Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Parent Articles in Three Acts

Act I

How do you engage your parents at your school? Most of can answer this in many ways--parent conferences, back-to-school nights, college/career nights, topical programming, and coffees or teas, just to name a few.  However, take a second and think about how you engage the parents of minority students or under-served populations at your school?  If you think that by doing all of the ideas listed above you are keeping them engaged, you might want to think again.  In the May issue of Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, Dana Griffin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote an article about the need to advocate and engage African-American parents in the schools.  Dr. Griffin felt that there is a perception "that African-American are uninvolved in their children's education." (source: ct.counseling.org) She looked into research on the topic and found that African-American parents are most assuredly involved in their children's education, but that often it centers around the home and community centers, and not in the schools.  Why is this?  She took a focus group of 16 African-American parents and found that:
  • They often did not feel welcomed into the school and felt that the schools do not have their best interests at heart.  Further, they felt that parents from other cultural groups received more in depth information and communication from teachers about their children than they themselves did.
  • They felt that the school did not want their input or want them to take on leadership within the schools.  When they asked how mothers from other cultural groups had been given the responsibility of leading an activity or planning a trip, they stated the response was that the teachers had asked them personally to spearhead activities. (source: ct.counseling.org)
Enter the school counselor.  In addition to the teachers, we are often one of the main points of contact for parents within our buildings, elementary through high-school.  Dr. Griffin recommends several ways to make sure you are engaging parents from all of your under-served populations:
  • Help to facilitate feedback from parents of all cultural groups about how they perceive the school and community.  Do a needs assessment and utilize surveys after events.  See if parents are interested in forming sub-groups--Latino parents, African-American parents, parents of LGBT students.  You could then have representatives from these groups on your Advisory Council to help better inform the needs and perspectives of your entire school community.
  • Work with parent liaisons and other parent leaders within the diverse cultural and minority groups within your school.  I do not know how I would be able to effectively do my job without our parent liaison who is also a strong link to our Hispanic community.  She helps me to both communicate with families as well as advocate for them and their children.  Further, it is often your parent leaders from all of the various groups in your school that can go into their communities and help to bring other parents into your senior night or back-to-school event.
  • Go to the parents.  Are there community venues that you can visit that would help to connect you to families?  Maybe you can offer to do a college/career presentation at a local community center?  Further, when you have events at school, make sure that you are actively going out and talking to parents and not just waiting for them to come to you at a table.  Oftentimes I walk around at our various parent events and simply ask families if I can answer any questions for them or assist in any way--you are able to start some meaningful conversations this way.
  • Just as we teach students to become self-advocates, we can help parents to become more familiar with ways that they can productively work with schools to be heard and become more involved.  I find that if you, as a school counselor, have worked to establish a good relationship and built trust with a parent, they will call you or stop in when they need something.  You can then help them to work out what the plan of action can be with them at the lead. (source: ct.counseling.org)
If we, as school counselors, believe that support and engagement of parents is a foundation for academic success, than it behooves us to examine how we and our schools connect with all of our parents and make changes accordingly.

