NLTA Vice-President

Dedicated to my grandfather, Baxter Langdon; small in stature but walked tall with integrity...

Sunday, 6 January 2013

An article re: 'School Counselling Services' written in May of 2011...

More than Cardigans and Pamphlets of Change…

I ask for a second of your time to partake of some self-directed imagery and visualize your personal construct of the Guidance Counsellor. Would it be that of the cardigan-wearing, brief-case toting, bearded gentleman that arrived at your Grade 9 class for the long-awaited, highly-anticipated, life-changing, pamphlet-based lesson: “So, You Are Becoming a Man…”?; or the reciprocal closed session, “So, You Are Becoming a Woman…”? Well, as I attempt to forage for other examples I quickly realize that this is my personal construct so I will gracefully leave it at that. Though blatantly anti-climactic, the moral of the story is…times have changed and the Guidance Counsellor role has subsequently expanded; but has arguably become less-defined.

So the challenge is to define the entity that is ‘counselling’ as it exists within the context of a school (The Department of Education has taken on this mission and we anxiously await its conclusions). One might assume that traditional counselling practice would be a role so intrinsic to the Guidance ‘Counsellor’, that a clear definition of such a competency (as it exists within the school environment) would be easily accessible; but as per the history of humankind, assumptions prove problematic. Our counsellors find themselves in a unique situation as they attempt to practice amidst a mosaic of job roles and responsibilities in an environment that does not easily lend itself to effective and efficient practice.

As it stands, the current ratio of guidance counsellors to students in Newfoundland and Labrador is 1: 500. Given this reality, one’s daily schedule quickly becomes saturated with multiple ‘cold calls’,  ‘surprise’ clients (further to those you have ‘penciled in’), and referrals that grow exponentially as you make your way through the hallways or into the staff room. Add circumstances such as teaching responsibilities for some counsellors, duties being spread across four or five rural schools, and expectations to implement all components of a Comprehensive Guidance Program, the ‘TIP-OVER’ point quickly approaches.  These work-related requirements and self-imposed expectations of an ‘open door’ policy lead to experiences not unlike that of a ‘drive-thru window’ or a ‘call center’. Assisting students through the ‘daily grind’, responding to ‘in-the-moment’ personal crises, preventative interventions, and staying ‘tuned in’ to the school climate, significantly contributes to the ‘academic machine’ however and encourages it to remain in motion. 

Now before you attempt to topple my mini ‘soapbox’, I would be the first to argue that these same responsibilities and ‘time-takers’, that counsellors face from day to day in our practice, are essential services within their respective school communities. We, as counsellors, are guilty of ‘aiding and abetting’ the model by virtue of our altruistic, care-giving personalities (in line with our classroom teaching counterparts). It is however, a unique ‘counselling’ environment that requires exploration outside of the safe confines of policy.

In order to find the information we seek, let’s have a look at the standard that currently exists. The Department of Education’s Guidance Policy outlines the roles and responsibilities (e.g. comprehensive assessment, school-wide guidance initiatives, individual / group counselling…) that are prescribed for the Guidance Counsellor. As demonstrated above however, the realities of our role (and the environment in which we practice) make it extremely difficult to define.

The opportunity to engage in a traditional counselling model or framework which typically includes a set number of scheduled sessions, a clear counselling plan, goal-setting, and effective termination of the counsellor-student relationship, is more often than not, unattainable within our schools (and is but one service, amongst a multitude of supports provided to individual students). In addition, the hectic pace, inaccessibility during down times (e.g. summer months),  and the degree of need within our schools usually requires that we refer to external agencies for long-term counselling support as the expertise of these professionals lies within the areas of addictions, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.

In these recent times of heightened accountability and diligence, Guidance Counsellors (along with Educational Psychologist s and Instructional Resource Teachers) currently find themselves working their way through the intricacies of tracking assessment referrals in our schools (via the Department of Education’s Referral Tracking System). Guidance Counsellors are now preparing for the same with regard to the tracking of counselling services being offered to our students. So where do we go from here to find some balance and make an attempt at defining ‘counselling’ within the school system?

Here is my humble take. Instead of attempting to quantify ‘counselling’ time by hours / minutes formally  ‘in session’ and numbers of students coming through the turnstile, let’s qualitatively track the types and sorts of interventions (which may very well include traditional counseling services) and highlight the successes seen through our ISSP / IEP and inclusionary processes. It is essential to focus on the multitude of variables that make up the dynamics of our profession and contribute to counselling as a collective whole.  The roles of identification, daily monitoring, check-in, crisis-response, formal analysis & assessment, life skills development, file management, consultation, family support, counselling, behavioral support, a ‘safe zone’, an ally, an ‘ear’, a ‘shoulder’…  As a school-based practitioner, we hit the entire spectrum and it becomes more about engineering a framework of success for the student, more so than the specific service of counselling.

We are well aware that for every student who maneuvers through the school system with minimal support and meets with great success in adulthood, there are those that require intensive measures to ensure they simply make it through on a daily basis.  All school-based professionals contribute to this mechanism of support in some capacity. It is the varying points on a continuum of service that begins at 8:30am and carries through to 2:30pm (and exists as a reliable ‘background’ support when the student is not in school) that addresses barriers to change and allow the student to avail of unused opportunities.

We cannot be too restrictive and prescriptive in our definition of the ‘counselling’ service as it exists in our schools such that we underestimate its true value and range of influence (as part of a student’s educational experience).

… and yes, I learned a lot from that pamphlet in Grade 9!

Trent Langdon