Tag Archives: school counselors audience

Fostering healing and community through an art and wellness magazine

By Russ Curtis, Lisen Roberts and Merry Leigh Dameron September 29, 2021

As a nation, we have faced several grim statistics in the past few years. Suicide rates have increased more than 30% in half of the states in the U.S. since 1999, and the opioid crisis has become an epidemic. In addition, adverse childhood experiences will likely rise because of the increased isolation and lack of school support services during the COVID-19 pandemic. These statistics are further troubling considering that mental health and addiction issues often begin in adolescence and lead to long-term disability, failure to achieve one’s highest potential and premature death.

Thus, it’s paramount to reach young people using multivariate, systemic and effective outreach methods. Using social media and other online venues can be more effective in reaching larger audiences than using simple public awareness messages, and this method is particularly salient during times requiring social distancing. With grant funding from the Jackson County and North Carolina Arts Councils, the Western Carolina University (WCU) counseling program collaborated with local public schools throughout western North Carolina to create an online art and wellness magazine called Masterpeace. We invited K-12 students to submit art for consideration in this publication, which was designed to do the following:

  • Create an engaging online (and print) magazine that celebrates local student art
  • Build university-school partnerships
  • Collaborate with counseling graduate students to provide mental health and wellness education to children, adolescents, parents, teachers and counselors
  • Destigmatize mental health issues
  • Increase conversation among parents, students, faculty and community members about the importance of seeking help for mental health needs

Healing through art

Coupling art with wellness information is particularly advantageous because research indicates that creating and appreciating art is therapeutic. Creating art elicits similar brainwave activity to what is observed in people while meditating. Art therapy is effective in helping clients who have experienced domestic violence, trauma, depression, personality disorders and schizophrenia.

Artists are visionaries who follow their hearts, not crowds, and are regularly at the forefront of societal change. Often it is music, paintings, graffiti or murals that bring much-needed awareness of inequality and oppression to the public. The aim of this art and wellness magazine is to encourage and nurture students’ creative genius to inspire others to instill a more collaborative and just society.

Expanding the reach

An online magazine can be an effective tool because 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, 89% of them are online multiple times every day and 40% say they prefer to receive health information online versus face-to-face medical visits. In addition, accurate online health information decreases anxiety and depression and increases stress management, healthy relationships and academic achievement. Evidence suggests that online health education is particularly salient for stigmatized topics that adolescents would typically avoid in face-to-face settings.

The WCU counseling program tested the efficacy of including art with mental health information on the university’s social media platform. First, we placed suicide prevention information on the counseling program’s Facebook page. Then, the next day we included student art with the same suicide information post. Adding art to the post increased the reach of the suicide prevention message: 46 more views (168 total), 152 more engagement (165) and 11 more likes (17).

Strengthening university, school and agency relationships

Masterpeace magazine enhances our university, agency and school partnerships by providing an engaging way for students, parents, counselors and teachers to interact during a period of social isolation. The teachers have told us how much they appreciate having the online magazine to discuss with their students and inspire them to create art. For instance, a middle school counselor was working with a student who was new to the school and struggling to fit in. He suggested she join the art club, so she did. And one of her artworks was published in Masterpeace. The counselor said it significantly improved her attitude and school engagement. Another art teacher told us that one of her talented high school student’s intermittent depression was visibly improved after their art was published in the magazine, and the teacher also believed that this publication would increase the student’s chances of receiving college scholarships. It may sound cliché but helping even one student thrive is well worth this publication.

Excitement for the magazine was evident from the number of students and schools that participated. There was a 100% increase in the number of students and a 27% increase in the number of schools that contributed art between the 2020 and 2021 editions. To date, the first two issues of Masterpeace have been viewed over 4,700 times, a reach that is significantly more than faculty could have accomplished by speaking to schools and community groups.

We hope that collaborating with community schools and agencies will also increase their involvement in counseling student field placements, service-learning opportunities, internships, practicums and other partnerships.

Another benefit of this project is that it involves counseling graduate students using what they learn in classes about mental health wellness and prevention to provide salient information throughout the magazine. In turn, this project benefits both graduate and K-12 students because it encourages counseling graduate students, who will become future counselors, to apply course material so that K-12 students will understand and use it in their lives.

Honoring the foundation of the counseling profession

We believe this magazine has a broader and more nuanced purpose. The counseling profession was founded on prevention and wellness principles, and it has increasingly been a leader in the behavioral health field on diversity, social justice and equality issues. The beauty and originality of art are emblematic of the counseling profession’s desire to honor the truth and uniqueness of everyone and allow them to express themselves in their own way. Much like the vision and imagination it takes to generate art, we believe this magazine speaks to the ethos of the counseling profession by honoring the varied and meaningful ways we all contribute to the world, creating an ever-evolving and highly complex beautiful tapestry of humanity.

 

Enjoy flipping through the 2020 issue and the 2021 issue of Masterpeace, and follow us on Instagram @masterpeace.artmag.

“The New King of the Jungle” by Marina Mace, the cover art for the 2021 issue of Masterpeace magazine (published by Western Carolina University in collaboration with the Jackson County and North Carolina Arts Councils)

 

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Russ Curtis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and a professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. Contact him at curtis@wcu.edu.

Lisen Roberts is the department head of human services and an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University, where she oversees 10 academic programs. She continues to be involved in school counseling, counseling ethics and social justice issues. Contact her at lroberts@wcu.edu.

Merry Leigh Dameron is a licensed school counselor and assistant professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. Her research interests include social justice in education, alternative education and school counselor cultural competence. Contact her at mdameron@wcu.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.

CEO’s Message: School-based counselors will have their hands full this fall

Richard Yep September 1, 2021

Richard Yep, ACA CEO

In my column last month, I noted that “back to school” was going to be anything but the normal or traditional fall experience that many of us grew up knowing. This fall has started off in an eerily different way. And with the concern over the potential impact of the COVID-19 variants, who can tell what the next few months will bring?

Frankly, I am sorry, saddened and concerned about what the impact will be on students, families, educators and administrators as we head into September. Rates of students who act out, take undue risks, indulge in drug and alcohol use, and show signs of negative behavior are likely to increase. However, I am profoundly appreciative of the work of professional school counselors at the K-12 level and of those in college counseling centers at institutions of higher education. Those of you who work in these settings will respond to some very serious concerns manifested by what our world has experienced over the past 18 months. 

Teachers, parents, administrators and those who work in higher education settings must be made aware of the training and expertise of professional school counselors. Professional counselors in educational settings perform outstanding advocacy on behalf of their students. Now I am asking you to step up and advocate for your profession. We need more counselors to spread the good news about your training, your expertise, your ability to solve problems and your dedication to helping all of our nation’s students in a respectful and ethically appropriate manner. 

I urge you to speak up. If you work in a K-12 setting, make sure you are on the agenda to address parents, teachers and students whenever possible. At the college level, make sure that your success is reported regularly to administrators and boards of trustees. The American Counseling Association will work as hard as it can to influence state and federal programs and funding that support the hiring and training of professional counselors. It is up to all of you at the local, district or campus levels to also ensure that the funding to run your programs is made available and declared a priority. 

With all that we will see students experiencing on K-12 and college campuses this fall, it is clear that mental health professionals working in school settings will be in high demand. Let the staff and leaders at ACA know what you need. I would also encourage you to visit the ACA website to see the resources, continuing education and training opportunities that might be of benefit in the challenging work you face. For example, ACA recently introduced an entirely new learning management system, accessible via counseling.org, that lists an incredible number of continuing education opportunities designed to help counseling practitioners. 