Act II

In the same May issue of Counseling Today, John Sommers-Flanagan of the University of Montana wrote about seven tips for working effectively with parents:
  • Be self-aware.  As with all things in counseling, it is important to know your own natural reactions to things.  Dr. Sommers-Flannagan gives the example of a parent who is spanking their child.  If you yourself had negative experiences of being spanked growing up, your immediate reaction may be one of defensiveness and possibly anger.  It is important to know your biases so that you are then more able to listen and respond effectively.
  • Know what's hot in parenting.  Do you know about a Tiger mom is?  If so, it might lend you credibility with parents if they ask you what you think or refer to it.  It is important to keep abreast of larger trends in parenting--chances are that if it's on the morning shows and in newspapers, your parents are talking about it and have questions.
  • Empathy should come before education.  We have to remember the same things with our students, which can be a challenge sometimes when you only have five minutes!  However, one of the universal truths I hold in this profession is that most of the time people simply want someone to listen to them and acknowledge that they have been heard.  If you allow this to happen first, most people are very receptive to any education or thoughts you may have to assist.
  • Be direct and collaborative.  Honesty is very important--if they want to know about your background working with kids, let them know.  If they want to know if you have kids, its okay to be honest.  However, what separates us as counselors from other professionals is that our training tells us to examine why they want to know that particular information and acknowledge the thoughts or feeling that may be behind it.  If they are asking the questions above, they may be worried about your inexperience.  Acknowledge that you understand their concern but that you'll do your best and that together, you can all come up with some ideas.
  • Parents usually know their kids best.  When something happens at school and you call the parent for more information, more times than not they have pretty spot-on ideas about where motivations or issues may be coming from.  I find that parents are often pretty realistic about their kids, both their strengths and weaknesses.  As school counselors, they are a font of information about our students.  After all, they've lived with them over all these years. 
  • Come from a strengths based model, especially with the parents.  I've written about this before, but I think it is awfully challenging to be a parent nowadays.  The media and society at large put a lot of pressure on parents to be perfect so that they can raise the perfect kids who will go to the perfect college and have the perfect life, and if anything goes wrong along the way it is the parents' fault.  Always acknowledge the wonderful things you think the parents are doing well and let them know all of the things they already have in place to help support their child.  This can lay a strong groundwork to come up with a plan to help their child.
  • Give advice and then listen for their feedback.  If I propose a plan or a solution for a student, I always ask the parent what they think about it?  Do they think it will work?  Do they think its realistic?  Do they think it is something they can try?  If it's not, then we need to go back and come up with something else.  Just giving advice, without checking in and seeing what they think, and without collaborating, will usually not work very well. (source: ct.counseling.org)
This is a wonderful article--I recommend clicking on the link in the body of this section and reading it in full.

Act III

This article from NPR's Planet Money is something to share with your parents, ideally in an e-newsletter that you send out.  It is no secret that the economy is on the forefront of everyone's mind.  Research at the University of Arizona in Tuscon is finding that those families who talk to their children about money, savings, and involve them in such family financial matters as buying cars or houses are more likely to raise children who will be making responsible financial choices.  These kids, as they graduated from college, were often found to be using budgets and delineating between items that were "needs" versus "wants."  The researchers also recommend that families with young children discuss expectations about how much of their allowance and monetary gifts is expected to go into savings and follow through with that plan.  They acknowledge that these conversations can be tough to start, but can have positive life-long effects.  Click here for the full article.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Contrast in College Finances

A colleague of mine forwarded this article from a recent edition of the New York Times about the increasing burden of student loan debt.  The article discusses how the average amount of loan debt per student continues to rise, with it reaching $23,330 in 2011.  Additionally, many colleges and universities attempt to gloss over the costs of attendance during the admissions process, and students are encouraged to look at their college experience as a "return on investment" and a "lifetime investment, appreciating over the course of time." (source: www.nytimes.com).  Since 2005, the number of students who default on their loans within two years has doubled to one in ten.

One of the reasons the article cites for skyrocketing student loan debt is the rising cost of state public colleges and universities due to decreased state funding.  As the economy has struggled in the last several years, states have cut funding to higher education.  This is combined with many legislators pledging not to increase taxes at the same time that they are giving tax breaks to corporations and eliminating estate taxes, both sources of revenue that could be used to help fund higher education.  Additionally, for-profit colleges account for a quarter of all federal grants and loans.  Yet, only 22% of students receive a bachelor's degree within six years at for-profit schools, compared to 65% at non-profit private schools and 55% state public schools.  Students at for-profit schools are also twice as likely to default on their loans as students at private and public non-profit colleges.  (source: www.nytimes.com).

Overall, the message of the article is that families and students are responsible for examining very closely the often confusing financial aid proposals and information that colleges send, mapping out the projected costs of the education over four-to-six years, and for being open to less-costly options if they may help to graduate a student with less debt.  (www.nytimes.com).

In contrast, NPR's Planet Money blog posted this graphic today that shows how the sticker price (it covers tuition only, not room-and-board) at public and private colleges has increased over time, but how the net price (the price that most students end up paying after grants and scholarships) has not:

source: www.npr.org/blogs/money and www.collegeboard.org

I wrote about the difference in sticker and net price in a recent blog post.  So, how do these two articles work together?  How is it that for many students college cost has remained relatively the same, yet student loan debt is increasing?  I have no definitive answers, but can only surmise that the average student loan debt numbers are higher partially because a large portion of the debt may be due the debt accrued at for-profit colleges, which is not a part of the graphic above.  Further, the graphic above does not include room-and-board and other living expenses, which have also risen over time but which may not be covered by the grants and scholarships that help to relieve some of the burden of tuition for students.  Finally, the graphic shows average costs, and those students who are expected to pay more "net price" at public and private non-profit schools have a lot more to cover now than they did in 1996. 

