dad and noted his nodding head.

“They still use one at school,” she said, “but we’ve been talking to his new teacher about how to connect with him and what helps relieve his anxiety. Also, I stuck a picture in his book bag of the three of us together so he can get it out and look at it when he is at school. I think it helps him feel more secure. It’s a way for him to carry us with him.”

As I listened to them share these stories, I couldn’t help but smile. They still had a long road ahead of them, but they were headed down a very different path than the one they were on originally. We celebrated each of these moments together and reflected further on their experiences with their child.

I continued to come alongside them to support them in this journey for a little while longer, serving as a secure base and safe haven for them. Soon, however, they decided that they no longer needed counseling. Through a lens of attachment, they saw that their relationship with their son was much stronger, and although his behavior was still challenging at times, they possessed the confidence that they could handle it, moving forward together as a family. Once again, the experience of a healthy attachment proved itself to be a powerful force, propelling another family toward greater health and healing.

 

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Somer George is an adjunct professor at James Madison University and is currently completing her doctorate in counseling and supervision. She also works for the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center and the Secure Child In-Home Program, where she helps to provide comprehensive attachment assessments, intensive in-home therapy and research-based parent courses. Contact her at somer@george.net.

 

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 an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Fostering a brighter future

Through the child welfare kaleidoscope

 

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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.

 

Promoting LGBTQ students’ well-being in schools

By Roberto L. Abreu, Adriana G. McEachern, Jennifer Geddes Hall and Maureen C. Kenny October 2, 2018

Research shows that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately bullied (whether in person or via cyberbullying), verbally and physically harassed, and assaulted in schools by peers and staff. Such hostility has been correlated to lower school performance and psychological and emotional distress, including suicidal ideation and attempt, depression and anxiety.

In the 2015 GLSEN (formerly Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) National School Climate Survey, LGB students reported higher levels of verbal, physical and sexual violence and bullying than did their heterosexual counterparts. Specifically, 98.1 percent of LGB students heard the word “gay” used in a derogatory manner, 85.2 percent reported verbal harassment, and 34.7 percent reported being physically harassed in the past year. In addition, a 2017 meta-analysis (conducted by co-authors Roberto L. Abreu and Maureen C. Kenny) of 27 empirical studies on the effects of cyberbullying on LGBTQ youth revealed that compared with their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, these students are disproportionately harassed online and through other technology-based means. Such harassment has been correlated to a range of behavioral and emotional difficulties, including suicidal ideation (with some studies suggesting rates as high as 40 percent among LGBTQ youth) and suicide attempts (with rates as high as 30 percent).

Many LGBTQ students identify school counselors as the one school staff member to whom they are most likely to disclose concerns related to their sexual and gender identity. Given this reality, school counselors are uniquely positioned to address myths about LGBTQ youth, to advocate for these students and to effect change.

Dispelling myths

Let’s begin by examining five myths that can have an impact on the identity, safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth. We’ll also look at specific strategies and interventions that counselors can use to address these myths and increase the safety of LGBTQ students.

Myth #1: Parents must be informed of their child’s sexual and gender identity. A 10th-grader discloses to her high school counselor that she identifies as a lesbian. Most of her friends know, but she has yet to tell her parents. She fears their reaction because she has heard them make derogatory remarks toward LGBTQ individuals in the past. Must the school counselor inform the student’s parents?

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model (2012) stresses the importance of parent and family involvement and its influence on the well-being of students. Although parent engagement is critical when working with LGBTQ youth, school counselors should consider several factors before disclosing to parents a student’s sexual or gender identity. Many LGBTQ students believe they lack parental support, and they may fear rejection, abuse and an unsafe home environment if their parents discover their sexual or gender identity.

Therefore, the counselor in this scenario should first discuss with the student her feelings about informing her parents and assess how they may react to this information. It would be important for the counselor to prepare the student for potential negative parental responses. Role-playing the conversation could be helpful for the student. It would be best to have the minor client make the disclosure to her parents with the counselor present to provide support. It is also important to have a plan in place to provide the client with a safe place to stay should the parents totally reject her and need time to adjust to the situation.

