One spring day in the Sabino Canyon in Tucson, Ariz., a mountain lion roams the nearby Ford Elementary School yard, frightening the dickens out of youngsters at the K-5 school.
Another day an unknown suspicious-looking man donning a trench coat lurks around another school fence in Tucson. And yet another day, an alleged robber runs through a Tucson school hall to elude police on his tail.
The bizarre occurrences lead to a school lockdown, where all doors are locked and no one can leave or come in, shedding light on the vital importance of one person in the school: The school counselor.
This person not only encourages top students into the best college that fits their ability and coaxes at-risk students to kick it up a notch in grades, but they can also calm anxious students in the face of potential threats to their safety.
"Counselors get involved. They want to calm the kids down. We always tell kids the facts. This is what we know. We say, 'There is a lion on the playground so you have to stay here where it's safe and secure,' " according to Judy Bowers, coordinator for guidance and counseling at Tucson Unified School District 1 and president-elect of the American School Counselor Association.
The role of the school counselor has evolved over the past century that the profession has existed, according to Jill Cook, director of programs at ASCA. Counselors originally came to schools as vocational counselors to help students find work when they left school. In the 1950s, another significant shift occurred where counselors led students into more math and science following the Russians' Sputnik in space feat and the U.S. government feared becoming outsmarted. Since then, the role of the counselor has evolved to be more comprehensive. The emotional aspect of counselors came into play in the late 1960s with the explosion civil rights. Theorist Carl Rogers brought to light the importance of tuning in to students' emotions. Over the past decade, ASCA changed the title of "guidance counselor" to "school counselor," Cook says.
Although only 17 percent of schools report that the most emphasized goal of guidance programs is helping students with personal growth and development, counselors are more recently helping children feel safe in their classrooms and school buildings, a job that became more popular, and necessary, in the last decade, studies and experts say.
Counselors are trained to deal with crises and then, if necessary, lead students and their parents to other community services, such as mental health workers or family services. And given the importance of the counselor as a first responder to student needs, some states mandate elementary school counselors. States that lack mandates have experts pushing for elementary school counselors. "At the state level, we have been working as an association in getting legislative and policy chambers to recognize the role of school counselors," says Patricia Nailor, director of counseling and social services for Providence (R.I.) City School District. But there is no mandate for elementary counselors in Rhode Island and positions are still being cut.
"Kids are more than academic little machines," Nailor says. "They need other support. To see elementary counseling positions cut frightens me ... given domestic violence and poverty. They need someone to talk to."
Signs of progress are appearing in New York. A recent meeting with state Department of Education officials showed Deborah Hardy, guidance and counseling department chair at Irvington (N.Y.) High School, that the officials want connections. "Their thrust was to say, 'We know the standards are there and we know the exams students need to pass but we need to increase the humanistic approach to schools. Adults need to connect to kids and we need to eliminate the emotional barriers so they will learn,' " Hardy recalls. "My ears perked when I heard that."
At the same time, the counselor's role is growing. "It's expanding to become one of the focal points, one of the epicenters of school reform," Nailor says. "We stand at the juncture of children's lives where they connect home, work, school and personal and social lives. We are there to facilitate that process."
ASCA's National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs is the definitive model for how counseling programs should work, Cook says. Just three years ago, the association gathered three theories of leaders in the school counseling field: Norm Gysbers, Curly and Sharon Johnson, and Boy Myrick.
Gysbers pioneered the comprehensive developmental school guidance program and the Johnsons created results-based programs. (See related information below)
Using the national model, school counselors look to build positive school attitudes and behaviors, effective writing and reading skills and homework completion skills by effecting change on students' academic, career and social/emotional development.
Last year, research done in part by Professor Christopher Sink of Seattle Pacific University shows early elementary students in schools for three or more years using the comprehensive program will benefit academically. In addition, children from all socioeconomic levels in the same school multiple years using a "well-implemented" comprehensive program will have higher achievement test scores than students who don't have whole-school counseling programs.
