Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Resource: Small Town & Rural LGBT Students

The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), recently released a report that looked at the experiences of LGBT students in small town or rural schools.  In their 2011 School Climate Survey, GLSEN found that for LGBT students across the country, overall levels of harassment are beginning to decline, while support and resources in schools for these students is on the increase (source:  However, as you read these reports every two years, you wonder how the experiences for students differ based on geographical location or locale.  Their latest report, Strengths and Silences, gives us this snapshot, with a focus on those students who live in smaller, more isolated communities.  Some key findings:

  • 87% of rural LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 45% reported being physically harassed and 22% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.  
  • 68% of rural LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 31% reported being physically harassed and 16% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression.  
  • Rural LGBT students who experienced higher levels of victimization were less likely to plan to attend college than students who experienced lower levels of victimization (85% vs 93%).  
  • 27% of rural students reported having a GSA at school, compared to 55% of suburban students and 53% of urban students. But when there was a GSA at school, rural students were more likely to attend than urban and suburban students.  
  • Rural LGBT students reported feeling less safe than students in suburban and urban areas and rural students living in the South and Midwest were more likely to feel unsafe based on sexual orientation than were students in rural areas of the Northeast or West.  
  • Rural LGBT students were more likely to feel unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation (71% vs. 62% of suburban and 58% of urban school students) and gender expression (49% of rural students vs. 42% of suburban and 42% of urban students).  
  • 36% of rural LGBT students had missed class and/or a day of school in the past month due to feeling unsafe, compared to 30% of suburban LGBT students and 30% of urban LGBT students. (source:
Overall, our LGBT students in rural and small communities need additional supports and resources.  One of the more interesting findings of this report, however, is with regards to school counselors.  52% of rural students felt that they would be comfortable talking to a school counselor about LGBT issues, higher than any other school personnel, including teachers, administrators, and other support staff.  In fact, even in suburban and urban districts, students felt that school counselors were the go-to people with regards to conversations about LGBT issues.  However, as the report discusses, students in reality are bringing up LGBT topics most with teachers, not with counselors (source:  

This information, I believe, tells us two things.  First, that we as school counselors need to be trained in working with LGBT students and families:  What Is Your LGBT IQ?  LGBT students across the board feel that we are the people they are most able to seek out to talk about these issues.  If you are a counselor at a small or rural school, seek out trainings at local, state, or national conventions.  Many school counseling conferences now feature sessions on working with LGBT students and families.  You can also look at webinars on LGBT topics sponsored both by ASCA as well as GLSEN.  Secondly, we need to consider ways to let students know that we are a safe-space for them to have these conversations.  This can be done by sponsoring or making a visit to your school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) or by posting a Safe-Space sticker somewhere in your office.  As the data in this report tells us, this is an issue of academic performance, post-secondary outcomes, school safety, and attendance.  By addressing this issue, you are helping to remove barriers to academic success for all students.

Read the full report here or view the webinar.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reflection: Crisis

As we all have been, I have been deeply saddened and shocked by the events of Friday morning.  As school counselors, we all tend to be fairly empathetic, and so my thoughts have constantly been turned to the parents of those children who have been lost, the families of those school staff members who died, and to the larger community of Newtown who will need support long after the media trucks and national focus have left as the depths of grief, loss, and trauma begin to manifest themselves in the months to come.

Many years ago, when I was still teaching, I was at a school where, for the first time, I had to go through a lockdown drill with my students.  In going through the procedures of covering my window and trying to keep 30 energetic 7th graders quiet as security came by to check that our door was locked, the thought flashed through my head, "What if this was real?"  Instinctually, I immediately knew that I would put the kids into the instrument storage closet (I taught this choir class in the band room) and would put myself outside if need be to protect those kids.  This was not a question I wrestled with, this was not something where I thought about all the possible consequences.  I knew what I would have to do in the breath of an instant.

Perhaps for this reason, I keep thinking the most about the principal and school psychologist who attempted to stop the gunman as well as the 1st grade teacher who hid her students and gave her own life to protect them.  When you go into education as a career, you do not necessarily think that you may have to give your life as part of your profession.  Yet, that is what the six adults who died on Friday did.  I think all of us who work in schools know that when it comes to the safety of our students, dare I say, "our kids", that chances are pretty high that we would do the same.  Our educational professionals have taken quite a few hits in the public arena in the last decade.  However, the vast, vast, vast majority of adults in schools that I have met in the last thirteen years are highly committed individuals who work excessively long hours, nights, and weekends, often making difficult choices between their own work and personal lives.  They are in education because they love kids, they love watching kids learn, and they love helping to facilitate that process.  They would do anything for their students, and I think we should take a moment to really acknowledge just what that could mean.

I have been inspired in the last several days by the school counseling community and their quick response with regards to sharing resources so that we all have support in working with our students, families, and school communities through this time.  The mother of all school counselor bloggers, Danielle Schultz, began to collect resources at School Counselor Blog and share them with her followers.  I am inspired by this, and believe that all of us who are school counseling bloggers have a responsibility, as collectors and sharers of information, to have these resources at hand to share with our followers whenever they are needed.  As such, I have created a page on my blog dedicated to crisis resources, and would love if other bloggers did the same, so that no matter where a school counseling professional turns, they find information to support them in their work talking to students, staff, and families in these difficult moments.  In this way, as school counselors we can continue to be prepared to lead in times of great challenge.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Transgender Kids: Inspiration and Advocacy

I am a little obsessed with NPR.  I listen to it in the car on the way to work, on the way home from work, and subscribe to multiple podcasts.  It is my secret dream to someday do something worthy of being interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross.  However, my favorite hour of radio is Tell Me More, a program that seeks to explore modern life, issues, and news from a multi-cultural perspective, and multi-cultural from the broadest possible lens.  Not coincidentally, it is also my secret dream to do something worthy of being interviewed by Michel Martin, the host.  So many secret dreams, so little time.

I was driving to a meeting on Monday at just the time that Michel Martin was doing an interview that pulled me in from the moment it started.  Andy Marra is a transgender woman who was adopted by an American family from South Korea.  She recently wrote a blog entry at the Huffington Post about her experience of finding and coming out to her birth mother in Korea.  As she was going through the coming out process, she chose to delay her full transition (hormones, surgery) until she found her birth mother:

"I could never find the will to move forward with my transition -- taking hormones or surgery -- despite the opportunity to do so. And my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea.  Like me, more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been sent overseas. But less than 3 percent of us are able to find our families. The odds were clearly not in my favor. But what if I did find my family after all these years? And how would they handle meeting a young woman instead of a baby boy who should have grown into manhood? I was left with few ideas to reconcile my concerns." (source:
As she continues with her story, she finds her mother literally in the span of a few hours, and the two are reunited.  Like so many kids who are contemplating the coming-out process, she is nervous to share her gender-identity with her birth mother, a woman she has just met.  However, the turn in this story is that it is her birth mother who first broaches the subject.  She instinctually knows that there is something weighing Andy down, and after some questioning, Andy tells her that she is a transgender woman.  Her birth mother responds:

"'Mommy knew,' she said calmly through my friend, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was by her response. 'I was waiting for you to tell me'...'Hyun-gi," she said, stroking my head. 'You are beautiful and precious. I thought I gave birth to a son, but it is OK. I have a daughter instead.'" (source:
It is this moment, in this highly-charged situation of a reunited birth mother and daughter, that Andy begins to find her own self-acceptance and an ability to move forward in her own life.  You can listen to the full audio interview here.