In certain instances, school counselors may have to break confidentiality. For example, what if the student also disclosed to the counselor that she was distraught over the situation and was having suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness because she feared that her parents would never understand or accept her sexual and gender identity? In that situation, there would be potential harm and danger to the minor client. Therefore, the counselor would need to conduct a thorough suicide assessment, then inform the client of the legal and ethical reasons that confidentiality must be breached.

It is important for counselors to check their schools’ policies and procedures in relation to dealing with crisis situations such as suicide. School counselors can work with parents individually or in groups to foster awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ students and to promote understanding of their needs and the challenges these students face every day.

Myth #2: Gender-neutral facilities are a threat to school safety. A school district policy does not allow transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. A transgender student has brought this to the attention of the school counselor, inquiring about what to do. The student says he often goes the entire school day without going to the restroom.

School counselors should use their role as staff and educators to speak to the school administration about this issue. In talking to school administrators, counselors can present research related to transgender students experiencing a lack of safety in schools and make the argument that forcing these students to use a bathroom that does not align with their gender identity only contributes to this presenting concern.

Some states have passed laws precluding gender-neutral facilities, imposing on the rights of transgender individuals to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity rather than their sex at birth. Some of these laws have been incorporated into school policy. The rationale given for these laws has been to protect public privacy and safety. However, there is no research evidence to support this claim.

In 2015, Media Matters for America conducted a survey of 17 school districts in 12 states encompassing approximately 600,000 students. The survey asked about cases of harassment or inappropriate behavior after transgender-inclusive policies had been passed in those districts. The survey results concluded that no incidents of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior had been reported in those schools, debunking the myth that gender-neutral facilities are a threat to school safety.

Counselors, as social justice agents, must involve themselves in policy. This can be done at school meetings, where counselors can advocate for gender-neutral policies in schools and school districts. Counselors can inform school administrators of their interest in participating in these meetings and being involved in the decision-making process. They can volunteer to conduct information sessions for meeting participants about the academic, personal and career needs of LGBTQ youth. Counselors should actively seek to advocate for transgender youth so that these students can use the bathroom that best aligns with their gender.

Myth #3: School policies and laws protect all students. School policies and laws have focused mainly on reducing bullying but not necessarily on protecting LGBTQ youth and keeping them safe. The 2015 GLSEN report that investigated anti-bullying policies in the nation’s school districts revealed that out of the 13,181 school districts surveyed, 70 percent had anti-bullying policies. However, only 20 percent of these school districts had LGB-inclusive policies, and only 10 percent had LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies.

Although anti-bullying policies may be in place, LGBTQ students continue to report higher incidents of bullying and harassment than do other students. Often, these policies are not widely distributed to students and staff, and although most students and staff may be aware of district anti-bullying policies, they are not necessarily aware of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policies. 

Furthermore, policies and laws are often influenced by politics and societal opinions. Laws referred to as “no promo homo” involve efforts to prevent national LGBT education, mandate that administrators take a neutral stance on gender identity and prohibit providing specific services to these students. Although seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas) had “no promo homo” laws as of January 2018, many states are working to develop LGBT-inclusive laws and policies that do not discriminate against these youth. For example, many states have developed LGBT anti-discrimination laws. These laws also permit transgender students to participate in sports congruent with their gender identity.

School counselors need to be proactive and work with school administrators to develop LGBT-inclusive policies. Counselors can assist in disseminating and discussing these policies regularly with students, parents and staff. Counselors should educate school administrators on bullying and “no promo homo” laws so they will better understand the detrimental effects of systemic oppression on LGBT youth.

In addition, school counselors should empower LGBTQ students to share with school staff their experiences with bullying and harassment within the school. This will open the door for school personnel to make a personal connection with these students and will help them learn more about the physical and mental health consequences of LGBTQ bullying and lack of representation.