Just last year, The Education Trust and MetLife Foundation established the National Center for Transforming School Counseling, which is supported by the Dewitt-Wallace-Readers Digest Fund and MetLife Foundation. The new center focuses on raising standards and implementing accountability systems at a critical time.
"The field of school counseling needed to re-orient itself and its mission," says Stephanie Robinson, principal partner at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocate for urban, poor and minority children. "They needed to contribute more to the academic success of the kids. Teachers can't do it alone. ... They [counselors] need to play a bigger part in the educational system."
But times are tough and administrators face dwindling budgets and potential cuts. They first look to staff, like counselors to lay off, because reading and math skills are are so important in these standardized test days.
California has the worst student to counselor ratio in the union, about 971 students to one, according to 2001-02 statistics. Minnesota had the second worst ratio, or 806 to one, and Arizona had the third worst, or 759 to one.
ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 to one but the national average is 490 to one, according to the State Nonfiscal Public Elementary/Secondary Education Survey.
So it begs the question, with all the roles of a counselor, all the students for whom they are responsible, and the new pressure to ensure student success, can counselors truly be effective?
Ounce of Prevention, Pound of Cure
It's common sense. If children come to school tired, hungry, abused or stressed out due to a broken home or frightened to walk their neighborhood streets, they are in survival mode and their desire to learn is nearly squashed. When teachers or principals pick up on children in need, or children who are bullied or bullying others, they can call school counselors to listen to children, where the teacher doesn't have time. "If we start doing preventative methods at the elementary level we will have better-behaved students," Bowers says.
"Counseling is a K-12 developmental program," Cook adds. "Kids need information on emotional and developmental levels to be successful in school."
Virginia educators know the beauty of early school counseling, because it is mandated. "Basically, the whole premise for having elementary counselors is to help resolve problems that interfere with learning, to help students understand themselves and others and acquire effective problem-solving and decision-making skills, become responsible for personal behavior, acquire positive attitudes towards learning and develop effective study skills and develop an understanding of the world of work," says Sylinda Gilchrist, school counseling specialist for the Virginia DOE.
If children have crosses to bear alone and continue to sink deeper into the world of failure, by the time they reach middle school they might be too far gone to get help. Some counselors are successful in bringing children out of their ruts later on, but it's harder.
In Virginia, elementary counselors have been mandated since 1983, with only a few years in between that did not mandate them. "Elementary counselors work closely with classroom teachers and administrators," Gilchrist says. "I think it's important because it gives you a trained person who can deal with emotional and social issues.
A counselor has to have a master's degree in counseling. ... If you address them [issues] early on, they [students] will have a better chance to be successful. ... Teachers can't do it in a class of 30-plus students. ... Counselors really provide that emotional link, bridging the gap. The counselor builds that bridge between the social, emotional and academic. You can have the best instruction and the best materials and if the student is not emotionally available, the teacher, the school, and the materials will still be ineffective."
Sometimes, young children have anxiety about being in school, their first experience with separation anxiety from home. A school counselor can help troubled children--who might not even know how to express feelings or might not be aware they feel alone and scared--vent their frustrations or sadness. Counselors say they ask children to draw pictures--a happy or sad face gives words to feelings --or they can play games that will elicit feelings.
Props like puppets, films and role playing help show young students how to deal and cope. Role playing can be used to ask students, who is acting appropriately? And what can we do differently? They can also teach students who have trouble making friends what is friendly and what is mean. In third grade, students start taking statewide assessment tests, so counselors will come to classrooms to ease them into the world of testing and stress.
More with Less
With so many students and so few counselors, one-on-one counseling is very rare. Now, more counselors gather groups of students or go into classrooms to expose bullies and abuse prevention tips. Counselors also gather students experiencing similar problems, such as recently divorced parents or military parents who have been deployed. Anger management issues are other problems dealt with in small groups.