What do we take away as school counselors?  We have a continued commitment to talking about the costs of college with students and families and reminding them that it should be a factor in their decision.  Further, as discussed before, we should encourage students to shop around and apply to public and private colleges, especially those students who are strong academically and have special talents or aptitudes, as they may receive offers with a great deal of scholarship and aid.  The hope should be to have students looking at multiple schools at multiple price points so that when they are making a final decision, they have several options to peruse.  Finally, pointing out to students and families other paths to getting a college education that would lower their debt load--starting at a two year college and transferring to a four year school or perhaps going to a four year school but living at home or with a relative while doing so.  The implications of their choice not only in school but in how much they pay for that education could linger for a lifetime.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What Can You Do To Help My Transgender Child?

You are an elementary school counselor.  Towards the end of the school year, the parents of a 2nd grade student named Trevor ask to meet with you.  When you are in the cafeteria during some of the lunch periods, you have noticed that Trevor is always sitting amongst girls, never amongst the boys.  While you see him come to school wearing typical male attire (t-shirts, jeans), you often see him in the halls with barrettes or pink ribbons in his hair--his female friends give them to him during the school day to wear.  His teacher has remarked that Trevor often refers to himself as a "she." As you sit down with Trevor's parents, they tell you that at home, Trevor has been dressing as a girl for the last year-and-a-half.  They have been working with a child psychologist for several years who has diagnosed Trevor with Gender Identity Disorder.  As a team, Trevor, his parents, and the psychologist have decided that starting with the next school year, Trevor will be known as "Tammy," and that he will be attending school as a girl.  They want to know how you and the school can support Tammy and their family in this transition and help to insure that Tammy will be safe.  What is your response?

You are a high-school counselor.  One of your female students, Mirabela, has been out as gay since she was 14 years-old (she is now 16), and while it was a struggle at first, her family has come to accept her.  Mirabela has always dressed in traditional "male" clothing--concert t-shirts, baggy jeans, and steel-toed boots.  She has always had short, cropped hair and speaks with a low voice.  During one of your discussions with her, she states that she feels that she may not be gay so much as that she is really a boy, and wants to know what you would think about her changing her name to "Max" and having her teachers and the school community refer to her by that name.  She also wants to know what other things the school has in place to assist transgender students.  She has not yet discussed this with her parents.  What might be some ways that you would respond?

My guess is that these were probably not scenarios you had to answer on any of your exams as you were preparing to be a school counselor in your graduate programs, nor were these likely interview questions as you were searching for a job.  Yet, these could very well be situations that suddenly appear at your door.  The more time you spend learning about and considering the issue, as well as consulting with other personnel in your building and district, the better you will be able to step into action when the time comes.

The cover story on this Sunday's Washington Post was about a transgender child and the struggles that both he (the gender the child and family have chosen) and his family have gone through as he has journeyed from being a girl to a boy.  'Tyler' expressed early on that something had gone wrong in his mother's belly.  He told his parents that he was born a girl, but was meant to be a boy:


This is one of many stories that are springing up in families and schools around the country.  A few weeks ago, one of our are high-schools featured a transgender female student in their school newspaper, where she openly discussed the challenges of going to school as the opposite gender she was born into, and about some of the harassment she faced as a result.  It should be noted that as you go through this post, I will typically refer to the "gender a child was born into" when talking about the gender that matches the sex organs a child was born with.  I have done this in an attempt to simplify things.  There are some who might dispute this terminology stating that gender should only refer to the construct a child prefers and that "sex" should refer to the gender that matches the sex organs.  In doing this, I hope to have cleared versus muddied the waters.  Time will tell.