As I've written about before, finding acceptance and support is key to the well-being of our transgender students, and, right now, the deck is stacked against them:
  • More than half of all transgender students have been physically harassed (pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • More than a quarter of all transgender students have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Almost half of transgender students report missing at least one class in the last month and one full day of school in the last month because of concerns for their safety.
  • Transgender students who experience high-levels of harassment have an average GPA that is .5 lower than that of transgender students who experience low-levels of harassment. (source:
These students are at a higher-risk of truancy, bullying and harassment, assault, and poor academic performance.  Additionally, parent reactions to LGBT students makes a huge difference.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those students who experienced high-levels of parental rejection were:
  • Nearly six times as likely to have high-levels of depression
  • More than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide
  • More than three times as likely to have used illegal drugs
  • More than three times as likely to engage in unsafe sexual behaviors that put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (source:
For students who experience more acceptance from family, such as Andy, they have a support system in place regardless of their school environment.  However, for those students who are experiencing high-levels of rejection at home and are thus at higher-risk for depression, suicide, and substance use, the school environment can be make-or-break for that child.  Transgender kids in schools can be a highly emotional issue, as currently being played out in the East Aurora School District, but the data shows that this is an issue of school safety, student achievement, mental health, and even life and death.  We, as school counselors, are charged with advocating for all students, with a focus on creating an equitable and safe environment so that every child can learn.   Our transgender students fall into this category.

For resources, I would recommend taking a look at the previously mentioned CDC website, which has tips for making schools safe places for all LGBT students.  Additionally, the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight, Education Network (GLSEN) has a sample transgender policy that can serve as a conversation starter amongst your stakeholders and give you ideas about what issues need to be addressed, from bullying/harassment policy to bathrooms and locker rooms.  All of our students should have the opportunity to do well in school and have access to supports that allow them to figure out their identity for themselves, just like Andy.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Resource: Children in Poverty

The PBS documentary program, Frontline, takes time to really go in-depth and explore topics, often filming over months or even a year to get a more thorough view of an issue.  A few weeks ago, they aired a program about poverty amongst American children.  Did you know that:
  • 1 in 5, or 21.6%, of America's children were living in poverty based on Census figures
  • Federal spending on children in 2011 fell for the first time since the 1980's by $5 million 
  • 47.6% of children living with a single mother live in poverty
  • The poverty rate for White and Asian children is below the national average (21.6%), while the rate for Black children is at 38.2% and Hispanic children is at 32.3%
  • 45% of those who spent at least half of their childhood in poverty were still in poverty at age 35 (source: 2011 Census Report)
  • Only three other countries in the developed world have child poverty rates higher than that in the United States (source: 2011 OECD Report)
The documentary, Poor Kids, follows six children and their families in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois.  Through the program, you follow their struggles with housing, food, clothing, unemployment, and depression.  Additionally, there are some themes that emerge that directly pertain to our work as school counselors:
  • Loss: In the documentary, one family has to take their young girl's dog to the pound as they can no longer afford to keep her, plus they are moving from a house into a hotel room where they can only have one pet.  Children in poverty are constantly having to say goodbye, whether it is to their home, friends in a neighborhood they are leaving, pets, or even family members.
  • Hunger:  Almost every child talks about being hungry at points in the program.  We know that children who are  hungry do not perform as well in school, thus we have a national school breakfast and lunch program.  However, those programs only go so far, and are not always able to address meals outside of school and on weekends.  Thus, while a student may be full and able to focus in school, homework to be done on the evenings and on the weekends may be more of a struggle, as children need a lot of nourishment through their growing years.  One program that is highlighted is a backpack food program where kids get food on Friday that can fit into their backpacks to take home over the weekend.
  • Educational Impact: They do not really get to this until the end, but if you have worked in a school long enough, you have probably observed this directly.  Kids in poverty are often moving around, as they are able to get into a house but are then evicted, move into a hotel, back into a house, then an apartment, etc.  Thus, they can be in one school or school district's boundaries one minute, then in another one the next.  One of the young girls in the documentary does not go to school for a few weeks, knowing that they are in a hotel for only a short time and will be moving into another housing situation, which puts them in a different school district.  Thus, kids in poverty run a higher risk of missing pieces of their education while they move around, even if it is within the same general area.  It is vitally important that you check with your school system to see what provisions have been made for students that may fall into the category of homeless.  There are Federal guidelines for homeless students that clearly define what constitutes a student as homeless as well as guidelines for specific concerns such as registrations, transportation, and looking out for the "best interests" of the students in these particular situations.
  • Educational Aspiration: Several of the kids in this documentary speak to the fact that they know, even at the young ages of 8 or 9 years old, that education is their ticket out of poverty.  They look to school and good grades as a pathway to college and a good job.  As school counselors, we are tasked with helping all of our students succeed academically and move on to a post-secondary option that is congruent with 21st century skills and careers.  This is reassurance that our children in poverty expect and deserve no less from us than any of our other students.
You can watch the documentary for yourself below:

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Friday, November 30, 2012

College: Where Are We Now?

The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) released their annual report this week that evaluates statistics and movement over the last 10 years with regards to college admissions.  There are a few trends that are important for school counselors to note.

I've written this year about the early application process, and that there is a perception out there that applying early increases your chances of admissions into a school.  Well, as this Education Week blog post discusses, this may not always be the case:

  • For students who applied Early Decision in the fall of 2011, there was an acceptance rate of 59%, versus 53% for the total applicant pool, giving Early Decision applicants a 6% advantage.
  • For students who applied Early Decision from 2007-2009, there was an advantage over the total pool ranging from 12% to 15%. (source:
Thus, students who applied Early Decision, meaning that if accepted they were committing themselves to attending that one school and rescinding all other offers of admissions, only saw a slightly higher acceptance rate than everyone else, different from past years.  For those students who applied through the non-binding process of Early Action:
  • For students who applied Early Action in the fall of 2011, there was an acceptance rate of 65%, versus 63% from the total pool, giving only a 2% advantage.
  • The advantages were higher in 2006 and 2007. (source:
Early Action allows students to get a decision early, usually in December, but they are allowed to apply to multiple schools without committing to one until May 1st.  Thus, it seems like the advantage that may have once been perceived to exist for students who chose to apply either Early Decision or Early Action may be eroding.

Other data to come from this report discussed the growing number of colleges to which each student is applying.  This post from Inside Higher Education shines the spotlight on the following statistics:
  • The percentage of students applying to 3 or more schools is up from 67% in 2010 to 79% in 2011.  The percentage of students applying to 7 or more schools is up from 25% in 2010 to 29% in 2011.
  • In the last 10 years, the yield of students, meaning the percentage of students who are admitted who accept that offer of admissions, has gone from 51.4% to 42.6% at public colleges and universities, and 47.8% to 36.4% at private schools. (source:
Thus, more students are applying to college, and more and more colleges, at that.  As school counselors, we feel this in the longer lists of transcript requests and the more involved conversations of to which schools our students are thinking of applying.  There is a perception, though, that admissions has become tougher, and this is not necessarily the case.  While the percentage of acceptances has dropped very slightly, the majority of schools are still admitting almost 2/3 of its applicants. (source:  Part of this is because with more students applying to more schools, schools have to admit higher percentages of their admissions pools in order to yield enough students who accept those offers to populate a class.  It is important to note this to students and families--while there are certainly a top-tier of colleges and universities that have become more competitive, the vast majority of schools are admitting similar percentages of students to those from 10 years ago. (source:

The top factors that go in to college admissions decisions remain grades in college prep classes, rigor of a student's curriculum, and standardized test scores.  The importance of class rank, however, has declined over the last 10 years. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Road to RAMP: Data Mining

This is the second in a series of reflections on the RAMP process.

A few weeks ago I was teaching a class of new counselors and one of the topics was "data."  What are the different types of data that school counselors use?  Why do school counselors need to use data in their practice?  Where do you start?

I've learned over the years that school counselors, new or otherwise, are all at very different places with this topic.  Our comfort level with finding, using, and analyzing data seems to be dependent on a wide variety of factors, such as when you were in graduate school, the specific graduate program that you were in, the comfort level of your professors with data-driven practice, and the professional development that you received after graduation supporting the use of data in your counseling program.  Yet, if you are at all interested in working towards RAMP (Recognized ASCA Model Program) certification, it is a world with which you will need to become familiar.  Quickly.

