We welcome guest blogger Christopher Wojeski, Ed.D. Before becoming principal of Mayfield Jr.-Sr.High School in Mayfield, NY, Dr.Wojeski served as a guidance counselor.
In light of the horrific events in Parkland, Florida, school counselors, psychologists and social workers are being called on to help formulate plans to assist in the prevention of such atrocities and to provide coping strategies to students and school community stakeholders. The stressors adolescents face in the 21st century are unlike those of previous generations (Bor, Dean, Najman & Hayatbakhsh, 2014). Many of our students endure peer and societal pressures, social media attacks and inconsistent familial support, all while trying to find their footing as an individual. Pupil personnel service providers must be at the forefront of a team approach to help students become comfortable with themselves and adjust to our ever-evolving global society.
Developing Rapport and a Team Approach
As is the case with several of the perpetrators in mass shootings in schools and beyond, red flags were raised and warning signs were evident for an extended period of time well before the Parkland shooting occurred. Simply put, children of all ages need the support of adults. It is imperative for school personnel and community members - teachers, support staff, administrators, students and parents - to work collaboratively to identify children who are experiencing mental health issues. That team must then provide resources and develop strategies to help students address their emotions and problem-solve effectively. Prior to any therapeutic interventions, a rapport must be established between educator and child. We hear from some educators, “I can’t get through to her/him.” While it may not be easy to connect with all children, a concerted effort must be made to find a bond with our students. If each adult stakeholder can connect with two or three students, we can begin to break down the barriers that hamper some children.
A number of parents and guardians do not have the resources, financial and otherwise, or the wherewithal to help their children receive the mental health supports they sorely need. As such, pupil personnel service providers play a vital role in providing support to all pupils. We must remember that children desire to feel appreciated, cared for and respected. To begin to relate to our students and, ideally, forge a meaningful relationship, educators should find an area of interest - athletics, music, video games, outdoor adventure, amongst others - with their pupils. It may sound like a simplistic solution, yet progress can be made when we focus our attention on connecting with all children, even the individuals who seem to want nothing more than to be left alone. We often hear and read about the tell-tale signs of the individuals who engage in extreme acts of violence. There are many identifiable characteristics of the culprits of school shootings. Being cognizant of these traits, attempting to address issues, and sympathizing with the challenges faced by children may ultimately save lives.
When I see a student regularly walking in the hall by herself between class periods or eating alone in the cafeteria, I make a point to have a private, casual conversation with that child, simply to check in and see how they are doing. Likewise, if a student’s appearance, attendance or demeanor change in a notable manner, I set aside five minutes with that pupil to determine if I can be of assistance. I have had a positive response from students when providing such individualized attention. Most children, of any age, are grateful when an adult takes the time to simply listen to them and demonstrate that they recognize the student. It is powerful when a distressed child exchanges an appreciative glance and knowing smile with a caring adult.
A bi-weekly meeting with a Student Support Advisory Team comprised of teachers, pupil personnel service providers, teachers’ aides and administrators has helped my school identify students who are in need of care, support and guidance. We determine which educators have a rapport with these children, and then strategize a formal approach for those adults to meet with the students on a weekly basis to discuss academics, socioemotional wellbeing and physical health. While not always effective, the majority of students identified and supported demonstrate improved attendance, enhanced scholastic performance and, perhaps most importantly, increased self-worth.
Helping Constituents Cope
After dreadful events, school counselors, psychologists and social workers lead the support of students, faculty, staff and stakeholders, at large. Sadly, some students are fearful of entering their school, a should-be safe haven and joyful venue. The very notion of entering the doors of the school may elicit anxiety and distress for a larger percentage of children than we care to admit. Schools should provide support groups, opportunities for open dialogue, and the ability to freely express emotions.
These therapeutic responses must be available to children and adults. Faculty and staff may experience challenges managing their own emotions and processing catastrophe, and deserve the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings with a trained professional. Empathizing with children and adults alike is a powerful approach. Stakeholders must be assured that their feelings are acknowledged and typical. Everyone manages tragedy differently, yet allowing individuals to express their feelings in a safe setting is critical when conquering fears and moving forward.
Counselors, psychologists and social workers must keep the diverse needs of students in mind when making decisions that can and will impact the remainder of a child’s life. This responsibility is immense, but can be accomplished by operating ethically, using knowledge, integrity and empathy as the framework for one’s actions. This is never more evident than in times of tragedy. Few are trained to address calamity. Nevertheless, maintaining composure, fortitude and optimism is paramount when helping our students and school community constituents devise solutions to issues and cope with anguish. School counselors, psychologists and social workers can become natural leaders in school communities, in part, due to their unique training in human relations, problem solving, and decision making. Pupil personnel service providers should aid all faculty, staff and administration in the development of these skills as, ultimately, all educators share the role of student advocate.
Bor, W., Dean, A., Najman J & Hayatbakhsh R. (2014, July). Are child and adolescent mental health problems increasing in the 21st century? A systematic review. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 48(7), 606-616. doi.org/10.1177/0004867414533834
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