So, what is Gender Identity Disorder?  According to the DSM-IV-TR, the criteria for Gender Identity Disorder are:
  • Strong and persistent cross-gender identification.  In children, this shows up as a repeated desire to be or a strong insistence that they are the opposite sex, strong preferences for dressing as the opposite gender, strong preferences for opposite gender roles in play, strong preferences for stereotypical games of the opposite gender, and a strong preference for playmates of the other sex. 
  • Persistent discomfort with gender and strong belief that their gender is wrong, often with a focus on what is wrong with their bodies in the assigned gender.  
  • It is not concurrent with a physical intersex condition.
  • The issue causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of the person's life. (APA, 2007)
This diagnosis is not without controversy.  As the Post article points out, there are those who feel that "disorder" should be replaced with "incongruence" due to the harsh connotation of the former.  (source: www.washingtonpost.com)  Some feel strongly that to pathologize gender identity is wrong when one is born with it.  There is also concern about over-using the diagnosis of GID for any child who shows gender-variant behaviors in order to justify the use of therapies that attempt to "repair" these behaviors.  However, as noted in the same article, without a diagnosis oftentimes they cannot receive treatments later in life, such as sexual reassignment surgeries.

As counselors, we know that identity and gender association and behaviors are ever evolving and changing things, both for children and adolescents but even with adults.  It is very normal for kids to experiment and try on different roles and activities.  Boys will play with dolls.  Girls will play with trucks.  There are those boys who feel more comfortable in the company of girls, and vice-versa.  I am not referring to those children.  What tends to separate normal experimentation and gender variance from transgender children is the pervasive belief and insistence that they were born "wrong" and that they want to be or are the opposite gender, to the point that it becomes extremely disruptive in the child's life and the life of the family.  Thus, this is a male child who doesn't just prefer to play with girls, they believe with every fiber of their being they are a girl and that somehow their body is wrong.  This is a female child who not only wants to ride motorbikes and play baseball with the neighborhood boys, they believe they are a boy and exhibit a great deal of anxiety and worry about what will happen when puberty begins.  This disruption tends to go on over a lengthy period of time, and there are usually many steps involved before a family decides to move forward with a diagnosis and a possible transition into the preferred gender of the child or adolescent.

But doesn't this just mean they are gay?  This is a pretty common question amongst adults.  There is a difference, though, between sexual orientation and gender identity.  Sexual orientation refers to sexual attraction, and while lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning children often have a feeling that there is something "different" about them their whole lives, it is not typically an identity that will manifest itself until adolescence--late elementary or middle school at the earliest.  Gender identity has nothing to do with sexual attraction.  Rather, it is about one's perception about their own gender--male or female, or anything in between along the continuum.  Further, the concept of gender manifests itself in children much earlier, oftentimes between the ages of 3 and 6 (source: www.washingtonpost.com).  It is important that we, as school counselors, know the differences between the two concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity.  A student who is transgender is not automatically "gay," and a student who is "gay" is not automatically "transgender."  A gay boy does not necessarily want to be a girl.  A biological female who identifies as a male is not necessarily homosexual.  Sexual orientation and gender identity are two different constructs.  In this video excerpt, you meet Hailey, a child identified as a transgender female:



So how does one treat gender identity disorder in children and adolescents?  You may be aware from the multitudes of television specials, news reports, and talk shows about adults who are often treated with transitions into the opposite gender and oftentimes sexual reassignment surgery.  However, the treatment of children is very different.  NPR did a 2-part story a few years ago that looked at the two major schools of thought with regards to treating transgender children.  In this first installment, we meet two families.  Bradley only wanted to play with girls, with girls' toys, and adored the color pink.  An altercation between Bradley and some of the boys in the school-yard took his parents to see a psychologist in Toronto.  Treatment for Bradley involved forbidding him to play with girls, with girls' toys, or to have anything with "feminine" colors such as pink.  All this in an effort to get him to conform to the gender that he was born with.  At the end of this section of the story, his mother voices some concerns that Bradley is living two lives--his true life where he plays with girls at school, and the life he has at home where he tells his family what he believes they want to hear from him.  The second part of the story follows Jona, originally born Jonah.  Her mother tells the story of how Jonah begged her to let him buy dresses when she was a toddler, and when she finally gave in, how much joy she had.  She never took them off.  Her parents took her to a therapist in California who encouraged them to let Jona be whatever gender she wanted to be at that time.  As the story goes on to tell, while the therapist did not often suggest to parents that children transition into their preferred gender, she did recommend it for Jona.  Jona began kindergarten as a girl and has flourished.  These stories illustrate the two main schools of thought amongst clinicians--either try to make the children conform to the gender they were born into, or allow them to explore their gender identity freely, with a small percentage of those children actually transition, either for a time or permanently, into the opposite gender.

