Saturday, February 25, 2012

Men and Anorexia Nervosa

This story aired very recently on MSNBC--take a look:

Eating disorders are, for the most part, still mainly thought of us a female issue.  However, according to statistics in the 1990's up to 10% of those suffering from an eating disorder were male (around 1 million people), and now it is estimated that number is up with men making up to 25% of all eating disorders.  This is not a small number, and if you have not yet run across it in your school, chances are good that at some point in your career, you will.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?  It is a disease in which a person limits their food intake and often increases their exercise regime, both to an obsessive and compulsive degree, such that they ultimately lose so much weight that not only do they endanger their mental health, but their physical health, as well.  Further, they themselves have very skewed perceptions of how they look, often believing that they are somehow still "too fat," even if they are clearly extremely underweight.  If we look to the DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic criteria are as follows:
  • Refusal to maintain normal body weight, typically indicated by weighing less than 85% of the standard normal body weight for someone of their height and age.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, even though they are underweight.
  • Body weight and size make up the whole self-worth of the person and there are denials of the seriousness of their low weight.
  • In postmenarcheal females, an absence of at least three menstrual cycles in a row. (APA, 2000)
These criteria help to identify women with anorexia nervosa, but men are a bit different.  First of all, Criterion D, the missing of menstrual cycles, does not apply to men.  Further, Criterion B, the intense fear of gaining weight, while applicable to some men with anorexia nervosa, is not indicative of how the disease will manifest itself in all:
"Experts say that males with eating disorders tend to obsess over particular body types, rather than weight, and that these types can vary drastically. One may want to be lean, another extremely muscular." (source:
"You rarely hear from guys about clothes size. The majority of guys I've treated with anorexia say to me, with a straight face, 'I will gain as much weight as you want me to gain, as long as it's muscle,' "--Dr. Ted Weltzein, medical director of eating disorder services at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin. (source:
In other words, guys are more likely to be concerned that they are not bulking up enough or developing that tight swimmer's build more than on the numbers on the scale.  The possible exception, according to the article above, are some gay males, due to the fact that they have similar social, media, and image pressures to those of women.  Additionally, because eating disorders, in general, are thought of as primarily occurring in women, they often go undiagnosed in boys.  Rather, it is often instead classified as depression because of the loss of weight and low-self esteem.  This story from the BBC discusses this concern:

Thus, there are some slight differences between how anorexia nervosa will present between men and women.  However, the root-causes and underlying issues of the disease are the same for both genders.  First, perfectionism to the point of obsession, although with boys it is often with their athletic prowess more so than their grades.  Secondly, extremely low self-esteem and self-worth, which can often be misdiagnosed as depression.  Because of the prevailing attitude across society that eating disorders are strictly women, it is extremely important for school counselors to be aware of the fact that men are also susceptible and to notice the warning signs.  It is not our job to diagnose, and it is certainly not within our expertise to treat, but we, in conjunction with our colleagues, can often begin to notice the symptoms and share our concern with the student and their families.

The challenge can be deciphering what may be a warning behavior in a student and what is just normal adolescent development or healthy concern about maintaining weight and physique for athletic teams or events.  Considerations:
  • Weight-loss:  If the weight-loss is associated with a growth spurt, it may just be normal development.  If the weight-loss is associated with an increase in physical activity, such as joining a school team or a performing group that involves a lot of dancing, it may simply be indicative of that.  If, however, there is extreme weight-loss over a relatively short period of time with no noticeable cause, it may be worth asking some questions to gather more information.  It may not be an eating disorder and could indicate another medical problem, but it is worth checking out.
  • Obsessions and changes in social behaviors:  You have a young man who has always been interested in sports and working out.  However, as of late, wrestling is all he can talk about, and when he talks about it, he is constantly worrying about staying within his weight class as well as his muscle development.  Further, some of his friends have come to you because he has almost disappeared from their lives, preferring instead to work out and train more, even in the evenings and on weekends.  This is worth gathering more information about.  It is normal for kids to become more focused on sports during a particular season and this can often mean spending less time with friends or on other activities.  However, if it seems to be heading to an extreme, it may be time to check in with the student and their family.
  • Eating habits:  These can be harder to evaluate, especially as they get older and are less supervised for things like lunch.  More often than not, I get reports from other students who are worried about their friend and how they seem to have stopped eating.  This may be a time to just take a walk around the lunch room to make your own observation, as well as talk to the student.  Some students just become more health conscious during adolescence and are more particular about what they eat and put into their bodies.  Some students won't eat at school but grab something on their way home, especially if they have early lunch times.  However, if you and others (students, faculty) notice extreme weight-loss combined with a lack of eating, it may be worth sharing some concerns with the family.
How do you start these conversations with students and their families?  Very carefully.  If I've been given concerns about a student from teachers or from students, or if I myself have become worried about a student, I usually ask the student about behaviors and health.  How are you sleeping?  When are you studying?  Do you feel tired a lot? Are you eating breakfast?  Lunch?  Dinner?  What is your exercise routine?  Surprisingly, most of the time the students are fairly honest.  Depending on the level of concern, I may ultimately discuss the situation with the family.  Here is it vitally important to just focus on your observations and the behaviors of the student--do not diagnose and say "your child has an eating disorder."  Instead, express your concern about the weight loss, the extreme work-outs, social changes, and/or feelings that may have been expressed about perfectionism and needing to look a certain way.  The family may give you some information that explains everything, they may share in your worry and want to talk about where to go next, or they may be completely unaware.  It is fine to recommend then that they see a physician to further address the issues involved.  In talking to both students and their parents about this situation, be prepared to meet with some resistance.  Again, eating disorders are still thought of as primarily afflicting women, and if boys are working out and focusing on building muscle-mass to perform better in sports, this may not be seen by many as a concern but rather something to be encouraged.  It may take time and several attempts to help bring the issues into focus.

