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School Counseling

’13 Reasons Why’: Strengths, challenges and recommendations

By Laura Shannonhouse, Julia L. Whisenhunt, Dennis Lin and Michael Porter September 4, 2017

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has launched a national discussion regarding teen suicide, motivating a webinar response from professional organizations about how to shape the dialogue, dozens of editorials and millions of cautionary letters home from schools to parents across the country.

The series, based on a novel, is narrated by high school student Hannah Baker, who made a series of cassette tapes to be passed to 13 individuals she argues contributed to her reasons for dying. Her story is seen through the eyes of a peer, Clay, who listens to the tapes. He comes to understand Hannah’s perspectives about those people and events she claims motivated her suicide, which include Clay’s own (in)actions.

The series has been critically acclaimed for the acting and commended for addressing challenging topics, such as bullying/cyberbullying, sexual assault and teen suicide. However, school administrations, school counseling associations, suicide prevention organizations and counseling/psychology associations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have advised caution because of the graphic nature, revenge fantasies and potential contagion effect. This article highlights strengths and major challenges of the series. It also provides recommendations that have been underrepresented, though not absent, in the discussion.

 

Strengths

1) Raising awareness that suicide is a real problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is a major public health issue. The most recent  statistics available note that among high school students, 17 percent have seriously considered suicide, while 8 percent have attempted suicide within the past 12 months. We know that for every suicide, there are many survivors, including the family and friends of the person and those who have experienced psychological, physical and social distress after exposure to a suicide.” The most commonly cited statistic is that each suicide directly affects six people; however, more recent research argues there are between 45 and 80 survivors per suicide.

In 2015, there were more than 44,000 reported suicide deaths, including 5,191 deaths by suicide among those ages 15 to 24. However, this statistic includes only those that were reported. Although there is no consensus on the rate of under-reporting due to stigma or ambiguous cause of death, the best analysis suggests that for each completed youth suicide, there are 100-200 times as many nonfatal suicide actions.

Combining CDC data with our current understanding of rates of suicidal ideation in youth, in this moment there are close to 15 million people in the U.S. who think of suicide in any given year. Suicide is a very real public health issue; when it is ignored, stigmatized or minimized, we as a community are missing the chance to prevent it.

2) Even professional counselors may not be ready to respond to a suicidal situation.

Because counselors often receive referrals of clients who are suicidal, counselors’ competency in identifying and intervening with those at risk is crucially important. However, the overtaxed counselor in 13 Reasons Why, Mr. Porter, is underprepared to face a suicidal student coping with complex trauma. Although he did not act in the scope of best practice, his failings are unfortunately not unusual among counselors, despite decades of advocacy for increased suicide assessment trainings in counselor education.

Mr. Porter missed several suicidal statements (e.g., “I need everything to stop”), made assumptions about contributing events and was uncomfortable talking about suicide (and other issues). We may easily judge Mr. Porter’s mistakes, but as counselors, we should take this opportunity to reflect and ask ourselves if we are ready to respond to a student at risk of suicide. The research is equivocal.

3) Suicide is complex and individual.

Although 13 Reasons Why portrays some known “red flags” that can indicate suicidal intent, the factors that contribute to individual suicides vary. Stressors that may influence one person’s decision to die by suicide may not have the same effect on others. For instance, we know that not all people who are depressed die by suicide (research shows the rate is from 2-15 percent) and that not all people who complete suicide are depressed. There is a variety of prevention programming regarding common warning signs. However, there is no perfect amalgam of warning signs or demographics (e.g., risk for transgender persons) that helps us differentiate who will decide to die by suicide. We need to go beyond just learning warning signs in order to help.

Livingworks, a suicide intervention training organization, focuses on three elements when assessing warning signs and risk factors. First, we must look for the meaning behind stressful events. For instance, in 13 Reasons Why, being listed “Best Ass” was highly distressing to Hannah because she felt objectified and was concerned people would misperceive her to be easy. However, another student, Angela “Best Lips” Romero, was flattered by such attention. The meaning behind the stressful event is more important than the stressful event itself.

Second, we need to know that warning signs can be, and often are, expressions of pain. When Hannah pushed Clay away, he recognized that something was wrong but did not see that her rejection was an indication of emotional pain. Third, we must trust our intuition. One peer recognizes Hannah’s poem as a cry for help but does not offer assistance. We need to pay attention to our gut feelings and act on them to take care of each other.

