Counselling in Schools: Who? What? Why?

Counselling in Schools: Who? What? Why?

A student from Grade 2 is observed to be sitting alone during lunchtime by a compassionate teacher, the fifth day in a row. When she addresses this young boy, he starts crying and shares that all his classmates tease him. The teacher, surely with a good intention, tries to solve the problem for him by sharing the names of the defaulters to the class teacher. These students are then called and shouted at for ‘bullying’ their classmate and asked to include him in their group.
Did this really solve the young boy’s problem or perhaps it made matters worse for him? How could the situation be handled differently for a more favourable outcome for both the young boy and the culture of the class? More importantly, who is responsible for undertaking interventions for these commonplace problems in schools? Despite the emerging needs, in schools is still viewed as an optional service in India. With government regulations and mandates in action, there is a rising trend to hire ‘School counsellors’ in the school set-up. However, more often than not the role of the counsellors is not defined adequately, hence additionally burdening these professionals with administrative tasks. Even if the school has a comprehensive and appropriate job description for the school counsellors, the counsellors-to-student ratio tends to be skewed, rendering the counsellors ineffective to bring concrete systemic changes. So who is a school counsellors and what is she/he expected to do?
A school counsellor focuses on the students interactions with other stakeholders of the school i.e. parents, faculty, and management with an objective to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of these systemic barriers that have the potential to impede student success. In this context, a school counsellor functions as both a team member networking with school personnel and a leader who empowers the students to achieve their highest potential. With the role of the counsellor described, it is important to understand the nature of the tasks that a school counsellor is expected to undertake. Based on my personal experience in the field, I have listed down services provided by a school counsellor:Individual Counselling
Through a system of observation and referrals (through self, teachers, or parents), school counsellors identify students who require additional support to enhance their psychosocial and academic skills. There is a growing rate of mental health concerns observed in the school population i.e. depression, anxiety, anti-social traits, self-harming behaviours and emotional dysregulation among others. School counsellors provide the competencies and safe space to the students facing any challenge, which facilitates a relationship within which they can  share their feelings and find solutions to their problems. Confidentiality is a key aspect in individual counselling for students.

Group Counselling
Given the dynamics in classrooms, there is a growing need to address issues for small groups. School counsellors conduct group sessions to resolve social dysfunctions among peer groups. Another component of group counselling involves addressing a cohort that is facing similar problems e.g. grief, anger, body image concerns, and eating disorders among others. A group setting provides a space for students to learn new skills under supervision and gain new perspectives to their struggles through peer discussions.

 Life Skills Training
There are certain skills that enhance student success i.e. time management, goal setting, and self-care strategies among others. A school counsellor is equipped to conduct age-appropriate life skills sessions that promote the holistic development of the students. Usually, a needs assessment is carried out for the classroom to design an appropriate curriculum that addresses the unique dynamics of the students in a particular class.
Another component under life-skills training is conducting sensitization and awareness workshops on topics relevant to the age group for e.g. bullying, gender sensitization, substance use, and sexuality education among others.

Parent Counselling
School counsellors extend their services to parents, if by involving them, the effectiveness of the child’s counselling process is enhanced. Other ways in which  counsellors engage with parents is by conducting parenting workshops that sensitize them towards the issues faced by their children and disseminating strategies that empower them to deal with these issues at home.Teacher Training
Teachers are an integral part of the school culture and need to be sensitised to the issues faced by children. counsellors provide training to the faculty on topics that enable them to screen students facing academic and emotional difficulties as well as provide first-line support during crisis situations. These training programs enhance empathy among teachers towards the students and also towards each other. Teachers are also equipped with stress management strategies during workshops so that they restrain from displacing their personal/organizational stress on the students.

Providing Feedback to Management
School counsellors collaborate with administrators to enhance school-wide policies that can have an impact on the mental health of the students.

Networking and Referrals
School counsellors network with professionals in the field of mental health and provide appropriate referrals to students and parents outside the school set-up. For e.g. a student requires to be assessed for a learning difficulty, the counsellor will collaborate with external service providers that undertake psychological testing. Some students may also need psychiatric assessment. In both the scenarios mentioned above, the counsellor takes the responsibility to psycho-educate the parents about the concerns posed and the benefits of external assessment/treatment.

School counsellors are expected to document their sessions so that student progress can be assessed in a timely manner. They employ evidence-based approaches to plan the goals of counselling.
It is vital that we understand that as a society we need to enable school counsellors to undertake their role to the best of their ability by collaborating with them. “WHY?”, one may ask. It is because children and adolescents are presenting with complex needs, which if unmet have the potential to hamper their future goals.
The number of students in the primary school (hyperactivity, attachment issues, low attention span, learning difficulties, abuse etc.), middle school (social anxiety, performance anxiety, bullying, gaming addiction etc.) and high school (relationship issues, eating disorders, self-harming behaviors, substance use, body image issues, self-identity issues etc.) who may require supportive services to enhance their coping styles and build resilience is increasing year by year, thereby posing a growing concern. School counsellors provide both preventive and responsive services to bridge these gaps and ensure student success.
I would like to share a small snippet from a letter given to me by a high school student when I was leaving a particular school. This letter, which I hold very dear to my heart, gave me a glaring insight into what it means to be a school counsellor, a title that sits with pride on my CV:
“Your room had always been a heaven for me. Like a barrack for a soldier during war or a warm cave for a traveller during a blizzard”

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