There are plenty of resources out there for you to gather more information.  I would highly recommend checking out the National Eating Disorders Association website.  They have multiple first-person accounts from men who have suffered from anorexia nervosa and have gone through treatment.  Troy had to go through treatment twice, and Patrick worked hard to be perfect in all areas of his life--athletics and academics.  Both of these men have turned this disease into a calling, now working with others suffering from eating disorders.  These stories can help you and, if they are willing to accept the resources, your students and families realize that men can also have anorexia nervosa.  Further, there are pages on the website that give not only general facts about eating disorders, but also facts about men and eating disorders.  Additionally, there are now more and more treatment programs that are geared towards men.  In the past, some men would be turned away from support groups as they were all women.  Now, there are multiple treatment options for men, such as this one at Rogers Hospital in Wisconsin.  Finally, there are toolkits for educators, parents, and coaches/athletic trainers, full of information about what eating disorders are, what signs to look out for, and where to point students and families when they need help.  Consider sharing these with your counseling colleagues, teachers, and athletic personnel either through e-mail, at a faculty meeting, or at an in-service so that the entire school community can be aware of the signs and the issues.

The following source was cited in this entry:
American Psychiatric Association. (2000).  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed. text revision).  APA: Arlington, VA.

Friday, February 24, 2012

College Scorecard

The White House is asking for comments on the design of the College Scorecard.  What is the College Scorecard?  It is a tool designed to help prospective college students and their families compare the costs, graduation rates, loan debt, ability to repay loans, and future career and salary potential of the nation's colleges and universities in a simple, clear, and common graphic chart.

There is a sample up on the website and they are asking for very specific feedback from the public.  Who better to respond than those of us who work with these statistics and assist families in the post-secondary decision making process every single day--school counselors!  Take a look at the mock-up and then comment on the following questions:
  • What information is absolutely critical in helping students and their families choose a college?
  • What other information would be helpful?
  • Does the scorecard cause you to think about things you might not have otherwise considered when choosing a college? 
  • How should this version be modified for 2-year colleges?
  • How should comparison groups for colleges be made? What are important things to consider in grouping institutions together that serve similar students?
  • What search and comparison features would you like the online tool to have?
  • What should we call this tool? Would a different name better explain the service being provided? (source:
We ourselves use these online tools in our jobs, and we also share them as resources with our students and parents--take a few minutes and help design a future school counseling tool!

Follow-up: The Right Fit: LGBT Housing

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the considerations for LGBT students applying for college is finding a school at which they feel safe and secure being out and expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Here in Virginia, Old Dominion University just announced that they will be creating "Lavender House," a dedicated portion of campus housing for LGBT students and their supporters:
"Charles Lowman, assistant director for housing and residence life and a Safe Space Committee member himself, said Lavender House will build on current housing office efforts to match LGBTQ students with roommates less likely to be uncomfortable. 'Having a dedicated residence space will make that matching easier, because Lavender House will be self-selecting to the LGBTQ community and its allies,' Lowman said. (source:
There are only two other universities in Virginia who offer LGBT housing options: George Mason University in Fairfax and the University of Richmond.  These housing options are meant to help students feel included in the campus and develop a community of support, and can certainly be an enticement for LGBT high-school students as they make choices for post-secondary options.  LGBT students should look for housing options, including dedicated LGBT housing and/or roommate matching, as they are searching for schools that are the right-fit.  Click here for the full-article on ODU and the creation of "Lavender House."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Right Fit: LGBT Students and College

If you have been around for the last couple of decades (which, let's face it, I have...I have the gray hair, and less hair, for that matter, to prove it) and you work with adolescents, either in high-school or in college, you have noticed that the average age that LGBT students come-out has become younger and younger.  Back in my day (and now I sound like my father) the average age of coming out was somewhere in the late teens/early 20's.  Now, it is 16.  This means that students are beginning to come to terms with their sexual orientation while in high-school, before they go to college.  What impact does this have on the college search and application process?

In last week's Washington Post college blog, College Inc., an article was written about how well Washington D.C. metro area colleges fared on the Campus Climate Index, a rating system devised and administrated by Campus Pride in order to rank how well a college or university incorporates and accepts LGBT students.  The organization examines schools for such areas as campus policy, campus housing, academic inclusion, institutional support, student life, safety, health (physical and behavioral), and recruitment as it pertains to LGBT issues and, based on these results, issues a ranking.  You can then search their database based on geographical location, size of the school, private, public, etc. to begin to a develop a list of LGBT-friendly schools.  There are other lists out there, as well, such as this one published by The Daily Beast/Newsweek or by clicking on the LGBT-friendly tab of the Princeton Review College Rankings page.  All of these resources will help to generate ideas about LGBT friendly schools.

However, there are some limitations with these websites and lists.  These lists do not tend to cover every university around the country.  For example, my undergraduate alma mater is not ranked at all on the Campus Climate Index, and yet I would say that it was a fairly gay-friendly institution, even when I was there oh-those-many-years ago.  Further, some of this ranking data comes from self-reporting, which is not necessarily reliable, as you will remember from your research courses in your school-counseling graduate programs.  Organizations such as the Princeton Review have stated on record that, "We talk to whom we consider college experts: current college students.”  The concern here is that these surveys are given to all college students, and therefore the perceptions of straight, heterosexual students with regards to a university's LGBT climate and policies could conceivably be very different from the LGBT members themselves, thus skewing the data.