As children get older, there are other modes of treatment.  As the Post article discusses, there are hormone blockers that can delay the onset of puberty.  This is further discussed in the second part of the NPR series.  Here we meet 'Violet,' a transgender female who is about to begin the hormone blockers, allowing her to avoid, at least for a time, the development of male characteristics such as a "larger hands and feet, a pronounced brow, and facial and body hair that will need to be removed." (source: www.npr.org).  This can allow children and families more time to determine if this will ultimately be a permanent choice for the child.  As the child matures, a decision does have to be made as to whether to suspend the hormone blockers and either develop into an adult as the gender they were born into, or whether to begin hormone treatments for the opposite gender.  As the NPR story listed above and this story discuss, if a child begins taking hormones of the opposite gender at the beginning of puberty, they can then more accurately develop into the opposite gender, and limit the amount and cost of surgeries in the future.  However, this will be irreversible, and will render the child sterile for life.  Thus, it is a huge step and a large decision for children and their families to make.  Yet, according to the doctor interviewed in the last story, it can offer children who are truly transgender quite a bit of peace of mind.

I offer all of this information not as an endorsement of one treatment over another.  All of the treatments mentioned above, from therapies that attempt to make the child comfortable with the gender they were born into to the hormones and hormone blockers can be controversial.  These are all decisions that the children, adolescents, and their respective families will be making, and every family, child, and situation is different. Yet, as school counselors, it is important to be aware of what all is out there, as you may be able to help connect the families and their various plans to the school staff.  You may have children who ultimately go the route of the various hormones and hormone blockers, but you are just as likely to have teenagers who are just beginning to grapple with their gender identity and who desire to be called a different name by their teachers and other staff.  Wherever that student is with their gender identity, according to this report from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN):
  • Nearly 1/2 of transgender students regularly skips school because of concern for their safety
  • Nearly 15% of transgender students face harassment that is so severe that it forces them to leave school entirely
  • Transgender students who face harassment have lower grade point averages than other students and are less likely to go to college
  • Ultimately, transgendered adults who were harassed in school are at a higher risk for depression, suicide ideation, and STDs/HIV. (source: www.glsen.org)
Thus, if students are missing school and not performing as well as their peers, it becomes an academic concern, not just a personal/social issue.  As I discussed in another recent blog post, LGBT issues are not typically a part of training for school counselors.  Yet, as I also discussed in that blog post, it is an ethical mandate from the American School Counselor Association that school counselors have training and an understanding of the issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students so that we can remove the barriers to their academic success.  So, where do you go from here?
  • Do some soul searching.  How do you feel about transgender people and children?  One of the things that good school counseling graduate programs do is help you to confront your own personal biases and norms to determine if and how they may effect your work with students and clients.  Might your personal beliefs and values prevent you from fully assisting transgender students and their families, wherever they might be on the journey?  As counselors, we are tasked with helping others make decisions that are right for them, not necessarily to make the decisions that would be right for us.  Further, our professional mission is to remove any barriers to academic success to students--if making a transgender transition smoother and more nurturing allows that child to continue to do well academically, then, in my mind, we are fulfilling that mission.
  • Take the temperature in your school and educate as needed--yourself included.  Unfortunately, even if we, as school counselors, are the most loving and supportive people in the world, children cannot stay with us all day long.  It is important to feel out how much support there would be in your building and in your district for a transgender student, and then to educate others and have conversations as you go along.  I like to think that for most people in education, there is a desire for children to do well and be successful, and that on this topic there is simply a lack of exposure and understanding.  If this is the case, then conversations and the sharing of facts with other school personnel will go a long way.  If, however, there are other school and district personnel who are resistant to even broaching this topic, it might be time to seek out some allies to do some professional development.  It is important for everyone to note that there could be legal ramifications for schools that do not support transgender students.  If school personnel condone and even engage in harassment, that could be an issue.  If schools enforce a different set of rules for transgender students than other students, that could be an issue.  Here in the DC metro area there has been a recent story of a Maryland teenager who identifies as a bisexual male and who was suspended for wearing a skirt to school.  The family asserts that his skirt was no less a dress code violation than the skirts of other girls.  The school states that it was too short. In a 2000 court case, Doe v Yunits, a middle school student won a case against a Massachusetts school district where she had been suspended repeatedly for wearing women's clothing because she was born a male but identified as female.
