There are lots of exciting things you can do in a career as a school counselor, but sometimes you will find yourself called upon to justify your value to a school board, and then it helps to be able to explain your activities in terms of two areas they understand well: student morale and student achievement. These are, in fact, core areas of focus for every counselor, whether or not you’re used to thinking about them in those terms. Whether you’re working with individuals or at a population level, you’re continually involved in overcoming problems and enhancing motivation, and you also have a key role in providing students with the guidance they need to reach their full potential. This article looks in depth at how this works.
Promote respect for students
In order to feel good about themselves and feel productive, people – in any walk of life – need to know that they are respected. This is no less the case with children and young people. They may not have the knowledge and life experience of adults, but they are still complex human beings with their own interests, concerns and moral priorities, generally trying to do their best in a world that can be confusing and difficult even for those who are much older. By treating them with respect and encouraging teachers and support staff to do likewise, you encourage them to respect themselves. This gives them a much stronger motive to try to be the best that they can be in every area of life.
Improve teacher communication skills
Teachers may know how to teach, but they don’t always understand the rest of what young people need. This can lead to students perceiving them as intimidating, boring and out of touch, or even pathetic. As a counselor, you will normally have responsibility for staff as well as students, and working to improve their skills is sometimes the most effective way to help the students. When they learn how to engage more effectively by listening more, being honest and looking at students in terms of their individual potential instead of patronizing or stereotyping them, they will get much better results, and the atmosphere in the school will become more relaxed, positive and collaborative.
Every individual has different motives and faces different challenges when it comes to learning, so it can be deeply dispiriting for students to feel as if they are on a conveyor belt in an institution that sees everybody the same way. Many counselors like to walk the halls every day, greeting students by name and asking how they’re doing, making sure that they know that at least one adult actually knows and cares who they are. Encourage teachers to do this, especially with young people who are frustrated or struggling. By identifying students’ specific interests, teachers can find new angles through which to get them to engage with classroom topics, making education feel much more relevant to their lives.
Encourage membership of clubs and teams
Where children can feel lost and anonymous in large institutions, membership of a club or team provides a smaller, more relatable community within the larger one. It can provide an anchor for students in need of peer support, and a chance for others to explore and discover new interests at a stage when they are beginning to develop their adult identities. This has so much value in itself that it doesn’t really matter if the club is based around something that seems trivial to adults. Not everybody is committed to becoming a skilled violin player or a chess grandmaster, and that’s fine. If some children seem to be excluded from every club (which they will often attempt to disguise as disinterest), try bringing them together and giving them a challenge, helping them to bond with one another while doing things that make them feel useful and valued.
Teach time management
It’s rarely taught in classes, but time management is an important skill that doesn’t come easily to everyone. This can lead to students who really are willing to work hard and want to succeed getting into trouble by accident. They need to know how much time it takes them to complete different kinds of tasks, how much extra time they should allow in case of emergency, and how to manage a schedule across a day, a week or a longer period. Helping with this can make a big difference to their overall achievement and to their morale. It also helps to identify more serious issues such as ADHD, which require specialist support, along with problems in other areas of life that are affecting students’ ability to get work done.
Help students to set goals
When you’re young, it’s difficult to mentally take in the whole vast span of life ahead of you. All sorts of possibilities present themselves, so most young people struggle to map out serious career plans – and as they still have a lot to learn about themselves, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Setting shorter-term goals, however, gives them something to focus on and helps day-to-day actions to acquire meaning. Interlinking goals is also effective because it helps students start to understand how the different actions they undertake – such as studying different subjects – can help them achieve bigger things. The scale of the goals should be tailored to individuals, taking account of what’s realistic for them.
When students are making an effort to achieve more, it really helps for them to see some short-term rewards. Many schools have awards for excellence – or simply for coming top of the class – in specific subjects. The risk of this approach is that some students will never get top grades regardless of how hard they try. For this reason, it’s a good idea to give awards for effort itself, or for improvement. Socially themed awards such as a monthly prize for the originator of the best joke circulating in the school can give outsiders a chance to shine and help them make friends. You can also give awards for community-focused or charitable activities so that children understand that there are many ways to contribute to society and that hard work in a good cause is worthy of praise in itself.
Praise good behavior
There are other things that are deserving of praise, such as the effort made to engage with schooling in a positive way that takes account of the needs of others. When young people are brought up without much guidance at home, with seemingly arbitrary rewards and punishments that are related more to their parents’ moods than anything they’ve done, it can be hard to associate good behavior with positive consequences. Some teachers respond to this by immediately disciplining them for even the smallest mistakes, as one might with a misbehaving dog, but this isn’t actually very effective. Better results can be achieved (with children and dogs alike) by providing immediate praise for good actions and good choices, as this also helps young people to value themselves.
