Monday, October 31, 2011

Diversity: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

The cover story of Sunday's Washington Post is entitled "The New American Neighborhood," and details the changing demographics of the Washington D.C. area over the last 30 years.  The basic premise is that majority white neighborhoods are becoming a thing of the past, with more areas welcoming a mix of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity.  This does not just apply to the city, but even to the far reaches of the suburbs of Loudoun County, Prince William County, and Montgomery County.  The county that I work in, Fairfax, is no exception.  You can read the full article here.

Additionally, the story discusses the way that children today are having different experiences than in past generations:
"The multiculturalism is shaping the way children interact in ways that even their older siblings did not experience.  When Lisette Pozo, 25, was in high school, most of her friends were Hispanic, like her. Her 12-year-old brother, Michael, hangs out with neighbors in Ashburn who are Middle Eastern and Indian. They have sampled his mother’s arroz con pollo and lomo saltado, and he has been to their houses for flat bread and chicken, and other spicy dishes whose names he doesn’t quite remember." (source:
Children and students today, at least from my observations, have much more diverse groups of friends, and are more relaxed and willing to experience and learn more about their peers' cultural backgrounds.  In fact, it is projected that within the next 30 years, non-hispanic whites will be in the minority in the United States.  Across the country we can already see this transformation as the latest census data is made known. What does this mean for us as school counselors?

I happen to love working with diverse populations--I find people, in general, fascinating, and I enjoy learning about the cultures and backgrounds of my students and families.  In fact, the diversity of my school is one of the things that really spoke to me when I was in the interview process.  Hopefully, all counselors are now receiving some form of training in multicultural counseling--it was a strong component of my degree program.  It is important to develop an awareness and empathy for cultures other than your own and/or the dominant culture in the society, and at the same time avoid assigning broad labels to groups--this is one of the possible pitfalls of multicultural counseling. Rather, the strength of counseling from a multicultural perspective is that you are able to take each client, couple, or family and view them within their own unique culture.  That being said, please note that in the following paragraphs I am only speaking in general terms--every individual situation is different, and I do not propose any of them as more right or wrong than another.

In traditional American culture, for example, there is generally a strong belief in the rights of the individual to chart their own destiny, make their own decisions, and prioritize their own needs above the needs of the group or others.  An ailing mother may need her child to stay at home in order to help take care of her when he graduates from high school, but she may encourage him to leave and go away to college, working to make other arrangements to support herself when he is gone.  However, in some cultures, the needs of the family and the group are seen as being more important than those of the individual--it might be unheard of, in the same situation, for that child to go away to college leaving his mother to fend for herself.

Same situation, different cultural situations.  What do you, as a school counselor, do?

If the student is from the more individualized culture, it might be important to work with him on setting up ways to stay in touch with his mother on a regular basis, and on helping to connect him to resources in the area that might be able to assist.  You can work out an emergency plan with him in case his mother becomes truly debilitated.  You can help him to think about who is in the area that could also assist and check in with his mother so that she has people watching out for her on a regular basis.  Are there siblings?  Family friends?  Neighbors?  Can he work out a car-pooling system for regular visits home on the weekends?

In the case of the student who may be part of a culture that places a strong value on the family and the group, you might want to work with him on finding a pathway to college that would allow him to remain in his house.  Perhaps he needs to attend a university that is close to home?  Maybe he needs to take a reduced class load in order to help out with his mother's care?  Perhaps a two-year college is a good place for him to start with flexible class times so that he can share in the care of his mother with other family or siblings and still find time to begin his college education?

The place to start, though, is in confronting your own cultural biases.  If you read the above example and felt more sympathy with one scenario over the other, does that color your judgement when working with your students?  You probably are going to feel more comfortable with one path versus another--that is normal and to be expected.  Our own values are a part of who we are.  However, what is important is being aware of these predispositions so that you are able to prevent them from hindering your work with students and families who may have a different life-perspective.

There are many resources available to gain more skills in working from a multicultural perspective.  The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development has resources available on their website, and the list of multicultural competencies is available on the ACA website.  If you are interested in reading further into working with diverse populations, I would recommend taking a look at two books.  The first is edited by one of the gurus of multicultural counseling, Courtland Lee at the University of Maryland, entitled Multicultural Issues in Counseling.   The second book is published by ASCA and is Multiculturalism and Diversity by Sharon Ravitch, Ph.D.  Both of these publications are filled with resources, strong research, and case studies.  Moreover, there may be classes, workshops, or in-services available through your school district, local universities, or professional organizations to help develop your multicultural counseling skills.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Self Care: Who is your most important client? You are.

I distinctly remember that throughout my graduate program there was a lot of discussion about self-care.  A lot.  I, however, had been a teacher for many years and had worked in two different residential-life programs with high-school students.  I was sure I could easily manage any demands that were put upon me from my future job as a school counselor, and I was so excited and enthusiastic about getting to work and eager to see one kid after another and assist them with their problems.  By the end of the program, I thought that maybe there was some overkill with regards to the whole "self-care" thing.  How hard could it be?

