As a Head of School, I know that this time of year is the most difficult hump in the academic calendar for students. I often tell my school community (teachers, parents, and students) that February is like being at the crest of a very large hill on a roller coaster. If you can get through the long, slow ascent of tests, long nights, and cold weather, it is a swift exciting ride down through spring break and into June. For kids, that seems so far away; and if they are struggling with academic, behavioral, or social challenges at school, it seems like an eternity.
As we enter National School Counseling Week, February 3-7, established by the American School Counselor Association, it is a good time to consider the different levels of support your school can offer when a student, possibly your child, faces various challenges that require a team approach. I often think of my school counselors as the forgotten defenders on a football team. While teachers and parents are running around trying to get each child to the end zone, the school counselor is a wonderful support system when a student backtracks a little from the regular game play.
It is a rare student who makes their way from preschool to twelfth grade without experiencing some challenge along the way. Academic stress, peer relationships, issues at home, illnesses, socialization concerns (to name just a few) can all impact a child’s normal daily school or home life. Early intervention with the help of school counselors can be extremely useful and, indeed, essential in some cases for putting a plan in place to help students, parents, and teachers navigate their way through the problem.
As a parent, your past experiences with a school counselor may be vastly different than what your child will have today. School counselors are well qualified, specially trained mental health professionals who develop programs with administrators aimed at ensuring the wellness of all students. Having worked in over eight different schools around the world, I have been so impressed with the ability of school counselors to have such sound, realistic advice for all school constituents. Beyond their obvious ability to listen, advise, mediate, lead, and guide families through rough waters, they are particularly clued in to the rest of the school community and, in many cases, the outside community as well.
Consider the list below as just a brief guide that shows what today’s school counselors do:
• Counsel students individually or in groups
• Provide developmental classroom observation and guidance to all students
• Design advisory and peer mentoring programs for schools
• Respond to student needs in crisis situations
• Refer students to special programs, outside professional help and/or services when necessary
• Analyze test results to provide information about abilities, achievement, interests, and needs
• Develop guidance plans and curricula for schools about, and for, students
• Coordinate efforts and counseling events with other school specialists
• Coordinate and conduct conferences for parents and/or faculty, and facilitate discussion groups
• Help schools adhere to ethical standards and legal requirements
• Pursue continuous professional growth and development
Parents often shy away from school counselors, thinking that their appearance in a child’s life indicates a mental health issue that the school will look poorly upon. As a Head of School, I appreciate a parent’s willingness to explore advice and assistance from these professionals. I have seen a great weight lifted from many shoulders when the counselor provides information and a perspective that really helps students move past a hurdle.
Counselors make a real difference in students’ lives. Every day, I see my own school counselors improve the self-understanding and self-confidence of my students. They motivate, communicate, and problem solve. My teachers value the professional support counselors bring to the classroom; parents gain greater insight into their children; and students find a sanctuary in the counselor’s office when things feel a little rough. A school counselor’s value to the well-being of their community cannot be appreciated enough.
Dianne Drew is Head of School at Dwight School, a 141-year-old independent school in New York City. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she is an internationally recognized educator with over 20 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and educational consulting in both public and private schools in Australia, Asia, and New York City. Also serving as Vice President of the Middle Years Program for the Guild of International Baccalaureate Schools in North America, Dianne recently gave birth to her first child.