When I say that I hope this will be ACA’s best year ever, I’m not referring to generating the most revenue or simply growing our various product lines. I am talking about you! I want ACA to be the professional partner you deserve, supporting you in the crucial work you do each and every day. Use the contact information included at the end of my column every month to let me know what your professional membership organization can do for you. We now have more than 55,000 members, and our growth must mean something. To me, it means that professional counselors, counselor educators and graduate students see value and want to engage in what ACA is doing.  

As always, I look forward to your comments, questions and thoughts. Feel free to call me at 800-347-6647 ext. 231 or to email me at ryep@counseling.org. You can also follow me on Twitter: @Richyep.

Be well.

Feeling the strain: The effects of COVID-19 on children and adolescents

By Laurie Meyers April 23, 2021

One of the most contentious — indeed, at times, vitriolic — public health debates of the COVID-19 era has revolved around the safety of opening schools for in-person classes. For some politicians, the push to open seemed to be influenced by optics — a signal that states were “open for business.” At the same time, parents have struggled to help children and adolescents with their schoolwork and other aspects of distance learning and have longed for a safe way to get back to a less chaotic educational experience. Some parents were forced to leave their jobs to take care of children and still cannot return to work. Teachers and other school staff have expressed concern for their own safety and the safety of their families and students. 

Everyone agrees that online learning is not ideal for most students — and can be virtually inaccessible for marginalized populations — but in many areas, it seemed like the safest option. However, mental health professionals, educators, parents and community activists remain apprehensive about the negative effect that the lack of in-person instruction and interaction with peers is having on the mental, emotional, social, developmental and academic well-being of children and adolescents.

There has been much confusion about how often children and adolescents get COVID-19 and how likely they are to spread the coronavirus. Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that while fewer children than adults have had COVID-19 in the United States, the number of cases among school-age children was rising. Not only can children and adolescents be infected and get sick, but they can also spread the virus to others. At the same time, the CDC revised its guidance for physical distancing in schools in March, saying that 3 feet of distance (as opposed to 6 feet) is sufficient in elementary, middle and high schools where masks are worn and where community transmission is low.

In many states, teachers and other educational system personnel have received vaccinations. School districts are implementing physical distancing protocols, and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed by Congress in mid-March includes money to improve building ventilation. With these developments, many schools that weren’t already open were planning a return to in-person education, either full time or on a hybrid basis. 

Amid all the debating and planning, one group has been noticeably silent: the students themselves. Many children and adolescents are struggling with a feeling of powerlessness, says Adam W. Carter, a former school counselor who is currently the coordinator of the trauma-informed counseling graduate certificate at Northern Illinois University’s Department of Counseling and Higher Education. “We’re not asking children if they want to go back to school, if they feel safe,” he says. “We’re making decisions as adults with [the needs of] children almost as an afterthought.”

The lack of agency in decisions regarding in-person schooling is not the only area in which many children and adolescents feel voiceless, say the sources Counseling Today spoke to for this article. Like adults, children and adolescents miss their friends; are frustrated by the inability to get together with others without fear of infection; mourn the loss of celebrations and the marking of milestones; are afraid that they, or a loved one, will get sick; and are tired of spending so much time in front of a computer screen. 

In other words, they have all of the stress but not as much control as adults do, notes Carter, an American Counseling Association member. Children and adolescents often don’t know how to talk about — or, for that matter, recognize — how the pandemic is affecting them. 

For example, “Children may not know how to talk about how they miss getting together at school or with friends,” says ACA member Barbara Mahaffey, a licensed professional clinical counselor and executive director of the Scioto Paint Valley Mental Health Center in Ohio. They might ask often about visiting others but not recognize that they’re having stomachaches and other psychosomatic effects because they’re lonely, she adds. “Children may not ask for help, and parents may not recognize a child’s distress,” Mahaffey says. 

Many parents are experiencing significant worry and stress about their finances or how they can keep their family safe from COVID-19. They may also be grieving the loss of friends or family members who have died from the coronavirus. Parents often believe that it’s best to shield their children from these concerns, but the reality is that kids pick up on the underlying fear without understanding its source, say Mahaffey and Carter. 

The strain on children and adolescents is showing. According to the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, child and adolescent emergency room visits related to mental health began increasing in April 2020 and remained elevated through October 2020 (the latest date for which statistics were available). Compared with the same period in 2019, emergency room visits related to mental health rose 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for those ages 12-17. 

Missed connections

Children and adolescents want to be with each other, Carter says. Absent in-person classes and social activities, it is difficult for them to figure out how to interact. This generation is used to socializing through social media platforms and chat apps, but after spending six to seven hours online each day for school, interest in electronic gatherings has diminished throughout the pandemic, he says. Being in the company of others all day virtually but rarely if ever getting the opportunity to interact in person has produced a particular kind of loneliness for children and adolescents.

Counselors are also finding it difficult to connect with these clients online. Once the pandemic began and counseling shifted online, Sarah Zalewski, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in child and adolescent counseling, knew she needed a new way to engage her clients. At the time, in addition to her private practice, Zalewski was working as a school counselor in a Connecticut middle school. 

“When they come into my office, I always have toys,” she says. “They love to play, [and] I do too.”

The toys functioned as an icebreaker, with students and young clients finding it easier to open up while their hands were busy, explains Zalewski, an ACA member. But with that icebreaker gone thanks to the abrupt end of in-person sessions, she had to start thinking of alternative ways to connect. “I didn’t want to do the traditional grown-up thing, like, ‘How was your day? What was school like?’” Zalewski says.

Zalewski thought about what she had been doing herself to cope with the stresses of the pandemic. One of her favorite coping mechanisms: playing video games. Given the popularity and ubiquity of video games, she decided they might offer a great way to bridge the gap with young clients.

In the beginning, Zalewski mainly discussed the games with her clients, asking them what games they liked and why. Whenever role-playing games entered the discussion, she explored what characters her clients typically chose to inhabit. Did they pick a warrior or a priest? How was the character similar to them? How was it different? In what ways did the character reflect who the client wanted to be in real life? “Why do you want to be a druid?” Zalewski might ask. “What is it about druidism that is really cool?” 

Zalewski emphasizes that counselors who try this approach need to know or learn the language of the games. “Gaming is a culture,” she says. “Use cultural humility. If you don’t know, for example, what a druid is — [because] it’s different in different games — ask. They love to talk about it.”

Eventually, Zalewski began playing the games with her clients. They start in Google Meet, where they do all of their communicating. They then use an online link or gaming platform. Zalewski has multiple screens, and clients often use tablets. 

Sometimes the games are relatively simple. For example, Zalewski recently began playing Connect Four with a young client as an exercise in frustration tolerance (because the client doesn’t always win). When a client expresses frustration during the course of a game, Zalewski probes for the source. Is it truly about the outcome of the game itself or is it frustration at a person in the client’s life that is coming out during the gaming session? Sometimes the frustration is really about the situation that children and adolescents find themselves in with the pandemic, including feeling like they no longer have the ability to do the things they once enjoyed.

Game-based problem-solving helps clients build coping skills as they are playing, Zalewski points out. In addition, she often directs young clients to use relaxation techniques that she has taught them, such as square breathing (breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts and then breathing out for four counts).

Zalewski also likes to use Roblox, an online platform that features various games and also gives users the ability to create their own games (a function that she likens to sandbox therapy). By creating games or even leading Zalewski through a virtual obstacle course, young clients can develop a sense of leadership, she says. 

