Counselors in Elementary Schools: Children's 'Prevention Specialists'

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By Deborah L. Cohen

Woodbridge, Va.--In a classroom at the Enterprise Elementary School here, six 4th graders are engaged in an unusual bingo game. Instead of letters or numbers, the blocks on their boards bear words that connote a positive self-image, such as "proud," "important," "relaxed," and "secure."

The children, participants in a group-counseling session on self-concept, drew up the list of bingo words to combat what their school counselor, Lee Johnson, calls "junk thoughts": defeatist feelings that are either self-generated or prompted by others.

Examples the children cite include "I can't do this test," "I'm not interesting," and "I'm stupid."

"What do you do when someone gives you a junk thought?" Ms. Johnson queries her charges.

"Don't accept it," pipes up one child.

"Think it's opposite day," offers another.

Such responses get high marks from elementary-school counselors, teachers, principals, and parents, who say they may help children head off academic as well as emotional and social problems in later years.

The counseling session at this Prince William County school is one of dozens offered by schools throughout Virginia--one of 12 states that require school systems to have elementary-school counselors--and in schools across the nation.

Although their overriding aim is to bolster pupils' self-esteem, many of the programs also foster career awareness and offer support groups for children affected by family breakups or indentified as shy, needing work on study skills or habits, or having difficulty interacting with peers.

While high-school counselors traditionally have focused on college or job counseling, or in some cases interventions with troubled youths, the elementary-counseling movement aims to give all pupils a foundation of self-confidence and the skills needed to make decisions, get along with others, communicate, and solve problems.

"As all children acquire these skills, we reduce the need for remediation," John D. Lucas, director of guidance and counseling for the Texas Education Agency, points out.

Programs generally focus more heavily on classroom lessons and group sessions than on individual counseling, stressing prevention rather than crisis intervention.

"For the most part, elementary-school counselors see themselves as prevention specialists rather than therapists," says Edwin R. Gerler, a professor of counselor education at North Carolina State University at Raleigh and editor of Elementary School Guidance and Counseling.

"We're trying to circumvent some of the problems that occur when events arise in children's lives that that they don't know how to handle," explains Beverly J. O'Bryant, president-elect of the American School Counselor Association.

Til Tremper, a parent whose 5th grader attends Prince William County's Lake Ridge Elementary School, says the counseling program there is ''getting our children ready for whatever comes their way."

"You wonder who filled these gaps before," says Robin Sweeney, principal of the Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, also in the county school district.

'Stairstep Effect'

Efforts to place counselors in elementary schools have been hampered in some areas of the country by personnel shortages, insufficient training programs and funds, and pressure to increase time spent on basic subjects. And some critics have argued that the programs may infringe on parents' authority, clash with their values, or violate their trust. But experts say the trend has been slowly gaining momentum since the 1960's.

"It's a national movement and by no means is it dying," says Mr. Gerler.

States that now mandate the provision of elementary-school counselors--at ratios of from 1 to 400 to 1 to 500 pupils--are Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Another 12 states are eyeing such mandates, according to "Children Achieving Potential," a recent study by the AACD and the National Conference of State Legislatures. (See Education Week, May 16, 1990.)

Although only eight states back such programs with specific state funding, efforts are under way to gain support in several other states.

And U.S. Representative Carl D. Pursell, Republican of Michigan, has introduced a bill that would provide $5 million in grants for school districts to offer a certified elementary-school counselor for every 250 pupils.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of six regional accrediting bodies, in August will begin imposing a requirement that all elementary schools in its 11-state region have at least one guidance counselor or other full-time professional whose sole function is to provide guidance services for every 500 pupils.

"We recognized that it would be a strain on a number of school districts, but that when a regional [accrediting body] does take a stand on something, it causes a stairstep effect of having the state start to build it into its funding process," says John Davis, executive director of SACS' commmission on elementary schools.

Groups such as the National PTA and the National School Boards Association passed resolutions in the mid-1980's backing comprehensive elementary counseling programs, and the College Board, in a 1986 report, also urged that guidance and counseling begin in elementary school.

Earlier Stress

According to the American School Counselor Association, guidance counselors began to be employed in elementary schools in the early 1900's. But it was not until the 1950's that they began to stray from techniques borrowed from their secondary-school counterparts.

In the mid-1960's, elementary counselors started to stress approaches that were designed for all children, rather than as a remedial tool for some, and were aimed to enhance children's social and emotional well-being, as well as their cognitive development. Through the 1960's and early 70's, districts and state education departments began setting out specific counseling objectives and developing K-12 guidance curricula.

