Sunday, March 25, 2012

Internet Addiction

The front page of today's Washington Post featured a story about South Korea scaling back their plans to have all textbooks be online by 2015.  The concern?  Students' lack of engagement with the real world and internet addiction:
"'The concern about the digital textbook,' said Kwon Cha-mi, who runs the digital program at one of the pilot elementary schools in Seoul, 'is that young students won’t have as much time to experience real life and real things. They’ll just see the whole world through a computer screen.'" (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
The article goes on to state:
"About one in 12 students between ages 5 and 9, according to a government survey, is addicted to the Internet, meaning they become anxious or depressed if they go without access." (www.washingtonpost.com)
Internet addiction is not yet an official psychological disorder, although it is being considered as an addition to the upcoming DSM-V.  Research on the topic amongst adolescents is fuzzy, with an estimate of perhaps 1.4% to 17.9% of children being affected worldwide, higher in Eastern countries than in Western countries.  How does one exactly define internet addiction, though?  When does internet use become a problem?

The internet and digital use is now a fixture in our lives.  Case in point, I am currently writing this sentence on a laptop computer utilizing the internet.  We use it to access information, to keep up with friends, to view entertainment, to play games, and to document our lives.  We, as adults, have more than likely not always had this level of technology available--I grew up in the era of the Apple IIe and the game Oregon Trail, before social networking, before online gaming, before Wikepedia, the lovely online-encyclopedia that helped me to hyperlink "Apple IIe" and "Oregon Trail."  Kids today have never known a world without it--they have grown up with Facebook and Twitter being a part of their lives.  They have always been able to play video games with their friends without being in the same room or even the same house.  They have always had access to a world's worth of information, some positive and reliable, some negative and false.  Without access to the internet, some kids become part of the Digital Divide, and I have come to believe that, for better or for worse, online and mobile social networking and texting is now a large part of adolescent social life, with kids possibly being at a disadvantage without those tools.  All kids must be able to use the internet as part of their daily lives.

Addiction, though, is defined in terms of tolerance, withdrawal, and interference with either one's occupational/educational or social lives.  Thus, if a child seems to need more and more time online or with the cell-phone, that might be a point of concern.  If a child, upon losing internet access or their cell-phone, becomes uncharacteristically angry, combative, anxious, or depressed beyond what might be expected, this could also be a point of concern.  If, in conjunction with more time spent online, a child's grades start to decline or they are less connected to the outside world than they have previously been, this might also be a reason for concern.  Certainly, a combination of two or three of these would be red flags.  I have come across adolescents who fall into these criteria in my time as a school counselor.  I have worked with children who are failing to come to school and who are failing classes because they are up until 3 a.m. every night playing online multi-player combat games.  I have seen kids who come apart at the seams when their cell-phones are taken away for a few days.  There are some online assessments for internet addiction, but their validity is sometimes questioned, as there can be many individual nuances to diagnosing someone with internet addiction disorder (IAD).  An adolescent may spend a lot of time online, but if they have always been drawn to books and websites that follow their interests, their grades have remained unchanged, and the rest of their functioning (eating, sleeping, mood) is steady, then there may not be a reason for concern.  Teens may seem to spend a great deal of time texting each other and using Facebook, but this focus on social communication is fairly normal--remember how much time we spent talking on the telephone, with our parents constantly yelling at us to get off?  We are looking for signs that are effecting an adolescent's levels of functioning and indicate a change from previous relationships and behaviors.

What can we do as school counselors?  What can we tell parents if they are concerned?  First, I firmly believe that we, as a society, need to begin conversations at an early age with kids about appropriate uses of technology as well as modeling for them a healthy balance of technology use.  If we ourselves are shackled by our computers, iPhones, Android phones, and tablets, unable to interact on a personal level with other human beings, we are not setting a great example for children.  Further, we can use issues in the media, making sure they are age-appropriate, to talk to kids about the importance of balancing technology use with real-world interactions, as well as how there are appropriate and inappropriate uses for the internet, texting, etc.  As an example, cyberbullying comes to mind.  This would be a great topic for a small group or classroom counseling lesson.  For parents, Dr. Christakis from the American Academy of Pediatrics has the following tips:
  • Limit the amount of time children can spend online. Differentiate between use that is school-related vs. purely entertainment based.
  • Do not put a computer in your child’s room. Instead, computers should be in an area of the home where you can easily monitor what your child is doing online.
  • Find out what your child likes to do online. Certain reality-based games like World of Warcraft are particularly addictive because they draw you into what Dr. Christakis describes as “a second life.” 
  • Certain children are at higher risk for Internet addiction, such as children with attention problems, depression, anxiety and social isolation. Monitor these children more carefully. (source: aapnews.aappublications.org)
If you believe there are strong concerns that a student may be addicted to the internet, it is important to share them with the family and recommend that they seek additional help.  There are now many clinicians who are trained in ways to address internet use problems, so it may be beneficial to have the family search for one in your locale.

    Saturday, March 24, 2012

    Don't Know Much About History? That May Be a Problem...