Children and adolescents are struggling with the lack of social contact during the pandemic, Zalewski says, and this is often manifesting in anxiety, depression, anger and withdrawal. The isolation is particularly difficult on clients who have depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she adds. 

Because physical activity helps with mood levels and basic functioning, Zalewski tries to get her young clients moving through games such as Just Dance, Ring Fit Adventure (a fantasy adventure world that uses physical exercise to navigate in-game movement), and other virtual reality games.  

To keep clients moving, Zalewski will often give clients “homework” (with parents’ permission), asking them to play a game a certain number of times between sessions. Zalewski also encourages clients to engage in social interaction. Just like any other skill, social skills will atrophy if you don’t use them, she says. 

Many role-playing games enable users to communicate with each other in chat boxes. Zalewski says there are also “clans” and “guilds” that gamers can join. Another resource she likes is Discord, a platform that allows users to discuss games and other interests on secure topic-based text channels. 

Zalewski says her clients laugh at her for her enduring love of Pokemon Go. Still, she feels it is an encouraging way for children and adolescents to get outside with parents and interact with others in a safe, physically distanced way as they collect Pokemon.  

School daze

Although some children and adolescents are doing well with virtual learning, in general, it’s not developmentally aligned to child and adolescent needs, says ACA member Jennifer Betters-Bubon, an LPC and former school counselor. “We know young kids need to move,” she says. “They thrive on environments that provide sensory stimulation and movement. Even in traditional high school, kids get to get up and move through hallways and can interact with friends.”

“We have kids who are on Zoom for hours and not necessarily getting up,” continues Betters-Bubon, an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “It’s fatiguing for their brains and bodies, [and] it doesn’t lend itself to building relationships.”

When adults feel the fatigue of too much screen time, they can usually disconnect, at least for a little while. “When children get tired, adults are still in charge,” Carter points out. And if a child asks to take a break, parents or caregivers may think that the lack of structure will cause them to fall behind. “They may not understand that children have the same need to disconnect,” Carter says.

Betters-Bubon is noticing a lack of motivation in the children and adolescents she sees in her practice. She believes that’s in part because schoolwork isn’t as engaging without the connection to other people and the school itself. “It can feel like ‘What is the point of doing this work?’” she says. Betters-Bubon points out that on top of COVID-19, students are dealing with the impact of racial trauma and other significant stressors, all of which influence their view of whether their current math assignment is really relevant right now.

Betters-Bubon says some of her younger clients are so disengaged that she has shifted the focus of her work to their parents. She has sought to keep middle and high school students engaged by asking them to create things between sessions such as a vision board of how they’re coping with their anxiety and then sharing their creation with her.

Now that many schools are opening up, at least on a hybrid basis, Betters-Bubon and other counselors say they are witnessing excitement among students about reuniting with friends, mixed with a lot of trepidation. Many of Betters-Bubon’s clients are experiencing anxiety — about the possibility of getting COVID-19, about catching up academically or, in some cases, about starting at a new school without the normal transition. Betters-Bubon has been doing a significant amount of exposure therapy work with child and adolescent clients. This involves having them imagine a list of scary things that they might encounter and working up to doing each one in ascending order. In some cases, she has been able to reach out to school officials to ask them to allow her clients to at least see the inside of their new environment before classes start. 

Betters-Bubon acknowledges that it’s a strange new world for students returning to school. Even the nature of recess has changed. Because of the need to maintain physical distance, her son’s elementary school no longer allows balls on the playground. Students just kind of stand around and concentrate on keeping themselves separated, Betters-Bubon says. As a result, they’re not engaging those gross motor movements essential to healthy growth that they used to engage when they could run around, climb on equipment and toss balls. Betters-Bubon wonders what the implications might be if this scenario becomes normalized. 

Some schools have implemented sensory paths in hallways with different obstacles to run and jump over, Betters-Bubon says. She’d like to see more of those, particularly outdoors. Noncontact games that involve actions such as students moving to different parts of a circle can also be an excellent way to keep children moving while still remaining physically distant, she says.

LPC Melissa Brown works with an Atlanta-area community behavioral health center as a mental health counselor in a local school district with a majority Black student body, most of whom live in poverty. The community has been hit hard, both by COVID-19 itself and by the economic devastation of the pandemic-induced recession. 

The school district has been on a hybrid schedule since January. Brown has tried to give students a sense of normalcy by providing that one thing that will be consistent. “When we meet, this is going to be your safe place,” she tells students. “We can talk about anything and do anything you want.”

Many of the children still worry that they or their loved ones will get sick, so Brown holds family sessions to help students and their families develop a plan to stay safe. The children are used to having a plan for what happens if there is a fire in the school, so the idea of coming up with something similar for home seems natural to them, she says.

In sessions, they talk about teaching kids how to wash their hands, come up with examples to demonstrate what 6 feet of physical distance looks like, and discuss why they can’t see their grandmother, uncle or friends today. They also look at alternatives, such as driving by a friend’s or loved one’s house or mailing them a picture.

Brown also tells parents that they have to be honest with their children. They can’t hide information that they think might be harmful because their children are likely to be exposed to it anyway through social media, the news or friends. Instead, parents can be their children’s first source of information, Brown says.

Grief and trauma

Brown has encountered a substantial amount of grief connected to the pandemic, particularly in elementary school settings. After attending a funeral every Friday for a month, one little girl asked Brown if it was wrong that she didn’t cry anymore. 

Brown frequently uses play therapy and art therapy to help younger children explore their feelings. Eventually, the little girl was able to process her feelings and contextualize them, such as, “This person who died was a friend of my mother’s, and I didn’t really know her” and “This was my grandfather, but he was sick with cancer, and I know he’s in a good place now.”

Zalewski has helped young clients process the loss of grandparents and pets. She notes that furry family members have become even more vital companions during the pandemic. 

One child particularly liked the idea of creating a memorial for a beloved dog. So, with Zalewski’s help, the client created a space on his island in Animal Crossing, a social simulation game that gives players the ability to build and create things. Zalewski and the child found a virtual dog and gave him a red bowl to drink from. The child’s real-life dog had enjoyed being outside and sniffing flowers, so they also created a fenced-in area with flowers, the drinking bowl, a sofa (in case the dog wanted to curl up) and a radio for the dog to listen to. Players in Animal Crossing can pick the radio’s music, so the child chose happy songs because they wanted the dog to be happy.

“Creating it was very powerful, and then [the child was] able to visit [the memorial],” Zalewski said. She suggested that the child share the memorial with their mom and dad, which ended up being an emotionally significant experience. They discussed how losing the dog felt to each of them and were able to mourn together, Zalewski says. She believes the process helped to normalize grief for the child. Mom and Dad were sad too, but they were getting through it, and the client could as well. 

“Now Mom and Dad and the kid can talk more comfortably about the dog,” Zalewski says. “It’s OK to be sad. Sadness won’t break you. It’s OK to share the happy stuff too.” 

Zalewski has also helped child and adolescent clients navigate the loss of loved ones such as grandparents. Many kids are hesitant to share some of their feelings about loss because they are afraid it might be painful for the people around them, Zalewski says. She helps young clients express their grief by inviting them to have a conversation with her about the things they remember about their grandparents or other loved ones who have died. “Everyone has loss,” she says. “I help them access the good memories.” 

These memories are often funny, such as how the grandparent always made the client a cup of coffee or tea, and the client always drank it, even though they thought it tasted terrible. Or they might remember a unique sweater that their grandmother made for them. 

“Many times, kids haven’t grieved before, and they don’t know how to do it,” Zalewski says. She provides a safe place to explore the feelings of being really sad and missing a loved one.  