The trend toward offering counseling services before pupils enter high school has been fueled in part, says Harriet Glosoff, a counselor in private practice who co-authored the AACD-NCSL report, by concern that "children are at earlier ages facing stresses that generations ago either didn't exist, or existed in isolated pockets."

"One thing everyone has agreed on," she says, "is that early intervention is essential."

Experts also cite high divorce rates, growing numbers of single-parent homes and children living in poverty, and an increased threat of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, and youth suicide.

"We're seeing more and more kids from very dysfunctional home situations coming into the schools," says David B. Addicott, co-coordinator of the Helping At-Risk Kids (HARK) Coalition, a group of parents, community leaders, counselors, and educators who have lobbied for elementary-school-counseling legislation in Washington State. "These are kids who are not going to make it either in school or in life unless there's some major intervention."

Efforts to offer that intervention have won the backing of the business community, in districts such as San Diego and Des Moines, and of the juvenile courts in Alabama, where the chief justice of the state supreme court has become a vocal advocate of elementary counseling.

While large-scale studies on elementary counseling are limited, Mr. Gerler notes in a 1985 research review that "considerable research outside the counseling literature" shows that children's learning and cognitive growth hinge on how they behave in school, feel about themselves, and function socially--all focal points of counseling programs.

"Society as a whole is realizing that the affective side of a human being is as important as the cognitive side," says Ms. O'Bryant. "Children learn better when they understand themselves better."

The AACD-NCSL. report also points to data over two decades demonstrating the positive effects of counseling on student attitudes, behavior, attendance, and academic performance, and on parent involvement.

For example, in a 1975 study of 24 schools in Florida--a state that has offered state aid for elementary counseling since 1972--4th- to 6th-grade pupils showed significant improvement in grades, self-concept, and attitudes toward school, outpacing a control group on those measures.

More recently, a 1986 study of 18 North Carolina schools by Mr. Gerler and a colleague showed that a 10-session classroom guidance program had a significant effect on behavior and attitudes and a positive impact on language skills.

'A Whisper in the Ear'

Prince William County's elementary counseling program is one of four cited as models in Virginia.

The program, administrators say, involved educators, parents, and community members in planning and is based on extensive research, curriculum planning, and a clear delineation of counselors' roles.

"We didn't just put counselors in schools and let their roles develop," says Jerilyn E. Christensen, district supervisor of elementary guidance.

Counselors offer a mix of individual and small-group counseling sessions and classroom lessons in consultation with teachers, parents, administrators, and other personnel such as psychologists, social workers, special-education teachers, and attendance officers. Their efforts are coordinated with school drug-abuse-prevention and other related programs.

Counselors also refer families to community agencies for other kinds of counseling and services, maintain links with parents, and run parenting workshops and programs.

While classroom guidance lessons are part of the curriculum, children are referred for individual or group sessions by teachers, counselors, or parents, or at their own request.

"We have the greatest success with self-referrals," notes Ms. Christensen.

In a classroom at the Enterprise school, one counselor, Kathy Hopun, leads discussions, role-playing, and "rap" verses designed to show 3rd graders how their self-image can help or hinder schooling, health, friendships, and family relationships.

Led by another counselor, Jan Jordan, 5th graders in a Lake Ridge classroom play a game that fosters group cooperation and embark on a project to explore career choices.

In a group session on self-control at the McAuliffe school, Barbara Smith, in her counseling role, helps four 3rd-grade boys explore positive and negative ways of seeking attention.

And in another session at Lake Ridge, the counselor Jackie Stephens reads and discusses with 2nd-grade girls a story called "Fruit Basket Delight," designed to foster respect and pride in individual differences.

The district also runs counseling groups on such issues as family changes, friendship, study skills, decisionmaking, shyness, and coping with grade retention. And it involves counselors, teachers, and other staff members in efforts to give extra attention and support to at-risk pupils.

John Phillips, principal of the Enterprise school, says the counseling program has "had a more powerful impact on the lives of children" than any other in the district. It has, he says, enabled children "to see that other kids have the same feelings, to realize they're not alone."

"Children in today's world have less of an adult audience" than at any time in the last few decades, he observes. "They desperately need a listening audience."

Before the program, Mr. Phillips adds, principals and teachers "practiced a lot of amateur psychiatry."

"For years, our elementary teachers have been stretched into doing guidance without even knowing that's what they were doing," says Ms. Sweeney of the McAuliffe school.

