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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

My musings as a School Counsellor

[The following article, written by me, appeared in the Christ University Department of Psychology magazine called Perspective 2011]

Having recently qualified as a counselor, I walked into my first assignment at a prestigious school in Bangalore several years ago, quite unsure of my role, and of the difference I could make. Would children in school really see the value of counseling? Would they ever come for counseling voluntarily? Wasn’t it more of an adult thing? Wasn’t it something that adults took children for, when they (the adults) thought necessary? Would it be possible to maintain confidentiality in an environment where the child was everyone’s business?

On my first day, just as I had finished settling in, a very worried teacher walked into my room. One of her student’s had been hurting herself with the school badge repeatedly. The teacher had no idea what she was meant to do, or what the child’s behavior meant. She used the only tool she had in her toolkit (i.e. scolding) and it hadn’t worked. She felt lost, confused, and a bit helpless, at being unable to ‘control’ this child’s “irrational” behavior.

Even though I was a bit overwhelmed at being landed with a relatively “serious” case on day one, I was clear that my response had to be three-pronged. I needed to work with the child, the parents, and the teacher – equipping each to address the challenges that situation threw up for them. After about 12 sessions with the student, a couple of sessions with the parents, and one (primarily educative) session with the teacher, the student settled back into the normal routine of school life without the angst and pain she was feeling earlier.

I have never since questioned the difference I can make in a school, even though I have to admit that I have not always been successful in reaching my goal – that of making a student who comes to me feel more emotionally comfortable and secure than when he or she first walked in.

There are some observations I have based on my experience working in a school setting. The first is that the counselor must make oneself visible – visible to the students, visible to the parents, and visible to the teachers.

Students must learn to view the counselor as someone easily accessible. Students must understand what kind of issues the counselor helps them with, and the students must be assured of confidentiality. They must come to believe that if they come to the counselor with a problem, the other teachers, or the principal, or their parents, and most importantly, their peers will not come to know about it. I did this by visiting every classroom in their free period, and talking to the students about various emotions, and how it is important to understand and express them. And, emphasized how I can help them with that. After every class, my diary used to be filled with appointments that the children scheduled. At the start of every academic year I give a questionnaire to every child asking them to list out the kind of problems they are facing. The objective is not so much to get the children to respond, and most of them don’t, but to make them aware of my presence and how and when they can find me.
Parents need to be made aware of the availability of the counselor, and must know that they have permission to reach out to the counselor directly, without any of the other school channels being involved. They too, must be assured of confidentiality. And, most importantly, their bias and stigma about their child coming to a counselor should be put to rest. They need to be educated on the role of the counselor and the importance of not dissuading their children from visiting the counselor. If a child has the courage to visit a counselor (which often, even some adults do not) the worst disservice a parent can do to the child is to communicate to him that they don’t approve of that action. Apart from a communication that I send out to parents at the beginning of the academic year, where I talk about the above issues, I also keep in regular touch with them by sending them links to articles (mine or someone else’s) which I feel would be interesting to them as parents. I conduct workshops for parents on various emotional issues. Apart from gaining insights on how they can be better parents, these workshops give them a forum to understand emotional aspects, connect with other parents on similar issues, and ‘connect' with the counselor without stigma.
Teachers must know that it is okay for them to come to the counselor to sort out some issues that they may be experiencing themselves, or, to get guidance on how to deal with an emotional situation in the classroom. Teachers also need to be sensitized to the emotional impact their words and actions may have on their students. Organizing workshops for teachers gives teachers an opportunity to discuss classroom situations in a safe, nonjudgmental way. This also allows them to recognize their own behaviors that may not be helpful in their role as teachers, role models, surrogate parents, mentors, and guides.

While the counselor must make oneself visible, he or she must not be viewed as one of the other teachers or staff members. There are many reasons for that. The counselor must be viewed as an expert who only deals with the emotional aspect of a child’s life in school. The counselor must be believed to be someone who will respect confidentiality and be nonjudgmental in their dealings. If the counselor is viewed as someone who is also just one of the other teachers in school, it would be hard for a student to believe that the counselor is not talking about them with other teachers, or is not biased about them based on their other interactions in school. I do this by staying a bit ‘aloof’ from the rest of the staff (I never have lunch in the staffroom, or go to the staffroom for a chit-chat), and not getting involved in other routine administrative school activities (which often get assigned to counselors unless they define the boundaries for themselves).

Maintaining a case record of every child who comes for counselling, and keeping track of it as the child progresses through school, is important. So if a child comes after a couple of years, I know when he or she came to me before, and what the issue was at that time. Often the issues are linked, if not the same. After every session, it is important to log a few lines of what happened in the session and any other observations you may have, so as to be able to see your own progress in your work with the child, and serve as an aid to your memory. Of critical importance, though, is ensuring that these case records are not accessible to other staff members, and do not enter the general school information system. I keep mine under lock and key (with the keys only available with me). I am not sure what I would do if I chose to leave the school – would I take the records with me, or hand them over to my successor? What I am certain about, though, is that I will not hand them over to the school management. I cannot emphasize enough how important maintaining confidentiality is.
Most of the students (I would say approximately 75%) who come for counseling come with issues stemming from low self esteem. Even though the presenting problem may be different, the root often lies in a poor self-image and lack of self-acceptance; the belief that “I am not good enough”. This is created to a large extent by messages given by parents and teachers (hopefully, unknowingly). The good news is that because children and adolescents, are still evolving their world-view and self-image, it is relatively easier to influence it and bring about a change, than it is in the case of adults. Sometimes, just a slight nudge in the right direction is all they need to start thinking differently. Sometimes, all they need is “permission” to challenge what the world (and elders), are saying about them.

I have consistently observed that the largest number of students come to me from the fourth grade. I don’t know if this will be validated by other school counselors, but I was truly surprised by this. Who would have thought that a fourth grader would even know that he or she is facing an issue? Who would have thought that a fourth grader would feel comfortable coming and talking to a complete stranger about it? If someone had told me this a few years ago, I certainly would not have believed it. However, now I think the reason for this is that that is the age when children start negotiating group dynamics. Before that they operate primarily as individual players. Around fourth grade is when they start forming groups; they get included or left out; they share secrets and get bullied; they start understanding the world and the people around them. All this can get confusing, and I am glad that many of them have the courage to seek help. Another factor here is also that fourth grade is probably too early for them to start worrying about the social stigma of going to a counselor. While teenagers and adolescents may actually need help, I think many of them feel inhibited. And my hope is that students who feel comfortable going to a counselor in grade 4 will continue to do so when they reach their tumultuous teenage years.
In conclusion, I’d like to add that while I am not equipped to handle all issues that present themselves to me, I am equipped to know what I can handle and what I cannot. And, those that I cannot handle I refer on, with the confidence that even my first understanding is of value to parents who are often fumbling in the dark, not knowing what is going on in their child’s world. Where would those children have gone to for help, had it not been for the ease and confidentiality, of just walking into a room right in school, whenever they can grab a free period? The comfort of knowing that in this harsh world that they are navigating, there is a safe place they can go to for someone to listen to them non-judgmentally and help them interpret their confusing circumstances, is invaluable. And to be able to do that without the logistical issues of parents having to take them somewhere, or pay for it, has its benefits.


  1. very seems u gave words 2 my thoughts.. with more clarity.. thanks n looking forward for more...

  2. Nice. Accepting the fact that you need help and seeking it are such big steps.