Moving forward

“We are not holding space for children to be scared to return to in-person learning, especially with the increased safety protocols in place,” Carter says. “Masks, no touching, no singing, playground shut down — all of these things can be scary, yet we expect children to be able to turn that off and learn as usual.”

As schools continue to open, Betters-Bubon believes that a trauma-informed approach with a schoolwide focus on relationships is essential. “Integrated within a trauma-informed approach is social-emotional learning, embedding sensory strategies into the classroom and allowing for voice and choice,” she says. “It also would include a focus on staff wellness. School counselors would focus on teaching and assisting all staff in understanding the impact of trauma on the brain and on student learning, including helping schools carve out specific ways to build relationships.”

Betters-Bubon would also like to see more collaboration between schools and outside mental health counselors to focus on building resiliency in children and adolescents. This may involve taking a wider systemic view and working with the critical adults in students’ lives, she says. “I could see an increased need for family counseling in an effort to create systemic change within families that ultimately helps children and adolescents.”

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@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.

Seeing the whole gifted child

By Lindsey Phillips November 30, 2020

Assessing symptoms and determining a treatment plan for clients is never a simple or straightforward task. That can be especially true when it comes to working with gifted and twice-exceptional clients.

Imagine that a second-grader who is highly intelligent comes to your counseling office. The child has some intense interests, which is not uncommon with individuals who are gifted, and they struggle with emotion regulation, which appears to be related to the child’s perfectionism and low frustration tolerance. You might assume that this client’s struggles are just a natural consequence of being gifted.

Emily Kircher-Morris, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Unlimited Potential Counseling & Education Center in O’Fallon, Missouri, made this assumption. It wasn’t until her client entered the fourth grade that Kircher-Morris learned that giftedness alone couldn’t “explain away” the student’s emotional struggles. After experiencing a major event, the client’s problems increased to the point that Kircher-Morris referred him to a psychologist for a full differential diagnosis. Upon receiving the results, she was shocked to find out that her client was not only gifted but also autistic.

“I had fallen into the [common] beliefs about giftedness: That the [emotional struggles] were just sensory intensity or perfectionism,” says Kircher-Morris, an American Counseling Association member who specializes in gifted and high-ability individuals. “I missed how intense his meltdowns were and that his intense interests were related to autism, not giftedness.”

It’s true that individuals who are gifted may possess an intense interest, but they can communicate about other topics in addition to that passion, whereas someone with autism spectrum disorder can’t easily talk about other topics, Kircher-Morris explains.

To make an accurate assessment of a gifted client, professional clinical counselors must first know what “giftedness” even means. The problem is that the exact determinants and measurements for giftedness vary from state to state and even school to school. But according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), individuals deemed to be gifted or talented have the capability to perform at higher levels than their peers, and they require modifications to their educational experience to learn and to realize their potential.

Neither Kircher-Morris nor James Bishop, an LPC at Blank Slate Therapy in Frisco, Texas, distinguish between “gifted” and “high achieving” because they say some individuals need to be cognitively challenged regardless of whether they meet the formal definition of being gifted. And sometimes gifted individuals have learning disabilities or mental health issues that require them to get help — a concept that can be difficult for individuals who are used to having things come easily to them, Kircher-Morris points out.

(Mis)Identifying giftedness

There is also a substantial amount of anecdotal information, as well as misconceptions, about giftedness, and Bishop, executive director of the Passionate Mind Institute, warns that even mental health professionals can fall prey to pseudoscience on the topic. For example, some counselors too easily embrace overexcitability as a common characteristic of gifted individuals even though there isn’t much current research to support the belief, he says.

People may incorrectly assume that someone cannot be gifted if they are not doing well in school or that gifted individuals never need help, Bishop continues. Some also believe that individuals who are gifted are more prone to depression, but research shows they are as well-adjusted, if not more so, than their peers in the general population, he adds.

Such misconceptions, as well as concern about clinical misdiagnoses, led Bishop, a member of ACA, to conduct a study to test the ability of mental health professionals to recognize gifted characteristics in presenting clients using vignettes that illustrated common issues and characteristics related to giftedness. Half of the 330 participants were prompted that giftedness could be a factor, but regardless of that prompting, Bishop found the majority of participants still clung to the diagnosis of a disorder over an assessment of giftedness. (See “The potential of misdiagnosis of high IQ youth by practicing mental health professionals: A mixed methods study” in the journal High Ability Studies.)

Bishop’s study suggests that even mental health professionals, not just educators, have trouble factoring giftedness into their clinical assessments. “Being mindful and educating yourself on the real struggles that gifted [individuals] face can make you a better clinician in terms of assessing a gifted [client] and being able to determine whether their problems are the result of a disorder or are simply part of their gifted nature,” says Bishop, who chairs the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network.

But finding training in this area can be challenging for counselors. Bishop says he had to get a doctorate in educational psychology to become formally educated in the subject. He isn’t aware of any counseling program that offers a concentration in giftedness.

The lack of adequate training is a problem because, according to Michelle Tolison, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Charlotte, North Carolina, giftedness should be a specialty just like trauma. In fact, she believes that without being adequately trained, counselors can do extensive damage if they work with clients who are gifted.

Bishop, author of a forthcoming book on anxiety and giftedness for parents, recommends that counselors attend national and state gifted and talented conferences for opportunities “to dive into the subject, meet people in the field and get a sense of how they [as counselors] can play a role.” In addition to the resources provided by Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (sengifted.org) and NAGC (nagc.org), Bishop and Tolison, owner and lead therapist at Dandelion Family Counseling, recommend reading Giftedness 101 (by Linda Kreger Silverman) and Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults (by James T. Webb et al.).

The gifted gap

Most gifted children are identified through testing or teacher referrals in elementary schools. The problem is that there is no one standard test used in schools to determine giftedness. On top of that, many school districts don’t test every student. Instead, they rely on teacher referrals, which, as Renae Mayes, an associate professor in the counseling program in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, points out, introduces bias.

To highlight this potential bias, Mayes, an ACA member whose research focuses on gifted education and special education for students of color in urban environments, poses several insightful questions: How are teachers trained to recognize giftedness? How are they trained to recognize that giftedness exists in many different kinds of bodies? Will teachers see a Black student who can’t sit still in their seat and has lots of energy as someone who is gifted and excited about learning, or will they perceive the child negatively — as someone who has a behavioral problem or wants to disrupt the learning environment?

The sad reality is that the current method of identifying giftedness has led to an underrepresentation of individuals from marginalized backgrounds in gifted programs. Researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently found that in schools that feature gifted programs, only three states enroll more than 10% of their Black and Hispanic students in such programs; in 22 states, that figure stands at less than 5%.

Black and Hispanic students are also overrepresented in special education, Mayes points out. When children are put in special education, it often becomes the only lens through which they are perceived, she says, and the likelihood of them also being identified as gifted dramatically decreases. As Mayes notes, these children tend to be viewed through a deficit perspective, which often incorporates stereotypical understandings of culture and disability rather than allowing children to be seen for their gifts and talents.

According to the article “Myths and research regarding the socio-emotional needs of the gifted,” published in the September issue of The Gifted Education Review (of which Bishop serves as co-editor), individuals from different cultures may not be as readily identified as gifted. Among the reasons highlighted in the article are because these individuals’ cultural norms differ from those of the prevalent culture (e.g., what might be viewed as positive assertiveness in one culture might be perceived as too aggressive in another) or because they are gifted in their first language, which differs from the English language programs in their schools.