Myth #4: LGBTQ students are safe around all school personnel. Many LGBTQ students do not feel safe at school — around either other students or school personnel. The GLSEN survey from 2015 reported that more than 50 percent of LGBTQ students heard homophobic comments from teachers and school staff. Many of these students believed that reporting harassment or assaults to school personnel would worsen the situation and that no action would be taken. Among those who did disclose bullying, harassment or assault to school staff, 63.5 percent indicated that their reports were ignored. In addition, when these incidents were reported, LGBTQ students faced harsher discipline than did their heterosexual and cisgender peers and were often blamed for the incidents (see research from Shannon Snapp, Jennifer Hoenig, Amanda Fields and Stephen Russell). This lack of support from school personnel places LGBTQ students at greater risk of being victimized.

In 2017, students in California’s San Luis Obispo High School published an edition of the student paper, Expressions, featuring LGBTQ issues. In response, a special education teacher at the school wrote a letter quoting the Bible and stating that those committing homosexual acts “deserve to die.” The school administration chose not to discipline the teacher for the action, stating that teachers as well as students “do not shed their First Amendment rights” at school. Although the teacher resigned soon after the incident, his statement remains a testament to the harassment and discrimination leveled against some LGBTQ students by school personnel.

School counselors need to advocate for and support LGBTQ students in the face of such victimization. Providing training to all students, parents and school staff is critical to reducing incidents of bullying and harassment and increasing awareness and sensitivity to the issues LGBTQ students confront in schools. A middle school in South Florida developed a monthlong program that focused on bullying prevention, including sexual and gender identity sensitivity training at various levels. At the high school level, counselors are forming LGBTQ support groups to provide outlets for these students to discuss specific issues and concerns. These groups provide one way to let these students know that they are valued and that their voices are important.

Myth #5: Sex education is inclusive of all students. Sex education that is LGBTQ inclusive is very limited or nonexistent in our nation’s schools. Often, this lack of inclusion is due to discomfort and lack of knowledge about LGBTQ sexuality on the part of school personnel, students and parents. Many teachers do not feel competent to teach on the topic.

Traditionally, sex education in U.S. schools centered on an abstinence-only curriculum. This ideology changed somewhat in the 1980s because of the AIDS epidemic, the increase in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. The curriculum during this time focused on prevention and contraception, but no content was included on LGBTQ sexuality. In the 1990s, there was an effort to develop national guidelines for comprehensive sex education by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a task force composed of educators and health professionals. However, these guidelines also lacked specific and clear directives on how to address the needs of LGBTQ students in schools.

Health care reform legislation in 2010 provided states with funding to draft comprehensive sex education in schools. One of the programs created from this initiative was the Personal Responsibility Education Program for young adults. Once again, however, this program
failed to offer educational content or policy language that was inclusive of LGBTQ students.

Given this reality, school counselors can take leadership roles in advocating to administrators and teachers on the importance of including educational information and materials about LGBTQ sexuality in the sex education curriculum. Counselors may need to ensure that the programs being used to teach sexuality are inclusive. Counselors can assist health educators by providing appropriate materials (see hrc.org/resources/a-call-to-action-lgbtq-youth-need-inclusive-sex-education for more information on LGBTQ-inclusive sex education). Counselors can also conduct psychoeducational workshops to dispel myths and misconceptions regarding LGBTQ students with all stakeholders, including students, school staff and parents.

 

A call to action

Clearly, the perpetuation of these myths indicates that something more needs to be done to better support LGBTQ students within school systems. School counselors, as outlined by ASCA, have an ethical obligation to support underserved and oppressed populations. Additionally, school counselor training programs emphasize the role of school counselors as agents of change within the school system and professional leaders who must act as allies and advocates for all students.

This role includes:

  • Being aware of the challenges that LGBTQ students face within the school system
  • Designing a developmental, comprehensive school counseling program to support the LGBTQ student population
  • Advocating for policies and practices that address inequities regarding academic, career and social/emotional domains for LGBTQ students 

Therefore, supporting LGBTQ students and promoting social justice initiatives should be done through large-scale, small-scale and individual interventions in an effort to create a positive school climate for everyone.

