School heroes

What does a school counselor do?

If you ask students of WAEC at random, they may tell you that the school counselor helps them open their juice box at lunch, get on the bus at the end of the day, teaches them about emotions with Twiggle the turtle, or walks the hallways checking things out.

A few may think a school counselor is the principal, because they aren’t quite teachers. But school counselors aren’t quite administrators either.

School counselors, said Matt Menard, who’s the WAEC counselor for kindergarten through second grade, are bridges. His role, along with that of Melissa McNett, who serves students in grades three through five, is to be an unbiased third party between students and their teachers, parents, peers, and other child-service agencies. The school counseling program, according to McNett and Menard, is a proactive, preventive one.

Since last year, both Menard and McNett began making their way into classrooms more, having adopted the PATHS and Second Step social-emotional curriculums as part of their job to teach in the classroom.

McNett, who said she was a teacher for 10 years before becoming a school counselor, feels like being in the classroom and developing rapport with students in that way is the best part of her job.

For Menard, his favorite part of being a school counselor is being recognized by students as a resource for any issue they find themselves struggling with.

That being said, Menard added that school counselors are not there to provide ongoing or even clinical treatments to students for behavioral, emotional, or mental health issues.

Both Menard and McNett said that, at most, they may see a student who’s struggling with personal issues within the domain of the academic setting, three times.

The individual counseling provided during those few sessions, both Menard and McNett agreed, can be for anything from dealing with emotions to home- and school-relationship problems, or academic and developmental struggles, among other things. The counseling they provide is intended to help identify problems, give students a way to articulate it and recognize causes for it, develop coping mechanisms to manage them, and start working on goals and solutions for the problems themselves.

Students enjoy strict confidentiality when they confide in school counselors, much the same as patient-client privilege enjoyed by those who use mental health services at more formal clinical settings. Unless students are expressing things that cause McNett or Menard to fear that they may harm themselves or someone else, or in the case that a student discloses that he or she is being hurt in some way, students can take advantage of school counselors knowing that what they discuss about parents, teachers, and peers is kept strictly within the confines of that partnership.

That’s important, Menard said. Even though the services that school counselors provide are not clinical ones, they still rely on the development of a rapport between the student and his or her counselor, which facilitates open conversations about often sensitive and complex subjects.

Menard said that he also provides small group counseling, mainly for students who share a difficulty with emotional regulation or need help developing the skills necessary to navigate the increasingly complex social landscape inherent in a transition to the school setting. Sometimes, Menard said, those skills are more easily learned among a cohort of students sharing the struggle and with the help of one another as they both work together and model success in that domain for one another. Groups, said Menard, are intended to be short-term cohorts of around four to six students.

Although Menard and McNett both spend a lot of time one-on-one with students who have a particular need for them to meet, both also interact with every student — 475 each, to be exact — in every classroom at WAEC providing guidance lessons.

Introducing students to concepts like empathy, appropriately identifying and labeling emotions in themselves and others, and navigating interpersonal conflict and the relational aggression that goes along with all social relationships at an early age, is more likely to produce outcomes that send less and less students toward a need for more intervention as they age. In that way, Menard said, WAEC counselors have taken it upon themselves to get curriculums like PATHS and Second Step into their buildings and give students access to them as a preventive measure.

The majority of time, however, for Menard and McNett is in consultation and documentation. School counselors work as part of a treatment team that consists of teachers, administration, mental health workers, staff, parents, and community agencies who are either already associated with certain students and working toward identified necessary outcomes, or simply toward developing strategies to better serve students should they become necessary. Team meetings and documentation of every interaction a school counselor has with students and teams takes up the vast majority of their time, both Menard and McNett said.

School counselors both refer students to outside agencies and providers should those services be needed, and also act as an important component of threat assessment. Their constant interaction with the entire student body helps them to be aware of students who may be dangers to themselves or others and to properly triage those students. While students can refer themselves, to either Menard or McNett, they can also be referred by parents, teachers, other administration or staff, and even by outside agencies. But Menard and McNett can also request to have a one-on-one meeting with a student in whom they’re noticing behavior that may suggest a need for support.

Menard and McNett, like all school personnel, work hard on professional development, ensuring that they’re educated and up to date on what issues are at the forefront of the ever-changing academic environment of elementary aged children. To that end, they contribute to collaborative teams like the Mental Health Team, the Crisis Response Team, and the Child Study Team, and to school programs such as monthly assemblies, red ribbon week, career exploration, and McNett’s signature effort toward positive behavioral reinforcement, the Bucket Filler program.

Altogether, Menard said, in a typical eight hour day he spends 42 percent of his time on direct student services, another 40 percent on program management and school support, 12 percent on indirect student services like referrals, collaboration, documentation, and meetings, and six percent on non-school counseling.

Now that they are more actively engaged with preventive social-emotional curriculum delivery in the classroom, Menard and McNett said, the next goal they’d like to begin working toward is engaging parents more with things like parenting classes and opportunities for parents to access them for family issues as students currently are.