Guiding The Children

Elementary school counselors carve their niche

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In a classroom at the Enterprise Elementary School in Woodbridge, Va., 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 words to combat what their school counselor, Lee Johnson, calls “junk thoughts”: defeatist thoughts that are either self-generated or prompted by others. These thoughts 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?” Johnson asks.

“Don't accept it,” pipes up one child.

“Think its opposite,” 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.

Largely for that reason, the elementary school counseling movement is gaining momentum. The counseling session at this Prince William County school is one of dozens offered by schools throughout Virginia—one of 12 states that re-quire districts to have elementary school counselors—and in schools across the nation.

The states that now mandate the counselors—generally at counselor-to-student ratios ranging from 1 to 400 to 1 to 500—are Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ver-mont, Virginia, and West Virginia. A dozen others are eyeing such mandates, according to a recent report by the Amer-ican Association for Counseling and Development and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of six regional accrediting bodies, began insist-ing that all elementary schools in its 11-state region have at least one guidance counselor or similar fulltime profes-sional whose sole job is to provide guidance services for every 500 pupils.

Groups such as the National PTA, the National School Boards Association, and the College Board have been supporters of elementary counseling programs since the mid-1980s. Additional backing has come more recently from local busi-ness communities and juvenile courts. In Alabama, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court has become a vocal advocate of elementary counseling.

“It's a national movement and by no means is it dying,” says Edwin Gerler, a professor of counselor education at North Carolina State University-Raleigh.

Guidance counselors were first employed in elementary schools in the early 1900s. But it wasn't until the 1950s that they began to move away from techniques borrowed from their secondary school counterparts, who have traditional-ly focused on college and job counseling, and, in some cases, interventions with troubled youth.

By the mid-1960s, elementary counselors had begun to stress approaches that were designed for all children, rather than as a remedial tool for some. Their aim was to give students a foundation of self-confidence and the skills needed to make decisions and get along with others. Through the 1960s and early '70s, districts and state education depart-ments began setting out specific counseling objectives and developing K-12 guidance curricula.

Although the overriding purpose of current programs is to bolster pupils' self-esteem, many also foster career aware-ness and offer support groups for children affected by family breakups or identified as being shy, needing work on study skills, or having difficulty interacting with peers.

Programs generally focus more on classroom lessons and group sessions than on individual counseling, stressing pre-vention rather than crisis intervention. “For the most part, elementary school counselors see themselves as preven-tion specialists rather than therapists,” Gerler notes.

Francine Tesche, a teacher at Knight Elementary School in Lilburn, Ga., describes how the counselor in her school helped her 3rd graders handle a bad case of the jitters. “The school counselor came into my classroom before a stand-ardized test and discussed testing and methods of coping with test anxiety,” the teacher recollects. “It really lowered the children's level of anxiety.”

The trend toward offering elementary students counseling has been fueled in part, says Harriet Glosoff, a counselor in private practice and coauthor of 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.” The effects of divorce, poverty, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, and youth suicide all follow the child to the school. “One thing everyone has agreed on,” Glosoff says, “is that early intervention is essential.”

While large-scale studies on elementary counseling are limited, Gerler notes research showing that children's learning hinges on how they behave in school, feel about themselves, and function socially, all focal points of good programs.

The Prince William County program offers elements common to successful programs in schools across the country. It involves educators, parents, and community members in the planning and is based on extensive research, curriculum planning, and a clear delineation of counselors' roles.

Counselors offer a mix of individual and small-group sessions and classroom lessons. They often consult with teachers, parents, administrators, and other personnel such as psychologists, social workers, special-education teachers, and attendance officers. Their efforts are coordinated with other school-related programs, such as drug abuse prevention. Classroom guidance lessons are part of the curriculum, but children are also referred for individual or group sessions by teachers, counselors, or parents, or at their own request.

One day last spring at the Enterprise School, counselor Kathy Hopun led a 3rd grade class in discussions and rap songs designed to show the students how their self-image can help or hinder their schooling, health, and friendships. On the same day, another county counselor, Jan Jordan, led a class of 5th graders at Lake Ridge Elementary School in a game that fosters group cooperation and helped them start a project to explore career choices. And in a group session at the Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, Barbara Smith, in her counseling role, encouraged several 3rd grade boys to explore positive ways of seeking attention.

“You wonder who filled these gaps before,” says McAuliffe principal Robin Sweeney. “For years, our elementary teachers have been stretched into doing guidance without even knowing that's what they were doing.”

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 program in the district. He says it has enabled children “to see that other kids have the same feelings, to realize they're not alone.”

Teachers and counselors say the program has helped reduce discipline referrals and allowed teachers to focus on teaching. They also cite 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 in Prince William County say that counselors have taught them how to make up with friends, reason more with adversaries, and cope with school and family transitions. “It's a hugging, caring relationship,” says local parent Til Tremper. “It's a whisper in the ear.”

Despite enthusiasm for such programs, 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.

Because of opposition from such critics, it took Virginia 12 years to get a mandate to make counseling available to all children. One parents' group argued that it had no educational value and would pre-empt class time, attack family val-ues, and violate student and family privacy. The group said that it would be inappropriate to subject all students to therapy and that it might even be harmful.

But counseling advocates in Virginia and other states say fiscal hurdles have been harder to surmount than philosophi-cal ones. Only eight of the 12 states with elementary counseling mandates back their programs with specific state funding.

Still, these advocates are optimistic. The public, they say, is beginning to recognize that counseling should be a key part of an elementary education. “Society as a whole is realizing that the affective side of a human being is as important as the cognitive side,” says Beverly O'Bryant, president-elect of the American School Counselor Association. “Children learn better when they understand themselves better.”

Vol. 02, Issue 01, Pages 14-16

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