Teachers and counselors say the program has helped reduce discipline referrals and allowed teachers to focus on teaching. They also offer examples in which distraught students have turned to counselors to discuss sensitive issues such as parental drug use and child abuse.

"They don't always want to confide in a teacher," says LaRue Kimble, a Prince William teacher, and counselors offer a ready and private source of help.

Children here add that counselors have taught them "how to make up with friends," how to "reason more instead of trying to beat up" adversaries, and how to get along with siblings and cope with school and family transitions.

"It's a hugging, caring relationship," adds Til Tremper, a parent. "It's a whisper in the ear."

Despite such enthusiasm, states have been slow to provide for counselors in elementary schools.

Standards Set Pace

In Virginia, the process took 12 years. The first elementary counseling programs were launched in the early 1960's with a combination of federal and local funds. A pilot study of five school districts from 1965 to 1969 highlighted the support for elementary counselors the program had gained among administrators, teachers, and parents.

But with federal aid in short supply and no state support, only 200 counselors were serving 1,100 public elementary schools in 1975.

Seeking a mandate to make counseling available to all children, a committee of counselors, counselor-educators, and guidance supervisors convened by the Virginia Elementary School Counselors Association began an intensive lobbying and public-relations campaign.

The committee gained the support of several professional groups and the backing of state Senator Stanley C. Walker of Norfolk, a member of the Senate education and health committee who chaired a state task force that studied troubled youths.

School and youth-service personnel persuaded him, he recalls, that counseling "was too important to wait" until middle or high school.

Between 1977 and 1984, Mr. Walker sponsored three bills and eight resolutions to draw support for elementary-school counseling.

The measures resulted in various commissions, studies, and reports recommending elementary-school counseling programs and funding.

But, recalls Libby R. Hoffman, former supervisor of the state program and current president of the Virginia Counselors Association, "none of this produced the desired mandate and funding," until former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles endorsed the idea in his 1985 gubernatorial campaign.

With Governor Baliles's backing, the state board of education in 1986 passed a resolution calling for all public elementary schools to phase in guidance and counseling programs within four years. It also revised state accreditation standards to make the program mandatory.

Although the legislature still had not approved a separate bill funding the mandate, the change in accreditation standards guaranteed that the state would cover part of the cost of counselors under the basic per-pupil school-aid formula.

The result has been a five-fold increase in the number of elementary counselors in Virginia, from 200 in 1985 to 1,076 today.

In 1987, the board amended the accreditation standards to call for a counselor-to-pupil ratio of 1 to 500, and added a proviso that 60 percent of counselors' time be devoted to counseling rather than administrative or other work.

Ms. Hoffman notes in a paper detailing the mandate's history that "the availability of qualified counselors frequently has been raised as a concern," particularly in rural areas.

Citing both fiscal constraints and an inability to move counselors through training programs quickly enough, about half the state's school districts did not have counselors in place by the fall of 1989, notes David G. Burgess, supervisor of elementary-school counseling for the state education department. As a result, the state is granting "provisional certification" to those close to completing degrees.

Ms. Hoffman, who is also an associate professor of counselor education at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Northern Virginia Graduate Center, says many districts have arranged for nearby colleges and universities to train teachers tapped for counseling jobs or have formed training consortia.

With out-of-state applicants, an increasing pool of certified personnel in the state, and increased enrollments in counselor-education programs, Ms. Hoffman adds, "very few school divisions have had difficulty finding qualified elementary counselors."

Backers acknowledge, however, that the supply falls short of the need.

While Virginia's program has been cited by experts as a model program, its counselor-to-pupil ratio and its prescribed ratio for counseling versus other tasks still fall short of the 1-to-300 counselor-pupil ratio and the 75 percent-to-25 percent time split recommended by the AACD.

"These are minimal standards. We're by no means saying they are optimal," observes Mr. Burgess.

Harmful for Healthy Children?

While backed by such groups as the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, the state PTA, and the Virginia Education Association, the mandate initially faced stiff opposition from critics.

A coalition of parents called the "Concerned Citizens Council" argued that it had no educational value and would pre-empt class time, attack "family values," and violate student and family privacy.

In a 1987 letter to the president of the state board, Walt Barbee, the council's chairman, challenged the theory that all children need counseling and argued that such "introspective and child-centered" approaches could confuse children's values and provoke "rebellion and alienation."