The need is certainly there, though, for LGBT students and their families to find post-secondary institutions that they feel will be supportive and safe.  The death of the Rutgers' student, Tyler Clementi, as well as the numerous gay-suicides resulting from bullying have made both LGBT teens and their families concerned about what environment they are considering for the next four-to-six years of their lives.  As a result, traffic at websites like Campus Climate "have almost doubled from 6,850 a month in 2007, when the Web site started, to 13,580 a month in 2010" as this New York Times blog entry discusses.  However, these websites and searchable databases are only a tool in aiding these students.  What if a school they are looking at is not in one of these lists?  What if the family wants more information?  What specifically should LGBT students be doing to find a college that is both a right-fit for them in terms of size, location, choice of major, and cost as well as being a warm and welcoming place for their sexual and/or gender identity?  Here are some tips for you to share with your LGBT students beginning the college search process:
  • Start the search with the same criteria as every other student.  I always advise my students to sit down with their families and have the hard discussions about what college criteria they are looking for with regards to location (close to home or far away? Urban campus or more rural?), size (large or small?), your academic statistics (GPA, course-selections, and test-scores will influence your choices), choice of majors, and any financial constraints that could effect the search.  As this young blogger talks about, there is no point in examining how LGBT friendly a college campus is if they do not have the major you are looking for, are out of your financial means, or are in a location you would never consider.
  • Search the school's website.  Once you've chosen some colleges to consider based on the criteria above, start to mine for information on the website.  Things to look for:  Does the school have a student LGBT club or organization of some kind?  If so, score one for the school.  In their student and faculty policies, is sexual-orientation and/or gender-identity listed in anti-discrimination regulations as protected? If so, score another one for the school.  Are there identified LGBT or LGBT friendly faculty that you can contact?  Is there an administrative position identified as a touch-point for LGBT students?  If not, at least some staff member designated to working with diversity?  Does the school have an LGBT studies (sometimes called queer studies) major, minor, or concentration?  Look at the events calendar for the school--are there LGBT themed events, movies, or speakers presented throughout the year?  If there are reading lists, are there LGBT-themed books or authors?  The more mentions of LGBT issues you can find online and the more groups and programming that is available to LGBT students at that school, the more likely it is that the school has taken sincere steps to becoming LGBT friendly.
  • Examine other online information.  Go to the Campus Climate website and search to see if the college or university you are examining is in there, and peruse the lists at the Princeton Review or The Daily Beast/Newsweek.  However, these lists will not cover all colleges and universities, and they are not the only source of information students and families should consider.  Additionally, you can search the internet for any student blogs or reviews that might give you some perspectives as to how LGBT friendly a campus may be.  Again, though, you must consider the source of the information when deciding how much weight to give it.  Finally, search the school newspaper as well as community newspapers for any coverage of LGBT issues regarding that college--you may find both positive and negative press.
  • Visit the campus and ask questions of admissions staff, faculty, and students.  Once you have gathered information from online sources, it's time to start talking to people on campus.  Set up a tour with the admissions office and do not be afraid to ask questions about LGBT policies, staffing, and student groups.  If the school is truly LGBT friendly, they will have no problems answering your questions.  Additionally, you may have identified faculty members through your web search, or you can ask the admissions office for a name or two.  While you are on campus, you could arrange to meet with this professor to have a conversation.  Further, you could make contact with a member of the student LGBT organization and speak with them to get the student perspective.  Ask questions about policies, LGBT visibility, campus tolerance, and also campus safety.  Again, if people are not willing to address your inquiries and concerns, that will probably tell you quite a bit about the climate on that campus.  As with any college decision, visiting the campus is crucial--how you feel when you set foot onto the grounds of the school and during your conversations with the faculty, staff, and students will be one of the best pieces of information you get from all of your searching.
Once you have selected schools and feel comfortable with their LGBT friendliness, there are some additional considerations for the LGBT student:
  • Do I reveal my LGBT status in my application and/or essay?  There is no right or wrong answer, as this post from Princeton Review discusses.  For many schools who are looking to add diversity, if could very well help, but only if you frame it in such a way, perhaps through the essay, that shows how your sexual orientation or gender identity has impacted you and helped you to grow as a student and as a person.  Further, you must also consider how far along in the "coming-out" process you are.  Different students will have varying levels of comfort with sharing this personal information--you must make the best decision for you.
  • Are there specific scholarships for LGBT students?  Of course, and more seem to pop up every year.  As stated before, colleges are often looking to add diversity to their campus, and LGBT students are part of that.  If your school or school district is LGBT friendly, a good place to start might be with your school counselor or career center specialist.  There are also many places to gather information about LGBT scholarships online, such as this extensive list at FinAid.Org
The college process is filled with anxiety, excitement, and curiosity for all students and families, but with LGBT students possibly even more so.  Encourage these students to advocate for themselves and ask as many questions as they need of the schools to gather the appropriate information to make an informed decision that leaves them feeling safe, secure, and able to thrive in the college environment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Congratulations to ASCA!

Last year, my May/June issue of the American School Counselor Association publication, School Counselor arrived and I have to admit I was both a bit surprised and immensely proud.  The entire issue had been devoted to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) issues in schools and in school counseling.

As a strong advocate for LGBTQ students in schools, I felt this issue could not have been more timely or more important.  As I've previously discussed, LGBTQ students are bullied and harassed at a higher percentage than their straight peers, and the media has informed us of these adolescents taking their own lives as a result.  By sending this publication to all of its members, ASCA was helping to educate school counselors across the country about strategies they could utilize to help these students.  Through this, counselors were better prepared to address and assist LGBTQ students in need, possibly even saving lives.

Thus, I am thoroughly thrilled that this magazine won the Association Trends Gold Award for this publication.  Congrats to ASCA for a job well done, and thank you for advocating for all students.

Resources: 7 College Blogs/Websites You Should Know About

In my role as a high-school counselor, I am often asked about issues pertaining to college and college admissions:

When to apply to colleges? 
How to select schools to apply too? 
What the criteria are to get into college?  Do I have those criteria?
How will I pay for college? 
When should I take the SAT or ACT?
How important is the essay?
How do I set up a tour?  What should I ask on the tour?
How many AP classes should I take to get into college?

One of the challenges of school-counseling is that you are expected to be an everything. 

Depression and mental health issues?  Expert.  Study skills and test taking strategies?  Expert.  Alternative schools and placements?  Expert.  Parenting?  Expert.  Post-secondary planning to include college, apprenticeships, jobs, community colleges, four-year universities, trade and professional schools?  Expert.  Social skills?  Expert.

There is no possible way that we can be all-knowing omniscient beings, able to tackle every problem with a single keystroke or wave of a magic wand.  Thus, we need to have resources either to educate ourselves or to share with our school-communities.  The following is a list of college-blogs that I both follow and share with my students and their parents via regular electronic newsletters that I mail out through Naviance, a post-secondary planning platform that my school system utilizes.