13 Reasons Why provides an opportunity to see Hannah’s experience of several traumatic events (cyberbullying, being stalked, public objectification, losing money, feeling responsible for a person’s death, witnessing rape and being raped) and does a good job of depicting the pain, shame and isolation she experiences as a result. The viewer has an opportunity to consider Hannah’s subjective experience and understand how the cumulative effect of these “reasons why” motivates her to suicide.

One model to help contextualize suicidality is the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior developed by psychologist Thomas Joiner. Joiner states that the highest risk occurs when one feels like a burden to others, feels alienated or lacks belongingness and, crucially, has overcome the natural human inclination toward self-preservation. This model posits that suicide is a process — one gradually builds tolerance to the idea through self-injurious thoughts or behaviors (although each person’s path is unique). There are multiple points on that path at which others can intervene. The 13 Reasons Why series emphasizes those missed opportunities. As in Hannah’s case, every day there are suicides that happen as a result of those missed opportunities.

4) The central message is a positive one.

In the last episode, Clay says to Mr. Porter, “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other.” Instead of feeling guilty or turning away, we can task ourselves with being more supportive community members.

All too often, we operate from a place of fear, which is understandable considering that schools have a legal duty to protect students from self-harm, and lawsuits are a potential reality (as shown in 13 Reasons Why). However, when systems or individual responders act out of fear, it focuses the interaction away from the needs of the person at risk. Even well-intentioned modern practices of “suicide gatekeeping” have substituted swift (and protocol-driven) identification and referral for the direct supportive intervention by community members proposed by John Snyder in 1971. Clay’s words echo those from Snyder half a century ago, when he said that most “who attempt suicide are victims of breakdowns in community channels for help.”

Although Mr. Porter clearly failed to proper identify Hannah’s suicidal ideation, perhaps even more troubling was his failure to hear her story and understand the factors behind her decision to die by suicide. Listening and demonstrating empathy to someone who is struggling was demonstrated to reduce suicidal ideation on calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Talking about suicide can help the person at risk to no longer focus on the past or feel alone and, instead, shift to the present moment, where the person can feel understood and cared for. If those in Hannah’s community who were witness to her emotional pain had actively engaged her and listened, it may have reduced her isolation and lessened her self-perception as a burden. This may even have prevented Hannah’s death.

Research indicates that our personal beliefs about suicide influence our responder behaviors. Therefore, gaining awareness of our beliefs and how our ability to intervene is affected by them is vital. Regardless of whether we can stop a suicide, we can control how prepared we are to try. We can make sure that our systems (in schools and elsewhere) are places where it is easy for someone to receive help.

After working through Hannah’s tapes, Clay now believes that we are, in a way, our brother’s keepers. Community-level response by direct intervention is a central theme in my (Laura Shannonhouse) research. It involves equipping “natural helpers” (e.g., teachers, bus drivers, resources officers, school counselors/psychologists) with the skills needed to perform a life-assisting suicide intervention at the moment it is needed most.

The producers and cast of 13 Reasons Why have underscored their desire for this series to start a conversation. Although that has certainly been accomplished, we hope the dialogue focuses more on how we can “look out for one another” and foster communities less at risk for suicide.

 

Challenges

1) Graphic nature and contagion

Viewers of 13 Reasons Why watch two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide, which is shown in detail. Nic Sheff, one of the writers of the series, stated that the scene of Hannah’s suicide was intended “to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off.” Some crisis texts suggest that we “deromanticize” suicide by helping our clients understand the unintended effects of trying to die by suicide, such as surviving but becoming disabled or alienating friends and family. Therefore, an argument could be made that a graphic, painful portrayal of suicide is warranted.

However, research does suggest that suicide portrayals can contribute to contagion by triggering suicidal behaviors in people — particularly youth — who are experiencing high levels of emotional distress. In fact, SPRC and AFSP have made recommendations for best practices in prevention of suicide contagion. A discussion of post-suicide intervention to prevent contagion is beyond the scope of this article, but as an example, the locker memorial portrayed throughout the series is against standard guidance (it should not last for weeks, as shown). Furthermore, when considering how media reaction to the series has often included sensational headlines, it is helpful to review these recommendations for reporting on suicide.

2) Survivor’s guilt and revenge fantasies

By assigning “reasons why,” the series sends a message that Hannah’s death is caused by other people’s actions. When Clay openly questions, “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” his friend Tony answers dramatically, “Yes, we all killed Hannah Baker.”