Two months into my first job, exhausted and overwhelmed,  I realized that it was probably the most important thing we could have covered in my degree program.

I am working this year with all of the new school counselors in my county, and true to form about a month or so into the school year there were signs of stress:  long hours, extra hours on nights and weekends, a never ending barrage of parents, students, teachers, and administrators coming at you via e-mail, phone, or in person.  We tend to get into this job because we are nurturing--we want to help others.  However, as I and others quickly learned, in your role as a school counselor you are being asked to "give" constantly.  The counseling relationship is indeed a relationship, but it is a one-sided relationship.  Unlike friendships where you give emotional support to your friends and they also give emotional support to you, the counseling relationship is all give and no take from the counselor's perspective.  All of our energy goes out to the students with very little coming back to us.  Further, in order to empathetic we must be willing not only to be open to feeling and understanding a student's joys, but we must also be open to understanding their pain (Shallcross, 2011).  Additionally, as school counselors we can often end up in situations where we are assigned many non-counseling duties, leaving us with less time to help our students, families, and staff members.  Combine this with large case-loads, throw in a lack of support from other counselors, a director, or your administration, and you can find yourself melting down fairly quickly (Falls, 2010).  Thus, this is the reason that good graduate counseling programs regularly talk about self-care--it is important for new counselors to already have some ideas and structures in place that will assist them in taking care of themselves.

Think about it.  If you are impaired and emotionally drained, how can you hope to help others deal with their own problems and feelings?  In a 2011 article in Counseling Today, Lynne Shallcross discusses how on airplanes, the instructions are always to place your own oxygen mask on yourself before helping someone else with theirs.  Why?  Because if you've passed out from a lack of oxygen, you will be unable to help anyone.  She quotes counselor and doctoral student Sandra Rankin:
"If you're gasping for air, you can't help other people.  Counselors who neglect their own mental, physical and spiritual self-care eventually run out of 'oxygen' and cannot effectively help their clients because all of their energy is going out to the clients and nothing is coming back in to replenish the counselors' energy."
Moreover, self-care is an explicit ethical mandate for school counselors.  In the ASCA Code of Ethics, E.1.b, Professional School Counselors:
"Monitor emotional and physical health and practice wellness to ensure optimal effectiveness. Seek physical or mental health referrals when needed to ensure competence at all times."
It is also in the introduction to Section C: Professional Responsibility of the ACA Code of Ethics:
"...counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities."
Thus, it is not only helpful but ethical and a best practice to develop a plan and a structure that allows us to replenish our physical and emotional energy so that we are truly able to help our students and clients.  I compare it to singing.  As a singer, my whole body is my instrument--if I am tense in the wrong place or sick or exhausted, I am unable to produce the best sound possible for my conductor or my audience.  Similarly, in the art of counseling, we are also the instrument.  If we are physically and emotionally exhausted, how can we hope to be able to empathize with our clients or stay focused enough on what they are telling us and showing us in order to best assess their needs and devise a plan to help them?

How can you tell if you or a colleague is beginning to fray a bit at the edges?  You might not do well with a crisis, you might find yourself being ever more cynical about students and your job, you might find yourself taking more and more "mental health days," you might withdraw more and more from family, friends, and co-workers, your personal relationships may be suffering, and you might become extremely defensive with any constructive criticism about your job performance (Williams, 2011).  Additionally, there are some great questions from Gerald Corey to ask yourself if you are concerned about impairment or burnout:
  • Is my personal life satisfying and rewarding?
  • Are my relationships where I want them to be?
  • To what degree am I taking care of myself, both physically and emotionally?
  • Would I be willing for other (school counselors) I respect to know about my professional conduct and decisions?
  • Am I willing to express my vulnerabilities through consultation or peer supervision?
  • Am I generally consistent in my practice? (Williams, 2011)
Your answers to these questions should help to guide you in determining how much impact your work is having on your whole life.