To get the job done, good time management is a key tool counselors can use when they are responsible for hundreds of students, Cook says. They need support from administrators to help relieve them of bus duty or correcting and counting state assessment tests, which are common jobs for counselors, Cook says.
Individual counseling comes if there is an immediate crisis, such as "if a kid is balling and can't stay in class, or if there are suicidal students," Cook says.
A counselor doesn't counsel, per se, but listens and then calls in the parents and principal and possibly gets police or psychiatrists involved.
"You can always be a touchpoint but counselors don't do therapy," Cook says. "That's why we refer to mental health and local practitioners."
Three years ago, when Hardy was a counselor at Sleepy Hollow (N.Y.) High School, she went into an ESL social studies class to discuss tolerance issues with students from various countries who were having a tough time getting along. The teacher covered a lesson on the nation's Westward Expansion and the new government under development. Hardy then discussed with students how people could operate a government and listen to all the needs of people from different areas. The students developed a plan, discussing the difficulties and benefits of listening to different ideas and values, Hardy says, teaching them how to get along.
Counselors can also learn about individual students in big settings, for example, by creating a self-esteem auction. Students can bid on something that is important to them, such as being popular for a day or being an artist, Hardy says. Some students who just want to make their parents happy are a red flag. And counselors will go back to the teacher and the student to find out the issues at home that may be adversely affecting the student, Hardy says.
Chicken or Egg?
Oftentimes, what makes students fail in school is attributed to feeling unsafe or just plain boredom. "Many kids have behavioral problems in school and in many instances it's due to the fact that kids are not being really challenged," says Robinson at Education Trust. "If kids are bored out of their gourds in schools, they mess up. So many times behavioral problems are symptoms and what we want to [do] is fix the schools that are sometimes contributing to the behaviors we see. In large schools, where kids are feeling isolated and not connected, it contributes to a feeling of alienation. Counselors work with other school personnel to create environments that support kids, such as social workers, teachers, principals, psychologists..."
Robinson adds that if children can't read they will "mess up" in school. Starting with the problem always works. "We know kids who are bored, disaffected and alienated and if they can connect to being a productive member of the academic world it can solve a great part of the problem," Robinson says. "Girls who have some success in academics tend not to get pregnant. The question is, is behavior due to some systemic issues in schools or the individual? Many times, it's the systemic problems in schools."
The Education Trust center provides training for counselors, already in about 40 districts nationwide. The training focuses in part on using data to uncover patterns and behaviors and some systemic problems in schools. If, for example, children are bored, counselors can look at the data, discover the academic needs of the student, and uncover what the teacher feels, for example, if the teacher is overwhelmed by too many students. A possible solution is breaking the classroom into smaller groups and using tutoring, Robinson says.
In another example, if a high school freshman consistently gets to school late, a counselor can investigate. If the student is taking care of a younger sibling, the school can change the late policy.
Some schools even use behavioral management contracts with students to help with attendance or behavioral concerns, Hardy says. When a student cuts class, the counselor will meet with the student to find out why. The counselor can ask, 'What, if any, classes do you like?' Many times, students enjoy hands-on work, Hardy says. The counselor discovers in that instant the student is a visual learner and will then go to teachers, informing them that the student needs more visual work, such as a PowerPoint presentation in lieu of an essay in English class. "They're helping teachers get strategies for students who don't seem to connect" to regular class work, Hardy says.
The power of positive thinking is, or should be, the mantra of every counselor, Hardy says. Counselors must encourage classroom teachers to be more positive in their remarks about students. Instead of saying a student is failing, which will likely be the nails in a student's academic coffin, the teacher can say the student needs help but shows improvement. "I always said to all my kids, 'Never think the doors are closed. If the doors are closed, we will find one that is opened,' " Hardy recalls. The door might not be the dream door, she says, but " 'it will be a step towards reaching a better scenario.' "
Angela Pascopella is features editor.