The thing I love most about this blog is that is is written by actual students going through the college admissions process.  The writers are current high-school juniors, seniors, and even post-grads writing from the vantage point of having already applied, been accepted, and now attending college.  I find that students are often more likely to take information in from their peers than from adults--in this respect, this blog definitely fits the bill.  The students cover topics ranging from test-prep to choosing the right classes to time-management.

The Times runs a wonderful blog, The Choice Blog, which covers the world of higher education to include college admissions and financial aid--you should definitely be following it as a high-school counselor.  However, a subset of this blog is, like the ACT Student Blog, written by current students as they go through the college search process.  They are wonderfully honest essays about the ups and downs of this process--currently the students are all in the midst of the post-application-anxiety-sit-and-wait-phase and also combating heavy cases of senioritis

I may be biased as I live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, but this is a highly informative and timely blog that follows the trends, trials, and tribulations of the entire college and post-secondary process.  It does not have student writers like the previous two, but it provides strong analysis of changes from year to year as well as insight into where the process stands in any given moment.  A guest post from an author with an upcoming book about the college admissions world wrote the following:
"Q: What is the ACT?"
"A: Another standardized test, which up until twenty minutes ago was popular only in the Midwest. But because there are no trick questions, they allow score cancelling and unpenalized guessing, and offer an early September test date, it is the test du jour . New Yorkers are now obsessed with the ACT, and it is gaining fans in other trendy cities. In fact, for the first time ever, the number of ACT test takers is about the same as the SAT. Poor SAT — it now stands for Sad Anachronistic Test." (source:

This is another blog that does not feature student writers, but contains a lot of great information that is written by a woman who is both in the know as a journalist and higher-education expert as well as a mother who has been through this process twice.  You might find that she resonates well with your parent population.  However, her posts are also wonderful for students--her latest series featured three posts about getting ideas for a college-list, finding "hidden gems" for that list, and eight-ways to build the list.  I have found this information extremely helpful as we are currently working with our 11th grade students on beginning the process of searching for colleges that would be strong matches.

The next three websites are not really blogs, but are really top notch resources to share with your students and parents.

This website has many features, but the one I find the most useful is the "Advice" page.  Here you can find articles full of useful information and perspectives.  However, my favorite part are these short, minute-to-a-minute-thirty seconds videos that you can put in e-newsletters or show to students as part of presentations.  Take a look at this one that covers the differences between the SAT and the ACT.

This is another website that helps students and families plan ahead for the admissions process.  The aspect that I really like is that it has separate lists for the tasks that freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors should do in order to make themselves strong applicants for colleges as well as find a school that will work best for them.  The graphic nature of the website also makes it high-school student friendly. 

This website has multiple features.  First, like Naviance it has a full range of college match, college search, and scatagram features--if you are in a school that does not have the Naviance software which will compare students' GPA's and test-scores to the averages of the college or university that the student is considering, this website might be your next best choice.  However, beyond this it has first-person accounts from students of their experience through the process.  They are not really blog entries, but, as previously mentioned, these stories might resonate with your students since they are written by peers.  

These websites will never replace the one-on-one interactions you will have with your students, but as more and more people want information "in the moment," they can certainly help to provide multiple perspectives on a single topic as well as fuel more informed conversations when you discuss post-secondary planning. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reflection: The Road to Licensure

So, in case you didn't happen to hear the screams of jubilation coming from an H&R Block in a basement on K Street in Washington, D.C., on Monday of last week, let me fill you in:

I passed the National Clinical Mental Health Counselors Exam (NCMHCE), the last and final step of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Well, short of Virginia actually mailing me the license, that is.  Just add three to four weeks and stir.

I knew that I wanted to do this before I ever began a graduate degree in counseling in 2006.  I actively sought out a school-counseling program that would not only give me experience in the schools, but that also had a community-counseling component.  Why?  I knew that I wanted to have career options throughout my life.  I love school counseling, but who knows where I will be, mentally, emotionally, or even geographically in two, five, or ten years.  I felt that being able to move from setting to setting would keep me marketable as well as prevent burnout.  Further, I wanted to hone the art of counseling.  My first passion and direction in life was as a musician:  I have two performance degrees--one in voice and one in choral conducting.  I have spent countless hours in practice rooms and rehearsals, becoming not only technically proficient but also an artist who can, either individually or with others, create musical pictures, evoke moods, and share deep emotions.  I wanted to be able to do the same with counseling.  One of my professors in my degree program used to always talk about how counseling is part art, part science, and I believe this to be true.  There is definitely the theoretical and textbook knowledge behind assessing, planning, and designing treatments, whether it is pulling together a study-skills group in an elementary school or working with an adult with Major Depressive Disorder.  However, there is also the "art" behind these interventions--how you develop the therapeutic relationship, how you decide what questions to ask and in what manner, and how you decide to best collaborate with your students or clients on moving forward in their lives.  As you develop and study, there becomes a seamlessness to the craft of counseling, a harmony that grows between you, your students/clients, and the technical skills you have spent so much time honing.