As I wrote about in a prior post, at my school we have really been working towards RAMP for several years.  A large part of that process has been spent in developing a comfort level, as a team, with data.  What I am finding, though, with the RAMP process, is that we are really being forced to go deeper into our data, both to justify our interventions and define our goals (a topic for a later post), as well as to analyze the effectiveness of our programming.  This process is really helping us to tie together our mission, vision, and beliefs with what we do and how we do it, as well as making us ask the question as to what impact all of our programs are having on academic achievement, post-secondary outcomes, attendance, and school safety.  Where, though, do you begin?

First, it is important to know the three types of data that we will work with:

  • Process Data:  Process data literally tells us two things--who is effected by the intervention and what did they do?  Thus, 97% of 9th graders wrote a post-secondary goal.  320 seniors took part in a lesson about dating violence.  56 parents participated in an evening program that focused on supporting students' study-skills at home.  This type of data is a place to start--it is helpful in that it can help to show people that you are taking an active role in the school community and are working with students and parents, oftentimes in large groups.  If you are in a situation where you have concerns that your community is unsure of what it is that you do or have the impression that you don't do much, this type of data can help to inform them of your role.  However, it is lacking in that it does not demonstrate the change or impact that your interventions may have.
  • Perception Data:  Perception data comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Basically, you are getting a snapshot of people's thoughts, or "perceptions," on a program at a given time.  One way that you might use perception data before a program is to do a needs assessment to see what the perception of your students, parents, teachers, administration, or any combination thereof might be with regards to what they need from you.  For example, if you are trying to determine what groups might be the best use of your time in your elementary school, you can develop a brief questionnaire that asks students to pick their top two out of several options, and maybe follow up with a questionnaire to the teachers and parents, as well.  In this way, you are making decisions about how to utilize your time and resources that reflect what your school community needs, not just what you think they need or what you like to do.  Thus, you may learn that 70% of your students want groups on study-skills and that this is supported with 80% of teachers and parents, versus only 2% of students, teachers, and parents that feel a group on social-skills would be beneficial.  Now, this does not necessarily mean that  you will throw a social-skills group out the window, but it would warrant looking into it further and finding additional sources of data that might support the need.  We also use perception data quite often to see what change has occurred in students feelings, thoughts, or knowledge as a result of our interventions.  Often this is done through either a pre and post test combination, or simply a post test.  These can come in many forms, but asked in developmentally appropriate ways (a choice of two pictures, such as a smiley face and a frowny face for younger students versus a five-point Likert scales for older students) how someone believes they have changed because of your lesson, group, or program.  Thus, there was a 50% increase in 10th graders knowledge of career options as a result of your lesson.  After your lesson on bullying and harassment, 98% of 8th graders could correctly identify the bully, the victim, and the bystander and their roles in the bullying cycle.  Thus, perception data is more powerful than process data in that it can demonstrate change and growth as a result of your program.  However, it is subject to self-reporting, which is not always the most reliable, and does not address the direct impact that the program  has on the academic process.
  • Outcome Data: This data was previously known as "results" data, so if you see that term used in prior publications, articles, or entries, realize that they are referring to the same general idea.  Outcome data refers to academic information such as grades and test scores, but also enrollment in rigorous courses and post-secondary planning outcomes.  It also refers to attendance and school-safety.  This is the most powerful data that we can use, as these are the hard numbers that administrators, communities, and state and national entities are tracking.  If you can show that through your intervention grades have improved, test-scores have gone up, enrollment in advanced coursework has increased, more students are applying and being admitted to two and four year colleges, students are coming to school more, or disciplinary incidents have decreased, you are demonstrating that your program is having a direct effect on the academic process, success, and "outcome" of the students in your community.  80% of students who participated in the year-long "Student Success" program saw an increase of .5 or better in their GPA.  Students with five or more unexcused absences that participated in the student-parent program targeting school engagement saw a 65% drop in truancy after two months.  As a result of a school-wide, comprehensive bullying and harassment campaign led by the school-counselors, reported incidents of bullying and harassment were down by 50% from the previous year.  Ultimately, we want as many of our programs to show a change in this data category, as it speak to the true power that school counselors can have on the success of our students.
For more in depth explanation of this information, refer to the ASCA National Model, 3rd Edition.  

So, why do school counselors need to speak this language and use data?  I have been involved in many conversations over the years with practitioners who state that finding data, developing instruments to measure interventions, and analyzing and presenting data takes time away from our direct work with students, which is what we have been trained to do and which is what is most beneficial to students and communities.  There are those that feel that the data-driven movement has taken the humanity out of our profession.  My counter to this is that first, we need data to better make use of our limited time. We all have high case-loads, and some of us in various parts of the country have extremely high case-loads.  By looking at information such as grades and test-scores, broken down by subgroups, as well as needs assessments, we can better target our time with those who may benefit the most from more direct interventions.  Secondly, we need to invest our time and resources on programs that have an impact.  This scenario happens all the time:  You have a speaker come in.  You think the speaker is wonderful.  Other adults think the speaker is wonderful.  No one ever asks the kids what they learned from the speaker, and no one ever follows up to look at academic, attendance, or school-safety data to see if there was any strong, long term impact from the speaker.  Are you really getting the bang for your buck with this intervention, especially if you have taken away from instructional time and spent money to bring this speaker in?  By using data to measure the effectiveness of programs, either with perception data, outcome data, or both, you will quickly determine which programs work and which do not.  This empowers you to justify cutting some things, changing some programs, and developing others based on the true needs of your school.  It also will allow you to ultimately spend more time with students if you are able to do away with some things that have no impact whatsoever on your school community.  Lastly, we need to collect and use data in order to promote, defend, and expand our profession.  As the latest 2012 National Survey of School Counselors from the National Office of School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA) tells us, both school counselors and school principals believe that school counselors are ready to take the lead in helping develop students who are college and career ready and chart them on a path to strong post-secondary options.  However, for better or for worse, we need to show our local, state, and national communities just how strong an impact that we are able to have on the academic achievement and outcomes of our students in order to receive the necessary resources and reasonable case-loads that will allow us to do this important work.

So, where do you start?
  • Examine data sources that are already available.  Most schools across the country have public "report cards" that breakdown testing data by subgroups.  This can give you an idea pretty quickly of where students are and are not doing well, academically.  You can take this information to your team, administration, or advisory council to begin to develop a program that can address this.  Additionally, look at student grades, graduation rates, attendance, and school-safety data.  This information alone should help to give you some ideas of where there are needs for your services within your building.
  • Consider doing a needs assessment.  Take a deep breath--this does not mean do a needs assessment of every student, teacher, or parent in your building.  Target a small population--pick a grade level, do a random sampling, or look at a subgroup that you've found based on information you've gleaned from the previous bullet-point.  In this way, before you develop a program, you can get a better handle on what those students need most.  You may think that your group targeting 7th grade attendance needs help with study-skills, but your needs assessment of them prior to starting may point you in a different direction.
  • Find ways to collect data on your programs.  If this is overwhelming, start with one or two, and over the course of a few years add more until you are examining your entire program.  It is important to begin to ask yourself and your team what changes in perception and student outcomes are occurring as a result of your interventions.  You can use paper-pencil pre and post tests or you can use online tools like Survey Monkey and Naviance to gather perception data, and you can go into your school's database to gather the outcome data.  Once you start taking a look at some of the programs that may have been in place for years, you may be surprised by the results.  This can begin some important conversations within your school as to how to best utilize your time and resources.  Some of them may be difficult conversations, but with data you are always able to bring the discussion back to student success and outcomes.
  • Share your data.  Regardless of what the data shows, whether effective or ineffective, share your data with stakeholders.  This can be a great thing to do during your advisory council meetings, but you should also feel free to share it with teachers, administrators, and parents as appropriate.  This can be done informally through e-mails, presentations, or newsletters, or you can develop more formalized reports.
If these steps seem like they are just scratching the surface and you are looking for more information on how to compile data and make more formalized DATA reports, I would highly recommend taking a look at Making DATA Work by Dr. Anita Young and Dr. Carol Kaffenberger and available through the ASCA Bookstore.  This book will go into much more detail and give you step-by-step instructions on compiling data, developing instruments to measure programs, and writing a DATA report to share with your stakeholders.  It also includes samples for you to look at that can serve as models.  