It may seem counter-intuitive to make time to take care of yourself, but in this job the e-mails, phone-calls, and needs of all of our stakeholders will never stop--there will always be something else you could be working on or "one more thing" you could do before you leave the office.  I am someone who has perfectionist tendencies--I like to have everything done right, every "I" dotted and every "T" crossed before I leave the office.  However, I quickly had to realign my thinking once I began working as a school counselor.  Here are some tips and ideas about how to either remain well or find your way back to wellness:
  • Work to accept that you will never have everything done at the end of the day--this job simply does not lend itself to that concept.  It is okay to leave work at the end of every day.  While it is normal to need to stay late on occasion or to come in every once in a while on a Saturday, this should not be an every day or every week occurrence.  If you are staying late every single day, limit yourself to staying late only two days during the week.  If you come in every Saturday, limit it to one Saturday during the month.
  • Set boundaries for yourself.  It is okay if you do not want to have a parent conference at 5 p.m. on a Friday and instead offer an alternative day and time.  It is okay if you are trying to leave on-time at the end of the day and ask a teacher to come back and talk to you about a non-emergency topic in the morning.  It is okay if you do not check your work e-mails after you leave work at the end of the day or over the weekend.  For example, I know that if there is a pressing crisis in the evenings or on the weekend with regards to work or my students, I will get a phone call from my boss.  Anything else can probably wait until the next morning when I am at work.  If you do not set some reasonable boundaries for yourself, people will expect to have access to you and your skills 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it is important that you have time to recharge so that you can best address their concerns.
  • Schedule time for healthy habits.  Find time to cook and eat a good meal.  Get as much sleep each night as you possibly can.  Go the gym, yoga class, or take a walk with a spouse/partner/friend/child each day.  Schedule these into your week and make them priorities.  I make sure that I hit the gym or do yoga at least 5 times a week for an hour at a time.  Oftentimes I am able to work out frustrations from my day on the treadmill or center myself through the healing breath of a sun salutation.
  • Develop a list of pleasurable activities and schedule at least one or two per week.  We do this so often with our students who may be a bit down--find out what they enjoy doing, whether its attending a ball-game or going to the movies with friends, and then help them to make it happen.  We need to take our own advice--when was the last time you went out with your girlfriends and laughed yourself silly over drinks with chips and guacamole?  When was the last time you went to a basketball game with your guy friends?  When was the last time you attended one of your kids' school-programs that you weren't in charge of making happen?  Not only do these help to recharge us, but they also tend to be great "perspective-checks"--there is a world and a life outside of our jobs.  I am a singer and often have one to two rehearsals per week and also take private voice lessons--I find it to be a wonderful way to force my mind to focus on something wholly unrelated to my job on a regular basis.
  • Engage with friends and family. I have always thought that everyone who works in schools--teachers, custodians, counselors, administrators--need to have friends outside of that school to talk to.  This is especially true of counselors, as so much of what we deal with is confidential information--it's not really appropriate to share our frustrations with a parent or the intimate details of a student's life with anyone in our buildings.  It is important to maintain those relationships with our friends, partners, and spouses and allow those to replenish us when we are down or emotionally drained.  I make it a point to find time to have dinner or brunch with friends or attend a party, even if I'm exhausted or feel I don't have time--in hindsight I'm always glad I went.
  • Consider supervision--either formal or informal. This is probably worth a separate blog entry, but in short, as interns we have this amazing support network--our on-site supervisors, our university supervisors, and a whole lot of peer supervisors who are in our classes.  Then we suddenly get into our first job and a lot of that goes away.  Hopefully you have a mentor, other counselors, or a director who you can go to for help or additional perspectives, but many counselors are alone in their buildings a great deal of the time.  It is a great idea to consider joining a formal supervision group, especially if you are thinking of pursuing state licensure as a therapist, but if not even getting together with some other counselors in the area on a regular basis to share cases and check for best practices.  It can make you feel a lot less isolated, help to validate the good work you are doing, and give you great ideas for situations you may be struggling with.
  • Seek out your own therapy if needed.  Sometimes, even with our best efforts, it is still too overwhelming.  Sometimes we get that case that strikes a little too close to home and counter-transference gets in the way.  Sometimes what is going on in our personal lives begins to effect our day job.  Thus, sometimes it is necessary to get therapeutic help ourselves.
In this way, with your oxygen mask firmly in place, you can continue to help others put their own on for years to come.

The following work cited is available for members on the American Counseling Association website:

Shallcross, L.  (2011).  Taking care of yourself as a counselor.  Counseling Today, January 2011.

The following works cited are available for members on the American School Counselors Association website:  
Falls, L.  (2010)  Fan the flame.  Retrieved from  
Williams, R.  (2011)  The importance of self-care.  Retrieved from

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Resource: Transitioning to Middle School

I went to a K-8 school growing up.  Thus, when I went to middle school, I simply moved down a floor in the building and was basically with the same group of kids I had been with in the elementary grades.

I was apparently an exception. 

Most elementary students will go from small, highly structured schools in which they spend most of their day with the same teacher and classmates to much (in some cases, much much much) larger middle or junior high schools.  Some of these middle schools will continue with a semblance of the elementary model in that the students move together with a "team" of teachers (called teaming) who will teach the students separately by subject, but who all have the same students on their roles.  This allows this group of teachers to get well acquainted with each of the students over the course of the year and share information that may benefit everyone.  Others will have a different teacher for every subject, like high school, and their will be no structured relationship at all amongst the teachers as far as having the same students.  This can be a huge transition for 11 or 12 year olds either on the cusp of or in the throws of adolescence.

PBS Kids has a great website to help elementary students who are on their way up or middle school students who have recently landed to explore their own thoughts and feelings about moving to the next level as well as gain valuable information and ideas.  It includes a journal page, a list of recommended books, as well as questions they can talk about with their parents or adults at their school.  This is great information for elementary or middle school counselors to use either with all of their students or a targeted group or individuals that seem to really be struggling with the switch.  What I like about it is that it is coming at it from a strengths-based perspective--what does the individual child bring with them that will help them be successful?  What aspects of the middle school we the child be drawn to and see as positive?