    Growing up, I had some sort of bizarre dislike of "history" in school.  Mostly American history, actually.  I enjoyed studying European history, especially the Medieval and Renaissance periods.  I can, to this day, still remember how excited my AP European History teacher got during his lecture on Medieval torture devices--truly inspiring, if not a little concerning, in retrospect.  However, I just could not get into American history--all those plain, boring clothes.  All that walking and suffering through the mud.  I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that my father was working on his Ph.D in American History at that time and reading two to three books on the topic each week.  I was not a rebellious adolescent by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps my avoidance was also my way of asserting independence and breaking away from the family system.  Something for fodder in some sort of future therapy, I am sure.

    Anyways, needless to say, when I was interviewing for an honor's program at my eventual undergraduate institution during my senior year of high-school, I was asked by one of the panelists what my "least favorite" subject in school was.  I of course responded, "history," minus the discussion of the dismal fashions and unvarying scenery.  I then learned that the panelist who had asked the question was also the chair of the university's history department.  It's no wonder that in prepping my current students for college interviews, I stress the concept of "know your audience."

    There are now quite a few years between these events of my past and my current life and experiences, and I am happy to say that my "history-phobia" is in remission, although I do still tend to mostly read books about Tudor and Elizabethan history when given a choice and time.  You are also probably wondering, by this point, "What does this have to do with school counseling?"

    In the March, 2012 issue of Counseling Today, the lead article featured various counseling leaders discussing where they feel the profession of counseling is heading.  Dr. Courtland Lee, Professor of Counseling at the University of Maryland, had a response that truly resonated with me:
    "It will be important, therefore, for the counseling profession as it is known in the United States to develop more of an international perspective on counseling and human development, given the sense of global interconnectedness that is emerging among mental health professionals....In addition, counselor training must stress the notion that what happens in one community in any part of the United States must be understood within this larger global context. More than ever, it will be crucial for counselors to be able to 'think globally and act locally.'" (source: ct.counseling.org)
    He goes on to say:
    "Global literacy implies an understanding of the contemporary world and how it has evolved over time. It encompasses important knowledge of cultural variations in areas such as geography, history, literature, politics, economics and principles of government." (source: ct.counseling.org)
    We live in an ever more diverse society.  Not only is this born out in the latest census data, but most of us see it every single day in our schools.  Over the last several years, I have worked with students and families from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sierra Leone, China, Ukraine, Spain, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Bolivia, and I am sure there are others I am forgetting right at this very moment.  Further, our students are now able to connect with other students from across the globe in a matter of seconds.  As school counselors, we are uniquely situated to help lead the charge in helping our students to appreciate and respect the diversity within their school so that they are better able to collaborate with others on a global basis, a skill that is becoming essential in the modern world.  Additionally, we are the ones in schools who can be the most helpful in bridging the gap between mainstream American culture and the rich diverse cultures of our students and families from around the world.

    However, we ourselves must first have an understanding of how different cultures function not only within themselves, but the history of their interactions with other cultures.  Further, we need to have an understanding of current events.  If a student arrives mid-year from Sierre Leone, it is important that you know there has been a history of conflict within that country.  It is important that you understand that there is the possibility of that student having witnessed or experienced trauma so that you can be on the lookout for any warning signs.  If you have a student who may be an illegal immigrant to the United States, it is important to know if there have been any pieces of legislation in your state or jurisdiction that would either hinder or help these student with regards to tuition and financial aid for college.  This information should always be used as one of many pieces to solving a puzzle, as each individual situation may be different.  Additionally, a tragic event in South Korea may not mean much to your general school population, but it could be devastating to your student who moved to the US from South Korea five years ago.  It is always important to meet each student where they are at, currently.  Having some background knowledge of a student's particular cultural context, though, can be extremely useful and help you to be more effective when you intervene.

    We also serve as models and educators for appreciating, respecting, and collaborating with diversity for not only our students, but our faculty, staff, and families, as well.  Students are always curious and watch what the adults say and do within their buildings, and they do pick up on these cues.  If we take the time to mediate a conflict between students of differing cultural backgrounds and understandings, they will notice.  If we use language and design lessons that are inclusive of diversity, they will notice.  Moreover, if we show that we have some basic knowledge of history and current events, they will notice and see that knowing this information is important not only in history class, but in the world at large.

    How can you keep abreast of current events and past historical events without having to go back and get another college degree?  Here are some tips:
    • Read a newspaper once a week without skipping over international news.
    • Listen to news radio, such as NPR, on your morning or evening commute.
    • If you receive a student from another culture, do a quick skim of the Wikepedia page of their home country.  At registration ask the family what brings them to your school, what concerns they may have, what they would like for you to know about them and their child, and what additional information would help them to feel more comfortable.
    • Have one-on-one conversations with your students of other cultures.  So often school counselors do not get to know their English Language Learners (ELL).  They are all our students.  This way you can get to know their own unique individual cultural perspective.
    • Ask your history department chair for some international news blogs to follow.  There is one at Reuters, PBS, and MSNBC, for starters.  Again, skimming these blogs every couple of days will keep you up to date on what is happening globally.  Keep your eye out for events that happen in countries from which you know you have students.
    • If something peaks your interest, grab a book about the topic and read about it.  The blog at History Today might be a great place to start, and you can always do a search on Amazon.
    I truly believe that Dr. Lee is dead on with his prediction for the future of counseling.  The world seems to shrink each and every year.  We, as school counselors, can help to facilitate and smooth the changing landscape of our school populations and help to prepare all students to be more globally literate and culturally aware.  However, we must first start with ourselves.