Although we suggested earlier that we all have a responsibility to create communities that help prevent suicide, Tony’s level of direct attribution can be counterproductive. Hannah experienced multiple losses, traumas and stressors caused by others, both intentionally and unintentionally. Placing responsibility for her death on those individuals instead of on Hannah’s action can exacerbate survivors’ guilt. Those viewers who have lost a friend, loved one or acquaintance to suicide may feel even more strongly after viewing the series that “It is my fault.”

These feelings are associated with lower functioning in comparison with survivors of accidents. Although undeserved, survivor’s guilt is a real phenomenon, and considerable research shows that even counselors who experience the death of a client by suicide can experience shame/embarrassment and emotional distress.

Whereas Clay may feel guilt for his part in Hannah’s story, the tapes could implicate others in criminal or negligent behavior, perhaps giving Hannah posthumous revenge. Some viewers who may have struggled with suicidal ideation themselves could get the message that if they take their lives, they can get revenge on those who have hurt them. This is an additional reason that schools across the nation and professional helping organizations have felt the need to do damage control for 13 Reasons Why.

 

Recommendations

1) Parents need to not just talk but watch, listen and connect.

Some school counselors argue that it’s harmful for children and teens to watch the series on their own without the support of a parent or trusted adult because the series depicts a graphic and romanticized portrayal of a teenager in crisis and does not identify competent resources capable of helping her. Accordingly, many experts encourage parents to talk to their children about the series. In addition to using talking points, we recommend that parents listen deeply and without judgment to what their children say. When people feel genuinely heard, they are more likely to talk about their true thoughts and feelings.

To accomplish this goal, parents can use active listening skills, such as open-ended questions, reflections of feeling, paraphrasing and encouragement. Also, we recommend that parents watch the series and risk being human — risk being impacted by the series and empathizing with their child. The construct of empathy is powerful, particularly if it is sincere. For a three-minute visual summary, consider watching Brene Brown on empathy. In our counseling skills courses, we often talk about “getting in the well of despair” and genuinely connecting with others. We know that talking about suicide paradoxically provides a significant buffer to suicidal action.

2) We need more than prevention programming in schools.

We know from a well-regarded U.S. Air Force study that we need suicide programing at all three levels: prevention, intervention and post-intervention. Many suicide prevention programs have been implemented in the school context, but there is mixed evidence of their effectiveness. From our clinical experience in crisis response, our scholarship and our history with training a specific model of suicide intervention, we need to acknowledge that we are biased about what types of programming should be implemented and when is the right time to implement. We feel that an appropriate first step for a school system is to implement basic screeners and gatekeeper trainings such as Signs of Suicide or Sources of Strength.

However, suicide prevention should not end with identification for referral. Optimally, the process continues by assessing level of risk, identifying reasons for dying and reasons for living, discussing alternatives to dying, enlisting the support of trusted loved ones and limiting access to lethal means or securing the person’s environment. Because youth who struggle with thoughts of suicide often seek out the support of those they trust rather than professional mental health providers, those teachers, coaches and others with open hearts and doors are the most effective gatekeepers for a system. Their nondirection and empathy are useful pedagogical qualities and vital to effective suicide intervention.

We endorse models that empower those “natural helpers” to provide a potentially life-saving intervention for students who are in suicidal distress. Although this may be augmented with the support and follow-up of a trained mental health provider, gatekeepers can implement the steps listed above.

3) Be intentional about identifying caregivers and shifting school culture.

My (Shannonhouse) research involves partnering with school districts and superintendents (in Maine and Georgia) to identify “natural helpers” and equip them with the skills to perform a life-assisting intervention in the moment (i.e., Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST). These natural helpers are often teachers, resource officers, coaches, administrative staff, bus drivers and other people who are likely to be confidants to students who experience distress. Measuring suicide intervention skills and responder attitudes is easy for an academic. Identifying those school personnel in the trenches who would be first responders is more difficult — it requires the total involvement of administrators. Furthermore, such an approach requires schools to commit to a student-centered response model.

ASIST is relationship-driven and aligned with the values of the helping professions. It meets the needs of students who are at risk by focusing on responding to those immediate needs rather than referring the student (which can lead to further isolation and an increased sense of burdensomeness). Although the student is often referred for more long-term counseling, ASIST provides the student with a six-step intervention at the moment it is most needed and can be performed by anyone over age 18. Having natural helpers trained in ASIST or a similar protocol can dramatically increase a school’s responsiveness and effectiveness to help students in distress.