Thinking of going beyond certification as a school counselor and going towards licensure in your state or jurisdiction as a therapist?  I would recommend the following:
  • Plan ahead.  WAY ahead.  If you are currently in your school-counseling degree, start to ask questions of your professors such as, "What would be the additional requirements beyond my degree to become an LPC or an LCPC or a LCMH?" (There are tons of acronyms for "Mental Health Counselor" out there that vary state-to-state.)  Go to your state's licensure website and become familiar with the requirements (which also vary widely from state-to-state--ACA is working on this and licensure portability).  Most states require around 60 graduate hours with certain topics covered as well as some type of supervised experience, everywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 hours.  Many school counseling programs do not require 60 graduate hours, so you will need to plan whether you will get those additional classes in while you are in your degree program or sometime later.  Further, you will need to look ahead to the paperwork and documentation necessary before you may be able to begin your post-graduate supervision.
  • Find the right supervisor and make sure he/she fulfills state requirements.  If you are planning to use your school-counseling job as your supervised hours, as I did, I would recommend finding someone who has either supervised school-counselors in the past, who is or has been a school-counselor that is also a state licensed therapist, or who currently works with school counselors in a graduate program.  They will understand your world and be able to help you to utilize the educational system to best design interventions for your students.  Oftentimes asking around your school district or your graduate program will yield some good leads, or at least some leads who will lead to other leads. You need to check your state requirements as to if your supervisor must also be a licensed therapist in your state.  Some states require this for all of your hours, others require that at least part of your supervised experience be with a licensed counselor, but other hours may be with another certified or licensed mental health professional.  Check your state requirements, as well, for how to register your supervisor--this must often be done before you can begin counting your hours.
  • Money, money, money.  While it is not the only factor, cost is another consideration--how much is the supervision going to cost you over the course of your hours?  There are a lot of ways to go about "paying" for the hours--some of my colleagues started working one or two nights a week at a community-mental health agency in exchange for free supervision.  Others may do part of their hours for free with a colleague in their school who qualifies in their state regulations.  Further, some states allow you to have either all-group supervision or a mix of individual and group supervision--the group supervision is usually at a lower cost.  Truly, there is usually some way to make it work out financially if you are dedicated, ask around enough, and have some flexibility.  However, my caution is never compromise the quality of your supervision for a lower-cost alternative.  This is your investment in your future, and you will need to be prepared for the world of community counseling as well as licensure exams once you are done--a good supervisor can prepare you for both.  Additionally, many jurisdictions will allow you to count at least some of your hours from your internship experience.  Don't forget to plan ahead for the additional costs of further coursework, application fees, and exam fees.
  • Give yourself a realistic time-frame.  Another friend of mine from my degree program finished the required supervision hours as well as the NCMHCE within about 2 1/2 years.  She did this by sticking to a strict and rigorous schedule of supervision and study.  I, on the other hand, needed longer--I had been in graduate school for two years and wanted to be able to once again dedicate time to my singing as well as personal life.  Thus, I did my supervision on a slower pace for two years, and then increased it over the last year.  I gave myself a few months to study for the exam.  It has been a lot of time and work over the last 4 years, but I rarely felt like it was too much for me to handle and still felt like I had time for the rest of my life.  You usually have flexibility with the time frame and can go through the process relatively quickly or take your time.
  • Seek out resources and network with other counselors.  If you are fortunate, there are organizations for therapists around you that can help you decide what are the best study materials for licensure exams, who can connect you with mentors, or who can help to set you up with supervision groups or study-groups for the exams.  Go to conferences and meet people, ask around for counselors with good websites to jog your mind for what you might do in the future.  Between your supervisor, your other colleagues if you are in a supervision group, and a network of support that you build, you should usually be able to pinpoint someone who can either answer a question, lend a kind ear to some frustrations, or help you to find the support that you need.
If nothing else, I think continued supervision in your first years as a school counselor is invaluable--I was able to take the real-life, day-to-day issues from my job and get feedback, direction, and resources that have made me a better counselor, all around.  Your goal may simply be further education, to develop a small practice one night a week or so, or to make the full transition from schools into a community or private practice setting.  Taking the step towards licensure as a therapist is not for every school counselor, but for some it may be the natural evolution of continued education, career, and personal development.

As a final note, I must offer my deepest thanks and gratitude to my supervisor (she knows who she is) as well as the wonderful colleagues that I was able to work with during my group supervision.  It took the support of many, and I feel as if I was able to learn so much from all their varied perspectives.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Insuring Access to a Rigorous Curriculum

An article this week from the Ed Week blog talks about a study that was recently done in Florida which states that the students who accessed rigorous and challenging classes, especially in 9th and 10th grade, were more likely to graduate from high-school and also more likely to go to a four-year college or university.  Additionally:
"While most relationships were the same across demographic groups, Hispanic, African American and poor students experienced a slightly higher increase in high school graduation rates when they took a rigorous course by 10th grade." (source:
The best preparation for students to both get into college and then be successful in college is the exposure to more advanced coursework, whether that be International Baccalaureate classes, Advanced Placement classes, or dual-enrollment, a way to take classes at a two or four year college and also receive high-school credit.  These classes emphasize not only content knowledge, but also higher-level reasoning, critical-thinking skills, creativity, and collaboration, all of which are key to success in college and in life.

There are concerns, though, about minority students having access to these higher-level courses.  For example, there was a school in Evanston, Illinois, where a teacher of honors' science classes stated that "out of 26, you might have three nonwhite students." (source:  Because we now live in an educational culture that looks at and examines data, we are able to see that there are often disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic students in our advanced classes as compared to white students.  Organizations like College Board have noticed that minority populations are accessing courses such as Advanced Placement classes more and more, but that there is still a great deal of room to go.

Thus, one of the movements has been to close minority achievement gaps and to increase minority enrollment in advanced coursework.  This has led some school districts, including my own, to take a hard look at the curriculum and make some choices to encourage more students to take the higher level classes.  The school in Evanston mentioned above proposed eliminating the freshman honor's English course and instead having all 9th grade students take a humanities class together that would discuss art, literature, and philosophy, all with honors level rigor.  In my own neck of the woods, several years ago Fairfax County Public schools began to eliminate the "middle" level of core-classes (English, Social Studies, Science, and Math) and only leave two options: the regular level and the honors/AP/IB level.  As the article from Evanston discusses, there was a concern that students were being placed onto regular or advanced course tracks, and that once they were on one they could not easily move off.  Further, these tracks often fell along racial lines.  By eliminating the honors section or by taking away the middle option, the intention was that either all the students would be together, accessing a high-curriculum, or, in the case of Fairfax County, that with only two choices of level, more students would choose the higher one.  In our case, it worked.  Last school year:
"Greatest gains were made by underrepresented minority students, with Hispanic student AP enrollment increasing by 38.9 percent and Black student AP enrollment increasing by 14.5 percent." (source:
However, there is the counter argument that multiple levels of coursework are needed in order to be able to serve all students.  This last month the Fairfax County School Board voted to again offer the middle level of courses, the 'honors' level, so that students will typically have three choices in their core-classes for much of their high-school career.  The feeling was that you had a significant number of students who were not yet ready for the AP or IB level, yet who needed a more rigorous curriculum than the honor's level afforded.  Further, you had students who would try to balance multiple AP classes with a less rigorous course who found the only choice open to them was a regular class.  In Evanston, there was a great deal of concern that the top students would not learn all that they needed while waiting for other students to move forward.