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    Media Resources: Bullying

    In just a few weeks, the Bully movie will premier in select theaters around the country.  This is a highly publicized documentary that goes inside the world of our students and shows the bullying that they encounter on a daily basis.  Our national organization, ASCA, asked school counselors to sign a petition of support for Bully against the Motion Picture Arts Association's "R" rating through their Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Speak Up, a special on bullying, was shown this past Sunday on the Cartoon Network.

    There is another resource that is not getting as much publicity, yet the stories are designed, produced, hosted, and told directly from the students themselves.  The Public Radio Exchange's (PRX) youth division, known as Generation PRX, has put together an hour long radio documentary entitled Bullied: Teen Stories from Generation PRX that shares multiple stories, perspectives, and vantage points of kids and their interactions with bullying.  There are stories about bullying prevention programs in Alaska, the experience of LGBT students in Oklahoma, a kid who is bullied because other students think he "looks like a terrorist," and a great interview with Sheri Bauman, the author of Cyberbullying: What Counselors Need To Know.  Counselors may remember her voice from an hour interview that she did on the American Counselor Association series of podcasts (free to members).  The thing that is great about this documentary is that it is all voices of kids themselves, with stories and questions designed by them.  We can learn a lot from what they are telling us.  Take a listen below:



    For the full interview from Bullied: Teen Stories from Generation PRX with Sheri Bauman, click on the player below:


    Sunday, March 18, 2012

    College Debt

    Most of us have it--student loan debt.  Further, many of our students are looking a future filled with every increasing amounts of student loan debt.

    In today's Washington Post, there was an op-ed by a woman who was a second-generation Latina college student.  She states that she and her family were not fully aware of the documents that they were signing:
    "Looking back, it’s easy to say that my parents failed. They should have asked more questions and sought counsel. More important, they should never have co-signed the loans or allowed their financial information in our aid applications because they had no intention, nor means, of paying for our pricey educations." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
    Further, her whole life she had been told by her parents that she could go to college wherever she wanted to and that somehow, perhaps with scholarships and grants, it would all be taken care of.  

    If only it really worked that way.

    If you are like me, you have dealt with similar scenarios with your students and families as they have gone through the post-secondary planning process.  Parents only want the best for their children, and they want them to have everything they have ever wanted and worked for.  Further, if they have seen their child endeavor their entire academic lives to get good grades with the goal of being able to attend the school of their dreams, they feel their child should be able to do just that, whatever the financial cost.  But is this realistic in today's world?

    The answer to this question lies in a few reports that have recently come out.  Student loan debt now surpasses auto debt and credit card date in the United States.  Yes, that's correct--we owe more, as a nation, on our educations than we do on our credit cards.  And we invented owing money on credit cards.  Additionally, College, Inc. reports:
    • One-third of the national student-loan balance is held by people ages 30 to 39, and another third by people older than that, signifying that only a small share of college graduates manage to retire their loan debt while still in their 20s.
    • Student loan debt is rising at a time when other debt is flat or even declining. From the second to the third quarter of 2011, the nation’s loan balance grew 2.1 percent, from $852 billion to $870 billion. 
    • Fifteen percent of all Americans with enough of an economic pulse to have credit reports have outstanding student-loan debt. Two-fifths of people under 30 have loan debt, and 25 percent of those between 30 and 39. 
    • $85 billion in student loan debt is “past due,” and of that total, three-quarters is owed by people over 30. More than five million borrowers have past-due student loans. (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
    All of this student loan debt has a profound effect not only on the economy, but also on society.  According to a US News and World Report article, this debt is preventing the Y and Millennial generations from moving out of their parents' homes and from buying homes of their own.  Many are putting off marriage and children because they believe they simply cannot afford the expense at this time.