“There’s a big push in gifted education to modify how we identify students and make it tied to what kids need academically,” says Kircher-Morris, the president and founder of the Gifted Support Network, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the families of gifted and high-ability learners. “And schools are getting better about identifying kids younger, and they’re doing more universal screening,” which helps remove issues of bias that can arise with teacher and parent referrals.

Twice-exceptionality

Gifted individuals may also have a special need or disability. According to NAGC, the term twice-exceptional (also known as “2e”) describes gifted children who have the potential for high achievement but also have one or more disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, emotional/behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum disorder or other impairments such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“People don’t often think that individuals who are gifted can also have [a] disability,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, so you end up with kids who are exceptionally cognitively able but perhaps they have ADHD or are autistic and they need a 504 plan or perhaps even an individualized education program.”

Kircher-Morris, chair-elect of the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network, has noticed that sometimes teachers don’t feel as though they have to make accommodations in environments such as advanced placement classes. These teachers just expect that if a student is in such a class, they should be able to do the work. She often reminds educators that not taking a challenging course is not an accommodation. Twice-exceptional students still need to be challenged; they just need some help along the way.

It can be easy for counselors and other mental health professionals to miss a diagnosis of twice-exceptionality, says Kircher-Morris, who hosts the Mind Matters podcast, which focuses on the development of high-ability and twice-exceptional people across the life span. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom.

Kircher-Morris has had several clients get psychological evaluations and come back with a misdiagnosis. She recalls an example in which one of her elementary-age gifted clients was having meltdowns at school, becoming emotionally dysregulated and having trouble understanding nonverbal cues. Kircher-Morris knew the client was gifted, and she strongly suspected he was also autistic. The boy’s parents were reluctant to accept that label because of the stigma surrounding autism. It was easier for them to just say, “He’s quirky because he’s gifted.”

When Kircher-Morris finally convinced the parents to get a psychological assessment for their son, she wrote a letter to the person doing the assessment and told them the child was gifted to ensure that would be factored in. But the person doing the assessment did not specialize in giftedness and ended up diagnosing the child as depressed because sometimes when he had meltdowns, he would say, “I hate myself. I wish I could die.”

Kircher-Morris knew the client wasn’t clinically depressed. Instead, he was having big emotions and wasn’t sure how to talk about them, she says. She adds that one day of testing and questionnaires is not enough to fully understand and diagnosis a person.

Kircher-Morris still works with this student, and now that he is in high school, his autism is more pronounced. When his schedule shifted and he had to start showering in the mornings instead of the evenings, he didn’t handle it well at first. Kircher-Morris worked with him on regulating his emotions around this change. The student also has some issues with friends at school, but other people in his life often view him solely through a lens of giftedness and assume that he shouldn’t have any trouble communicating, Kircher-Morris says. They don’t realize that as a twice-exceptional adolescent, he sometimes does have certain challenges.

Trying to identify a client as twice-exceptional is even more difficult because of the concept of masking. As Tolison notes, gifted individuals with a learning disability can fall into one of three categories:

1) The individual’s advanced intellect compensates for their learning disability.

2) The learning disability or special need overshadows the person’s giftedness.

3) The giftedness and learning disability mask each other to the point that the individual appears to have average intelligence.

Research shows that twice-exceptional children are often diagnosed later than their peers because their struggles aren’t as noticeable initially, Kircher-Morris says. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that individuals with autism, for example, may be able to compensate for their comparative lack of social skills until social expectations exceed their abilities, she notes. A gifted child who is also autistic may not have a language delay when they are little, but by the time they get to middle school or high school, their emotional and social struggles and rigid thinking become more problematic.

“And we’ve now lost all of that time to be proactive and to support them and to help them build the skills they need to be successful, confident and happy,” Kircher-Morris adds.

To avoid mislabeling clients, Tolison, a registered play therapist who works with children who are twice-exceptional (particularly those with ADHD), advises counselors to always consider what the client’s behavior is communicating. Are they fidgeting in the classroom because they are understimulated, or is it a symptom of ADHD?

Therapists need to recognize “the blend of symptomology between gifted and diagnosis,” Tolison continues. For example, mental health professionals shouldn’t presume a client is autistic just because the client is smart and struggles to socialize with peers, she says. Instead, she advises digging deeper and considering whether the symptoms decrease or dissipate when the client is in an ideal setting, such as being around others who have interests similar to theirs.

Giftedness and special education are often seen as being opposite ends of the continuum, Mayes says, but she asserts they are separate continuums and can exist simultaneously. “The disability is the how you do something,” she explains. Even though an individual may need to do a task or skill differently or may need help, they can still possess a higher cognitive ability, notes Mayes, who has published several articles on this topic, including “College and career readiness groups for gifted Black high school students with disabilities” in The Journal for Specialists in Group Work.

Mayes recounts a real case example of how these continuums can overlap in a client: A Black student who was in a gifted program in middle school had an accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The injury caused the boy to get bad headaches if he sat for long periods of time, and his vision became blurry. But his cognitive ability was unchanged. He just needed some accommodations to help him at school. His teachers didn’t believe he was actually having headaches, however. They assumed he was just trying to get out of doing the work. The boy internalized their disbelief and told his mother the teachers were looking at him as if he were a “lazy Black kid,” a stereotype he knew was prevalent at the school. Soon thereafter, the boy’s grades started to suffer.

His mother became a big advocate for her son and pushed for a special education and gifted label for him. Even so, the school refused. It wasn’t until the boy entered high school and the school counselor joined the mother’s fight that they finally got some accommodations for the student. When the boy translated his talent for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) into a passion for band, the band director also advocated for him.

This student had to reconfigure his identity as not just a gifted student but as a gifted student with a traumatic brain injury, and he had to learn to self-advocate, Mayes says.

Asynchronous development

Gifted children’s cognitive, emotional and physical development are often asynchronous, meaning that their intellectual development outpaces their maturity or emotional development. Even though their intellectual skills are advanced, their social and emotional skills may lag behind.

“Cognitive giftedness is not necessarily the same as emotional maturity,” Kircher-Morris says. Because gifted children are often highly verbal and speak as if they are mini-adults, people incorrectly assume that their behavioral and emotional regulation skills will also be advanced, she explains. So, counselors should consider clients’ emotional development along with their cognitive development.

According to Tolison, “There can be upward of a 12-year spread between a child’s intellectual age … [and] their social/emotional age.” For example, a twice-exceptional child with ADHD could be 8 biologically, but with the intellectual capabilities of a 12-year-old and the social and emotional development of a 6-year-old. And at times, the child might have emotional outbursts that are on par with a 4-year-old, Tolison adds.

Tolison often helps her clients first understand emotional language. She finds the “anger iceberg” exercise helpful for teaching emotion identification and awareness. Because some clients might be gifted in empathy, this process is less about identifying emotions and more about learning how to express them, she adds. Tolison then helps clients focus on executive functioning skills such as planning ahead, organizing one’s thoughts, flexible thinking and demonstrating self-control — all of which can be challenging for individuals who are twice-exceptional. She may play chess or Othello with clients to help them work on impulse control, for example.

Kircher-Morris engages clients’ higher-level cognitive skills by adjusting her counseling approach. This can be as simple as using a more advanced technique with a younger client (similar to grade skipping in school), or it may involve tailoring a technique to make it more analytical and creative.

The emotion wheel, which describes eight basic emotions and their varying degrees, is a great tool for helping clients identify and name their emotions, Kircher-Morris says. But this tool may not stimulate gifted clients enough to keep them engaged, so she alters it to make it more cognitively challenging. Her emotion wheel is mostly blank. She leaves a few emotion words in different places around the wheel and works with clients to fill in the blank spaces. Sometimes they look up words in the thesaurus or online to find the “just right” word, and then clients evaluate and determine which words should go on the wheel. This activity builds on the higher-level vocabulary that gifted clients often possess, and it provides them with some autonomy in session, she says.

