While elementary-school guidance counselors still are not the norm, those that are assigned to schools can provide valuable support to students, teachers, parents, and principals. The key is to let them do their jobs. Included: Suggestions for utilizing school counselors.
As principal of a K-5 school in New Jersey about 10 years ago, Dr. Carl Schiavo, Jr. received word that his district was getting federal funding to hire guidance counselors for its 13 elementary schools.
Initially, Schiavo was skeptical about what a counselor could contribute to the school. I was one of those who said, "We don't need a guidance counselor; we can handle all that," he told Education World. "After I had one, I realized how foolish a statement that was."
Now the program director for the Educational Leadership Program at the Fairleigh Dickinson Peter Sammartino School of Education, Schiavo has made it a mission to tell principals and principals-in-training about how a trained counselor can make the jobs of teachers and administrators easier, improve relationships with parents, and most importantly, serve as a valuable advocate for children.
"As a building principal and teacher, I never recognized the value of a counselor -- until I had one in the building," Schiavo said. "Within a week, I was scratching my head, wondering how I lived without one."
"Too often, elementary teachers and administrators fail to recognize the benefits of an integrated counseling program," an experienced elementary school counselor added.
While counselors still are often regarded as luxuries at the elementary level, in today's schools they can be important resources for students, teachers, administrators, and parents, Dr. Schiavo said.
It's important for all school staff to view the counseling program as an integral part of the total school mission, noted Mary Pat McCartney, one of two full-time guidance counselors at Bristow Run Elementary School in Bristow, Virginia. "All of the different aspects of a comprehensive counseling program work together for student success in school. We are routinely evaluating the effectiveness of the program for the benefit of students. We have a pulse on the school climate and plan school-wide activities to address school needs."
Student referrals to a counselor at Bristow Run fall into two main categories -- problems at home and problems with friends. But individual counseling is just one part of the program.
"Sometimes people think counselors are there just to react to problems -- and there is a misconception that because the students are younger in elementary school, their problems are smaller," McCartney told Education World. "The truth is that prevention is a major part of our job. We help all students developmentally deal with day-to-day challenges and distractions to their learning. Bristow Run's counseling program tells students 'School counselors help you use your license to learn.' "
Unfortunately, elementary principals frequently misuse or underutilize guidance counselors, Schiavo said. Most administrators don't understand the role of counselors. Sometimes overworked principals in elementary and middle schools tap counselors to serve as quasi-administrators or disciplinarians, he noted, which is not the counselor's job. Principals need to fiercely protect a guidance counselor's role as a child advocate and confidante.
"They are the counterbalance," said Schiavo, who had a guidance counselor in the last school in which he worked two days a week. "While the teacher and the principal should be child advocates, the nature of their positions can preclude that. Principals need to recognize how critical it is for students to see someone on their side. It eliminates a sense of hopelessness, because otherwise they can feel like everyone is ganging up on them.
The problem is not what a child said. The problem is what a child didn't say. Unless you can come up with that, you are not going to have a solution that is satisfactory."
When a counselor is viewed by students as a disciplinarian, he or she loses credibility as someone to whom they can go for help, McCartney added.
Just referring a student to the principal's office, even if it is not specifically for discipline, already is intimidating to a child. "It's adversarial before the kid gets there," Schiavo said. "Too often, when a kid is not doing something, our first reaction is, 'We have to change it and punish it,' without understanding what's behind it."
Alternatively, if a counselor is available to meet with a student and his or her teacher to defuse a situation, there may be no need for the principal. The counselor may learn from the student about problems that are affecting his or her behavior.
"When students perceive that the counselor is on their side, they tend to open up more and the counselor is privy to certain information, continued Schiavo. The counselor may say [to the teacher or principal], 'Things are going on. Back off a little.' "
An experienced counselor also can reduce administrators' stress. Principals are pulled in so many different directions these days that having someone to resolve student problems before they reach the office frees administrators up to concentrate on other issues.
Right now, the responsibilities are overwhelming for principals, Schiavo said. The whole idea for principals to be all things for all people is just unreasonable. My job was easier because there were intermediaries -- the counselor stepped in before I was needed.
Teachers in Schiavo's school also benefited from having a more objective person with whom to consult about a particular child or issues they were having in running their classrooms.
"If they were having trouble with classroom management or behavior, teachers sometimes were reluctant to come to me because I evaluated them," he said. "If they have someone else to use as resource, someone they can ask to come to their class and observe students and make suggestions, then it's not on my desk and makes my job easier. I would tell teachers to go to the guidance counselor first.
Besides, if you use the big guns in September, what are you going to use in April?"
The counselors at Bristow Run stress to teachers that they are there to support them as well. "We're often consulting with them on student behavior plans and classroom management techniques," McCartney said. "We're their partner in student achievement. If a student isn't completing homework, isn't paying attention, or has some other obstacle to their learning, we offer counseling."
Counselors also join teachers in conferences with difficult parents, said McCartney.
Principals have a lot of pressure from the state testing now and school counselors work to close achievement gaps, she added. "We provide interventions that other staff members aren't able to provide."
The counselor at his school, Schiavo noted, established relationships with teachers, so faculty members started to see the counselor as someone on their side.
Teachers at Bristow Run often seek out a counselor to discuss situations with students. These can include concerns about a new student who isn't making friends, a girl who is refusing to eat lunch because others call her fat, daily playground squabbles that are taking too much time to mediate, a boy having difficulty staying in his seat and completing work, repeated attempts to contact a parent that have failed, or a student who is refusing to come to school.
Still, educating teachers about a counselor's role and value can take some time. Some teachers felt this [referring a student to a counselor] was an alternative to discipline, Schiavo said. "I had to explain to them that this [calling in a counselor] was the way it was going to be. I wasn't there to do what was best for teachers -- but what was best for kids. And sometimes a counselor would say to me, 'This [issue] is something for you.' "
An effective counseling program helps students develop socially, emotionally, and academically as much as it helps them deal with crises, added McCartney.
"We're proud of our comprehensive developmental program," McCartney told Education World. "We're really there for every student, not just those in need. We teach classroom guidance lessons based on our county's grade-to-grade guidance curriculum. We conduct small group counseling sessions on topics such as social skills, work habits, and dealing with divorce. We offer parenting workshops and classes, and we are available to consult with parents and teachers one-on-one as needed."
A guidance counselor not only helps teachers with students, but also helps parents help their children. You need someone who understands how to help kids become better organized and how parents can help them, Schiavo told Education World. "I would have them [counselors] do workshops for parents at PTA meetings. The guidance counselor would send notices to parents, asking what issues parents wanted her to address. A counselor can often put together more meaningful packets of information for parent conferences or for meetings called by the principal."
Parents often call the Bristow Run counselors for advice about how to handle certain situations, such as the best way to tell their child about a death in the family or a divorce, McCartney noted.
If a parent called him for advice about a problem his or her child was having, sometimes Schiavo responded, "I have a counselor who is really good at working on this issue," and told the parent how to contact the counselor.
In one case, a parent called the nurse because she was concerned that her child might have an eating disorder. The nurse turned to me, and I referred the parent to the counselor, who contacted the parent with information.
"Often we can alert parents to problems -- but we don't tell the parents how to address the problems," he said. "Having a counselor to talk about how principals and parents can address the problems was a bonus."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © Education World
Last updated 04/30/2012