    Thus, I do not believe that you can have an honest conversation about college with students and families if you do not discuss the current financial situation of the family, the costs of various schools, and the realistic salary and job prospects of certain college majors after graduation.  This is hard for many school counselors to do--we are a kind and optimistic group of people who also like to believe that our students that have worked diligently for four years can go to any school they would like.  The reality is that they may get into their top school of choice, but that paying for it may come at a high-cost with financial and life ramifications for decades beyond college.  How can we as school counselors best assist our students and families?:
    • Talk about the money.  When we start talking to our students about making their list of college parameters that include size, location, programs, etc., we also include financial situation.  I specifically ask my students and families to make sure that they are having very honest and open conversations about what they can realistically afford to chip in, as well as what would be considered a manageable amount of student loan debt beyond graduation.  Experts typically recommend that the total amount of student loan debt you carry not exceed your expected annual salary your first year out of school.  Thus, this would be less money for someone going into education versus someone going into engineering.
    • Encourage a broad list of schools with open minds.  So often our students and families come in with the mindset of looking at one school as their top choice and then a few other schools "just in case."  However, sometimes there has been very little research done on these "safety" schools, to the point that sometimes the applications are not even sent.  We need to encourage lists that encompass many different schools and price points, as well as promoting the idea of being open to and taking a hard look at all of the schools, and, more importantly, the financial aid offers from these schools.  We tend to talk about "reach," "probable," and "safety" schools with regards to academic criteria and standardized test scores, but we should also have a second list with the same categories with regards to cost.  I consistently tell my students and families that the best school for them may not be the best school that they can get into.  Some of these attitudes and beliefs may be changing, as in 2011 only 54% of surveyed college freshmen reported that they attended their first choice school, citing money and financial aid as reasons for choosing one of their alternates. 
    • Point them in the direction of resources early.  There are many resources out there to help students and families navigate this process so that they are better equipped to make informed choices about where to go to college and how to pay for it.  There are webinars on Planning Before You Go sponsored by Equal Justice Works.  There is any number of checklists for parents and students with regards to financial aid, such as this one at the New York Times The Choice Blog.  There is the FAFSA Forecaster which can help families to get an idea of what they might be able to expect with regards to federal aid.  It is only an estimate--an exact idea can not be given until families fill out the FAFSA in the spring of their senior year.   The Occupational Outlook Handbook can help to give students and families an idea of mean salaries for careers, which can be helpful in determining what might be a reasonable amount of loan debt.  For an idea of starting salaries, you can find a very basic list here.  Also, stay tuned for the College Scorecard that the government is beginning to pull together--it will show information on employment rates, graduation rates, and student loan debt for every college and university.
    Ultimately, the decision lies with our students and our families.  There are extremes, such as families willing to sell their homes to finance their child's education.  Most families are unable to do this, however.  As school counselors, it will be up to us to help students and families get an idea of the "whole" picture with regards to college admissions, including the finances, as well as to point out and remind them that a good college education comes not from the name of the school that they attend, but from what they themselves, as the students, make of that education, wherever that college may be and whatever it may cost.

    Sunday, March 11, 2012

    What About the Adults?

    Yesterday, here in Northern Virginia, a panel of current and former students from area schools convened to discuss their experiences with bullying and overt homophobia within their schools:



    As you can see, these students still face harassment, bullying, and inappropriate comments in their schools.  Moreover, a lot of their concerns are about the adults in their buildings.  According to these students, some of the adults contribute directly to the problem, some are unsure of how to best help and address the harassment, and others are in denial altogether that there are any LGBT students in schools and thus any problems that needs to be addressed.

    There are LGBT students in schools, and they need support on multiple fronts.  "Jeremy" is a student who struggles with feelings of isolation:
    "I went through so many internal fights, that even to this day I struggle with coping. I found myself hating who I am. Knowing that if I even gave one ounce of indication I might be gay, my entire school, family, and team would disown me, hurts tons." (source: www.lgbtqnation.com)
    There is a real fear here that no one in his school, including the adults, would be able to understand and accept him for his true self.  Similarly, "Daniel" also felt that he was unable to express his true identity and was harassed during his years in school:
    "I was taunted a lot throughout my early academic years in school. My voice was softer than other boys. I didn’t necessarily want to engage in the same activities that other boys did. Although, I did play football and basketball with my male friends and was quite good at it. However, five minutes later you could find me jumping double dutch and braiding hair with my female friends, and in complete heaven. I knew I was different, but the teasing and harassing that 'friends' put me through, made me feel like I couldn’t be myself." (source: www.lgbtqnation.com
    School is challenging enough for most LGBT students, but when the perception of the kids of teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff is that they are unsure of how to best assist these students, are unwilling to assist these students, or even contribute to the bullying and harassment of these students themselves, it makes the environment even more difficult to endure. 

    There seems to be change in the air, though, with regards to allowing school staff to contribute to the negative comments and atmosphere on LGBT issues.  A New Jersey teacher is currently in the process of being fired due to alleged anti-gay comments and discrimination.  A teacher in Missouri is being publicly and professionally scrutinized for homophobic and insensitive comments about gay students and suicide.  An Arkansas school board member resigned after outrage over the comments that he had posted about LGBT students and suicide.  Perhaps most public is the recent settlement between LGBT students, the Federal Government, and the Anoka-Hennapin School District in Minnesota.  The school district had taken a stance that adults were not allowed to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.  According to students and faculty, this created a hostile environment and allowed the bullying and harassment of LGBT students to go largely unchecked.  The settlement now allows for sexual-orientation and gender identity to be a protected group in bullying and harassment policies, and identifies and bolsters school supports for these students.

