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Counseling: A School Improvement Tool


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The role of counselors in schools is expanding from just attending to individual students to leading discussions and activities for groups of students that can help improve school performance and behavior. Included: An integrated counseling program that works.

School counselors traditionally have concentrated on specific issues or students, helped prepare student schedules, and talked with parents, often operating outside of the classroom environment.

Studies are showing, though, that comprehensive, integrated counseling programs for all students can improve student achievement and behavior.

"School counseling programs now are data-driven, which has been one of the biggest adjustments," said Jill Cook, director of programs for the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). "We are being called upon and recognized as key players in school climate; counselors are looking more at outcomes."

GETTING EVERYONE INVOLVED

Cook and Dr. Linda Webb, a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Florida Atlantic University gave a presentation called School Counselors: Helping Students Achieve at the annual Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference.

Most states now include a comprehensive school counseling component as part of the training for school counselors, according to Dr. Greg Brigman, also a professor in the counselor education department at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinator of the school counseling program.

"Schools are converting slowly from the traditional crisis-intervention, individual focus model of school counseling to one that has more of a prevention and early intervention focus, reaches more students, and enhances academic success," Dr. Brigman told Education World.

Part of the reason for the role shift has been the growing number of responsibilities placed on building administrators and the need to delegate some of those tasks, Dr. Brigman continued. "Administrators' duties are shifting down to counselors. Administrators are overwhelmed, and if someone is not tied to a classroom with 30 kids, they are looking for them to help out."

Recent research also has shown that comprehensive school counseling programs for all students can make a difference, he added. "Now we have more evidence that if counselors work with all kids, you see school improvement."

DEVELOPING STUDENT SUCCESS SKILLS

Among the tools schools can use to increase counselors' involvement in school life is the Student Success Skills (SSS), a program developed by Brigman, Webb, and Chari Campbell, a former professor in FAU's counselor education department. The classroom component of the program helps students "develop the academic, social, and self-management skills needed for school success," according to an outline of the program. The lessons are geared for students in grades 4 to 9.

The program is designed for whole classes to meet in school counselor-led groups for about 45 minutes a week for five weeks, usually at the beginning of the year, to help students develop skills they can use over the whole term. Students who need more support meet with the counselor in small groups over an additional eight weeks.

TAKING LITTLE STEPS

A key to the Student Success Skills program is the Japanese concept of kaizen, which has to do with showing improvement over time, according to an outline of the program.

The goal of SSS is to help students develop skills in the areas of

  • goal setting and progress monitoring;
  • creating a caring, supportive, and encouraging classroom;
  • memory skills;
  • performing under pressure and managing test anxiety; and
  • story structure and positive student story telling.

As part of setting goals and monitoring progress, each week students identify areas of strengths and/or successes and areas in which they most want to improve.

Teachers sit in on the meetings to learn about the strategies, and so they can refer to them throughout the school year. "Teachers can see and embed the strategies into their lessons," said Dr. Brigman.

Students practice goal setting and action planning around academic skills, social skills, and self-management skills. They also set goals and monitor daily life skills for areas such as diet, rest, exercise, fun, and social support.

"By attending to nutrition, fun, exercise, social support, and rest, students will see a difference in their mood and energy," Dr. Webb said.

To create a more supportive classroom environment for all students, kids learn how to listen with their eyes, ears, and hearts, according to the SSS program, and provide encouragement to peers. They participate in activities designed to improve the supportive atmosphere in the classroom and encourage other students.

Counselors also work with students on improving their memories and study skills.

Another key piece of the program is teaching students strategies for controlling anxiety and performing under pressure -- such as deep-breathing and imagery exercises -- that can help them perform their best on exams and other assignments. Students are encouraged to note any progress in managing their anxiety, because it can provide motivation to continue trying.

Students also are encouraged to learn to identify key concepts in stories and to create stories about positive events, using "story starters" such as "A time I started a healthy habit" or "A time I helped someone with a problem"

"We find that [all] these strategies are powerful if used in the context of the curriculum," Dr. Brigman noted.

SEEING THE DIFFERENCE

Four recent studies of the impact of school counselor-led groups and classroom guidance on student behavior and performance showed positive results in both areas. The studies involved more than 800 Florida students in grades 5, 6, 8, and 9 and 50 school counselors in 36 schools, according to data from SSS.

Math scores on state tests improved for about 86 percent of SSS students and reading scores increased for about 78 percent of the students. The gains made were comparable, and achieved at a lower cost, than those made by students who attended intensive tutoring sessions for the tests.

For approximately 70 percent of SSS students, teachers noted improvements in student behavior.

The counseling programs are able to show students the interrelationships among the different facets of their lives, according to Dr. Webb. "We want kids to see what they do daily that has an impact," she said.

The need to expand counselors' reach, and evidence that group counseling programs are effective, means that counselors' roles in school improvement could and should be growing, Dr. Brigman noted.

"Counselors have been one of the most under-utilized resources in the school reform movement," he said. "They have been largely ignored, when if they are used as part of a comprehensive school program, you can see substantial gains."

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