Readiness assessment

The first step is to conduct a needs and readiness assessment. This assessment should focus on gauging the school’s current climate related to LGBTQ students and the willingness of staff to make needed changes. Assessments should target students, faculty, staff and parents. Their openness toward acceptance and making changes, as well as the amount of education and training they have received related to LGBTQ populations, is important to assess.

Parents and school personnel may be reluctant to support LGBTQ youth in part because they do not feel prepared to respond to the unique needs of these students. School counselors will need to collaborate and discuss concerns with all stakeholders to comprehensively make appropriate systemic changes. These conversations also allow school counselors to gain awareness of current school policies and procedures related to the treatment of LGBTQ students.

Additionally, before changes can begin, school counselors should collect data that may be reflective of disparities and issues that LGBTQ students face within the school. Such data may include behavioral referrals, truancy rates and negative changes in grades and attitudes/behaviors. Behavioral referrals should be more specific and include incidents of verbal and physical harassment that LGBTQ students have endured as well as LGBTQ students who might be “acting out” in class in reaction to bullying or oppressive interactions.

LGBTQ students who are lacking support and involved with negative interactions often are truant, report somatic complaints and disengage from the learning process. It is therefore important that school counselors collect and examine data concerning absenteeism, visits to the school nurse, incidents of skipping class and dropping grades. This data should be saved and used as well during the measurement of formative and summative program success. This information will help inform what needs exist and how the school can best support LGBTQ students in dealing with their struggles.

It is important to note here that when collecting and analyzing data, counselors should look for patterns and then meet with students individually, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. At the time of this meeting, if the student discloses that their struggles are indeed related to their LGBTQ identity (for example, they are being bullied because of their gender expression), then counselors should move forward with interventions while making sure to protect the student’s confidentiality.

Intervention formulation

After school counselors have conducted a thorough assessment of their schools’ climate and needs, they can begin to formulate interventions and adjust policies to better support LGBTQ students. School counselors should include LGBTQ community members on their advisory boards to assist with inclusivity when promoting change and programming. Change and programming should include interventions at the schoolwide, small group and individual levels. 

Schoolwide interventions addressing bullying and diversity have been deemed most effective in promoting a more positive school environment for all students. These interventions should include procedures and programming specific to the LGBTQ population, such as staff training on LGBTQ issues, multicultural awareness and response procedures regarding victimization of LGBTQ students. Schoolwide strategies and policies to address LGBTQ-specific bullying and harassment must also be outlined.

Schools are also encouraged to provide educational workshops for parents that address issues related to sexual and gender identity, ways of talking at home about bullying (with both victims and perpetrators), and ways to discuss diversity and acceptance beyond the school setting. These conversations should include information that is pertinent and specific to LGBTQ students.

As a universal approach, teachers should be encouraged to incorporate LGBTQ-affirming curricula into their existing core areas of focus at the elementary, middle and high school levels as developmentally appropriate. School counselors also need to include examples of LGBTQ populations and the issues they face in classroom guidance lessons and when promoting positive behavior intervention and character education programs at their schools. Positive recognition of LGBTQ students, parents, staff and community members can also help to promote a more accepting environment overall. Additionally, it is beneficial to foster support from those involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities. This includes recruiting the active assistance and endorsement of coaches and athletes regarding LGBTQ students.

In addition to schoolwide interventions, schools can better support LGBTQ students by providing small group and individual services designed specifically for them. Safe zones/diversity rooms can be designated to serve as a resource for LGBTQ student needs or concerns. These spaces should be run by the school counselor or other trained staff and must respect the confidentiality of the students who use them. These spaces can serve as a safe, supportive environment for LGBTQ and other students to discuss issues they are facing. In addition, they can serve as resource rooms stocked with helpful books, flyers and other materials.