It can be a scary transition, but helping them to get answers to their questions ahead of time, process their feelings, and find things about the new school that they will enjoy will help to make it a little easier.

Bullying: Where Are We After a Year?

We've all seen the news in the last year--numbers of gay teenagers or those perceived to be gay committing suicide after being taunted and bullied in their schools.  I wrote a blog entry about it a few weeks ago.

At a recent meeting of my school's Gay-Straight Alliance a student was commenting on how frustrated they were becoming with all of these students committing suicide.  Since all of these deaths, have we moved forward on this issue in any way?

A recent AP article in the Washington Post would suggest we have, slowly but surely.  What I think is interesting is that a lot of these changes are being championed by teenagers themselves.  Some are joining their school's GSA's, others are asking history teachers to include LGBT history in civil rights lessons.  Schools are re-evaluating bullying programs and training staff and faculty as well as students as well as removing internet filters that used to prevent students from looking at pro-gay websites.

If, as a school counselor, you want to help promote your office or school as a "Safe Space" for LGBT student, click here for more information.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

College Anxiety: Cost, Part II

There have been several stories in recent weeks and months about student loan debt rising along with the costs of a college education:

  • According to this story, the student loan debt in America now tops one trillion dollars, making it roughly equal to the amount of credit card debt out there.  However, credit card debt can be erased by bankruptcy--student loan debt cannot.
  • This story highlights how, because of large student loan debts, oftentimes for both undergraduate and graduate degrees, young Americans are having to delay or even forgo marriages/partnerships, buying houses, or having children.  The cost each month of repaying these loans makes taking any of these next big financial leaps a challenge, if not impossible.
  • In this report the discussion is about how much to borrow for your education.  The tip here is not to borrow more in total than you would make in your first year of salary in a typical job in that profession.  As the author points out, though, this can make it extremely difficult for those who wish to major in liberal arts and the humanities versus business, math/science areas, or engineering.
What is the implication for those of us who are helping the next generation of students make choices about post secondary options?
  • Students need to be aware of what the total cost of their prospective school choice will be.  College board has a great checklist of all the costs they should consider, and all universities and colleges are now required to have a net price calculator so that families can get a better idea of what the full price is really going to come to.  Several schools will also use College Board's net price calculator--check it out here.
  • Students and families also need to have a general idea of what they might make per year in a chosen field that they are considering, as this can help them to gauge what might be realistic to take out in student loans.  Websites such as and the Bureau of Labor Statistics can help to shed light on what a prospective salary might be.
  • We need to share with students alternative paths to a four-year degree that could be more cost effective--check out my previous blog post for information on the military and community colleges.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

College Anxiety: Cost and Competition

The college of my generation and of my parents' generation no longer exists.   College costs continue to rise each year at what seems to be a skyrocketing rate, and the number of applications to colleges continues to rise, making it more competitive for students to get admitted to some of their favorite schools.

This is certainly true in Virginia, where I work.  I recently had a meeting with a family where they asked me why there seem to be fewer students applying to out-of-state schools, especially those considered to be some of the top schools in the country.  My answer was simple--in Virginia we have some of the top ranked schools in the country.  The University of Virginia is considered to be one of the "best-values" in post-secondary education on a consistent basis each year, and it, along with the College of William and Mary, are said to offer what is often described as an "ivy-league education at a public-school price."  Thus, students and their families tend to apply to these in-state schools that have a strong reputation with a more reasonable cost than a Harvard or a Yale.

However, the concern is now that college continues to become more expensive across the country and at the same time it is becoming increasingly more difficult to gain admissions to some of these state schools considered on par with the Ivies.  This story from NPR, "Why is College So Expensive?" brings up the following points:
  • States are giving less funding to their public colleges and universities--the difference is made up in out-of-pocket tuition dollars from families
  • This is at the same time that the operational costs for universities is on the rise, namely to attract the top professors from around the world to teach and do research at their institution, and because of rising costs such as healthcare
  • Grant aid has not risen with the cost of tuition--Pell Grants pay a lot less of a college education than they did in the 70's and 80's
  • This is all at the same time that many families are struggling because of the economy--lost jobs or underemployment is common--thus, many families are taking out a great deal of public and also private loans to fund post-secondary education
This is important to acknowledge as school counselors for many reasons.  First, the anxiety that many parents and students feel about getting into college and then paying for college is very real.  Applications to state schools like UVA are on the rise and thus the competition is more and more steep each year--students with very strong academic and extra-curricular profiles worry that they are not going to get accepted.  Further, with the cost of a four-year education bordering on $60,000 to $100,000 and an economy that is still very much in recovery, families worry about how they are going to be able to pay for their child's education, and then worry about the job prospects after graduation.  Students may take out public and private loans but not be able to repay them for some time.