    More and more, school systems are beginning to adopt policies that protect students but that also allow school personnel to support these students based on these policies and regulations.  I've previously written a post about teacher bullies and ways for students and staff alike to address them.  What other ways can school counselors help to assist teachers and all school staff in supporting LGBT students?
    • Develop staff trainings.  Working through the appropriate channels, help to develop and deliver trainings for district and school personnel on the challenges faced by LGBT students, the regulations within your district that support LGBT students and staff, as well as concrete strategies for how to directly combat and confront anti-gay harassment and bullying in the schools.  If an in-person training is not possible, consider making a video or audio training and sharing it with your teachers.
    • Come up with a list of "tips" for teachers.  I truly believe that more adults in schools would address the homophobic slurs and epithets running rampant through the halls if they knew that they would be supported and if they knew how best to do it.  This has been highly studied in the United Kingdom, and there are some great suggestions published on this website with regards to classroom policies.  Further, as a former classroom teacher, I would simply make it clear at the beginning of the year what the expectations were with regards to acceptable behavior and language and then appropriately challenge slurs the way I would challenge any inappropriate language.  Never underestimate how far a simple, "I am offended by that word and we do not use it in my classroom or the school--you need to choose a different word" can go with students--they get the message fairly quickly and they will stop entirely over a fairly short period of time.
    • Model, model, model.  When you are in the halls and you hear inappropriate LGBT slurs, kindly confront the student and have a conversation with them.  If you notice another student being harassed, make sure to chat with that student to let them know you are supporting them.  If you are leading a classroom lesson and someone yells out something that is offensive, address it in a quick and no-nonsense way and then move on with your teaching.  Kids and adults alike will watch and pick up on the way that you handle these situations and it can serve as a model for how they themselves could address it in the future.  Further, if you witness another adult in the building contributing to bullying and harassment, consider having a one-on-one conversation with that adult to let them know of your concerns and why it is inappropriate.  If it continues, you may need to look at taking your concern further--if your district has clear policies against anti-LGBT language, you should be supported.
    • Let students and staff know you are supportive.  Consider being a co-sponsor of your school's GSA, or perhaps volunteer to come go into a meeting to let the kids and sponsors know that you are a safe person that they can approach to discuss LGBT issues as well as harassment/bullying concerns.  You can also order a Safe-Space Kit from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) which includes stickers that you can post in your office door that identifies you as a supportive place for students in need to go.
    • Advocate.  If your district does not have sexual-orientation or gender-identity in their anti-bullying and harassment policies, is there a way that you can begin to advocate for that change?  If there is no GSA at your school and the students are wanting to start one, can you pull together some data (www.glsen.org) to share with your administration that would support the efficacy of such a group?  For some schools and in some school districts, you could be one of the only adult voices LGBT students have in their corner--how will you use it?
    Having adults in the school that LGBT students can depend on for support can make a large impact on their lives, perhaps even saving them.  Never underestimate how much your simple actions or advocacy can impact children's lives.

    Thursday, March 8, 2012

    College Checklists

    Spring.  Flowers are blooming.  Birds are singing.  There is more daylight.  People are walking the DC metro area streets with a spring in their step.

    However, spring is also the time when our high-school juniors are starting to panic about beginning the college process, and our seniors are starting to freak-out because they are getting decisions back and also discovering the strange new disease known as "senioritis," the symptoms of which include a lack of motivation to do anything, a propensity to making "guest appearances" versus being a "regular character" at school, and a marked disdain for things like "homework" and "tests."

    Never a dull moment in school counseling.