Once you begin this process and develop a comfort level with data, you will not only be on your way to RAMP, but you will have begun to find ways to maximize your time with students as well as demonstrate just how powerful the role of a school counselor can be within a school and community.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Depression: 'Tis The Season

I am still not used to the fact that it is getting dark outside around 4 o'clock in the afternoon.  There are times when I wonder about having gone into a career where I go to work in the dark, spend almost the entire day in my windowless yet tastefully decorated office, and then leave work just as the sun is beginning to set.  My already pale skin moves from its typical cream with a hint of pink to full-on pasty white.  I could easily be considered for a role as an extra in any one of the plethora of television shows and movies featuring vampires.

Sigh.  Welcome to the dog days of winter.

It has begun--the winter season.  Not only is there less daylight, but it is colder, making people less likely to partake of natural sunlight outdoors even if they could.  The holidays are coming, which means hectic travel schedules and more time with family.  This much togetherness can be positive but also has the potential to aggravate and enhance any already existing conflict or discord.  For those families who are already struggling financially, emotionally, or both, this time of year can be a true challenge.  If you've been in school counseling for a while, you know that these stressors are not confined simply to adults, but that they also can have quite a large impact on our students.

A recent article by Lynne Shallcross in Counseling Today discussed the topic of depression, and a large section of it highlighted the often invisible high-risk group of adolescents, especially adolescent girls.     According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by the time they are 18 years old, and according to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability amongst people ages 15-44.  Additionally, depression can lead to suicide, which is still the third leading cause of death amongst youth ages 10-24 years old.  You may think that this is something that you will not really address as a school-counselor.  After all, we do not provide therapy, and surely if a student is depressed, then they will be taken care of by an outside clinician.  While this may be true, it does not mean that we do not still play a key role in assisting students and families who are working through depression.  More importantly, we are in a position to be able to work towards prevention and education.

First, what is depression?  The DSM-IV-TR defines Major Depressive Disorder as having had the presence of at least one Major Depressive Episode.  A Major Depressive Episode needs to have had at least five or more of the following symptoms present during a two-week period as well as a change from previous functioning, and at least one symptom is either the first or second on the list below:
  • Depressed mood most of the day, almost every day.
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in typical activities
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Observation by others of either psychomotor agitation or excessive slowing down
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt nearly every day
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate nearly every day
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, suicide ideation, or suicide attempts (APA, 2000)
The symptoms also need to cause significant distress in their social and/or academic functioning (APA, 2000).  It is important to note that these are the symptoms for adults.  There are some variations among children and adolescents.  First, as is discussed in the Counseling Today article, depression can often be a challenge to diagnose in adolescents because they are already typically undergoing a lot of mood shifts.  We often chalk up extreme sadness in teens to simply been a teenager.  However, if a student's sadness about a situation continues to linger over time about an event that occurred, this may be a warning sign.  Additionally, you may begin to see other areas of concern.  For example, we should also look for changes in attendance, grades, peer groups, and peer relationships, in addition to the mood alterations as well as any physical symptoms like a change in sleeping and eating habits.  Further, in children you may not see so much the diminished interest or depressed mood, but rather instead irritability and defiance.  Also, because of adolescents' quick-to-change moods, strong desire to fit-in, and a need to show a certain "face" in public, students may be depressed and yet also be observed in some situations to appear as if nothing is wrong.  It is not uncommon to have a student who will seem to be outgoing as ever in school, but when they are home by themselves report that they do nothing but cry, sleep excessively, and hide from family and friends.  Thus, often it can take some probing conversations and a careful examination of all the possible symptoms to really get at the heart of the matter.  It is important to note that, as previously stated, girls are at a higher risk of depression than boys, as are children who have suffered trauma or who have conduct or attention disorders.  Additionally, LGBTQIA children are also at a higher-risk for suicide and mental health concerns.  

So, what is your role, as a school counselor, in all of this?  First, we have a real opportunity to do preventative work with regards to depression:
  • Build resiliency in all students.  While there is certainly a physical/chemical component to depression, there is often an event of some kind that will trigger an episode.  Students with few coping schools and resources are more likely, in this instance, to slip into depression.  As a high-school counselor, we often talk to our new students and our 9th graders about participating in sports, clubs, community service, and additional extra-curriculars and stress the impact this can have when they fill out college applications.  However, participation in these activities also helps to build connectivity to the school as well as assisting them in forming positive relationships not only with other students but also with the coaches and sponsors.  It is these links to other people, both peers and adults, and the trust between them, that can be invaluable when a stressful life event occurs.  Rather than feeling like he/she is alone, a student will have a network of trusted friends and mentors to go to.  School counselors can help to connect students with these activities through group orientations, through their counseling website/Twitter feed/Facebook page, or through individual meetings with students.  Further, if the activities are related to physical activity, such as club or school sports or dance, these can add another positive coping mechanism and mood-enhancer to the student's life.  Additionally, school-counselors can educate their students on the role of the school counselor as someone who can help them problem solve social/emotional issues in addition to academic and career/college concerns.  If students have a relationship with the school counselor that is based on trust, they will be more likely to come to you if they are struggling with an issue.  The goal is to build a network of support around all students before an episode of depression begins.
  • Educate the school community about the signs of depression and suicide.  We do many lessons with our students, most of them focused on academic and career/college skills.  How about throwing in one or two on the warning signs of depression and suicide?  If the students know about the signs--changes in behavior with regards to attendance, grades, extra-curriculars, friends, sleep, diet, talking about harming themselves, saying goodbye to others, and giving away possessions, etc--then they will be more able to clue adults in when they become worried about their friends.  Additionally, let students know what to do if they are worried about their classmates.  They should talk to a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult about their concerns.  Honor the confidentiality of the student that reports unless there are some extreme circumstances which would make disclosure a necessity.  In this way, students will feel more comfortable with letting staff know if they have a friend about whom they are worried.  Additionally, train the staff on warning signs and develop a procedure for reporting any students of concern to the school-counselors.  This is where strong relationships with your teachers and staff can come into play.  I am always very thankful when a teacher contacts me to ask me about a student who has been missing their class, suddenly not turning in work and failing tests, or who exhibits some other extreme behavior change.  This information allows me to check in with the student to determine what the situation may be and to develop a plan of action to address the presenting issue.
If you do have a student who you are concerned about, what can you do?  In a 2009 article in School Counselor Magazine, Adriean Mancillas, Psy.D gives some excellent tips:
  • Do a suicide assessment and monitor the student.  It is important that if you have a student who presents with some of the signs of depression and/or suicide, that you assess them for risk.  If you are at all concerned or are not comfortable with this, please get additional support from another counselor, school psychologist, or school social-worker.  If there is cause to believe that the student may be suicidal, it is important to immediately contact the parent and ask them to take the student to be evaluated by a mental health professional.  Do not leave the student alone for any reason until the parents arrive.  When the student returns to school, make sure to follow-up with the student and family and check on the student frequently.
  • If the student presents with some of the signs of depression, contact the family and refer to their physician or recommend mental health providers.  If you have a student whose grades have dropped, who is sleeping 12 hours a day, who has stopped engaging with friends and with activities they used to love, you have cause to be concerned about this student, and you think they might be clinically depressed.  How do you address this with the parents?  Remember: school counselors do not diagnose.  You should not say that their child is suffering from depression.  However, we can tell the parents what behaviors and changes we and other school community members are observing, state that we are very concerned by these observations, and recommend that they please follow up with a visit to a primary care physician or a mental health professional.  They should start with their insurance company, but you should also have on hand a list of local providers, some that will provide services on a sliding scale.  
  • Educate and work with the parents.  All parents have dreams for their children, and when a student becomes depressed, it can really interrupt and impact both their academic and social lives.    This can be a challenge sometimes for parents who are worried that this is going to ruin their child's chances to get into a certain college or achieve certain goals.  We have come a long way in this country with regards to acknowledging the legitimacy of mental illness, but there is still a long way to go until we see it in the same framework as physical illness.  People will often wonder why someone cannot simply "snap out of it" when it comes to depression, and it can be our role as school counselors to help educate parents and the community that it is indeed an illness, that it takes time to heal and recover, and that the primary focus for a child who is depressed should be on getting well.  The grades and college plans will come when the child is feeling stronger.  Additionally, some parents may simply need more information about depression in adolescents, and if they have a relationship with you as their child's school counselor, they may be more comfortable seeking answers to their questions from you versus outside providers.
  • Help accommodate the student's academic and school needs.  Students who are in the throws of depression and recovery may not be able to keep up with a full-course load, or may need to lessen the rigor of their classes.  They may need reduced work-loads or access to teacher notes.  Additionally, they may need more access to you, the school psychologist, or the school social worker than other students.  You can help to coordinate with the student, the parents, the teachers, and the outside clinicians to develop a plan that will best assist that student.
  • Be a support to the student during the school day.  We, as school counselors, do not provide therapy, but we can be supports to our students while they are at school.  Building that relationship early with students can be key before an issue occurs, as it will make the student more comfortable seeking you out and trusting you during their recovery process.  It may be that you will check in with the student once a week, or it may be that the student can come to you if they are feeling overwhelmed during the school day and need a safe space to gather their thoughts before they go back to class.  Either way, you can be an invaluable resource in the building to that student while they are also getting outside assistance. (Adapted from Mancillas, 2009)
As they year goes on, we will see more cases of depression in our students.  As school-counselors, we can take the steps necessary to do some preventative work and education, as well as put supports in place ahead of time to help assist our students and their families who are working through this issue.