I believe there are valid arguments on both sides--do I believe that it is a concern when advanced academic courses are culturally and racially disproportionate to the population of the school as a whole?  Yes, I believe we should want to change that.  However, I also had those students who took an AP class who would have perhaps benefited from a year at the honors level, and I had those students who took regular classes who really needed more challenge.  In the Fairfax County debate, I choose to believe that those on both sides really only had the best of intentions.  For my district, a decision has been made, but for myself and for all school counselors trying to help their students become college and career ready, how can we continue to insure that all of our students, including our minority students, have access to that rigorous curriculum that is shown to help them be successful?
  • Find data tools to help you identify students who may be ready for the honors level curriculum.  For example, College Board has a program called AP Potential which, utilizing PSAT data, can help you to see which students in your building are ready for an AP class.  You can even use this information to help your school select which AP classes would be best to offer given your population.
  • Use your academic advising sessions to find students areas of strength and interest.  In your conversations with students as they are signing up for classes, be on the lookout for areas that they have consistently done well in, say English, for example.  Maybe they are not ready in all their classes to take the higher level, but if there is just one area that they excel in, they can start small with an honors English course.  Further, if they are passionate about an area like psychology, their strong interest and love of that subject might help to motivate them to work through challenging reading, notes, and class discussions in an AP Psychology class.
  • Work within your school to build supports.  This one is huge.  At my school, our AP Coordinator runs a mentoring group for any interested advanced academic students, but targeting our minority populations.  She includes summer institutes on study-skills and note-taking, as well as matching them up with a mentor who teaches advanced courses and who checks on them throughout the year.  At Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, they have run groups like The Cohort as a way to provide both academic and personal support to minority students to encourage and keep them in higher level classes.  If your school has AVID programs or College Partnerships, consider working with those leaders to help boost students into higher level courses as well as linking them to college and career success.  There are students who can do well in advanced classes if they have a little bit of help along the way.
  • Emphasize study, note-taking, and test-taking skills at all levels.  Students are much more successful at these classes if they have a strong foundation.  These are lessons and groups that can be done in elementary, middle, and high school, and could also be coordinated with teachers on a school-wide level in all classes. 
No matter what classes your school or district offers, we, as school counselors, serve as advocates for all of our students.  We are the ones who sit with students and help them to select classes that will get them towards their goals--it is an important role. In getting our students college and career ready, we need to do our best to help them build up the academic skills necessary to be successful in their post-secondary options.  Exposure to advanced academic curriculum is one such way that we can directly help them meet those future challenges.

Monday, February 6, 2012

In the News: LGBT Issues in Counseling

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to avoid the topic of homosexuality and gay families in our schools.  As gay people and gay families with children become more visible in the mainstream media (take the award winning television show, Modern Family, for example) and as the bullying of students based on sexual orientation or gender identity continues to remain at the forefront of the national consciousness, school systems are beginning to consider how to address the topic.

As such, there was an in-depth article this weekend in the Washington Post that discussed how area school systems are beginning to implement curriculum that discusses homosexuality as well as gay families:
"Highly publicized teen suicides tied to anti-gay bullying have galvanized administrators to introduce tolerance and safety programs. These days, many openly gay and gay-friendly teenagers are bringing same-gender dates to the prom, putting on gay-themed school plays and creating gay-straight alliances. In elementary schools, a growing number of openly gay — and legally married — parents are also pushing for change. They want their families to be reflected in classroom discussions and on back-to school-night bulletin boards." (source:
There are parents who are concerned about the topic coming up with students, especially in elementary school, out of a fear of "hypersexualizing" their children.  However, discussing gay relationships and gay families is no more about sex than discussing heterosexual relationships and heterosexual families.  In an increasingly more diverse and open society, school systems will need to look to address how best to serve gay students, gay parents, and their entire school communities to create a culture of inclusiveness, acceptance, and safety for all.  These kinds of initiatives start from the top down.  In a previous blog post I wrote about how teachers are ready and feel comfortable bringing this topic up within their schools--they feel they need additional support from school boards as well as central office staff in order to develop appropriate curriculum and set guidelines.


Next, we have a story about Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist who also presides over a ministry in California.  He had the following to say about GLSEN and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs):

Basically, he is stating that GLSEN and GSAs are out to recruit children to the homosexual lifestyle and that:
"...many of these kids, when you see the kids that get wrapped up in this, they're the misfits, for the most part, they're the kids that don't have friends in other places, they're chubby or they have a bunch of acne or they're socially awkward and then the Gay-Straight Alliance Club reaches out to these kids and brings them in and then they start adopting a gay identity." (source:
As a GSA co-sponsor, I can say with certainty that there is not a recruiting aspect in any way associated with the club.  In fact, one of the basic tenants of GSAs is that these groups be student-led and student-driven--the adults are meant to be supports as well as resources if the groups plan events or have questions about policies relating to student organizations/fundraisers/events.  They are not supposed to use the groups for their own agendas, the same as for any faculty sponsor of a school organization.  Secondly, GSAs have a wide diversity in their make-ups with students from all different cultures, backgrounds, and sexual orientations.  Are there lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth in GSAs?  Yes, but there are also many straight allies whose sexual orientation remains constant throughout their participation with the organization.  GSAs are built upon principles of openness and acceptance of all students.

Most importantly, these groups continue to serve as a support for students of all backgrounds, but especially for those who identify as LGBTQ.
"Having a Gay-Straight Alliance in school was related to more positive experiences for LGBT students, including: hearing fewer homophobic remarks, less victimization because of sexual orientation and gender expression, less absenteeism because of safety concerns and a greater sense of belonging to the school community." (source:
Given the current focus in our nation on bullying as well as the number of teen suicides attributed in part to harassment and bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation (including another one this past week), these student clubs can help to connect students to each other for support, identify accepting faculty sponsors, and give them a meaningful connection to their school, all of which have been identified as markers for stronger levels of academic success.