Letting gifted clients direct (but not dictate) sessions

Kircher-Morris finds that gifted children are often unaware that anything is “wrong.” They can be skeptical of counseling at first, especially if their parents are the ones who initiated it. And because these children are gifted, she says, they often want to know the “why” before they completely trust and participate in different counseling approaches.

For that reason, Kircher-Morris encourages these clients to ask questions and takes time to explain the psychology behind the interventions. She also allows clients to explore what works best for them and to develop their own ideas about what would be helpful.

When Kircher-Morris introduces the cognitive triangle exercise (which emphasizes the relationship between one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors), she moves beyond just drawing the diagram on a dry-erase board. She also poses a hypothetical example to help clients better understand the underlying principle behind the activity.

An example she often uses is a student who has an upcoming math test. She asks, “What uncomfortable emotions might they be experiencing?” After she and the client brainstorm some possible feelings, she asks, “If they’re experiencing those uncomfortable emotions, then what thoughts might they be having?” She draws speech bubbles on the board, and she and the client fill them in together.

Then they discuss how these thoughts might influence the hypothetical student’s behavior, where the student could intervene and how this would change the outcome. Running through this hypothetical allows clients to better understand the way the exercise works before they apply it to their own situations, Kircher-Morris says.

The fact that gifted individuals have higher-level thinking skills also means they are more likely to find fault in others’ logic, Kircher-Morris says. In fact, because these individuals are often brighter than their parents, teachers and others with whom they interact, counselors might find themselves trapped in a logical corner when a gifted client pokes holes in their reasoning. Should this happen, Kircher-Morris advises counselors not to engage in a power struggle.

“Don’t try to assert your intelligence or the information that you have because that’s going to damage the rapport,” Kircher-Morris says. Instead, her approach is to acknowledge the valid point the client has made. For example, she may say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve seen this counseling technique work with other clients, but maybe it won’t work with you. Let’s figure out what will work. Do you think any part of that activity might be relevant for you?”

Tolison agrees that gifted clients benefit from being able to have some control over their therapy, but she cautions counselors not to let them dictate the direction of treatment. She says she often has parents who come to her because they previously worked with another therapist who allowed their gifted child to take control to the point that they weren’t making progress. 

Often, gifted clients are excited to engage in a topic they are passionate about, but that can dominate the session. However, as Tolison points out, counselors can turn that passion into a therapeutic intervention. She once had a client who wanted to talk about the dwarf planet Pluto for most of their sessions. She seized on that as an opportunity to teach the client about mindfulness and social awareness.

She used the phrase “I noticed” to stop him from discussing Pluto: “I noticed you’ve talked 20 minutes now on Pluto. I love that you are sharing your passion with me, but can we take a break because I’m a little exhausted from learning that information right now. Let’s talk about something new.” This statement set a limit for the client while also helping them become more mindful of the passage of time and of other people’s feelings, Tolison says.

Tolison also encourages clinicians to be humble when working with gifted clients. “Sometimes the most therapeutic thing you can do for a profoundly gifted kid is be excited about what they can teach you because in that [process], they are also learning,” she says.

Embracing neurodiversity

Kircher-Morris’ goal is to help normalize the fact that different types of brain wiring exist. People with this brain wiring might be divergent from the norm, but that doesn’t mean something is “wrong” with them. Being gifted or twice-exceptional is simply part of the human condition. Normalizing neurodiversity will encourage people to realize that they need help and give them the courage to ask for it, she says.

Counselors are great at understanding the individual needs of clients, she continues, but unless they consider all the factors, including a person’s cognitive ability, then they may misread the situation and the client’s true needs. For example, if a cognitively gifted child is having a hard time making friends, a counselor might focus simply on helping the child build social skills and self-confidence. But then the counselor would be missing the opportunity to consider other possible factors such as bullying, the child’s high stress levels, their feelings of isolation or others’ upward expectations of them — all of which could inhibit the child’s ability to form authentic relationships, Kircher-Morris explains.

So, she advises counselors working with this population to make sure they view their clients’ struggles through a lens of giftedness. How does giftedness or twice-exceptionality influence these clients’ experiences and reality? Clinicians must also figure out how to leverage clients’ strengths with their cognitive abilities to work through any issues they are having, Kircher-Morris says.

Mayes says counselors must be more holistic in understanding clients and see them as more than their struggles or even their giftedness. “We need to take a broader approach in our professional development,” she says, “so we can start understanding more fully individuals’ identities beyond giftedness to include culture, class, gender identity, affectional identities and so much more.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.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.

School counseling in the time of the coronavirus

By Laurie Meyers September 28, 2020

“School counselor” is a deceptively simple title. In reality, school counselors play many roles, including social and emotional educator, academic adviser, conflict mediator, wellness coach, mental health therapist, student champion, educational collaborator and family liaison.

Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, many school counselors have become connectors and comforters-in-chief — not just to students but to parents and school staff.

Last spring, schools began closing in response to the pandemic. According to Education Week, 48 states; four U.S. territories; Washington, D.C.; and the Department of Defense Education Activity eventually ordered or recommended school closures affecting at least 50.8 million public school students. Suddenly, students, families, counselors, teachers and administrators all had to find a way to virtually re-create their in-person school routines. This already-challenging shift was complicated by the significant number of students who lacked access to high-speed internet or desktop, laptop or tablet computers.

Even before the pandemic, civil rights and education groups had been decrying what they had dubbed the “homework gap” because many teachers were increasingly assigning work that required internet access. Already at a disadvantage, these disenfranchised students — many of whom were Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) — now faced being completely locked out of school academic activities for the rest of the year.

According to “Students of Color Caught in the Homework Gap,” a recent report by organizations that include the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Urban League, when the wave of school closures occurred, 16.9 million children lacked high-speed home internet access (a number that included 1 in 3 BIPOC families), and 7.3 million did not have a computer or tablet. Many schools spent the spring and summer scrambling to provide devices and internet access to students — a task that was still incomplete going into the new school year. Stories of students struggling to keep up with online instruction on cell phones are still not uncommon.

In addition, when the economy took a nosedive as the coronavirus spread, it made it hard to focus on anything but survival for many families. But even financially secure families found it challenging to provide the ideal learning environment as — in many cases — parents working from home with multiple children wrestled with carving out a physical space and a time for each person to be online. Students missed getting to see their friends and participating in extracurricular activities. Sports seasons were canceled. The theater curtains never went up on school plays. Rites of passage such as prom and graduation ceremonies largely fell by the wayside.

And now it is fall, meaning a brand new school year. Even so, in many parts of the country, the football fields and stands will remain empty, the marching band instruments will stay silent and there will be no homecoming dances. Things are decidedly not back to normal. For that matter, there is relatively widespread belief that “normal” will never return. No one knows what the future will hold.

So, it’s not surprising that parents, students and school personnel are all feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Continuing to hold classes online while simultaneously ensuring that students and families have the needed technological resources — or, in some cases, the absolute basics, such as enough food to eat — continues to be a team effort.