School counselors can also facilitate support groups specifically for LGBTQ students, allowing them to openly discuss their experiences, process their thoughts and feelings, and develop coping strategies. Group topics could include local and national resources available for LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ role models, family relationships, intimate relationships, coming out, personal and professional issues that LGBTQ individuals encounter, and information about higher education institutions that are affirming of LGBTQ individuals.

Support groups for parents of LGBTQ students should also be offered. These groups would address ways for these parents to support their children. The groups would also provide a forum for parents to share their experiences and concerns with each other and with the school. In addition, many schools now offer a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student-led organization with a faculty adviser that typically meets to learn about issues that LGBTQ students are facing. GSA is meant to be a group that promotes acceptance, social justice and advocacy. 

School counselors also make themselves available to all students for individual counseling. In many cases, they may be the only mental health professional that students have easy access to for support. It is therefore imperative that school counselors demonstrate cultural competency and provide a safe, affirming environment that includes acceptance and respect for all students.

School counselors need to be aware that LGBTQ students may not present with problems related to their sexuality or gender identity. School counselors also need to consider other contextual factors such as family dynamics when counseling LGBTQ students. In addition to providing leadership toward systemic change, counselors need to have an understanding of issues that specifically affect LGBTQ students on an individual basis. This understanding is achieved through an ongoing process that includes communicating with the local LGBTQ community, participating in continuing education opportunities about LGBTQ students, reading the latest research related to this population and familiarizing themselves with the legal and ethical mandates surrounding LGBTQ students. Most important, school counselors must engage in ongoing self-examination of their own biases, stereotypes and blind spots concerning all students.

The role of school counselors in advocating for LGBTQ students in school is critical. It is school counselors’ professional and ethical responsibility to ensure a safe and harassment-free learning environment for all youth. Connecting with parents and educating them on the continuum of gender and sexual identity can also be an important part of the process. Given counselors’ expertise and skills in supporting diversity and communicating difficult topics, they can play a central role in helping staff, administrators and students create schools that empower LGBTQ youth.

 

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Recommended resources from the authors

  • A Queer Endeavor (aqueerendeavor.org): This site provides educators, school staff, families and students with resources (videos, lesson plans, curriculum development best practices, textbook recommendations) to help support and create an inclusive school environment for sexual minority and gender-expansive students.
  • GLSEN Educator Resources (glsen.org/educate/resources): GLSEN is one of the nation’s largest advocacy groups focused on providing resources that promote the well-being of sexual minority and gender-expansive students in grades K-12. This site provides tools for schoolwide advocacy programming and lesson plans that are LGBTQ inclusive.
  • It’s Pronounced Metrosexual (itspronouncedmetrosexual.com): This site provides online resources (worksheets, videos, articles, books) about privilege and oppression overall, with an emphasis on educating society about topics related to sexual and gender identity. The site serves as a source of information for social justice advocates, researchers and clinicians.
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Safe and Supportive Schools Project (apa.org/pi/lgbt/programs/safe-supportive/default.aspx): APA’s Safe and Supportive Schools Project partners with five professional organizations, including the American Counseling Association and ASCA, to provide training and educational resources. The goal is to help school personnel, leaders of community organizations, parents and students to build positive, supportive and healthy environments that promote acceptance, allowing LGBTQ youth to thrive as their authentic selves.

 

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

Roberto L. Abreu is an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Tennessee State University. His research agenda focuses on the well-being of LGBTQ people of color, with specific attention to parental, school and community acceptance of Latinx LGBTQ youth. Contact him at rabreu@tnstate.edu.

Adriana G. McEachern is a professor emerita, a visiting associate professor and the program director for counselor education in the Department of Leadership and Professional Studies at Florida International University. She is a national certified counselor, certified rehabilitation counselor and licensed mental health counselor in Florida.

Jennifer Geddes Hall is a clinical assistant professor at Clemson University and a licensed professional counselor. She has more than 15 years’ experience working with children and teenagers as a school counselor and clinical mental health counselor in various community settings.

Maureen C. Kenny is a professor of counseling at Florida International University and director of the university’s clinical mental health counseling program.