Finally, this New York Times article continues the conversation on whether it is ethical to dismiss counselors-in-training from graduate counseling programs if they refuse to work with LGBTQ clients for personal religious reasons.  I posted this article on Twitter (@CnslrDarrell) and have had excellent points made on both sides.  For consideration:
  • Counselors are ethically bound to refer clients who are out of their scope of practice.  Would this qualify?
  • Is the role of the counselor to affirm someone's actions or beliefs, or is it to facilitate the client being able to make whatever changes are necessary to achieve a "normal" level of functioning?
  • Would it be acceptable to refer clients of other races because a counselor was not comfortable with him/her?  Is a homosexual client any different?
  • How can you really screen completely for any issue that many go against your own personal beliefs and values?  As the article discusses, what a client walks in with as the presenting issue may not ultimately be what comes out after 5 or 6 sessions.  
  • What about school counselors? You cannot typically refer your students and must ethically assist them with whatever needs may arise.  This includes students with gay parents and who themselves identify as LGBTQ. (source:
I believe it comes down to a few things--harm to the client, for one.  A colleague on Twitter asked the question, "Is it more harmful to refer the client immediately, thus having them face rejection, or is it more harmful to have them work with a therapist who believes them to be 'wrong'?"  Harm either way, I believe.  Still, I wonder what many counselors believe when they enter the profession.  In an increasingly more diverse society, it is very unlikely that you are always going to be able to work with the "perfect" client who shares in your same beliefs and convictions.  It seems to me that the ethical mandates to develop strong multicultural skills (LGBTQ people are a culture) as well as the emphasis by CACREP to incorporate multiculturalism into almost every aspect of a program would dictate that counselors be prepared and willing to work with a wide swath of people.  Clients are going to make choices or live lifestyles that you may not agree with or would choose yourself.  I ultimately believe it is not our role to judge, but rather to help clients work towards goals that allow them to return to a high quality of life.   

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Value" Added: The True Meaning of "Success"

We are halfway through the school year here in Fairfax County.  What does that mean, besides much rejoicing for students and faculty alike?  It means that we had two work-days this week, one of which was our mid-year in-service.  This year we were divided up into "pyramids," which includes counselors from the high-school and then the feeder middle and elementary schools.  We did this last year and it was a huge success--you can read all about it in the latest issue of School Counselor Magazine, free for members of the American School Counselor Association

The focus of this mid-year in-service was on College and Career Readiness as well as 21st Century Skills, topics I've written about before.  Two of my colleagues and I presented on these subjects, and the goal was to see what we do as a vertical team to help students explore the world of post-secondary options and link it to the world of work--perhaps we could pool our resources or come up with programming that would impact all of our various educational levels.  As we talked through this topic, it became clear that there is a lot of concern amongst our students and families about going to college and needing to major in an area or a subject that will then give them the best chance of getting a job and earning money and being "successful."  What about associate degrees and certificate programs that also lead to high-paying, highly skilled jobs?  What about apprenticeships?  The focus, though, always came back to finding pathways for our students and families to graduate from high-school, move on to a post-secondary training option, and find good-paying "successful" jobs at the end.

Finally, at one point, someone raised the question, "What about values? Why is all of this about making money?"

What about "values," indeed.  I've been thinking about this ever since.

Unless you have been living under a rock or are, perhaps, headless, you have surely noticed, at least on the periphery, the national conversation currently going on about what the true purpose of college is (is it to learn and become more well rounded or is it to prepare you for a job?), what college majors prepare you for work and a steady income, and whether you truly need a four-year college degree to get a high-paying, in-demand job in a field like technology.  Over the last couple of weeks there have been some back-and-forth columns in the Washington Post about this topic.  Michelle Singletary is a personal finance columnist who wrote a piece on January 14th that decried, "Not all college majors are created equal."  She talks about playing a "game" when she meets college students in which she asks their major and then, in her head, decides if they will have a "job" or "no job" upon graduation, purely based on this information.
"An English major with no internships or any plan of what she might do with the major to earn a living? No job.  A political science major with no internships that could lead to a specific job opportunity? No job, I think.  Engineering major with three relevant internships in the engineering field? Ding. Ding. We have a winner. Job."  (source:
The focus is on what major will lead you to a job that will then return on your financial investment in your education.  There is a chart that accompanies the column which lists the unemployment rate for certain college majors as well as the median income for those with that major.  On both counts, computer and math majors fare much better than arts majors.  The question that comes to the forefront, though, is whether the sole purpose of college and your college major is to make money?

In response, another Post columnist raised this question in a January 25th column.  She is a mother who is thinking about what her children will do in college and where they will go, and, like all of our families, faces the constant bombardment with statistics and stories that decry that unless your child is majoring in a STEM field or business, they will probably not fare well in life.
"In these economic times, it’s hard not to obsess about whether our kids are employable. The Georgetown report, and Singletary’s column, raise important economic issues that should be part of any family’s college decision-making process.  At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, let’s not let the need to earn money squelch our children’s desire to do great work in jobs they love. College doesn’t just set the course for their life’s earning potential; it sets the course for their lives. I’m drawn again to the words of Steve Jobs, when he delivered the Stanford commencement address in 2005. 'Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.'" (source:
As a school counselor, I focus on the many media discussions and writing about the topic of college, post-secondary options, and the link to the world of work.  As such, my informal assessment is that it does seem that the focus of these studies and articles is very much on earning potential and further that higher-earning potential is equated with happiness and "success."  The above columnist raises the idea that while future financial reward should be part of the conversation, shouldn't future happiness and one's personal values also be part of the mix?