4) Use an intervention model backed by research.

ASIST is a 14-hour, two-day, internationally recognized and evidence-based model that has been adopted by multiple states and the U.S. Army. It has also been recognized by the CDC and used in crisis centers nationwide. Caregivers trained in ASIST consistently report feeling more ready, willing and able to intervene with a person at risk of suicide.

The program has been evaluated in a variety of settings (click to download), with pretest to post-test improvement noted in trainees’ comfort level at intervention and in their demonstrated intervention skills in response to simulated scenarios. Although outcome research is rare, research compared ASIST-trained counselors with those trained in other models through a double-blind, randomly controlled study of more than 1,500 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Those trained in ASIST more often demonstrated particular behaviors such as exploring invitations, exploring reasons for living, recognizing ambivalence about dying and identifying informal support contacts. Those trained in ASIST also elicited longer calls.

We found that ASIST can be applied to both university and K-12 settings. Our work measured increased suicide intervention skills and beneficial responder attitudes, which have been maintained over time. We have trained more than 500 people in ASIST and have received multiple reports of teachers disarming fully formed suicide plans with their new skills. More recently, we have conducted behavioral observations of ASIST responder behavior and have begun evaluating outcomes of students who have received ASIST intervention. Initial results have been promising, including better coping and commitment to follow-up and decreased lethality.

 

Summary

Although 13 Reasons Why gives us pause for its poor portrayal of effective suicide intervention, we feel that the series raises awareness and, at its core, advocates a community-level response to suicide prevention. This message to “look out for each other” is aligned with more intervention-oriented gatekeeping. We have explored the impact of one such model, ASIST, in several educational settings and found that it improves responder behavior. Furthermore, this approach comes with a mindset that systems can harness their strengths (i.e., natural helpers) to focus on responding to and intervening with the student rather than simply identifying and referring the student to the system.

 

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Please contact me (Laura Shannonhouse) should you have any questions about our research.

 

 

Laura Shannonhouse is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at Georgia State University. Her research interests focus on crisis intervention and disaster response, particularly involving social justice issues in this context. Currently, she is conducting community-based research in K-12 schools (suicide first aid) to prevent youth suicide and with disaster-impacted populations in fostering meaning-making through one’s faith tradition (spiritual first aid).

 

Julia L. Whisenhunt is an associate professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. She specializes in the areas of self-injury, suicide prevention and creative counseling. She is particularly interested in the relationship between self-injury and suicide and ways that mental health professionals can apply this knowledge to clinical intervention.

 

Dennis Lin is an assistant professor at New Jersey City University, with areas of expertise in play therapy, child/adolescent counseling and assessment, suicide prevention/intervention, quantitative research and meta-analysis. He is also a certified master trainer of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

 

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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.

Bringing the family counseling perspective into schools

By S. Kent Butler, Tony D. Crespi and Mackenzie McNamara May 8, 2017

Children in schools today come from increasingly diverse and complex families. As illustration, more than 1 million families are impacted annually by divorce. In fact, approximately 13.7 million single parents are raising 21.8 million children, and 1 in 3 Americans are stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings or part of a stepfamily. Furthermore, according to a 2009 article published in the journal Family Relations, it is estimated that only 31 percent of fathers who no longer live with their children maintain weekly contact with those children. It is easy to conclude that the issue of divorce alone has a profound impact on many millions of children in the U.S.

Now imagine that a young student and her mother walk into the professional school counselor’s office on a Monday morning. Mom explains that she and her husband are pursuing a divorce — he recently told her that he’s been having an affair and has decided to move in with his girlfriend. The daughter acknowledges feelings of depression and admits to having angry outbursts at home. Mom says she is concerned because her daughter’s grades have been dropping.

Considering the large number of children and adolescents coping with parental divorce, it’s not surprising that this fragmented family came to the school counselor’s office. In fact, it’s a good thing. Both daughter and mother need someone to talk to, and schools are a natural access point for services. However, many professional school counselors are not trained in family dynamics and are not familiar with key tenets that impact family counseling, so they may not know how to proceed.

A sample case

Susie is 15. A high school freshman, she knows only that her father left the house two months ago to move in with his girlfriend. Susie’s parents had been together for 16 years, getting married shortly after college.