 

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.

Working memory: A review for children’s mental health providers

By Jerrod Brown and Tracy Packiam Alloway October 1, 2018

Working memory is an essential cognitive skill that allows an individual to learn through the processing and manipulation of information. In other words, working memory is the process through which information is manipulated and then linked to other existing memories.

A wealth of research has investigated the capacity of working memory in children. Working memory is different from short-term memory, which simply stores pieces of information for a limited period of time. Working memory allows an individual to maintain information for use in intricate tasks such as higher-order thought, organization and planning, and language comprehension. Working memory also enables children to perform several important functions, including learning new information, comparing and contrasting different concepts, and making informed decisions.

Working memory is composed of three important tasks:

1) Maintaining new pieces of information for subsequent use

2) Filtering out information that is not relevant to the task at hand

3) Manipulating the relevant information to perform the given task (e.g., navigating to a destination)

Working memory capacity is dependent upon a number of abilities, including attention, behavioral control and cognitive flexibility. Attention is an individual’s ability to focus on a given task while blocking out distractions and other irrelevant information. Behavioral control is the ability to manage one’s impulses and emotions. Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to adapt to feedback and evolving needs.

Children affected by working memory deficits may experience a host of academic, behavioral and emotional issues. The deleterious impact of working memory deficits on academic achievement is apparent in students, from those entering preschool to young adults in college. These impairments may be even more pronounced among children who are affected by various problems related to mental health.

Deficits associated with working memory can negatively impact how a child navigates all areas of life, from academic performance to social interactions. As such, children’s mental health professionals should become familiar with working memory deficits and their impact on day-to-day functioning. Increased awareness and understanding of these problems will help professionals maximize the effectiveness of services provided to these children.

To that end, this article reviews multiple considerations related to working memory that all children’s mental health clinicians need to know.

 

Academic performance: In children, working memory has been linked to everything from academic performance to the symptoms of neurological, developmental and psychological disorders. Working memory is also important from kindergarten to the tertiary level, and is an excellent predictor of academic success, longitudinally.

Assessment: Working memory can be assessed in a reliable and valid manner in children as young as 3. Early identification of working memory deficits that are supported by appropriate interventions can lead to positive outcomes throughout the individual’s life span. A study of more than 3,000 students found that approximately 10 percent had working memory problems that led to learning difficulties in the classroom (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19467014). As such, early identification and intervention are key to long-term success.

Attention, behavioral and social problems: Several theories of cognitive processing posit that working memory plays an essential function in attention. In addition, deficits associated with working memory can sometimes contribute to problematic behaviors resulting in school-related and social consequences. This is especially the case when the child has not been properly assessed, treated and supported. One of the most consistent findings in research studies is that students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have poor working memory, particularly when they have to remember visual information, such as graphs or images.

Classroom difficulties: Working memory impairments often contribute to difficulties in the classroom. For example, students with working memory impairments may have trouble remembering instructions, completing complicated tasks, and comprehending and abiding by directions to solving a math problem or writing a sentence.

Creativity: Although relatively few studies have investigated the role of working memory in creativity, Larry Vandervert and colleagues have posited that working memory is one of the building blocks of creativity (see tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400410709336873). Their rationale hinges on the assumption that working memory serves as the “blackboard of the mind,” enabling an individual to manipulate and combine a variety of pieces of information and ideas in different ways. A study with college students reported that working memory was associated with one particular aspect of creativity — flexibility, which relates to breadth of thinking.

Environmental considerations: An important consideration for children with working memory deficits is limiting their exposure to environments and influences that could exacerbate such issues. These issues may include exposure to caregivers who abuse substances, neglect and maltreatment, and environments filled with chaos and chronic stress.

Importance of early identification: Working memory deficits in preschool may predict the likelihood of dropping out of high school. However, some research offers hope for the development of early interventions that strengthen working memory and the reduction of risk for dropping out of high school.