The following work was cited within this post:

APA. (2000).  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Ed., Text Revision.  Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association. pg. 356, 375.

The following work was cited within this post and is available to members of the American School Counselor Association:

Mancillas, A. (2009) Supporting Students With Depression.  Retrieved from

From the Counselor's Office Named a Top Counseling Resource

This week From the Counselor's Office was recognized as one of the top 100 resources for counselors on the web by the website, Masters in Counseling.  I am honored to have been included with so many other excellent, informative, and inspiring school-counselor blogs!

Top Counseling Resource

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Road to RAMP: Paving It With More Than Good Intentions

This is the first in what will be a series of reflections on the RAMP process.

It is 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon.  School ended at 2:05, and I am knee deep in action plans, program goals, and annual agreements.  Where did I put the latest version of the Small-Group Action Plans?  I am writing out my 6th e-mail in 3 hours to our Student Information Assistant asking her to pull more data from the computer system to help better define our achievement gap goal.  Thankfully, she is a genius, and quickly sends me another Excel spreadsheet filled with numbers.

Our data-collection year has begun--RAMP is on!  Do I have enough coffee for this?

Judging by the buzz in school counseling circles, interest in RAMP (Recognized ASCA Model Program) is exploding.  Local and state workshops are filling to capacity, and all around the blogosphere and in the world of Twitter you will find people asking questions and seeking information and resources.  School counselors want to know how they, too, can receive national recognition for a comprehensive school counseling program.

Whoa, slow down there, partner.  First you will need to develop and implement your comprehensive school counseling program.

People will often ask me, "So, you're RAMPing this year?"  My answer is that we've actually been RAMPing for about four years, this is simply our data-collection year.  You see, RAMP is ideally not a one-year, one-time process.  As with many things in life, the end is not anywhere near as important as the journey you will take to get to that end.  RAMP really serves as a capstone, the cherry-on-top of a sundae that has many layers (preferably a few that involve chocolate) and that has taken time, effort, failure, and sometimes major philosophical shifts to build.  The most important part of this process is the transformation that takes place in you, your team, and your school community as a result of implementing data-driven practices and creating a program that works with, targets, and benefits all students.  We, as school counselors, know that change is often scary, and that it can take people a while to buy-in and get on board with things that are new.  This will extend to your own counseling team, as well as your entire building, depending on your current school climate.  If you have no or few components of a comprehensive program already in place and you try to suddenly complete a RAMP application in one year, you run the risk of meeting with a great deal of resistance.  Additionally, you may succeed and have a recognized program, but if no one else in your building or community has really bought into the comprehensive program or fully understands it, how far have you really come?

So, you're excited about RAMP and interested in taking on the transformation of your program.  Where exactly do you begin?

  • Get a model.  By model, I mean the ASCA National Model, 3rd Ed.  In this revision, they have really streamlined the information and turned much of it into more of a working document, filled with templates and worksheets to get you and your team thinking and working on specific elements, such as mission, beliefs, and achievement gap programming.  Becoming familiar with the model will help you to begin wrapping your mind around what a comprehensive, data-driven program looks like.  One of the additional benefits of the new model is that there is both a print edition and a digital edition.  Both come with access to templates and worksheets, but the digital edition also has video clips and links to additional resources to further explain and enhance content.
  • Educate yourself on the RAMP process and seek out resources.  ASCA has many, many resources to include articles and examples of other RAMP applications so that you are able to see what the expectations are.  One article serves as a checklist to see just how far along in the process your program is and whether you are yet ready to apply for RAMP.  Additionally, there is a link to a monthly checklist for those entering their data-collection year.  Even if you are not there yet, it can give you an idea of what sorts of components need to be in place for a strong application.  Additionally, for those who would like professional development, there is an archived webinar through ASCA about the RAMP process, a podcast about developing a comprehensive program, multiple discussion threads on ASCA Scene, and if there is enough interest in your area, you can schedule an in-person training.  In fact, some of these trainings have already occurred in Maryland, Georgia, and Texas--keep your eyes and ears open for one that may be close to you.
  • Take a deep breath...or five.  If you have done the two steps above and a lot of the information was unfamiliar, you might be feeling overwhelmed.  Remember, transformation is a process and it takes time.  You should not expect to have all these things done overnight.  We'll talk more about where you start in a bit.
  • Seek mentoring.  If you are fortunate, you are in an area where other schools have RAMPed or you have a district that is working to implement comprehensive school counseling programs across the board.  If this is the case, you probably have support and mentors close to home.  However, what do you do if you if you're in a rural district or in a place which has not yet even heard the whispers of the ASCA National Model?  First, I would recommend looking to local and state school counseling organizations.  There may not be anyone locally to turn to, but there is more than likely someone at the state level who can help to connect you to another practitioner who can give you thoughts and feedback.  Even if this person is not local, use technology like Skype and FaceTime to chat face-to-face over the internet.  Additionally, there is support from online communities such as Twitter through the monthly #scchats that occur.  In fact, Dr. Erin Mason will be moderating a chat on Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 at 8 p.m. ET specifically about the RAMP process.  People are out there to help, whether close-by or across the country.
  • Build relationships.  This may seem an odd step, but really, you cannot possibly create a comprehensive program or go through the RAMP process without buy-in from stakeholders.  If you are part of a counseling team, you will need to have the support of your whole team in order to move forward, and oftentimes team members are at very different places with regards to a data-driven program.  If you are the lone counselor in your building, you will need the support of your administration, teachers, and other support staff in your building to make this happen.  Collaborative team meetings with your counseling colleagues combined with advisory council meetings that engage parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community members are vital to beginning to educate people about why comprehensive programs are important and the impact they can have on student outcomes.  The ASCA Model is a great place to start with ways to engage stakeholders and begin to tackle the foundation upon which you will build your program.
  • Speaking of which...where do you begin?  Everyone has to start somewhere, and I must state again that trying to do all of this at once is probably not the best choice for long-term, sustained transformation with community support.  You will know your own situation and school culture best, but the place to begin is with the foundation--Mission, Vision, and Beliefs.  These three things will really help to define and determine the rest of your program, as everything you do, from programs to closing achievement gaps to developing small groups will need to somehow resonate back to these three components.  Next, if you have never collected data before, pick a program or two to really focus on, gathering data before and after the intervention and sharing that information with stakeholders to show the impact of that intervention.  Start small so that it is not overwhelming, but even if you only get information on one or two lessons or groups, by quantifying what you have done and reflecting upon it and what it means for the future, you will have truly begun to examine the effectiveness of what you do.  It may be that as a result of this, you realize that something you have done for years does not have the impact you thought it did, so maybe you should instead focus more of your time elsewhere.  Likewise, it may be that a program turns out to have a strong effect beyond what was ancitipated, in which case it might be time to expand or invest more resources.  This information can be so powerful, especially if the data is tied directly to student achievement (grades, test scores, graduation rates)!  Beyond this, the annual agreement is a great document to really connect what you do with your administration and can serve as a launching-off point to demonstrate where your time really goes versus what may be more effective or ideal.  You can use this document to perhaps negotiate removing some non-counseling duties in favor of tasks that have you working directly with and/or for students.  Finally, doing a targeted needs assessment of students, teachers, or parents can give you some data to help point you in the direction of where you should go next.  For example, if you are trying to determine what groups you are going to run this year, pick a random sample of students (and parents, depending on the age) and poll them to see what the needs might be.  You might be surprised to find that something that you perceived as a huge need is not even on the radar, whereas something else might rise to the top that you hadn't really considered.
By starting small, building key relationships, and making a plan over the long-term that slowly adds components of a RAMP program over time, you will find yourself in your own data-collection year before you know it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Making Sense of Early Trends