Something that I work on with students and their families is looking at a wider variety of options as they begin the application process--making sure they have a list of schools with different admissions criteria.  A strong student may get into UVA but be offered a small scholarship, whereas  they may get a much stronger financial aid package at a different school where there are seen as a leader on top of the heap of candidates.  I always remind them that the best school they can get into may not necessarily be the best school for them.  Further, many of my students look at alternative ways of funding college, through ROTC programs or the military--these programs may offer students a way to graduate more debt-free from college.  Finally, many more students are choosing the community-college route as a way to start.  In Northern Virginia, NOVA has a Guaranteed Admissions Program where a student can get an Associate's Degree and then, depending on the GPA, automatically gain admissions to any public university in Virginia.  By looking at multiple options, both for college choices as well as ways to pay for it, perhaps we can help to ease the understandable anxiety about post-secondary education for our students and their families.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lack of Sleep in Adolescents Correlates to Risky Behaviors

As adults, we know that sleep deprivation over time can impair our judgement as much as being intoxicated.  Personally speaking, when I don't get enough sleep for a few days I become more emotional and less able to deal well with the inevitable stressors that life throws at us.

Imagine, then, adolescents who are sleep deprived trying to regulate the swell of emotions and feelings that come with being a teenager while trying to do well in school, manage their relationships, and think about their futures.

A recent study talks about how youth who reported getting less than eight hours of sleep were more likely to engage in risky behaviors like smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex, and fights, and more likely to be struggling with depression.

What does this mean for us as school counselors?  When we have students who are presenting with some of the problems mentioned above, one of our questions for the student and their families during our assessments and conversations should probably be about sleep and lifestyle--how many hours of sleep are you getting?  When are you getting to bed?  Do you feel rested when you wake up?  If they are not getting regular sleep, this could be contributing to their problems.  We know that with more and better sleep, they will be better able to regulate their emotions and make clearer decisions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Building Relationships: The Importance of the Counselor-Principal Partnership

When I was in high school, all of the counselors were crammed into a very small room that was divided into about five small offices.  Seriously, there was no such thing as confidentiality--you could hear everything going on in all of the extremely small boxes.  The two school principals were off in their own offices, and then the two Deans of Students were off in a completely other part of the building.

If any of these groups wanted to communicate, they either used flares, morse-code, or carrier pigeons.

Flash forward a few years, and I did my high school internship in a school where, again, the counselors were all in the same office suite.  Their offices were much bigger and nicer, and for the most part when you closed the door, you couldn't hear the conversations--a vast improvement over 15 years.  Still, the Assistant Principals were in subschool offices all over the building--literally islands amidst the sea.  The Principal for the entire school would come and eat lunch with all of the counselors about once a week, but other than that it was pretty rare to see an administrator in the office suite.  It should be said that I greatly enjoyed my internship, was given an abundance of opportunities, and learned a great deal.  However, I never really developed a relationship with any of the Assistant Principals in the building.

In my current school, the high school is split into subschools--counselors share office suites with administrators, spread out over the building.  In fact, you share office suites with the adminstrators that also work with your kids (we are all divided alphabetically by the last names of our students).  I need not have worried that this mix of two strange cultures--the administrators and the counselors--would yield possible "Big Brother" or "Survivor" scenarios.  Rather, I quickly came to understand that this set-up was, in my opinion, the absolute ideal to best serve the needs of all of our students.

I work mainly with two assistant principals, as I have students in my alphabet that are divided between the two of them.  At this point in my career, I cannot imagine being able to effectively do my job without having the close, collaborative, and respectful relationship that I share with these colleagues.  We are the ying to each other's yang, and so much of the work that we do with students and their families overlaps or crosses over.  For example, if a student gets into a situation where they end up being disciplined with their administrator, I can follow up with that student to process the event and attempt to come up with thoughts and a plan to avoid the situation again in the future.  If I have a student who is repeatedly being bullied in school, not only will I continue to work with this student to empower them, build up their self-esteem, advocate for their needs, and help them with coping skills, but we will also consult with their administrator to discuss possible consequences and interventions for those who are perpetuating the bullying and harassment.

In a fairly recent study (Janson et al., 2008),  the scholars (one of whom is a counselor educator, one of whom is an education leadership professor) determined that there are four types of counselor-principal relationships:
  • Working Alliance--This relationships is characterized by free and open communication, a great deal of trust, and a mutual respect for the job characteristics and roles of each other's profession.
  • Impediments to Alliance--Counselors and principals in this type tend to not be involved in each others work, lack communication, and do not really understand the foundations of each other's jobs.
  • Shared Leadership--In this view, counselors are seen as school leaders, and tends to involve collaboration on both sides.
  • Purposeful Collaboration--The principals and counselors here tend to come together for specific and meaningful purposes such as the school plan or closing the achievement gap.  This style not only has a high degree of open communication, but there is also a shared purpose. (Janson et al., 2008, pp. 355-356)
The authors here felt that the strongest relationship is the Puposeful Collaboration relationship, as it promotes the most consistent collaboration and communication between the pair and utilizes the strength of this bond to bring about systemic change and bolster student achievement.