    So, what should our juniors be thinking about right now as they start to prep themselves for the college process?  The Choice blog from the New York Times has published a list of tasks for juniors to be considering right now as they look to post-secondary life.  It's definitely worth a look.  At my school, we are also currently educating our juniors on the college process.  My list includes several items from The Choice, but also a few others:
    • If you do nothing else, keep your grades up as high as you can.  Considering that one of the most important factors in college admissions is the transcript and the grades earned, this is my number one piece of advice I give to students.  Spending more time on homework, getting extra help or tutoring, and upping their game with regards to studying for tests and quizzes are, in my opinion, the most worthwhile use of their time.  I remind them that their final grades in their junior year are the last full year of grades that colleges will see during the admissions process, so make them count.
    • Start to have the discussions with your family about college search parameters.  Students need to have open and honest conversations with their families about where they are going to focus their search.  The discussions should include the size of campus they are looking for (large or small?), location of campus (in-state or out-of-state? rural, suburban, or urban?), majors and programs (looking at schools that do not have a student's choice of college major, athletic or arts program, or extra-curriculars will probably not be a strong use of time), public or private (cost can be a concern), and price-range.  This last one can be a difficult conversation for families, but it is important that the students have an understanding of how much money their parents can realistically put into their college education before they start searching--will they need to get a certain amount of scholarship money to attend favorite schools on their list?  Will it cut certain schools off their list?  How much loan debt are students and their families willing to accrue?  Once these factors are discussed and determined, it will make the search process much more focused.
    • Plan your standardized testing regime.  Most high-school juniors will initially take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring of the 11th grade year.  Students should know the difference between them--there is a great video on Acceptly.com that gives the basics.  Students should go to the College Board and ACT websites to sign up for the tests and get information on dates, etc.  Also, for some highly-competitive schools, SAT II's are required.  Students should consider taking these around the same time as the AP subject tests, as that is when they may feel the most prepared.  Some students will want to do SAT or ACT preparation--there are books on Amazon.com that they can work with or they can check area resources for online-preparation (we utilize Method Test Prep through Naviance) or for face-to-face classes.
    • Go on or plan college visits.  These should be structured, planned, visits.  Students and families need to make arrangements well ahead of time (at least two to three weeks) for a campus tour that could also include visits to classes, programs of interest, or residence life.  The goal should be to get a feel for the campus, class-sizes, the social climate of the school (is everyone in a fraternity or sorority?  Is it a commuter school where campus empties each weekend?), as well as the accessibility of the faculty and support resources.  As I tell students, most of you will know fairly quickly whether a school "feels" right or not.  A great consideration is for families to buddy up on these trips so that one weekend/break one family takes their child and a friend, and then they swap for the next trip.  It can save everyone's sanity of there is some sharing of the "visiting" responsibilities.
    • Develop a list.  The list of schools should and can initially be broad.  As there are more visits made and information gathered over the summer, the list will narrow.  It is important, though, that from the outset there is some diversity with regards to reach schools, "probable" schools, and safety schools.  It is important to have a grasp of the GPA of the student and, if possible, test scores, in relation to a school's average.
    • Get to know your counselor.  This is from The Choice blog's list, and it is a good one.  Having conversations with your school counselor can help us get to know you more as we begin to plan writing your letter of recommendation, and we also have a lot of experience in this area--we can supply students and families with a wealth of information and, through knowing the student well, make solid recommendations as the process goes forward.   
    Our seniors also still have some tasks left to do with regards to their college process.  Again, The Choice Blog has a list of tasks for our soon-to-be-graduated students.  Here are some of them along with my own:
    • Try not to panic.  The wait can be so hard, especially as admissions decisions go out at different times for a lot of students.  So often I hear "my friend already heard, and I haven't.  I hope that doesn't mean I didn't get accepted."  Colleges make decisions at different times for different reasons--trying to figure out what the randomness means will drive you crazy, so try to stay relaxed.  At least during the application process they are actively "doing" things--I think the waiting is the hardest part of all.
    • Shore up your financial aid documents.  Every year I have a student who is waiting and waiting to get a financial aid package from a school, and we come to find out they never filled out the FAFSA form.  It is important that every student, regardless of income, fill out this form and that they check in during March with the financial aid office to discuss the offers or, if they have not yet received one after an offer of admission, to figure out what might be holding it up. 
    • Follow up on deferrals.  This is one from The Choice blog, and something I've been talking about with more of my seniors this year.  If a school deferred you in the early admissions process, it is appropriate to send an update if there have been additional achievements.  It is also fine to send an e-mail or letter directly to your admissions counselor to let them know that you are still very interested in that school.  And then they need to leave it alone.  Multiple submissions, phone-calls, and letters that are only restating what is already known and in the file are not appropriate and may even work against a student. 
    • Keep your grades up and try to combat "senioritis."  After they've been admitted and accepted, so many seniors think they can just stop working for the rest of the year.  One of the other counselors in my building has letters up in his office that colleges sent to past seniors rescinding their offer of admissions because of low grades on the final transcript. It can happen, so seniors need to do their best to stay engaged in the process.  If they're in AP classes, a reminder that good scores on the tests can save them money and bypass general education requirements might help.  For others, sticking to a hard and fast routine even when motivation is low might help them to manage their courses through May or June.
    • Keep your counselor informed and feel free to use us to bounce ideas off about where to go.  This is another great one from The Choice blog's list.  I am always more than happy to discuss with my students their struggle to make a final choice.  We look at the pros and cons of each school, from location to financial aid award to programs and majors.  We can be a great sounding board as they work in picking the best school for them.
    The college process is a lengthy one for both students and families.  By sharing information and giving them tasks, we can help them to be better prepared in the fall of their senior year, and help them to make the most informed choice possible when it comes time to accept in the spring.

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    In Support of Parents

    If you work in a school, you probably hear, on a regular basis, comments about parents:

    Where were the parents when she got into trouble after school?
    I wish these parents would back off--they are smothering him.
    It's because there's no father in the house...
    It's because there's no mother in the house...
    There must be something wrong at home.
    The apple must not fall far from the tree.
    That parent is crazy.  CRAZY.

    Quite frankly, you have probably said or thought these things yourself about parents in your school or in your community from time to time.  And maybe even thirty seconds ago.

    As a society, we love the blame game.  In education, when we are frustrated with a student and their behavior, academic performance, or general attitude and character, the thought usually crosses our minds that the parents might be at fault.  Sometimes the kid, but often the parents.  I have been no less guilty of this than anyone else.  However, as school counselors, it behooves us to look at situations from all angles.  So often in our work, we are trying to understand where the parents are coming from, where the teachers are coming from, and where the student is coming from, and then trying to come up with workable solutions for all the parties involved.  In order to do that, let's try to put ourselves in the place of parents.  What are they dealing with on a daily basis?

    An article ran in this Sunday's Washington Post that explored the messages and motivations present in modern American parenting.  The author discusses how many parenting books are out there, all with different advice and different perspectives that often conflict.  What's a parent to think when bombarded one month with the in-your-child's-business "Tiger Mom" movement and then the laid-back hands-off French "Bringing Up Bebe" the next?  The article also brings up the messages parents are getting about college and future success:
    “The underlying American assumption is, if our kids get into a great college, they’ll get a great job, then they’ll be happy.  Our cortex of fear is around achievement. So, in order for our kids to get into a great college, get a great job and be happy, we get them piano lessons, after school Mandarin class, we think more, more, more, more, more is better." (source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
    The last several years we have lived in a challenging economy, and parents are constantly being hit with the messages that if their child doesn't go to college, they will not have a good job and thus a good life.  They are then being told that it is becoming more and more difficult to get into college as average GPA's and standardized test scores for admissions continues to rise.  Further, they see that college tuition costs continue to soar, causing anxiety about being able to finance their child's post-secondary education.  Contrasting this is the Race to Nowhere movement that includes a movie and touring discussion panels talking about the negative side of pushing your kids to get straight-A's and enrolling them in a million activities.