  • Remain open to every individual situation.  Gender identity, like sexual orientation, moves along a continuum, and you can expect that one transgender student situation will not be like the next.  One student and family may be ready to transition into the opposite gender yesterday, while another may only be wanting a change of nickname in the classroom.  It is important to do a lot of listening to determine what a student and their family is looking for from you and from the school.  It may simply be that they want to know there is a resource in the school where they can go if they have further questions or feel they need to make an additional transition in the future.  It is important to let students know they have options, but to allow them to make the choice that is best for them.
  • Know what you can do, and what you can't.  Official school records that include birth name and gender are more than likely out of your purview, as well as that of the school.  However, as the GLSEN Model Policy on Transgender and Gender-Non-Conforming Students discusses, students are typically allowed to go by whatever nickname they prefer.  You can ask teachers to label students with their preferred gender and use the preferred pronouns.  Students can be allowed to use designated faculty or clinic bathrooms.  Students can be given a neutral space to change for physical education classes.  Students can be allowed to wear clothing in their preferred gender, as long as it conforms to the dress-code policy for the entire student body and is enforced as such.  Some things may be more difficult--field trips that involve hotel stays, or athletic participation.  Always check into local and state policies and governing bodies for answers to more complex questions.  Chances are high that at this point, you will not be the first person to have asked.  It may be that you can work with your school and district on developing a set of policies with regards to transgender children, using the GLSEN policy above as a template.  Regardless, though, of whether it is in an official policy or not, as a counselor you want to develop a set of "best practices" that include many of the items that I just discussed (name, pronouns, bathrooms, changing facilities, etc.).
  • Be honest with students and families.  If a family wants to begin a transition, it is going to be difficult in school, especially the older the child is.  We and the community can do a lot to support the child and family, but there will likely be some rocky moments with peers and situations as everyone becomes used to the new identity.  As with students who are contemplating sharing the fact that they are gay or lesbian, it is important to discuss both the possible positive and negative consequences to any plan.  Ultimately the decision is up to the child and their family, but it is best if everyone has gone through all the anticipated outcomes so that it can be an informed choice.  It is important for you to ask questions when you are unsure--what would the student like you to call them?  What pronoun would they prefer?  It is okay to admit you are not familiar with a specific situation or circumstance and ask them for more information.  Timing is also a consideration.  If you have a senior in high-school who is talking about transitioning two months before the end of school, it might be worth having a discussion about whether it might make more sense to wait until starting college. 
  • Nothing should ever be done in a vacuum.  Always seek out support, whether from other school counselors, school personnel, online networks (like Twitter at #scchat), groups such as GLSEN, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Gender Spectrum, or other experts and clinicians in your area.  If the family has been working with someone, ask if you can have a release to speak to them to gather more information not only to help their child, but to further your education.  Check out any presentations or conference sessions on transgender children or transgender policy in schools.  There is a book that is recommended in the Washington Post article, The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals that could also give you some guidance. 
This is a complex and foreign topic for many, I understand.  However, it seems to be coming to the front more and more based on anecdotal experiences here in my area as well as in the national media.  Hopefully, through this post and the information contained within, you will be able to go back to the beginning, read the two scenarios, and have some ideas of how you might approach them should they ever happen to walk into your office someday.

The following work was cited within this post:
American Psychiatric Association.  (2007).  Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, 4th edition,Text Revision.  American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Sticker Price" versus "Net Price"

One of the focuses in our students' junior year is on examining factors that will influence the list of colleges that they will apply to.  In-state or out-of-state?  Large or small?  Urban or rural?  Choice of majors?  Public or private?

This last one is one that every year I talk about with anyone who will listen.  Most of my students will apply to in-state, Virginia schools.  Why wouldn't they?  We are home to some of the top public colleges in the nation--University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, and Virginia Polytechnic University.  Families in Virginia have every right to be proud of these schools and they are great fits for so many students.