This ties in to a later ASCA web article (Janson, 2011) in which the authors of the previous study go further and list the characteristics that make a strong counselor-principal relationship.  They are:
  • Trust
  • Mutual Value
  • Shared Belief in Interdependency
  • Awareness of the Other's Repertoire
  • Open and Reflective Communication
  • Purposeful and Focused Collaboration
  • Collective Enterprise
  • Stretched Leadership (Janson, 2011)
This mirrors a 2009 survey done by College Board on this topic in which they identified four elements in a strong counselor-principal relationship:  Communication, Collaboration, Respect, and Shared Vision.

I'm pretty sure they are on to something.

I find all of these characteristics to be true in my relationships with the two Assistant Principals I work the most closely with.
  • There is a fundamental level of trust between us--trust that we are there to help students, trust that we will always do our utmost to support the others' efforts, trust that we are allowed to make mistakes, apologize for them, and then together learn from them.  
  • We value each other a great deal, not only the specific roles that each of us play in the educational lives of our students, but also as individual educational leaders and what our various backgrounds bring to the table.  
  • We believe we are interdependent--you never miss each other more than when you most desperately need the other one and they are off that morning at a meeting or out sick for a day.
  • We are aware of each other's skills, backgrounds, trainings, and levels of expertise and thus can play to each other's strengths or feel comfortable consulting with the other if we are unsure.  
  • Probably the thing I value most is our open communication--because there is mutual respect, we can take risks with each other in what we say without fear of reprisal.  We don't always agree, and sometimes its because of some of the minute differences in our roles with students.  However, we can discuss the situation and agree to disagree and then move on.  
  • Our collective enterprise is working together for the academic success of our students.  For example, when it comes to working with at-risk seniors for graduation, we are united in our purpose and in our interventions--we conference with those students, parents, and teachers as a team and together work with everyone to come up with a realistic plan for success.  
  • Finally, we share leadership with each other, with the parents, with the other teachers, and even with the students, working with them to take the head role in their own lives, academic and personal.
 Here are some ways you can develop a stronger relationship with your principal: 
  • Meet regularly as a team.  If you are in a subschool, collaboration is easier--you bump into each other a lot more often.  However, even if you are in a different space in your building from your administrators, you can try to set up regular meetings to discuss and focus on pressing student issues.
  • Share information.  The more each of you knows about the work you are doing with specific students and families, the better able both of you will be able to address the whole child.  If you have concern about sharing information with administrators, look over the ASCA Ethical Guidelines, especially C.2.e for some parameters. 
  • Discuss your view of each others roles as well as your personal philosophies about working with students in education.  These can be conversations over time, but the more you know about how you view your own and the other's roles and purpose, the better you will understand each other.
  • Collaborate on projects, conferences, and other leadership roles in the school.  Together you might see some achievement gaps, either within your own student population or perhaps the school at large.  By working together to address these concerns, you will bring two departments together, which means two separate areas of expertise with a larger wealth of knowledge and ideas that can have a greater impact.
The following sources cited in this entry are available for membersthrough the American School Counselor Association Website (

Janson, C. (2011, July 1).  Eight Elements of Effective School Counselor-Principal Relationships.  Retrieved from

Janson, C., Militello, M., & Kosine, N. (2008). Four views of the school counselor and principal relationship: A Q methodology study. Professional School Counseling, 11(6), 353-361.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mind the Gap...Year, That Is...

I work in Northern Virginia--rich cultural offerings, highly-educated populace, more sports/clubs/artistic classes than you could dream of, and excellent school systems that offer a variety of challenging courses that can enrich and stretch students' minds.

It can also be a pressure-cooker for many of our kids.  From the time they are in elementary school they are involved in sports practice or dance classes for three to four hours a night, and by the time they reach middle and high school you are also throwing on weekend competitions, games, club sports, and play practices in addition to hours and hours of rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) coursework.  Some of my students regularly go to bed around midnight or one in the morning, only to get up again around six a.m. to start the process all over again.

Thus, many of these students have been on a tightly scheduled, exhaustive merry-go-round for 12 to 13 years of their lives.  Then they hit their senior year, and the college application process begins, which, if you have ever been a high school counselor or the parent of a high school senior, you realize is almost another full-time job on top of everything else.  Is it any wonder that some of these kids are burnt out on school?  Is it any wonder that some of these kids know they want to go to college and simultaneously cannot imagine having to go straight from the insanity of their senior year to the rigorous demands of their freshmen year at a university?