    So, should parents be backing off of their kids so that they don't have a nervous breakdown?  If they don't push them, though, then they won't get into a good college or any college at all and then they won't get a good job and they will have a horrible life.  Which one do they pick?  These double-bind messages bombard parents from the media, from instutitions, from politicians, and from other well-intentioned parents before their children are ever born and continue, pretty much unceasingly, through the rest of their lives.

    I work in a school where many of the faculty and staff are parents.  In my conversations with them, I often hear about their fear of being judged by other parents, and their fear of making a wrong choice for their kids.  It surprises me, because so many of my colleagues are amazing, nurturing, kind people who I just naturally assume know they are amazing parents.  Yet, they tell me, they are being judged all the time for every little thing that they do--judged by other parents, by the schools, by society, and by themselves.

    Everyone will pretty much admit that no one is perfect.  Yet, in the next breath, we presume to pass judgement on the parenting choices of moms and dads, usually without all the facts, usually without the context of a situation, and usually without any empathetic understanding that parenting is perhaps the hardest role in the world, made harder still by a million mixed messages about how best to raise your children  in modern American society.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that most parents are genuinely doing the best they can with the resources they have.  They love their kids, and they want the best for them.  This will manifest itself in a plethora of ways, but this is almost always their motivation behind everything that they do.

    The article from this Sunday's Post is worth a read.  The message I took away from it is that parents need to cut themselves some slack.  I agree with this.  Even if a parent is angry with us, there is usually some motivation behind that anger--anxiety, fear, frustration.  As counselors, we have been trained to find ways to uncover that motivation and then empathize with the parent.  When we are able to do this, we form stronger relationships with the families of our students and are better able to serve all of our stakeholders--parents, teachers, and students alike.

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    Advocacy

    Who will you advocate for?

    Dr. Erin Mason, Assistant Professor of Human Services and Counseling at DePaul University in Chicago, asked this question of her school counseling students via Twitter last week.  I think it is an important question upon which to ponder and reflect, not only for those who are in the process of entering the profession, but also for those of us who are currently practicing.  Who do we advocate for and why?

    First, not unlike self-care, advocacy is an ethical mandate.  There are two substantial mentions of advocacy in the American School Counselor Association's Code of Ethics:
    E.2.d   Affirm the multiple cultural and linguistic identities of every student and all stakeholders.  Advocate for equitable school and school counseling program policies and practices for every student and all stakeholders including use of translators and bilingual/multilingual school counseling program materials that represent all languages used by families in the school community, and advocate for appropriate accommodations and accessibility for students with disabilities.
    E.2.d  Work as advocates and leaders in the school to create equity-based school counseling programs that help close any achievement, opportunity and attainment gaps that deny all students the chance to pursue their educational goals. (source: http://www.schoolcounselor.org/)
    Further, it is also a part of the American Counseling Associations Code of Ethics:

    A.6.a. Advocacy:  When appropriate, counselors advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to examine potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients. (source: http://www.counseling.org/)
    Thus, it is actually an expectation that all counselors, school or otherwise, will attempt to stand up for their clients and challenge roadblocks in an effort to help them grow and succeed.  In school counseling, this mission is typically stated as working with all students to remove barriers to academic success.  For the most part, I believe as school counselors we do this.  However, the barriers are different for every student and every situation.  For some students, you are advocating for them by helping them to communicate concerns to their parents, teachers, or administrators in order to develop a plan to get them back on track.  For other students you are working through the special education referral process to help define and put into focus learning issues in order to gain additional supports for the student to be successful.  For still others, you are clarifying the college/post-secondary process so that a lack of information is no longer a reason that the student will not be able to achieve their potential as a student and reach their goals.  All students need us, some a little, and some a lot, and we can advocate for them either as individuals or as part of a larger group.  There are those groups of students, though, who probably need us even more, and they are always a focus of my work, each and every year. 

    I advocate strongly for my English Language Learners and their families.  This group often needs help deciphering the American education system, as well as referrals to additional community supports.  Further, the students need help in planning a path to graduation, and then help in connecting them to post-secondary options.  For families that are not native to the United States, things that we take for granted as "givens," such as signing up for the SAT or going on college visits, are not always second nature to this group.  We can play an active role in helping them to succeed in school and guide them into productive paths once they graduate.