Susie’s father hasn’t called since leaving. Susie is unaware that her father told her mother that although he loves Susie and her younger sister, who is in seventh grade, he hasn’t missed seeing them in the least. Mom decided not to share this comment with the children, but she does confide this secret to you, the professional school counselor.

Sitting in your office, Susie suddenly looks up and exclaims that she is scared she will have to move and change schools. She also says that she’s having a really tough time paying attention in class and explains that her grades are slipping. “I hate my dad for doing this!” she yells.

Suddenly, Susie starts shaking and breaks down in tears. After a few minutes, Susie tells you that she is spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, partly to stay out of her house. She acknowledges feeling depressed. After pausing for a moment, she looks at her mom and states, “I really hate Dad. His girlfriend is so young. She’s in her 20s. She’s not much older than me!”

Academically, Susie has been an A and B student, but her grades have fallen since her father left. Her mother acknowledges that things are tough at home and reveals that she didn’t learn about her husband’s affair until the day he moved out. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” she tells you. “I know we’re getting a divorce, but beyond that I just don’t know.”

Your school doesn’t have a social worker. However, you have a colleague who has been studying family counseling, so you knock on her door to ask for a consultation. After sitting down, you share a few thoughts.

You note that, fundamentally, Susie needs someone to talk to about these issues. Acknowledging that you are speculating, you openly wonder what type of impact the obviously poor communication in Susie’s family is having on her. After all, her father has not called in two months, her mother was completely unaware of the affair and her mother is keeping the father’s confession of not missing his kids a secret. These facets alone highlight poor family communication. In addition, Susie is scared that she might have to move and change schools. Clearly the issues are widespread.

Risk points

Here are some risk points to consider as you work with Susie:

  • Parenting after a divorce differs significantly from parenting prior to
    a divorce.
  • Single-parent families in the United States are increasing.
  • Children of divorce have more mental health problems in comparison with their peers.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among U.S. youth.
  • Brain regions responsible for decision-making are not fully developed in youth.
  • Changes in family structure can have an affect on school grades.
  • Anxiety, depression and behavior problems are elevated after divorce.
  • Children of divorce often feel a sense of instability.

An understanding of these risk points is essential for moving forward with children and families because the risk points can provide direction for the work that needs to be done. For example, knowing that mental health symptoms are elevated following divorce and impulsive decision-making is greater among youth, you should assess Susie’s level of safety. In this case, Susie also makes many “red flag” statements.

These are things that counselors know how to address but might not always consider without an awareness of the data. In addition, parents can become defensive, or they might blame themselves for their children’s difficulties. For this reason, it is imperative to educate parents on these risk points. It is also important to realize that family issues may require clinical supervision.

Supervision around work with families 

Susie is not alone. As your colleague notes, Susie is one of many children and adolescents who are coping with family stressors. With the prevalence of so many family issues, a growing number of states have enabled licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) to work in the schools. Connecticut, New Mexico, Maine, Texas and Illinois have passed specific laws to allow LMFTs to work in schools, whereas Massachusetts allows LMFTs to work under a general mental health designation.

Schools clearly represent an important access point for mental health professionals. But with only six states utilizing LMFTs in schools, it is extremely important for professional school counselors and their supervisors to know how to manage these situations with families.

As you ponder your next meeting with Susie, you need information. Direct supervisors are often part of the structure of many agencies, but professional school counselors might need to seek support from a colleague with training in family counseling. Such supervision might come from a guidance director, a school psychologist, a consulting psychologist, a marriage and family counselor, or a local family agency.

Two popular family therapy models that might help Susie are presented below.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy 

This model, derived from the work of Carl Whitaker, addresses both individual and relational patterns. It is focused on both personal growth and family relations.

Fundamentally, the therapist helps dislodge rigid patterns and stimulates flexibility using a family’s natural pull toward growth. Focusing on the present, the therapist helps people recognize their real feelings, express those feelings and move forward, individually and as a family. Key points follow.

  • The “battle for structure” involves clients (a family) “sizing up” a therapist. There is no “identified patient”; rather, the family is the therapy unit. In this model, the therapist must win the battle and control therapy. For instance, if the therapist invites the entire family and one member does not show up to the session, the therapist may refuse to meet until everyone attends. In the case with Susie, you might note that you, Susie, her mother and Susie’s sister must all attend.
  • The family must win the “battle for initiative”; this involves their decision to take charge of their lives and decisions. Is Susie committed to resolving her feelings? Will she commit to six counseling sessions? Is she willing to confront her father about calling his children? Is she motivated to initiate change?