Enter the Gap Year.  What is it?  In its standard form, it is a year between secondary school and college that students take to do some sort of life-enrichment activity.  European students have done it for years, but if feels like here in the U.S. gap years are thought of as only something for the ├╝ber-wealthy.  Not anymore.  While there are not any statistics of note out there about the number of students taking gap years and their attrition to college and ultimately graduation, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that more students are taking a structured year off between high school and university.  There are a plethora of programs out there in a variety of price ranges.  First, though, what students might be good candidates for a gap year?

Typically, the best students for gap years are those who know they are college-bound (they do not have to be the students with the highest grades in the school, but who have maintained solid records), and usually these students are admitted to a college in their senior years and then defer starting for one year, although you will need to check with each individual college to determine how that process works.
"This is for someone who, you know, really is serious about academics. It doesn't necessarily mean they were the best student in high school. It just means that they just want to go to college, that they just want to take a year or even two off before going and they've got a somewhat serious plan for that time off. And this isn't really about people who are, you know, trying to postpone until forever, basically. So these are people who are serious about attending college. They just want to delay the starting point." (source:
There are students, though, who will choose to wait to apply during their gap year in order to be able to write about their post-graduate experience and use it as part of the admissions process.  Additionally, good candidates for the gap year are those students who want to explore some interest or desire in a more experiential, non-traditional kind of way, such as immersing themselves in Spanish through volunteer work in South America or studying art for a semester in Italy.  In my experience, sometimes gap years do work well for students who are not sure what they want to do after high-school--it gives them a year to explore and mature, although they will ultimately have to make some decisions about their future at some point.

There are many advantages to doing a gap year.  In this New York Times article, the students discussed have returned from their gap year programs more mature and more focused on what they want to get out of college and what direction they want their life to go in.  This is especially important when you look at statistics for the graduation rates of students who enter college--not all of them will graduate in six years.  Many of them will not make it from their freshmen year to their sophomore year.  In Virginia, for example, 85% of freshmen at public universities and 73% of freshmen at private universities will continue on to their sophomore year.  This is above the national average for public schools and below for private.  However, only 63% of students who start Bachelor's degrees in Virginia will finish within six years.  (source:  This is above the national average, but still an alarming statistic.  While a gap year is probably not the solution for all the 37% of students who do not finish, for some of these students it may be that having a year between high-school and college to gain in life-skills, independence, and coping strategies as well as pursue interests in a more in-depth fashion would assist them in being more prepared for university success.  A further advantage is that for many students, it can give them an extra year to build skills which will help them gain admission to a favorite college or university.  In this article, Harvard University seems to actively encourage students to consider taking a year-off before beginning college and states that
"Occasionally students are admitted to Harvard or other colleges in part because they accomplished something unusual during a year off. While no one should take a year off simply to gain admission to a particular college, time away almost never makes one a less desirable candidate or less well prepared for college." (source:
However, one needs to be careful of simply using a gap year as a means to gain admission to a preferred school, as seen in this Washington Post article. Admissions offices can become concerned if they feel you are deferring admissions to build up your resume to get into another school.

How do you decide what to do during your gap year?  My best advice to students and families interested in a gap year is that there needs to be some kind of structure to that year.  However, the form of that structure is wide open.  Students can:
  • Work--find a job that pursues a certain interest or helps to build a skill
  • Intern--find an internship that will give you hands-on exposure to a career field of interest
  • Public Service Programs--The program City Year is one of the most popular and standard programs.  Please note it has an admissions process.
  • Volunteer/Travel Experiences--there are a ton of these, but there is usually a cost associated with it.  However, sometimes they are much less than one might think.  I would recommend checking out or plan to attend one of the Gap Year Fairs in your area.  There will be two in the Washington D.C. area in January
  • Post-Graduate Years--oftentimes students will do a post-graduate year at a private secondary institution, especially in sports or in the arts.  An example would be a singer who wants another year of intense vocal and music study to allow the voice to mature more before applying to a conservatory--they may try to do a post-graduate year at Interlochen Arts Academy or Idyllwild Arts Academy.  For more information on post-graduate years and the schools that offer them, click here.
For many students, the gap year will be a combination of these programs--maybe half a year of work and a class or two at a community college with a half a year of travel and volunteering.  The important thing is to be knowledgeable about gap years and the programs in order to better assist our students and families with post-secondary planning.

For further information, check out The Complete Guide to the Gap Year or The Gap Year Advantage:  both books are cited quite often as good sources in articles and literature about gap years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dealing with Gay Students, Bullying in Very Different Ways

Thanks to Karen Gautney and the LGBT Project for pointing me to this story on about the Minneapolis School District's comprehensive approach to dealing with bullying and harassment of LGBT students.
"In January, the school board unanimously passed a unique resolution instructing administrators to track bullying incidents related to the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. The measure also requires all staff to be trained on LGBT issues. It injects LGBT topics into the curriculum, which includes adding an LGBT component to sex ed. They will eventually add an elective high school course on LGBT history." (source:
Check out the whole article--worth a read.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Bullying Awareness Month

If you are a counselor in the schools, you probably do not need to have a specific month dedicated to bullying for you to be aware of the magnitude of the problem.  Bullying has probably existed since the dawn of time--certainly it was around when I was in school, and I'm sure it was around when my parents were in school.  One need look no further than the now-classic movie A Christmas Story to see how the world was divided--"you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims." (source: In this movie, Ralphie ultimately stands up to his bully, Scott Farkus, and wins.  We move on to the family dinner scene where Ralphie's mother covers for him with his father and all is ultimately right with the world.