    I advocate for my special education students .  I have found this to often be a bone of contention in school counseling circles.  There is a camp out there who believes that since special education students are receiving additional supports through the classroom and via case-managers, they are less in need of our attention.  For my part, I find that these students, many of whom have struggled for years in school with undiagnosed learning disabilities and concerns, often need as much support from school counselors as possible.  They may be in smaller-class settings and in resource courses, but they still benefit from additional study-skills groups.  Further, if students struggle with emotional disabilities, the school psychologist and social worker are not always available, especially if you are in a district where one of these professionals is split between multiple schools.  I truly believe that the more people that students can identify as supports in their schools, the better.  They can then always find someone who they trust to help them work through a problem or a situation.  Additionally, as a school counselor you are often able to have that unique perspective of the whole child--academics, home, work, goals, etc.  This vantage point is vital in IEP meetings, 504 meetings, etc.  By knowing about the student's whole life, you are often able to give valuable feedback and help make sound recommendations about what accommodations will best give them a chance at success.

    I advocate for LGBT students.  I have multiple blog entries about how best to assist LGBT students as well as diving into the issues that many face.  LGBT students are more likely to miss school, more likely to have lower grades, are less likely to graduate, and significantly more likely to be bullied and harassed in school (source: http://www.glsen.org/)  Further, there is social oppression left and right.  The messages they hear day after day in the media are about how they are "sick" and that there is something "wrong" with them.  They see the battles around the country for LGBT men and women to have the same rights as everyone else--marriage, serving in the military, not being fired from a job based on sexual orientation or gender identity--and while there are times where these efforts are successful, they also see the many times where they are not.  Repeated oppression of a social group can lead to a concept known as "cultural dysthymia," where a whole subgroup is more prone to low moods and feelings of hopelessness.  These students need to be able to identify adults who will not judge them but rather accept them and support them for who they are.  These students need adults who are aware of the challenges faced by LGBT adolescents as well as the specific developmental struggles that they will face.  They need connections to supportive resources, whether that is a community center or a list of college considerations.  With so many LGBT students taking their own lives, this is a population that now, more than ever, needs the work and skills of school counselors to serve as supports and advocates for them and their well-being.

    I advocate for school counselors.  We are a profession still in search of an identity.  We are still often one of the first places where school budgets are cut.  I belong to multiple professional organizations, as they are able to supply me with information to assist in my advocacy for school counselors.  When there is federal or state legislation that impact either us or our students, I write, e-mail, or call my legislators.  I blog to share ideas and thoughts about ways for us to help our stake-holders as well as ourselves.  I collect data on interventions and share it with anyone who will listen.  I serve as a leader within my school counseling department and I coach, teach, and  mentor new counselors in my school district to help them have successful years and continue their development in the profession.  I go to conferences to help build relationships with my colleagues, as two voices together are stronger than one.  In a similar vein, I use technology as a means of staying connected with my colleagues and major educational organizations so that I am abreast of trends or issues of concern.  We are a humble people, we school counselors.  We know the truth--that we are active and vital parts of our school communities.  However, if we do not get out there and shout it from the rooftops, no one else will ever share in that knowledge.

    This is a list of some groups that I advocate for, but it is by no means all.   Advocacy takes a lot of groundwork.  The stronger your relationships are with other stakeholders (within your school, your community, with your legislators), the more people will then listen to you when you need to speak up in support of a student.  Further, as I'm currently reading about in the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, you must be mindful in both your approach to advocacy as well as to its frequency.  If you are fighting a battle with administrators or teachers every single day for every single student, your voice will lose its strength and effect.  Consider each and every moment of advocacy carefully as well as the means by which you hope to effect change--quiet conversations one-on-one will usually get you farther than loud confrontations in public.  How you approach your interactions on the behalf of students or your profession is just as important as the reason behind needing to advocate in the first place. 

    So, now I ask you:

    Who will you advocate for?

    Thursday, March 1, 2012

    School Counseling: One of the 'Best Jobs' of 2012

    Our secret is out, school counselors.  There is no use trying to keep it to ourselves anymore.  What we've known for years has become public knowledge. 

    School counseling is one of US News and World Report's 'Best Jobs' for 2012.  In fact, we rank #17 out of the top 25.  According to the publication:
    "Those who provide academic, personal, and developmental support to school-age children and young adults now prefer the tag 'school counselor.' Even that generic description doesn't fully capture the duties of the profession." (source: money.usnews.com)
    The article goes on to say the number of school counseling positions is expected to grow by 19% by 2020.  The part of the article that resonated most, in my mind, was a section where they interviewed Gail Smith, a school counseling director in Georgia:
    "'You never know when a child walks into your door what type of issues they're bringing with them—what issues might be a barrier of learning for them.' For that reason, a counselor's stress level can vary day to day. At times, in fact, the job can be very intense, particularly as most school counselors consider their profession a calling and feel emotionally invested in the students they see. 'Counselors aren't taking home papers to grade,' says Smith, 'but they are taking home the kids in their hearts.'" (source: money.usnews.com)
    It's true--we typically do not take papers home to grade, but we do take home the emotions from the tough situations that we run across on a daily basis.  Further, many of us are working overtime to plan lessons and groups as well as get information out to stakeholders, whether that's news about bullying or resources for post-secondary planning.  We know that what we do is significant and important, but it is always good to have that validation from the outside.

    I would recommend sharing this news with your colleagues as well as the stakeholders in your school community--teachers, parents, students, and administrators.  Click here for the full article.