Severe anxiety is on the increase for kids and teens in the U.S. as well as depression and substance abuse. According to an article from NPR ED, some 1 in 5 kids suffers from mental illness of some kind, and 80% will not get the needed treatment. This has presented a crisis in public schools. Now, many school nurses are expected not only to have medical experience but mental health training as well. And of course, schools increasingly need equipped guidance counselors, and school psychologists where possible.

“The school counselor is often thought of as the person who works with high school students to schedule courses and so on. But there’s a whole different realm of responsibility that school counselors have today, and we need to educate folks in the school about that, as well as collaborating with them both inside and outside the school to help students. Because that’s the most important thing.”

But how can they handle the load and really get to the kids that need help?

It’s certainly not easy. For the 2017-18 school year it was found that nationwide, there was an average of 442 students for every school counselor. Some states have averages that are better than this, but some are worse. How does a school counselor meet the needs of hundreds of kids? Because really, that’s what counselors want to do. “But,” says an article from NPR “those folks are often stretched too thin — and lack resources like money, support, and time.”

Schools may not have much control over how much money is available to them. Time and support may be controllable variables, but harnessing them isn’t easy. With so many students and a variety of needs to meet,  finding time to give them that help is a barrier. There’s is only so much time in the school day, and the majority of it is of course spent in academic classes. It’s important that students get the needed emotional support, but of course, they are in school to learn, so academic classes are certainly important. Counselors may be faced with a tough decision — when do you make the call to pull a kid out of class for counseling? Do you have to wait until it’s a crisis situation? Obviously counselors, teachers, parents and the students themselves want support kids before a situation gets to that point. But there’s no doubt that it’s a difficult situation. However, there are some schools that have found a practical way to alleviate some of the pressure counselors face, and as a result have done some pretty amazing things for students.

Give Counselors a Class

Bob Hall, Guidance Counselor at Colchester High School in Vermont discussed the issue of time at the 2016 Student Enrichment Summit. His school created a flex block during the school day, a period of flexible time that gave students a chance to get extra help in their classes, do homework, and explore enrichment opportunities. But this available time did something else for the counselors. It gave them a class.

“For me, it revolutionized what we do in guidance…I’ve never felt more effective as a guidance counselor than I do now. What it did for us is it gave us a class. So now every single day all three guidance counselors…are meeting with students in small groups.” – Bob Hall

In the state of Vermont, the student to counselor ratio is well below the nationwide average, at about 196 students per counselor. So in other states, it could be reasoned that the workload is just overwhelming,  a counselor is perhaps the only one in the school, or is serving hundreds of students, they simply can’t do everything. However giving them class time could be a way to help them do what they truly want to do — help students, at least more than they can without that time.

In many places, students may be dealing with substance abuse, either themselves, with their friends, or in the home. When school counselors have a regular time period accessible to them every day, they can use this to support students who are dealing with these issues. For Falmouth High School in Massachusetts, this was a huge benefit resulting from the addition of ‘Clipper Time’, the school’s name for their flex block, into the schedule. Tom McManamon, assistant principal at the school says:

“One of the real benefits we’ve seen come out of this flexible block is that we’re able to utilize our guidance and adjustment counselors in a much more meaningful way. Where before they were really doing one-on-one work with a lot of kids, they would try and get groups together but you’re always battling “I’m going to be taking these kids out of an academic class,” to get a boys group together, or a group of kids who we know are suffering with addiction in their families, anything like that — now this Clipper Time is something that our counselors can use and our clinicians can use to get to their kids, get to them more regularly and not interrupt their academics, which is what was happening before.

Another great example of what happens when counselors are given class time is Trinidad Garza Early College High School. The team of counselors uses the school’s study hall period for three different supports:

  1. Whole-class guidance lessons
  2. Small-group work
  3. One-on-one counseling

They teach lessons to whole classes of students about things like teen dating violence and career awareness. Small group work gives students who need specific interventions the opportunity to work together either on an academic or more personal issue. They meet privately to discuss and work through the problem, getting the needed help. There are even norms set in place for these discussions, such as keeping the information confidential and having the right to pass on contributing if they choose. One-on-one counseling also occurs for students that really need targeted help. What about challenges?

“The biggest challenge when providing individual counseling in a school setting is offering the services without interrupting the classroom instruction.” Using a study hall or flex period alleviates this issue. And for students at Trinidad Garza, it means they can get one-on-one help for 30 minutes once a week over 8 to 10 weeks. With these well-organized supports in place, think of what a tremendous impact these guidance counselors can have.

The Importance of Relationships

In other schools, administrators and teachers have found that this time period has enabled teachers to build stronger relationships with students, to get to know them better. This is an important piece as well. Students need to feel seen and heard, and having a good relationship with the adults in school can give them the support and care they need, that they may not be getting at home.

Again, according to NPR’s article on school counselors, “Spending face–to–face time building relationships with students is key to establishing a healthy school environment, where kids feel comfortable coming to counselors with their worries—whether they’re about school safety, happiness, or day–to–day classroom concerns.”

You don’t need statistics or data to prove this. It’s common sense. When any of us are in an environment that we feel safe, valued, and supported in, we feel comfortable, willing to contribute, and ready to accomplish things. If a student doesn’t have anyone who makes them feel supported, if they don’t even feel safe in school, how can they be expected to have an engaged, meaningful share in the classroom?

Using a flex period to have regular, face-to-face conversations with individual students and groups of students will build relationships. Students will have an adult they can trust, and hopefully will be able to make those connections with their peers as well. See what this could look like in this video from Edutopia. To quote Arria Coburn, principal at the Springfield Renaissance School, the school featured in the video, “Because our students participate in crew (the school’s advisory period) every day,  they have safety, consistency, and accountability. And they have people that they can count on.”

Guidance counselors have a role that has shifted over time. The problems and stresses students face have increased, so counselors have to deal with tougher and more complex issues. It’s not just about helping kids with college admissions. To meet the needs of students, counselors have had to adapt. Giving counselors time to provide differentiated supports for students, and form meaningful relationships, some of the burdens can be lessened. It’s not going to fix every problem, but it can dramatically transform what counselors are able to do, and transform the lives of students too.

Let’s build a path to close the learning gap and enrich students’ futures.