Because safeguarding the mental, emotional and physical welfare of students is the essence of what school counselors do, these professionals have typically been at the center of the problem-solving process since the arrival of the coronavirus. They have conducted check-in phone calls to make sure students had the necessary equipment and internet access; helped parents (or grandparents) with technological troubleshooting; arranged for families in need to receive gift cards and community resources; responded to requests from teachers to find out why students weren’t showing up for online class (and then worked to resolve whatever the barrier was); reassured stressed-out parents; coached families on how to set up a structured school day; made mental health referrals for students in crisis; and provided moral support to teachers, administrators and each other. All while finding ways to continue offering academic guidance, focusing on students’ emotional and social learning, and giving specific support to children who were struggling with various personal and school-related issues.

Counseling Today spoke to several school counselors at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and as they prepared for the new 2020 fall semester to learn more about the challenges of performing their jobs in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Linda Colón
Counselor for prekindergarten and kindergarten students, Bancroft Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Bancroft is a Title I school (i.e., a facility that receives financial assistance due to a high population of students from families with low incomes) with a majority Latinx student body that also includes children of Ethiopian immigrants. Many of the families in the district live in poverty and often share relatively small living quarters with extended family.

Under normal circumstances, American Counseling Association member Linda Colón gives Bancroft’s youngest students their earliest lessons in social and emotional learning. By observing (and joining) students at play, reading aloud to them, incorporating toys, conversing with puppets and showing self-produced videos, Colón teaches prekindergartners and kindergartners basic social skills and how to recognize and regulate their emotions.

Getting to know students’ families and getting them invested in their children’s learning has always been an integral part of Colón’s counseling approach. She says that she’s “planting a seed” of awareness about the importance of education and attendance from an early age. Colón meets with parents to answer questions and, if requested, gives them advice on how to reinforce the social and emotional lessons that their children are learning.

Another benefit of establishing a relationship with families — and checking in regularly via phone or in person (during nonpandemic times) — is that Colón can get a better sense of the problems with which the families might be struggling. If they trust the counselors and teachers, she says, they will be more likely to reach out if they need help addressing emotional or mental health problems or accessing vital resources such as food and shelter.

Colón has been finding new ways to stay connected to her students and their families since March, when schools across the metropolitan region shut their doors and transitioned to online learning to finish out the school year because of the coronavirus. Schools in Washington, D.C., opted to begin the new year virtually as well, with an option to reevaluate in November.

“We can’t just say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” Colón says. “We have to figure it out. We owe it to the kids.”

Before in-person learning ceased completely in March, Colón, knowing that the children were feeling anxious, created a lesson centered on “claiming strategies.” She reminded the children that when they were really afraid, it was helpful to talk about it, and she provided them with some age-appropriate safety information.

But the most important piece was the practical activity: washing hands. “We want to keep the germs away, so we wash our hands for 20 seconds,” Colón told the children, reinforcing the statement with videos and puppet demonstrations of hand-washing.

Colón also made videos so that the children’s social and emotional learning could continue virtually. The videos covered topics such as keeping a positive mindset, practicing breathing techniques and exercising mindfulness.

Colón also spoke to some of her students and their families one-on-one, either on the phone or via Microsoft Meetings, to find out how they were coping, to offer a sympathetic ear to stressed-out parents and to provide a reassuring presence for anxious children. She has given her phone number to parents and encouraged them to call or text her if they need help. As distance learning continues, she has been encouraging teachers to reach out as much as possible too. In addition, Colón has worked directly with parents to help solve technological problems.

This year, one of her initiatives is to help parents find a way to provide a space for children to take a break from their surroundings — a relaxation bubble. Many of her students live in small spaces, so the “bubble” might be something as simple and small as a blanket draped over a chair to make a mini tent.

Even at a young age, children are more aware of what is going on around them than most people realize, Colón says. They know that people are sick and dying, and at this age, children are less able to process the fear, which leaves them at risk of getting stuck in fight-or-flight mode. When they are at school, they can see their friends on the playground and have other opportunities to get away, but at home, exposure to trauma — even if only through the television — may be inescapable.

Activities such as drawing, watching a fun video or escaping to their relaxation bubble can help relieve the agitation, Colón says. The staff at Colón’s school has requested that markers, crayons and paper be sent to all the families.

Research also shows that when people are experiencing trauma, simply making a connection with a sympathetic presence can help, Colón says. So, she believes that keeping in contact with students and families is one of the most important things school staff can do right now.

“It’s finding a way to establish that connectedness,” she says. “When you’re in school, you’re waving to them [students and families], saying ‘Hi, good morning,’ singing a silly song. You’re doing something to make a connection that doesn’t have anything to do with academics.”

“I think our [school counseling] services are needed more than ever,” Colón says. “We’re the ones who are getting the pulse [of the community].”

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Natasha Griffith
Counselor for first through sixth grades and homeless coordinator, Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, Washington, D.C.

Height is also a Title I school, with many of its families living at or below the poverty level. Most of the students are Black — primarily first-generation Ethiopian. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of students are Latinx.

“I think this year, I’ll feel proud and accomplished if I can master Microsoft Teams and have whole class sessions,” says ACA member Natasha Griffith, whose school — like Colón’s — will be all virtual until at least November. She has modest goals for kicking off the school year, including holding a few smaller group sessions with students in fourth through sixth grades. Griffith’s role as the school’s homeless coordinator — which involves helping families in transitional housing find financial and community resources — can make that goal challenging. “I have to focus on the barriers that children and their parents face,” she says.

Griffith says she and her co-workers “hit the ground running” last spring when school buildings closed, distributing gift cards from the city’s public services department and money from a GoFundMe campaign to the neediest families and making sure that students had computers. But there will be an ongoing need for assistance during the current school year. In fact, although Griffith wasn’t officially working over the summer, she heard from families in search of additional gift cards and did some interpreting for the school’s technology contact, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Most of the students received computers or iPads in the spring, but stable internet access was a persistent problem, so the school has been setting families up with mobile hotspot devices (routers connected to a cellular data network that provides Wi-Fi connectivity).

Griffith will also continue to call families to check in on students who aren’t showing up online. If their absence is due to technological problems, she will make sure they get the resources they need. If the absence is because the students and families aren’t adapting well to virtual learning, then Griffith will do her best to help them navigate the unfamiliar territory and highlight how important it is for students to participate so that they don’t fall behind. “So many students weren’t participating [last spring],” she says. Even if families aren’t experiencing technological difficulties, many of them still aren’t sold on virtual learning, Griffith says.

Unfortunately, as is the case in many communities across the country, there will be cases in which Griffith isn’t able to get in touch with families. The counseling staff at Height does work closely with a social worker from Washington’s department of public health who is responsible for connecting families with resources, and Griffith says that she has been able to accomplish a lot. Even so, the reality is that educational continuity is incredibly difficult for schools to provide during the pandemic.

As she did last spring, Griffith will continue to help bridge the gap between parents and teachers. Many parents are feeling overwhelmed, and coping with online learning is yet another source of frustration for them. Griffith provides a listening ear and works toward helping families see that the school staff is there to help, not to judge. She is also concentrating on developing lesson plans that help students navigate the virtual landscape and encouraging them to ask for help when they need it.

Another challenge Griffith is facing is that she has no designated “classroom time” online. To present lessons, she has to be flexible and grab any spare time that teachers have in their class schedules. To supplement, she is planning on developing videos covering the social and emotional learning topics that make up the core part of her counseling curriculum, including managing anger, building self-esteem, learning to identify emotions, developing resilience and using tools for academic success. She has been rearranging her apartment to carve out a space for filming. The videos will be posted on Microsoft Teams for the students to access on demand.

In the spring, Griffith created a few virtual “lunch bunches” for small groups of students. She and the children would play games such as self-care bingo; squares included actions such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, listening to your body, taking a break, meditating, calling a friend and saying something good about yourself. She would also ask students about what they were doing outside of their classroom lessons. “It gave them a place to talk about missing their friends,” she says. “It was also something social that wasn’t related to school.”