However, public, in-state schools are not the only game in town.  What about private colleges and universities?  Whenever I bring this option up to families, the first words I hear are "they're too expensive.  We can't possibly afford it."  It then takes an awful lot of convincing on my part to get them to even think of taking a look at a few.  It saddens me a bit, because many private colleges, with a focus on the liberal arts, smaller classes, and an emphasis on teaching versus research, would be an excellent fit for more of my students than I think apply.  What about this question of cost?

Take a listen to this report, The Real Price of College, from NPR's Planet Money, their group of reporters that focus on economic topics.  This segment discusses how there is a "sticker price" at private colleges and then the price that students actually pay, the "net price."  For a lot of strong students (good to excellent grades, decent test scores, talents in the arts and/or athletic fields) there can be a great deal of need and merit based financial aid at these schools--only a small percentage of students at private colleges and universities actually pay the full sticker-price.  This report goes inside several private colleges' admissions departments and discusses how and why they make decisions that grant so much money to students.  A college may charge $55,000 a year for tuition, room-and-board, and additional expenses, but many students will be granted aid-packages that ultimately make the cost comparable to their public state school of choice.  As high-school counselors, it is our responsibility to make sure that our students and families have all the possible options out there on the table, and that should include non-profit private institutions of higher learning.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What's Your LGBT IQ?

A very interesting article appeared in the April 2012 Journal of Counseling & Development entitled, "Examining School Counseling Students' Multicultural and Sexual Orientation Competencies Through a Cross-Specialization Comparison."  (Biddell, 2012) That's a very long and wordy title, but basically the author studied the differences between community counselors and school counselors with regards to their knowledge on issues surrounding sexual orientation as well as the skills they have developed to support those who may identify as gay or lesbian.

The results were, at least in my mind, not surprising.  School counselors reported significantly lower  levels of multicultural and sexual orientation competencies as compared to those in community settings.  The author does point out some possible flaws in the study--small sample, not random, does not cover gender-identity, and the data is based on self-reporting. (Biddell, 2012)  However, as there have been very few studies on the topic of school counselor training and competence with regards to LGBT issues, it is certainly a starting-off point.  The author discusses some of the factors that he believes contribute to this lack of skill.  Schools are, generally, more conservative and under more public scrutiny than community counseling settings.  As such, teachers, counselors, and school staff can be made to fear for their jobs if they attempt to advocate for gay and lesbian students by such activities as sponsoring a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).  Further, while there is an expectation that counselor-education programs' multicultural courses cover sexual orientation, according to the author many programs and courses do not adequately prepare future school counselors to work with this subgroup.  For those programs that do devote trainings and classes to LGBT topics and skills, they tend to score higher on self-reported assessments of counselor competencies. (Biddell, 2012).

This certainly supports my own experiences in the field.  Northern Virginia is home to several strong, CACREP graduate programs in school counseling.  Yet, what I have heard from many colleagues is that this topic was left out or barely-covered in their programs.  Oftentimes there is simply only so much time in multicultural counseling courses and skills seminars, and coordinators and professors have to pick and choose what specific subgroups they may plan to cover.  I was at a conference this past year and attended a session about some of the latest research in counseling LGBT clients.  Afterwards, a director of a university counseling program began a discussion with the presenter about bringing them in, either in person or via webinar to do a similar presentation for the program's graduate students, as they currently did not have anything in the curriculum to cover that topic.  Thus, public schools are staffed with new school counselors who may have very little exposure and knowledge about working with LGBT students and families, or they have seasoned school counselors who have also never had training on this particular topic.  Why does this all matter?

There are several reasons why this knowledge gap needs to be filled in.  First, as I've written about here, and here, and here, students who either identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or who are perceived as LGBT or gender-non-conforming are at a higher risk for being bullied, harassed, assaulted, for avoiding school, for lower-grades, and for dropping out (source: www.glsen.org).  If you have seen this video made by students in Illinois or watched as Kelby struggled with her Oklahoma school in the movie, Bully, you have some idea of what LGBT students face on a daily basis.  As school counselors, one of our primary missions, according to our national organization, the American School Counselor Association, is to remove barriers for students to academic success.  It is thus one of our missions to make sure that all of our students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, are able to feel safe in school so that instead of avoiding classes, students, and teachers who may harass and bully them, they are instead in classes with supportive adults and peers, focusing only on the academic material at hand.  Secondly, it is an ethical mandate of the American School Counselor Association.

