You may remember them as the “guidance counselor,” and their office as the place you went when you needed a correction made to your schedule. But times — and titles — have changed. The professionals now known as school counselors may have a hand in scheduling, but they also support students in many other ways.
“School counselors’ work involves way more than just schedule changes and consoling crying students,” Danielle Schultz, a middle school counselor in Pennsylvania, told HuffPost.
They currently find themselves on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis. Young people’s distress was exacerbated by the pandemic, but had already been on the rise for years. In 2019, over a third of all adolescents, and half of female adolescents, reported “such persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities,” according to a survey on youth health and behavior by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number had risen significantly over the previous decade, as did the number of youth who reported thoughts of suicide. The 2021 data show those numbers continuing to climb.
In schools, the stakes are high. Whenever a student says something that makes a teacher or a fellow student wonder if they are considering harming themselves or someone else, the school counselor (or their colleague, the social worker) is called upon to do a threat or suicide assessment and determine whether the student is in immediate danger.
“‘Friendship drama’ or scheduling may have been past perceptions of issues that students may seek out a school counselor for,” Steve Sharp, a middle school counselor in Pennsylvania, told HuffPost. But mental health is the top concern that students bring to him today.
One benefit of mental health concerns being so widespread, however, is that “there’s a growing normalization and destigmatization of students caring for their mental health,” Sharp said.
Parents and teachers may have not yet registered this trend. “I think parents typically think the most common issues with kids are surface level, either about friends, social groups, social media, or academic concerns,” Lissett Bohannon, a former high school counselor in Texas, told HuffPost. Likewise, she said, teachers may assume that students are coming in with concerns about grades.
The reality is that students’ top concerns run much wider and deeper. HuffPost reached out to a number of school counselors to ask them the top reasons that students visit their office.
1. A Safe Space
Bohannon said her top priority is simply listening, and “hearing the issue from the student lens.”
For students who are not accustomed to naming and articulating their feelings, this can take some practice.
“Some students have told me that they are never asked about certain feelings throughout the day, so it’s hard for them to put into words how or why they feel a certain way,” Bohannon said. “As a school counselor, I would really just focus on creating a safe place for the student to open up.”
Their inexperience is also sometimes just a product of their youth. “It can be confusing and difficult for students to understand their emotions when they may be experiencing this emotion for the first time,” she explained. “These brand-new emotions may lead them to behaviors that are not typical for them, and many times, students have a hard time understanding or explaining what is going on within themselves. Some of the feelings they may be experiencing may only show up at certain times or have certain triggers, and for a lot of students, learning these triggers is all new.”
2. Pressure From Family
Looming college applications give students plenty of reason to worry about grades, but the pressure to succeed academically also comes from home. Particularly for immigrant students, and those who will be the first generation in their family to attend college, the weight of expectation may be a heavy one. Students often feel that they must succeed in order to honor their families’ sacrifices.
“Many of my students struggle with the idea of disappointing their parents, and opening up about feelings of anxiety or depression can be scary for them to bring up at home,” Bohannon said.
3. Identifying Feelings In Order To Change Behavior
A teacher who is struggling with a student in the classroom might hope that having the student speak with the counselor would put an end to a troublesome behavior — and it may — but rehashing the behavior and why it was wrong probably won’t be the counselor’s starting point.
“Behavior is communication and it’s the result of what one is thinking and feeling,” Casey O’Brien Martin, an elementary school counselor in Massachusetts and author of “Skills For Big Feelings,” told HuffPost.
“I’m often working with kids to teach them that their thoughts impact their feelings, which then influences their behavior,” she said. “So, I’m starting by teaching them how to identify if their thoughts are helpful or unhelpful, and then how to change those unhelpful thoughts, which then impacts their feelings and this, in turn, influences their behavior.”
All of this means adults shouldn’t expect to see changes overnight. “We don’t have a magic wand,” O’Brien Martin said. “Behavioral change and social-emotional change is slow, deep work and it takes time.”
4. A Sounding Board
Sharp noted that students are becoming more conversant in the language of mental health, and may strategically reach out to a counselor for help navigating a challenge.
“Increasingly, I’m connecting with students who speak maturely and insightfully regarding their emotional experiences, are proactive seeking to check-in regarding their emotional health, or simply seeking to coordinate the skills or behavioral health services they’re receiving outside of schools and reflecting on how that applies to school,” he said.
O’Brien Martin said one of the issues she sees most frequently is anxiety, often showing up around the ages of 6 and 7. When anxiety does occur, it can materialize in some unexpected ways.
These may include: “oppositional or aggressive behavior, school refusal, separation anxiety, inattention, phobias, avoidance, control issues, tantrums, elopement, worrying ‘what if…’ thoughts, and more,” she explained.
Sometimes, parents allow kids to avoid things that make them anxious in order to ease their anxiety — but, in the long-run, this can actually make anxiety worse, she cautioned.
“When we let our kids avoid situations that make them anxious, it stops them from mastering the skills they need to learn to cope with those feelings,” O’Brien Martin said.
While a true phobia will need to be addressed with a therapist, in many instances it’s best to give kids an opportunity to overcome a challenge.
“If your child is having a hard day at school, it’s natural to want to dismiss them from school, but the healthier choice is to give them the tools to cope with their feelings,” she said.
O’Brien Martin suggested that you validate your kids’ feelings and affirm their strength by saying, for example, “I know this is hard and I know you can do hard things,” or “I know you have the tools to deal with your big feelings!”
One big feeling that can lead to issues at school is anger.
“We have lots of conversations about how anger is not an ‘issue’ that is out of their control, it’s a feeling that they are learning to manage. So we spend time reframing that automatic thought and phrase into something helpful like, ‘I am learning to handle hard times and strong feelings,’” Laura Filtness, an elementary school counselor in Tennessee, told HuffPost.
With anger and other emotions, Filtness said she works with students on the skills of mindfulness and understanding what they can and can’t control.
“Taking a moment to be present and thoughtful helps them respond instead of reacting impulsively,” Filtness said.
“We also discuss the idea of control, and how they can make changes to improve their situation,” she added. “At the same time, we acknowledge that there are things they cannot control, and we work on coping strategies for those situations.”
7. Navigating Peer Conflict
Of course, there are still plenty of kids who end up in the counselor’s office because of a conflict with a classmate. In these situations, counselors emphasize dealing with conflict in a healthy way.
“As grown-ups we often want to run away from and avoid conflict but it’s so much healthier to teach kids ways to deal with their conflicts and how to solve problems,” O’Brien Martin said. “For minor problems with peers, I find it’s useful to teach kids to use I-statements: ‘I feel ___ when you ___. Could you please ___?’”
When students come in with a peer conflict, she continued, “I’m often reflecting the problem back to them to solve because it’s much more empowering for them. ... I’ll say, ‘I know you’re a problem solver! How do you think we should handle this situation?’ And often they’ll tell me what they need to do like apologize, use a coping skill, or use an I-statement.”