Margaret Bocek, a former Arlington, Va., school-board member, argued that the program "subjects every child to therapy inappropriate for the majority of healthy children" and harms those "who can least afford to miss class" for counseling.

Mr. Barbee also charged that classroom counseling uses experimental techniques "used in mental institutions" in school settings, "with a patient-to-counselor ratio no licensed psychiatrist or psychologist would attempt."

Fiscal Obstacles Cited

Ms. Hoffman contends, however, that such complaints have been limited to isolated areas, and that strong backing by state leaders, studies showing high ratings by parents, principals, and staff members, and a well-planned phase-in period have "laid to rest" critics' fears.

Officials also say they are careful to apprise parents of counseling work. Districts generally inform parents if a counselor sees a child individually more than a few times, and either notify them or seek their permission to enroll children in group sessions, Mr. Burgess says.

Advocates in other states also say fiscal hurdles have been harder to cross than philosophical ones.

"No one argues with the need for counseling," says Mr. Davis of SACS. But he notes that, although the accrediting body has given elementary schools three years to meet its new counseling standard and allowed teachers and other professionals to fill positions while pursuing counseling credentials, 50 to 60 schools have opted out of the accreditation program, citing a lack of funds.

In Alabama, which has approved partial funding for a mandate of one elementary counselor per 400 pupils, Jimmy D. Jacobs, counseling and career-guidance coordinator for the state education department, says the requirement "was one of those things everyone was for; we just needed to make it a priority."

In Texas, where lawmakers recently approved four pilot programs but shunned a broader counseling mandate, Mr. Lucas of the state education agency says: "I'm convinced it's purely monetary. It's a matter of conditions being exactly right."

Teamwork Among Professions

Citing both fiscal limits and local preferences, some educators question whether only certified counselors should be tapped for such efforts.

Robert DeFord, who was president of the Virginia state board when the elementary-school mandate was adopted, says some members felt that "there may be certain situations in certain schools that would be better served by psychiatrists or psychologists" or other support staff.

Mr. Addicott of Washington State also notes that a $4.5-million allocation for counseling recently approved by the legislature there allows districts to consider local needs and preferences in hiring. The move showed a recognition, he says, that "school social workers and psychologists, if given a chance, can perform many of the same functions as counselors."

"By setting the turf battle aside and addressing the needs of children," he adds, "we are able put the focus in a more appropriate place."

Such concerns have been echoed by national groups representing school social workers and psychologists.

"Counselors may be the first line of defense," says Kevin P. Dwyer, government-relations consultant for the National Association of School Psychologists, but psychologists can help "teachers match instructional styles to the needs of kids," and "social workers are critical to linking the home and school."

Given "the extent and variety of needs," says Isadora Hare, staff director of the education commission of the National Association of Social Workers, "it is not in the best interests of schools to focus on one particular profession."

"The mode of comprehensive teamwork services that exists in Head Start should follow through in elementary schools," she maintains.

A joint statement issued by the NASP, the NASW, the AACD, and the American School Counselor Association says that helping children meet personal, social, and institutional challenges demands cooperative involvement among the professions.

Avoiding Past Mistakes

The AACD-NCSL report warns that counseling mandates may not be helpful if they are not backed up with funding. And, it notes, states can have strong policies without mandates.

Florida lacks a mandate, for example, but it funds about 1,250 elementary counselors, offers a comprehensive program, and has a statute instructing districts to ensure that counselors spend 75 percent of their time in direct counseling.

Georgia also has been offering a comprehensive guidance curriculum, some of which is being tapped by other states, for more than 10 years. The state, which recently approved aid for K-12 counselors for the first time, is also launching an evaluation process that will set training goals for counselors and help teach administrators how to gauge their effectiveness.

Such efforts, experts say, are helping elementary schools avoid mistakes made in secondary schools, where many counselors have been overburdened by extraneous tasks.

In Virginia, several middle and high-school counselors who "saw a chance to get into more proactive programs" are now seeking elementary credentials, notes Mr. Burgess.

"We're hopeful that new people coming on line in K-8 will have a much better chance of doing what it is they've been trained for," says Jerry Roseberry, director of student-support services for the Georgia education department.

"If we're not freed up to respond to real issues," warns Billie Jackson, elementary- and middle-school guidance consultant for the Florida education department, "other people will be brought in who are less qualified."

"This program has to be protected," adds Mr. Phillips of the Enterprise school here. What counselors bring to children "is too important," he adds, to be jeopardized by "a pile of paper."

Vol. 09, Issue 39

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