Remember the time when you wrote the bulk of your recommendation letters and secondary-school reports in December?  The world would stop moving as you tried to encompass the academic and community careers of all of your seniors in writing, attempting to add some depth, humanity, and warmth to the cold black-and-white statistics on transcripts and standardized testing reports.  You longed for February, when the bulk of them would be done, and you would move on to the equally monumental task of advising students about course choices for the following year.

If you are like me, you have noticed that those days are long gone.  December, in fact, has, every year, become much less of a whirlwind, allowing me to even sit back and enjoy the cocoa on occasion.  Instead, trying to talk to me in October is just about impossible.  For the last two years, almost half of the seniors on my caseload have applied either early decision or early action to colleges and universities.  This means meetings with parents and students right as school begins, and then a non-stop flurry of interviews, conversations, and writing. Lots and lots of writing.

What can be a special challenge is trying to determine how best to advise these students on the early admissions process.  What students should and should not consider applying early?  What are the trends telling us?  What are the ethical standards that guide both us and our students in this process?  To answer these questions, let's play a game of "True or False":

True or False?  Early action and early decision are the same thing.

False.  Both early action and early decision applications will typically be due by November 1st, and student will usually receive a decision by mid-December.  However, early decision applicants can only apply to one school early.  They must apply to other colleges and universities using the regular admissions deadline.  Early decision is known as a binding agreement, meaning that if that student is accepted to the one school to which they applied early, they will withdraw all of their other outstanding applications and agree to attend that school.  Note that this would be in advance of seeing a financial aid offer.  Early action, however, is typically not a binding agreement (read the fine print, though, on college admissions websites, just to be clear).  Students receive notice in mid-December, just as in early decision, but they are not bound to attend the school, giving them time to receive decisions from other schools and compare financial aid packages.  Many schools have moved towards early action versus early decision for this reason.

True or False?   Any student should feel comfortable applying early decision or early action.

False, but with a lot of caveats.  The reason I wanted to do this particular post is that it seems as if the answer to this question changes each and every year, or at least I feel it does.  Even five years ago, early decision/action was really reserved for those elite students whose statistics (GPA's and test scores) were above the school's admissions pool average.  This was because the typical early application pool was full of more high-achieving (statistically speaking--numbers only) students, and in order to be competitive in that pool, students needed to be towards the top of the pack.  Then, in the last several years, the number of early applications has grown leaps and bounds.  This has increased the pool quite significantly, and we see more and more students who fit the average admissions statistics of a school applying early.  Further, in phone calls and conversations with admissions counselors in the last two years, they have stated to me that if a student has a real passion for attending their campus, they would like for them to consider applying early.  Applying early can be a sign to a school that the student is extremely interested in attending their campus next year.  However, I would still recommend that students only apply early if their statistics fall into the average or above for a given school--more on why that is important in the next section.  Additionally, any student applying early decision must be 100% sure that this is the college or university they want to attend, above all others, which means they have visited the school, have a feel for the campus, know that the campus has their major or many majors within their general area of interest, and that they feel they can reasonably afford to go to the school financially.  One very positive trend in early applications is the increase in diversity of the applicant pool.  A Forbes article discusses how colleges and universities are actively encouraging and recruiting students from minority groups and from low-income households to consider applying early, allowing a wider group of students to access this particular service.    

College Board has some excellent guidelines for students considering applying early decision or early action that I feel are a good standard by which to advise your students.  Early applicants:
  • Have researched colleges extensively.
  • Are 100% sure that the college is their first choice (a MUST if applying Early Decision).
  • Knows the school is a strong match academically and socially.
  • Meet or exceeds the average basic statistics (GPA, test scores, class rank if available) of the general applicant pool.
  • Have a consistent academic record over time. (source:
  • You should not feel pressured to apply early just because other students are.
  • You should not apply early decision if financial aid is a large consideration and you will need to compare aid offers.
  • You should not apply early if you feel your senior grades (7th semester) may be necessary to help an admissions committee decide in your favor.  (source:
True or False?  Students can expect a response of accept, deny, wait list, or deferral to the regular applicant pool.

True, but this is where it can get tricky.  Students can certainly be accepted or denied through the early process, and there have been several articles discussing how some colleges and universities are admitting a larger percentage of their early applicant pool than their general pool, overall.  For example, Bucknell admitted 65% of its early applicants as opposed to 30% of its overall applicants.  This US News and World Report article points out a list of schools where applying early action helps students.  However, I would again caution people to consider that the early applicant pool may look very different than the general applicant pool, as many of those applying early tend to meet or exceed the average admissions statistics for that college, making colleges or universities more likely to accept a greater percentage of them.  I would think very carefully about recommending that a student apply early to a school on their list that is a "reach" school because their statistics are under the average for a school.

Another trend that it is important to consider is that of deferring applicants to the regular pool.  It used to be that if the college was not completely sure about an early applicant and wanted to see them as compared to the regular application pool, they would defer their decision until after the regular application deadline.  Indeed, many of my students felt pretty safe applying early, because the general feeling was that if they were not accepted, they would probably be deferred to the regular pool where they could get another review.  However, through a conversation with a parent and then an admissions counselor at one of our area colleges, I have discovered this trend may be on the wane.  Indeed, more schools are trying to make a final decision on an early applicant versus deferring them to the regular admissions pool, as discussed again in this recent Forbes article.  Thus, some schools are simply giving a decision of accept, deny, or wait list, just as they would for applicants to the regular pool.  This should serve again as a caution to advise students to take a strong look at their black-and-white statistics in order to insure that they meet that school's averages, as it may be less likely that they will get a second review in the regular applicant pool.

True or False?  There are ethical guidelines and standards to guide both us as counselors and our students through this process.  