Therapy progresses through stages:

1) Engagement: This is the “meet and greet” phase. You have already started this stage with Susie and her mom.

2) Middle phase: Families are encouraged to change through confrontations, encouragement and interventions. Can Susie’s family meet to start this process?

3) Late phase: Increased flexibility is a focus for the family. Can Susie’s family talk through how the divorce will change their life?

4) Separation: As the therapist separates, the family takes responsibility.

Symbolic-experiential family therapy often advocates the use of co-therapy, making it a great model to use with a more “senior” therapist. In this fashion, supervision can be active and ongoing as you acquire firsthand skills in family counseling.

Structural family therapy

The structural approach, typically associated with Salvador Minuchin, views problems as being rooted in family interactions. Fundamentally, if we can help change the family’s organization (structure), its members typically find that they feel better and their symptoms are often relieved. Key points follow.

  • Enmeshment or disengagement: Family members may range from those who are overly connected to those who are disengaged. Enmeshment tends to prevent growing maturity, whereas disengagement may lead a child to feel abandoned. Most families are not one or the other but have subsystems that reflect their tendencies. For example, a disengaged father who is overly involved at work may neglect the family. In response, the mother may compensate by becoming overly involved. Is Dad really connected? What is the structure
  • Boundaries: Are parental boundaries rigid or flexible? Are grandparents a resource? Can a child visit Dad at work, or does the family maintain a rigid rule against it? Can Susie ask Dad questions? What are the boundaries? What is spoken? What is unspoken?
  • Alignments: Who joins together? Are children aligned against the parents? Did a parent resent and refuse to attend a child’s sporting activities? Did a parent require everyone to attend? What are the alignments?
  • Triangulation: The permutations of triangulation in families can be abundant. A child and parent may triangulate against another parent. A parent having an affair can create a triangle with the other spouse. Will Susie triangulate with Mom against Dad? What triangles exit?

The structural model also features several stages:

1) Joining and accommodating

2) Assessing family interactions

3) Monitoring dysfunction

4) Restructuring patterns

Summary and considerations

When a student walks into a professional school counselor’s office, we are presented with a rare opportunity. When a student and parent walk in together, we are handed an even rarer opportunity.

Family counseling offers unique and engaging ways of reframing problems. Rather than blaming an individual for a particular problem, family counselors look at the family system. Perhaps a child’s acting-out behaviors allow parents to avoid looking at their relational problems. Perhaps a child’s failing grades reflect more on family anxiety and stress than on individual issues. Fundamentally, family counseling takes a larger, more systemic perspective of presenting issues.

Professional school counselors possess wonderful skill sets. They understand rapport building. They understand relational dynamics. They understand problem assessment and the utility of interventions. The connection between families and school adjustment is undeniable. At the same time, school counselors will likely find continuing education and supervision indispensable in helping families.

In our experience, students and families can often benefit from a family counseling perspective. With so many students in the schools coping with changing family structures, it is vital that we expand our skill sets. Fortunately, there are multiple platforms through which we can provide help. Some of these options include:

  • Individual counseling from a family perspective
  • Co-therapy with single families
  • School-based divorce groups with multiple children
  • Single-parent support groups

This article is intended to stimulate thinking and provide a preliminary glimpse into two prominent family counseling theories. Our advice? Be available. Be sensitive. Consider finding a supervisor who is capable of expanding your knowledge and skills in this invaluable area. Truly, children, families and the community stand only to benefit.

 

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S. Kent Butler is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. He is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and national certified school counselor. He is particularly interested in mentoring, supervision and multicultural issues in counseling. Contact him at skbutler@ucf.edu.

Tony D. Crespi is a professor at the University of Hartford. He is a certified school counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, and licensed psychologist. He is particularly interested in family counseling and legal issues that affect supervision.

Mackenzie McNamara is a doctoral student in the counseling psychology program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She most recently worked for New London Public Schools in Connecticut.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

 

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

Reach Higher: Bridging the gaps through cultural competency

By Bethany Bray November 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Helping students change with dignity

By John J. Murphy August 26, 2016

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

— Edward de Bono

 

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Establish collaborative relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Develop practical goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Build on what is ‘right’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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

The counselor’s role in ensuring school safety

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visible presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching those who are ‘at risk’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fostering a safe environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis intervention and threat assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resiliency and response

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents as part of the safety equation

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

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

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

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

 

 

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School safety and violence statistics

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

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

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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