Promote special days
Many students struggle with school because they find it monotonous. Celebrating a special day from time to time can help to break up the routine and make everything more interesting. You could choose a national awareness day, allowing staff to take advantage of pre-prepared toolkits and perhaps getting students involved in raising money for a charitable cause. This can, in itself, boost self-esteem, and it can also help some students to put their own problems in perspective. You could also choose to celebrate a local tradition, increasing the sense of being part of a community, or you could create a new idea unique to the school. Having days when students can dress up (as long as there are ways to participate that don’t require much money) makes school fun and can do a lot to break down tension.
Often, the students with the lowest morale are those who are on the receiving end of prejudice. This is particularly damaging when it happens within the school environment itself, and sadly, it can be from teachers and support staff members as well as from other students. When the perpetrator is an authority figure, or when it seems omnipresent, students may feel hopeless and hesitate to report it because they don’t expect anyone to help. Having even one person who can assure them that they deserve better can make a huge difference. Alongside this, however, you can tackle the larger problem by instituting equality, inclusion and diversity training, along with unconscious bias training for those who have good intentions but keep inadvertently contributing to the problem anyway.
Tackle social exclusion
Prejudice against particular groups isn’t the only reason why students can find themselves socially excluded. Sometimes individuals just find it hard to fit in, or make mistakes early on that they never manage to overcome. Bullying can be a huge problem and it doesn’t always take obvious forms. A skilled bully doesn’t need to use violence because intimidation or emotional abuse is enough. Bullying of all forms needs to be clamped down on hard wherever it emerges, even if this means that you, as a counselor, have to set yourself at odds with teachers in criticizing popular students. As well as dealing with bullies, you will need to pick up the pieces and help socially excluded children to reintegrate. This requires building their confidence and creating opportunities for them to make friends or make a good impression on their peers.
Be alert to problems at home
Sometimes when students are struggling, it has nothing to do with what’s happening at school, but it has an impact on schoolwork nonetheless. It can lead to students acting out or becoming withdrawn and anxious in the present, as well as putting their future prospects at risk. As a counselor, there are several ways that you have the potential to help. If you believe that a child is unsafe, you should, of course, contact the authorities at once. Short of that, you can discuss options with the student and potentially call the parents in for a discussion. Sometimes parents don’t realize how badly a child is being affected by problems at home and are able to make positive changes when prompted to do so. You can also help them to start communicating more effectively with a child who they have been trying to protect by keeping secrets.
Help parents with practical problems
When parents are facing problems such as poverty, being trapped in a violent neighborhood, or other such matters that require more than good intentions to resolve, you may still be able to help. Over time, most school counselors develop contacts in social services, so they know who to converse with and how to navigate the system. By advocating for the family, you could make a big difference to the life of the child. You can help parents find sources of community support or apply for grants with which to improve their situation. You can put them in touch with providers of adult education so that they can improve their prospects, or even get them involved with school activities so that you are in a position to provide them with professional references.
Teach parents how to provide better support
In addition to the above, there are situations where parents want to help their children succeed but just don’t have the skills. It’s particularly challenging for those who, for one reason or another, never had much of an education themselves. Some school counselors address this by running classes in parenting skills. One of the most common issues is a simple lack of confidence on the part of parents who think that if they don’t understand the subject matter that a child is working on, they can’t help –when, in fact, they can provide assistance simply by listening, asking questions and providing encouragement.
Start a homework club
Regardless of how hard you work, there will still be situations – at least in some schools – where you know that a child doesn’t have a suitable environment in which to study at home. Starting a homework club within the school can make a huge difference to children in this situation, keeping them from falling behind. While some students will be horrified by the idea, others will welcome having a warm, dry place that’s free from noise and threat where they can sit down and focus. This also helps them get to know others in similar situations, building a sense of solidarity and reinforcing the importance of getting a good education. With the right encouragement, children in this situation can come to see education as a means of escaping their troubles, a route to a better life.
Encourage student feedback
Regardless of age, people are much more inclined to feel that they belong to an organization, and to be committed to its success, when they feel that they have a say in how it’s run. Just being able to share ideas and know that somebody will pay attention to them makes a big difference. Not every young person wants to participate in student elections, but simply having an ideas box where people can post suggestions makes participation easy, and this can be referenced when changes are made, or the best ideas can be read out at school events. Even negative comments received in this way are useful because they help to track the mood of the school and make it easier to be proactive about dealing with problems.
Every student matters
When you’re striving to make a good impression in a school, there’s a temptation – for every member of staff – to focus on the most committed and able students, the high achievers who make the place look good. It’s by focusing on those who are struggling, however, that you can really start to build toward lasting change. The St. Bonaventure University’s online Master’s in School Counseling gives its graduates the skills to connect with the students who are hardest to reach, along with the diagnostic ability required to identify underlying mental illness and the insight to tell when other issues are at work. Regardless of the problems that young people are struggling with, you can show others that they are children who need help, not condemnation, and that when we invest in them, we help to improve our whole society.
Few fields of work are as satisfying as serving as a school counselor. Sometimes you need to put what you do in simplistic terms so that other people understand it, but anyone who observes you at work will appreciate the skill involved, and the transformative effect that you can have on an institution. By putting young people’s needs first, you will enhance their morale, boost their achievement and make the whole school a better place to be.