Information overload: Deficits in working memory can result in children experiencing information overload during learning-based activities. As a result, these children may act out behaviorally or withdraw socially. When misidentified or undertreated, these issues can negatively affect children’s emotional and behavioral health.

Intervention: Interventions that improve working memory hold the potential to positively benefit children’s classroom performance across a range of subjects (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20018296). These gains were maintained eight months later (see sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212003032). As such, children’s mental health providers play a vital role in the identification and treatment of working memory deficits.

Learning performance: Problems meeting the learning requirements of school may be attributed to deficits in working memory. Working memory predicts reading and math performance among students with learning disabilities. These associations remain even when controlling for the student’s intelligence and knowledge of language and math. These issues can persist across the child’s life span when such deficits have not been identified, treated and supported.

Learning styles: A prevalent argument in the education research community is that learning styles have a significant influence on how well students will do in school. The learning styles theory argues that individuals learn best in different ways. A popular framework for learning styles is one that separates Verbalizers from Visualizers, and Holistic thinkers from Analytical ones. A study with high schoolers found that students with good working memory excelled at all subjects, regardless of their learning style preference. One explanation is that although students may have a certain preference for acquiring knowledge, those with good working memory won’t be held back if information is not presented in their preferred learning style because they can adapt their learning style to different learning situations.

Note taking: The inability to remember several manageable pieces of information while performing another task such as taking notes on a lecture is an example of a working memory deficit. This can present challenges in group treatment settings in which participants are required to take notes while listening to a live lecture.

Problem-solving: Enhanced working memory capacity can result in improvements in the ability to learn and to solve problems. When working memory is impaired, decision-making and problem-solving abilities can be negatively affected. Treatment providers should consider screening clients for working memory impairments when decision-making and problem-solving abilities are impaired.

Theory of Mind: Theory of Mind (ToM) is the skill to appreciate that the conduct of others is motivated by their opinions, wishes and other mental states. The maturation of ToM has been linked to the cognitive development of both behavioral control and working memory. Working memory has also been linked to false belief and verbal deception in 6- and 7-year-olds.

Thought suppression: Research suggests that working memory could play an important role in the suppression of unwanted or obsessive thoughts. As such, helping children strengthen their working memory capacity should be considered when providing supports and services to individuals struggling to cope with such thoughts.

Trauma: Working memory deficits have been observed in individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In particular, common PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance, reliving trauma memories and avoidance of reminders of trauma may interfere with working memory processes.

Underidentification: Despite the previously mentioned consequences, working memory deficits often go unrecognized and untreated in children’s mental health settings. In some instances, professionals may misinterpret working memory impairments as issues with behavior, impulse control and attention. In a survey of classroom teachers, most knew what working memory was but were able to correctly identify only one or two classroom behaviors associated with working memory deficits.

Understand: Professionals should strive to understand the potential consequences associated with working memory deficits in children. Exploration of how working memory deficits may affect academic, emotional, social and interpersonal capacities is of significant importance. Children’s mental health treatment providers should consider incorporating working memory screening and intervention strategies into their clinical programming.

 

Conclusion

Deficits associated with working memory can have profound and diverse impacts on children. Mental health providers are likely to encounter children on a regular basis who are affected by working memory deficits. To minimize the consequences of working memory deficits, clinicians should become more familiar with the implications these problems have on screening and assessment, treatment and educational outcomes, and social functioning abilities. We highly recommend advanced training in working memory for professionals who provide children’s mental health services.

 

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Jerrod Brown is an assistant professor and director of the master’s degree program in human services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health at Concordia University in Minnesota. He has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul for the past 15 years. He is the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies and editor-in-chief of Forensic Scholars Today and the Journal of Special Populations. For a complete list of references used in this article, contact him at Jerrod01234Brown@live.com.

 

Tracy Packiam Alloway is a TEDx speaker and an award-winning psychologist. Her research has contributed to scientific understanding of working memory, specifically in relation to education and learning needs. Her research has been featured on or by Good Morning America, Today, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Newsweek and others.

 

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