Singletary apparently received a lot of feedback on her January 14th column.  She wrote a response on January 28th to clarify her position:
" college, as I believe, both a time to learn and a time to learn the skills you need to get a self-sustaining job? Not many people who need to work for a living can afford to go to college and fail to accomplish both goals....My daughter, a junior in high school, wants to be an early elementary school teacher. She gets outstanding grades in math and science, but she doesn’t have a passion for those fields. But we talked about her career choice and had her think it through and consider other options before we all agreed she’s got a gift for teaching.  The point is we had the conversation. She also knows we expect her to get internships and any extra training she will need to make herself more employable in her chosen field by the time she graduates from college." (source:
That, to me is the key--as a family they've had the conversation, and that conversation has included values.  The point is that college major and future earnings and job potential should indeed be part of the discussion.  Students need all the information in order to make the best decision for them.  However, those components should not be the only thing considered.  We have come a long way from simply using Parson's trait-and-factor theory (take that, NCMHCE study guide!) to help guide students into possible careers and options.  Some students will indeed value money and salary above other things, but there will be some who value even more time with family, the ability to travel and take time off, the opportunity to have a social impact on their community, or work that allows them to be extremely creative and independent.  Do they need to understand that placing a higher level of importance on some of these values could mean financial struggles or lower-levels of income across their lifetime?  Absolutely.  Do they need to be made aware of how much money they may need to finance their education as compared to how much money they may make upon graduation?  Yes.  We would be doing them a disservice if we did not help them to look at their choices from all angles.  However, who are we to say that someone working with the homeless for $25,000 a year is any less "successful" than a computer programmer who is making $125,000 a year? That majoring in social work or theater is any less worthy than majoring in business or engineering?  If a student ends up majoring in a field they are not interested in and ends up in a job that makes them miserable, how will that effect the rest of their life?  If that person leaves that job and career field after a short time because they are unhappy and unfulfilled, then what purpose has truly been served?  Personal values should and need to carry weight in these conversations.

My undergraduate degree is in music, one of my Master's degrees is also in music and my other is in education and human development.  I have student loan debt from all three.  I've been in education my entire working life.  If we just use potential salary and unemployment percentages, I am probably not very "successful."  However, my loan debt is very manageable, my life is filled with choirs, singing, and music, and I work in a field in which I am daily able to give back to society.  In my own world, I live a "successful" life.

For some very simple guides to help your students, take a look at the following:
  • Five Steps to Choosing a College Major--it includes a discussion about values as part of the decision making process.
  • Self-Assessments and Your Career--this short article discusses including both interests and values as part of your post-secondary planning process and has a link to a short values assessment that can help to begin a conversation about what a student finds most important in the world of work.
  • College Board: Choosing a Major--This short brief from College Board notes what questions students should ask of themselves when trying to pick a major.  Notice that personal values and job satisfaction are part of the equation.
  • Values Inventory from the University of South Dakota--This is a free online values inventory from USD to use with your students, again as a tool in post-secondary planning conversations with students and families.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

ASCA School Counselor of the Year

ASCA's 2012 School Counselor of the Year, Nicole Pfleger, is in town (Washington, D.C.) this week meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill and spreading the word about the impact of school counselors.  What's not to love?  She had an interview this week with Education Talk Radio in which she was asked several questions by the interviewer about her job, her school, and school counseling.  What I found fascinating was that the interviewer was someone who is knowledgeable about education, but yet who seemed to lack a lot of understanding of what school counselors do.  Together, they produced a dialogue that got my intellectual juices flowing.  Of note:
  • Knowledge of the counselor role: The two discussed a lack of consistency and knowledge in the role of the counselor, something I've talked about in a recent blog post.  At one point, the interviewer talks about his educational experience training to be a teacher and states that he does not remember there ever being any discussion of what the role of a counselor was within his classes.  It reminded me of a presentation I attended at the Virginia Counseling Association conference earlier this year in which a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University had done a small study in which undergraduate students training to be teachers were given a short session on who school counselors are and what they do within schools.  The results were a much stronger understanding and respect for the profession as a result of that information.  Hopefully more trainings such as this will spread to other educational training programs.
  • The importance of collaboration: Ms. Pfleger discussed how much she collaborates with teachers, both in order to assist them and help reinforce their work in the classroom, but also with delicate populations, such as her homeless students.  She is able to work with teachers on individual student situations in order to help insure that school is a positive environment and more importantly advocates for them so that they are not penalized for things like late homework or no homework due to their circumstances.  What is most impressive is her community outreach for these students--she has helped to set up study time at the homeless shelter as well as get tutors to go out there to assist.  As she discusses, for students and families in dire economic circumstances, the school can be the one constant in their lives.  Further, by assisting her students with basic needs, she is able to help them be more ready to learn.  It always comes back to one of our core missions: helping to remove barriers to academic success.
  • College and career readiness: The interviewer asked her what she, as an elementary counselor, could possibly be doing to help such young students with careers.  She responded that she is teaching them those soft-skills that are actually the most important to employers--responsibility, work-ethic, cooperation.  I agree completely with her--the time to begin teaching kids about these important skills of work is when they are young.  It will not matter if they have the knowledge of a particular field or a certain skill set if they are unable to work as a team-player, have internal motivation to do well, or show up to work on time every day.  Elementary counselors are vital links in helping to develop young people into productive citizens later in life.
  • Bullying and creating a culture of kindness: With all of the media-attention on bullying, this topic was sure to be part of the interview.  What I loved was the way that Ms. Pfleger worked to create a culture of kindness within her school through service and positive acts.  She has the results data to back it up--a 50% reduction in discipline incidents.  There would be developmental differences with older students, but why couldn't this be done at a middle school or a high-school?  I'm reminded of a group I helped out with during my elementary internship (also known as one of the most fun experiences of my life) where we had a group of "secret agents" whose missions was to perform random acts of kindness and report back as to how the person received it.  I do not think you can ever underestimate how a small group focusing on basic positive acts can help to spread a better environment throughout a school.  If kids can learn, early on, how powerful nice words or kind actions can be, that can only help them to develop into more empathetic adolescents and adults.
Overall, it is a wonderful interview that will make you think about your own work and how we can continue to advocate both for our own roles as counselors as well as advocate for our students.  For the full interview, take a listen either at ASCA or at Education Radio