Griffith is starting up the virtual lunches again during the current school year. She would also like to find a way to virtually re-create the in-person restorative circles that she used to hold in school. The activity, which usually involved 20-22 students, was focused on building community. Griffith would ask open-ended questions (usually focused on having respect for fellow students) and present students with a talking piece to pass around the circle. Students could choose to keep the piece and speak, or pass it on.

“I think restorative circles work well because they allow students to express their feelings about various social and emotional learning topics,” she says. “It allows students to take ownership and be an involved participant in the classroom community.”

Griffith will continue to connect with students any way she can while her school is held online, but she believes there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. “Especially for these kids,” she says. “Saying in person, ‘You’ve got this. You can do this.’ That’s what I live for as a school counselor … [to] make a difference and tell them they matter.”

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Judy Trigiani
Counselor for kindergarten through sixth grades, Spring Hill Elementary School, McLean, Virginia.

Spring Hill has a large population of international students, many of them the children of diplomats and business people from around the world. Some of these families temporarily relocated to their home countries to wait out the pandemic and have not yet returned to the U.S.

The plan for ACA member Judy Trigiani’s school district is to operate exclusively online through at least the first quarter of the school year and then to reevaluate. But as Trigiani noted at the end of the prior school year, one of the biggest burdens of the pandemic for people is not knowing when it will end. Or, in the case of schools, when bringing students back in person will not carry the threat of widespread community spread. “We are trying to plan for the unknown. We don’t know when we’ll go back yet,” Trigiani says.

In the meantime, Trigiani and the rest of the staff at Spring Hill continue to try to keep things as “normal” as possible. Traditionally, the school’s year starts with an open house and a new family and student orientation. This year is no exception; however, the events will all be virtual. Families and students will connect via Blackboard Collaborate, where staff will introduce themselves and talk about the school community, scheduling and resources available to parents. A question-and-answer session will follow. The school is also hosting town hall meetings and a kindergarten orientation to present new resources and answer questions.

This year, there will also be a technology orientation to demonstrate Blackboard features such as the icons for accessing the microphone and video and “raising” your hand; how to magnify the screen; agreeing, disagreeing and reacting to the teacher and fellow students with emojis; and where to find the chat box, Trigiani says. The technology orientation will also cover some of the other programs the school will be using. Blackboard Collaborate enables staff to post videos and PowerPoints and share their screens. The tech session will also demonstrate how to access the website and the asynchronous learning area (video sessions that students can watch on their own schedule). Trigiani has also been preparing PowerPoint presentations for parents on topics such as setting up their children’s workspaces and how to talk to children about COVID-19.

Trigiani and the rest of the counseling staff will continue to visit the virtual classrooms every morning to check in and say, “We’re here if you need anything.” There are 18 classrooms per counselor, and counselors go into one classroom each day, she explains. Sometimes, they conduct a lesson. Other times, Trigiani will show up early just to chat with the kids, asking them to use the emojis to let her know how they are doing. If a student expresses distress or Trigiani hears or sees something that causes her concern, she meets with the student individually online and works to address the issue.

Individual counseling, social skills instruction, school counseling programs, parent meetings, the identification and sharing of resources — all of the normal work of school counselors also continues virtually. In addition, Trigiani works with parents who are struggling to cope with their children’s behavioral, social and emotional issues. If necessary, the counseling staff makes referrals to outside mental health resources.

The key, Trigiani says, is something that one of her former bosses used to say: “Keep your community and people informed, and stay as positive and flexible as you can.”

Trigiani believes that technology will continue to become more and more critical to school counseling, even after schools decide to return to the in-person model. Not only will retaining a virtual element allow medically fragile students better access to education, but it will also help counselors prepare students for 21st-century jobs by enabling them to give students training in online social skills, Trigiani asserts.

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Randi Vogel
Counselor for sixth grade, Thomas Pyle Middle School, Bethesda, Maryland.

Pyle also has a significant number of international students, which means that the student population is somewhat transitory.

“This pandemic has really brought to light the social-emotional needs of our students,” ACA member Randi Vogel says. “Even students who we considered very solid are having difficulties.”

In the spring, several students who were already struggling with mental health issues deteriorated further with the loss of a structured school environment and ended up needing to be hospitalized, she says. But even students who had no history of mental health issues were experiencing anxiety and stress.

After school moved online, Vogel and her team put out an announcement on the school portal that they were available via email and Zoom. They also sent out regular surveys asking students how they were feeling, if they needed anything or whether they just wanted to share.

One girl replied that she needed a Chromebook laptop to keep up with her school assignments. Another student said, “I miss you — and I fell and broke my arm.” Some students expressed that they just really wanted to talk, so Vogel and her team connected with them individually via video chats.

The surveys also asked students what they were doing to take care of themselves and to whom they had reached out. Every time that Vogel spoke to a student, she would ask them what they were doing for themselves.

Vogel’s district is starting the new school year with virtual-only instruction and will reassess in November. Although many students may have initially enjoyed the novelty of learning from home, that sentiment generally seems to have worn off, Vogel says. “I have heard from several parents and students that they truly miss the school experience — chatting in the halls with their friends, switching classes, the cafeteria, after-school activities, the bus rides to and from school.”

Although her school can’t re-create those experiences, the days will be more structured and organized for students this year, she says. There will be more live and interactive instruction, in contrast to this past spring, when teachers primarily gave lessons via “asynchronous learning,” which involved using previously recorded videos that students would watch on their own. Teachers then offered online “office hours” to field follow-up questions.

“Parents definitely want more ‘live’ instruction and for more of the day to mimic what occurs in the building,” Vogel says. Although this may help virtual lessons to feel more like regular class, she anticipates that students will have difficulty being on their screens for so many hours, despite the breaks that have been built into the schedule.

“We, as counselors, will continue to reach out to our students to see how we can help them virtually,” she says. “This might look like lunch bunches or initiating one-on-one Zoom calls as check-ins.”

Vogel says her counseling department really prided itself on always being available to students during the day. In fact, they had several students who were issued “flash passes” so they could come to the counseling office anytime they needed a break. “Once we are back in the building, I expect that to resume,” she says. “However, it is much more challenging to establish relationships with middle schoolers via Zoom.”

Because so many students are struggling or just need a little extra help coping, Vogel and her colleagues will be incorporating more mindfulness and stress-reduction activities and class meetings into the virtual day for students. “I think it will be very beneficial to have the students hear from one another how they are managing and that they are not alone with their feelings,” she says.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA School Counselor Connection (counseling.org/membership/aca-and-you/school-counselors/school-counselor)

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)

Books & DVDs (imis.counseling.org/store)

Books

  • A School Counselor’s Guide to Small Groups: Coordination, Leadership, and Assessment edited by Sarah I . Springer, Lauren J. Moss, Nader Manavizadeh and Ashley Pugliese
  • Critical Incidents in School Counseling, Third Edition, by Tarrell Awe Agahe Portman, Chris Wood and Heather J. Fye
  • Developing and Managing Your School Guidance and Counseling Program, Fifth Edition, by Norman C. Gysbers and Patricia Henderson
  • Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, Third Edition, by John J. Murphy

DVDs

  • Acute and Severe Behavior Problems presented by Dave Scott
  • Bullying in Schools: Six Methods of Intervention presented by Ken Rigby
  • Managing Conflict in Schools: A New Approach to Disciplinary Offense presented by John Winslade
  • Quality Circle Time in the Secondary School presented by Jenny Mosley

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@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.