Unfortunately, many bullying scenarios today are ending in tragedy.  ABC's 20/20 dedicated a program this Friday night to two of their stories.  One, Jamey Rodemeyer, took his own life this September after repeated harassment since he had come out as gay in his school.  The other, Larry King, was shot several years ago by a classmate after being repeatedly bullied for expressing attractions to other boys and wearing women's clothing to school.  You can see the stories in their entirety here.  We all remember the story last year of Tyler Clementi who killed himself at Rutgers University after videos of an intimate encounter between him and another student of the same sex surfaced online.  Sadly, there are still many other scenarios like the ones listed above, for example multiple suicides in Minnesota. 
What can we, as school counselors, learn from all of this?  Several things:
  • Bullying certainly knows no stereotype--any student from any demographic can be affected.  However, students who either self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or who are perceived by their peers to be LGBT are at an especially high-risk.  86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.  (source:
  • In the past, bullying might occur at school or at after-school activities, but students could go home and find some respite from the harassment.  Today, however, with the internet and websites like Twitter, Facebook, and Formspring, the bullying can go on literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Cyberbullying is a now regular occurrence amongst our students.  Further, while verbal harassment, physical harassment, and exclusionary tactics can be visible to school personnel, cyberbullying can remain invisible to parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors unless someone comes forward.
How do we, as school counselors, help to address these issues with our students, based on this knowledge of the "new bullying?"  A few thoughts: 
  •  Find out what your school's plan is when it comes to addressing bullying.  Creating a bully-free, harassment-free climate always starts at the top--what education and resources are being given to the adults in the building about bullying, harassment, and cyberbullying?  Is everyone on the same page?  Videos such as this one can be helpful to show school staffs the importance they have in helping to create a safe-schools climate.
  • Next, what preventative measures are taken--is there a place in the school where bullying is more likely to take place (like locker rooms) and how is that being addressed?  Are there classroom or school lessons on bullying, on harassment, on cyberbullying?  Who is involved in designing these lessons--counselors, administrators, security officers, school resource officers, and perhaps most importantly, students?  Who is responsible for delivering the lessons--is it just the counselor, or is the whole school involved? Are there ways to follow up on these lessons as the year goes on?
  • Are there resources at the school, county or district, or state level that you can draw from?  In Virginia there are guidelines from the state as well as personnel who are available to come to schools to lead discussions or lessons.
  • What is the school plan for how bullying is to be reported and then the protocol that will be followed to investigate and support the students involved?  Several schools have instituted online reporting of bullying forms like this that go to a school official who then starts the process of looking into the incident or situation.

Why is this important?  As demonstrated above, children are dying because of the harassment.  However, there are other ramifications of bullying and harassment.  Attendance--31.7% of LGBT students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.  Grades--The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.8 versus 2.4). (source:  Students who are bullied are more likely to stop coming to school, and they are more likely to have lower grades.  One of our main missions as school counselors is to remove barriers to academic success for all of our students--bullying certainly qualifies as one of these barriers.

As a school counselor, the strong relationships you have built with your students, their families, teachers, and administrators will be your biggest ally in helping to identify bullying situations and then work to resolve them.  The more comfortable your school population is in talking to you, the more likely it is that you will be able to find out about possible issues early and help to diffuse them before they become bigger and harder to deal with.  Further, it is important to check-in and follow-up regularly with the student who is being bullied to make sure they feel supported and as if something is being done.  Additionally, if you have students who identify as LGBT, realize that they are at a statistically higher-risk of being bullied.  This group of students may need more frequent check-ins as well as allies within the school--if your school has a gay-straight alliance or other LGBT club, that is one support that they can access.  There are further supports for these students and their families at the Trevor Project, PFLAG, GLSEN, and the It Gets Better Project.  

A final two thoughts.  First, as the ABC 20/20 videos linked above discuss, as school counselors, we are responsible to not only assist those students who are being bullied, but also any of the bullies who are on our case-loads.  It is highly possible that the bullies have some issues in their past and present lives which may have contributed to the role they have taken on.  They too will need support from us, perhaps through restorative justice practices or through working on empathy.  Lastly, as in all things that we do, we must be mindful of any counter-transference that may occur when we are in the midst of working through a bullying situation.  Were you bullied in school?  Do you identify as LGBT and feel strongly about working with those students?  Or were you perhaps, in a former life, a bully?  It is always important for us to monitor our own thoughts and feelings and seek out supervision and guidance from someone in a supervisory or consultant  role, and if need be a personal therapist, if we feel that these past roles and situations are affecting our work with our students.