True! For counselors, there are guidelines from College Board about advising students properly about early decision, such as letting them know they have to withdraw all of their other applications if they are accepted and that they are only allowed to apply early decision to one school.  They also discuss the process for students who apply early but do not receive the financial aid necessary to attend, but that should be part of the conversation you initially have with a student before they apply early, because if that is a major concern the early application may not be the best choice.  There are also guidelines for secondary school professionals from NACAC on page five of their Statement of Principles of Good Practice

For students, I would highly recommend sharing NACAC's Students' Rights and Responsibilities in the College Admission Process--it is available in both English and in Spanish.  It details what students and families have a right to expect in the college admissions process, but also gives guidelines about their ethical responsibilities in the early admissions process.

Overall, though, each college and university is going to have a unique process and a unique set of standards by which they evaluate early applicants as well as in the types of decisions they give.  If you are looking for statistics on the percentage of early applications admitted at a given school, I recommend going to College Data, entering the school, and clicking on the admissions tab, or you can try to navigate the websites of individual colleges.  If you have specific questions about the process at a school, please pick up the phone and give the admissions office a call.  I have always been met with admissions counselors, assistant deans, etc. who have taken time to answer my specific questions--it benefits my students, as they get the best guidance possible for that particular school, it benefits me, as I am able to relate up to the minute advice and information, and it benefits the colleges and universities, who are then able to receive applications from students who are well-informed about the process, their own chances, and the possible outcomes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ally Week

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsors a week each year for allies of LGBT students to stand up and pledge to refrain from using demeaning anti-LGBT language, intervene in situations where students are being bullied or harassed based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and engage in activities that attempt to raise awareness and end bullying and harassment of all students.  (source:  This year the week will take place from October 15-19, and schools from around the country will participate in many ways.  The main website for Ally Week has information, name tag templates, and pledge cards that groups can print out as a way for students to show their commitment to creating positive school communities where all students are free from bullying and harassment.  Take a look at the video below for more information:

If you have students that are interested in participating in Ally Week, note that October is National Bullying Prevention Month and that perhaps Ally Week could be incorporated in some way into programming that may already be in place.  It does not necessarily have to be that you use cards and badges, but it is important to acknowledge that anti-LGBT slurs and bullying will be taken as seriously as all other disparaging language and actions.  As I've discussed before, programs such as Ally Week can be important to the academic success of LGBT students.  As the latest data from the 2011 School Climate Survey shares, LGBT students who have schools with supportive adults in the building have higher GPA's, are more likely to pursue higher-education after graduation, are more likely to attend school, and are more likely to feel safe when in their school building. (source:  Thus, interventions within the school that are supportive of all students' rights to be in a safe and supportive environment, including LGBT students, can have long reaching effects into your school's outcome data in addition to the health and well-being of your students.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Shepherding the Flock: Supporting New School Counselors

Think back to when you first started your job as a school counselor.  For some, that may have been 20 years ago.  For others, that may have been last week.  You would have recently finished a graduate program in school counseling, complete with an internship that provided you with real experience working in the schools.  All of this prepared you to be a rock-star school counselor.  Your education was complete--you knew it all.

Perhaps not.  If you were more like me, you sat in your first meeting with the other counselors in your school, two weeks before the students started back, being given task after task, data report after data report, having no earthly idea of a) what they were talking about and b) how to do the things they were asking of you.  I'm pretty sure I had a look of sheer panic on my face, as one of the my colleagues came up to me afterwards and reassured me that they knew how I felt and that they would sit down with me the next morning and help me work through the list.

No matter how strong our graduate programs were, and no matter how much a part of the school team we became when we did our internships, there will always be a learning curve when new school counselors start their very first job, just as there is when new teachers start teaching.  There is a huge difference between being somewhere a few hours a day or a few days a week, having a small select population of students that you work with, and then suddenly having a real case-load that is all your own, with no supervising counselor to serve as your buffer when things don't always go according to plan.  Often you are suddenly trying to map out your calendar for the whole year, learn a new student database program, and pull together the five classroom lessons, all for different grade levels, that you are required to teach the first week as part of the rotation in an elementary school.  Never mind trying to forge relationships with teachers and figure out how you and your administration are going to function as a team.  Oh, and by the way, you're in charge of the school's mentoring program.  And we're also going to need you to develop a school-wide bullying program that the Superintendent wants in place by the 2nd week of school.  And the PTSO board wants to meet with you to talk about the winter-coat drive you will be assisting with starting in October, and they need you to bring estimated numbers of students in need and expect you to have found a place for them to store the coats within the school through December.

You can barely find your office, let alone all the nooks and crannies of your school where you could store 200+ winter coats.

This weekend the Washington Post did a Q and A article with D.C. area school superintendents about everything from education reform to teacher evaluation.  Dr. Jack Dale, from Fairfax County Public Schools, was asked about the amount of training it takes to make an effective teacher.  He states:
"We have found that an effective teacher needs at least a year of well grounded practice to become minimally proficient in the classroom.  Teachers continue to learn and refine knowledge and skills through their first 5-7 years of experience.  The more that experience is with coaching, the shorter the time to become a highly skilled teacher." (source:
I have to agree with this statement, not only for teachers, but for new school counselors, as well.  Our education and learning does not end with our graduate degrees.  Far from it.  Rather, we need continued education, supervision, and connection to resources as we go through our first several years, not to mention our entire careers.  Dr. Dale also mentions that if there is some sort of support in place, such as coaching, that the time for a teacher (or counselor) to become proficient is reduced.  This is because clearly defined support services can more quickly identify areas of need and growth within a new school counselor and then develop targeted interventions that will help to strengthen their skills and performance in a much shorter period of time than if they were simply left to figure things out on their own.  If you are able to get right to the heart of the matter, address it, and move on, things are bound to happen more quickly.

As part of a team, I work with all of the new secondary counselors in my school district.  Our program of support has grown and been refined over the course of many years, and we now have three key-components in place that support our school counselors in their continued professional development:

  • Mentoring:  All new counselors should have a mentor, within their buildings if at all possible.  The mentor is the person who is most able to develop that strong one-on-one relationship with the new counselor and help to troubleshoot anything that may come up on a day-to-day basis.  Further, if the mentor is another counselor in the same building, they will be able to help the new counselor build relationships with the other school staff, as well as help to solve problems in a way that is congruent with the specific school culture.  Additionally, the mentor is the person best able to assess areas of strength and areas for growth in the new counselor and help them to practice and develop new skills that will assist them in becoming a stronger professional.  This component is key--new counselors have come out of graduate programs where they were receiving regular supervision of their practice within schools, and it is essential that they continue to receive supervision support within at least their first year of work.  Mentors should not be responsible for any part of the new counselor's evaluation--they should be seen as a support, not as punitive.  If it is feasible, training and support should be available for mentors to assist them in their work with new counselors.
  • Connection to Resources:  No matter what school district or location the new counselors are in, they will need help learning what resources are available to them within the schools as well as in their communities for their students, and their students' families.  Within school systems, these can include alternative programs, the process for identifying and supporting students with special needs, information on the curriculum and how it is sequenced within your school system, and internal crisis procedures.  Outside of the school system, counselors need information on social-services (housing, clothing, food) as well as referral options for mental health to include those that are free or on a sliding scale.  Further, school counselors need nuts-and-bolts education on how procedures work within their schools and within their districts, everything from calling Child Protective Services (CPS) to assessing and notification for suicide risk.  This information can be disseminated in  multiple ways--we have meetings throughout the year with the new counselors where this information is presented, usually by the people in charge of or connected with the resources themselves.  How can you begin to identify what resources need to be shared and when they should be presented?  Consider giving a needs assessment to some of the newer school counselors in your district--what would they have liked to have had information on and when would it have been helpful?  You can also look at the calendar of the year and determine what topics are most needed at a given time--curriculum information is probably best before academic advising season, whereas the special needs student information specific to your district may need to be fairly early.
  • Continuing Education and Skill Development:  As I wrote about above, you learn a lot in your school counseling graduate program, but every new school counselor is continuing to build their skills as a professional.  20 years ago, almost all school counselors had been teachers before they became counselors.  Now, if your district is similar to mind, about half of new school counselors have never been in the classroom.  This is not a negative--these career-switchers bring an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience from such areas as the private sector or the military.  However, they have a steeper learning curve when it comes to learning the structure of a school as well as essential skills like classroom management, lesson planning, and developing assessments for when they have to step into the classroom.  Most graduate programs do not include the topic of college advising and admissions in their curriculum, yet for high school counselors, this information and knowledge is imperative.  Additionally, in almost every district and school in the United States, school counselors are seen as leaders and are expected to facilitate team meetings, parent conferences, and serve on or lead school committees.  These types of leadership and management skills, even if they were addressed in graduate school, continue to need honing as school counselors transition into full time work in their buildings and begin to apply them to real-world situations on a regular basis.  Again, there are many ways to work this into a program of support for new counselors--we have joined forces with our program that supports new teachers, known as Great Beginnings, to teach classes after-school on a monthly basis that cover many of these topics for our new school counselors.  They work together as a cohort through a variety of activities designed to get them thinking about their practice as well as learn new skills.  Again, if you are trying to determine what some of the skills should be for a program in your district, consider doing a needs assessment of not only recent new counselors, but also from Directors of Student Services/School Counseling in schools and perhaps even administrators (in elementary schools).  As the people responsible for evaluating new counselors, they may have noticed patterns over the the last several years that a program of education could help to address, for example a need for more work on classroom management skills.
Now, many of you may be reading this and think that this is something that is unattainable in your district--lack of funding, lack of support personnel, or your school district is so small that there is only one school counselor in each school, and there are only three schools in your entire district.  How on earth do you create a full-blown program to support new counselors and their specific needs and skills (as opposed to just being lumped in with new teachers) when you have any of the constraints above?  Hopefully the tips and ideas below will help you to think of some ways to implement some of the supports I discussed:
  • If there is currently nothing in place and you need to pick one thing to start with, choose mentoring.  That one-on-one connection with another school counseling professional, even if that person is in another building, is the most important thing, in my opinion.  New school counselors, especially if they are by themselves in a school, need to have someone they can pick up the phone and call to discuss the often very confidential and ethically-gray situations that we tend to run into.  They need at least one other professional in their world that understands the specific challenges of being a school counselor that they can turn to in order to problem-solve, from whom they can get a resource, or someone they can just vent to when things have not gone particularly well.  It is important, when mentoring, to maintain appropriate safeguards with regards to confidentiality, especially if you are in a smaller town or district.  Avoid names, if possible, in your discussions, and make sure that you are not having conversations about sensitive topics in public places like coffee-shops and restaurants.  Further, even if the mentor is not in their particular school, they are at least in the same school district, so they will have some knowledge of how things tend to work, in general.  Mentors automatically connect new counselors to internal and external resources, as well as help to teach new skills on an individualized basis.  Hopefully, whether formally or informally, there is already some form of this in place in your district.  If not, maybe you are the one to start it?
  • We have mentoring. Where do we go from there?  You may be ready for a mentoring "extension."  Consider formalizing your mentoring program with a month-by-month list of items to cover (which, again, can include resources and skills building) and even some review of data to determine goals that fall in line with the ASCA National Model.  For an example, take a look at Delaware's school counseling mentoring program, complete with checklists of items to be covered.  If you do not have the resources or personnel to develop separate programs to share resources or continue education, build some of it into your already existing program.
  • There is no one to coordinate and facilitate a separate program for school counselor development.  Further, there is no money to pay for the extra time it would take to develop such a program.  Believe me, I understand this concern.  Many districts do not have someone in their central offices devoted exclusively to school counselors, and in a challenging economy there is not a lot of "extra" floating around out there to develop new programs.  You might see if there are any grants available for your needs, but this may be hit or miss.  You have to know your own school and district and just how flexible things may be.  Perhaps you can volunteer to head up a mentoring and class effort in exchange for a reduced case-load of students.  Maybe you can negotiate one-day off a month to work at the central office to develop and manage the program.  If none of these things work, there is another currency with which schools can reimburse you for your time--continuing education units (CEU's).  Each state asks for a certain number of CEU's to re-up certification every so many years--perhaps you can more than make your quota by being reimbursed with points for developing a program for new school counselors over the course of a year, and then getting some each year as you maintain it.  Additionally, if there is a program of support for new teachers (and many districts have such a program), how is that being supported, and is there any way you might be able to garner support through that program?  None of these may ultimately work, but it may be worth asking a few questions and proposing a few ideas to see what may be possible.
  • We have a strong mentoring program, but some new counselors are getting a good education when it comes to resources and some are not.  We are not going to be able to meet on a regular basis to go over them, but they are essential.  What should we do?  First, you could strengthen the mentoring program even more by working these resources into the program--if all the mentors are required to go over special needs students during the second month of school, chances are higher that there will be more consistency across the board.  Beyond that, consider creating a School Counseling Resource manual that is updated regularly with procedures, internal resources, and external referral sources.  In this world of technology, consider doing this electronically through a shared internal drive, through a school counseling Blackboard or SchoolFusion website, or on a flash drive given to new counselors.  You could also consider creating videos that walk new counselors through various resources that they can watch together with their mentors, or you can use programs such as Prezi to create presentations that will educate them on what is available in your district and make sure that everyone is getting the same message.
  • We do not have the resources to develop our own curriculum for continued education and skills development.  What might be some other options?  First, check out what speakers and experts are available within your building or district.  If you are looking for some professional development on lesson-planning, you may be able to have a colleague who is a teacher lead a session on that topic.  There are probably people who already have things prepared and ready to go that would be happy to partner with you.  However, there are a lot of options out there with regards to pulling things up for free to work on with new counselors.  First of all, the ASCA webinars are free to members.  Take a look at the schedule there and pick out a few that seem relevant to your school and/or district.  Then, watch them with the new counselors and follow up with discussion and ideas for how to incorporate some of the concepts discussed into their practice.  Topics this year include classroom management, bullying, technology use, and leadership--perfect for new school counselors.  Another great website for webinars is the National Office of School Counselor Advocacy (part of College Board)--check out their events page for upcoming and past events that you can access.  Another resource would be the plethora of school counseling blogs that are out there--find some entries that get to the heart of things like classroom management, lesson planning or academic advising and discuss them as a group.  You can find a pretty complete list of blogs at the School Counselor Online Professional Exchange (SCOPE) as well as some great tech ideas.  Additionally, there are monthly school counseling chats on Twitter (1st Tuesday of the month, 8 p.m. ET) that cover a variety of topics.  A great idea might be to have all the new counselors in your district hop on together for these chats and then follow up with a discussion of the topic as it might relate to your district.  There is also ASCA Scene, the school counseling discussion board--start a thread with the new counselors in your district and see where it goes, getting input and feedback from school counselors from around the world.  Perhaps you can find some time to gather everyone together for some topics, and enrich the experience with some of these options provided by technology--get creative! 
As we have a unique role as school counselors within our schools, we need unique and tailored professional development, especially in those first years, that speak to our specific skills, needs, and challenges.  It is our ethical responsibility to "provide support, consultation, and mentoring to novice professionals." (ASCA Code of Ethics, F.2.b)  My hope is that by focusing on mentoring, connection to resources, and continuing education and skill development, you can work within your school and district to build and design a program that works for you to "shepherd" in the next generation of school counseling professionals.

I must absolutely acknowledge several people and entities that I have the privilege of collaborating with in our work with new secondary counselors in my district: Marcy Miller, Valerie Hardy, the entire FCPS Great Beginnings staff, and my partner-in-crime, Deborah McDonald.  I am able to write about this topic only because I work with such outstanding people.