From the preamble of the ethical code (addition of boldface is mine):
"Each person has the right to be respected, be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations including: ethnic/racial identity, age, economic status, abilities/ disabilities, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
E.2.b:
"Develop competencies in how prejudice, power and various forms of oppression, such as ableism, ageism, classism, familyism, genderism, heterosexism, immigrationism, linguicism, racism, religionism, and sexism, affect self, students and all stakeholders." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
E.2.c:
"Acquire educational, consultation and training experiences to improve awareness, knowledge, skills and effectiveness in working with diverse populations: ethnic/racial status, age, economic status, special needs, ESL or ELL, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance." (source: www.schoolcounselor.org)
Thus, it is our professional responsibility as school counselors to serve and respect LGBT students, regardless of our own personal feelings and views on the topic of homosexuality and gender identity, and also to seek out professional development opportunities and education if we do not feel we possess the knowledge and skills necessary to adequately work with those students.  If you did not receive it in your graduate program, whether it was last year or 20 years ago, you should seek out opportunities to further your education on this topic.  Third, there are now legal implications for schools and school systems who are found to be unsupportive of LGBT students.  The Anoka-Hennapin school district in Minnesota recently settled a lawsuit concerning bullying and harassment of LGBT students.  This week the Hanover school district in Pennsylvania is in the spotlight because of alleged harassment of a gay student by a teacher.  The student's mother has not yet retained legal counsel, but she has enlisted the help of a local LGBT affirming group to support both her and her son through the situation.  Lastly, if you are in elementary school or middle school, you may be thinking to yourself that this is really only an issue for high-school counselors and their students.  Think again.  A recent study by GLSEN discusses the prevalence of bullying gender-non-conforming children in elementary schools as well as the sometimes unwelcoming environment same-sex parents find when they go into their child's school.  Further, various reports over the last couple of years state that more and more middle-school students are coming-out of the closet as gay or lesbian at earlier ages.  This is an topic that effects all school counselors at all stages of child development.

So, how do you begin to acquire this knowledge?:
  • Read articles in professional publicationsASCA won an award for their School Counselor magazine that focused on LGBT issues in schools.  ASCA also does the magazine, published three times a year, for many states.  The Spring edition was about bullying, and featured an article by yours truly on how homophobic language hurts all students--check out page 18 in the Kansas edition.   Counseling Today, the monthly magazine put out by the American Counseling Association, regularly features articles on LGBT issues in counseling.  You can also find articles about the topic on the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GSLEN) website.
  • Attend conferences.  The national American School Counselor Association conference is coming up in June, and there are at least three LGBT specific sessions to be found.  Further, if you belong to your state school-counselor association, or any other local counseling chapters, there are bound to be conferences and professional developments about this topic.  If you are unable to find something on LGBT issues in schools, look for topics such as LGBT issues and children or adolescents, LGBT families, bullying and harassment, etc.  Any workshop that adds to your knowledge base of LGBT issues, in general, is only going to help your work with your students and families.
  • Explore online options.  ASCA is doing a series of webinars.  One of them in February explored supporting LGBTQ youth, and one coming up in October will look specifically at creating a safe-and-supportive environment for all elementary school students, including those who are gender-non-conforming.  GLSEN also sponsors webinars on LGBT topics in schools and with youth.  I would also recommend taking a look at a class through Rutgers on LGBTQ topics in schools--it covers the basics and gets you thinking about how you would deal with certain situations in your own school and district.
  • Ask for professional development in your school and/or district.  This may be something you have to feel out a bit, but if there are enough counselors in your school or district who feel this is a need, maybe it is time to have a discussion with your central office about getting a workshop.  Maybe you or someone else in your district has enough knowledge that you/they could present?  If not, you can look to GLSEN or Rutgers for some additional support in either having a training or having someone help you to develop your own training for your school. 
Anytime you can share an article with other professionals in your building--teachers, administrators--the more you also be educating your whole building on the issues pertaining to LGBT students and families.  If you do decide to do an online training or attend a conference session, see if you can get another counselor or principal in your building to attend with you.  Is it possible to get a whole-school training on the topic?  Given the prevalence of LGBT bullying and harassment in schools that is currently being portrayed in the media, now may be the time that you can get community buy-in to have some professional development on this topic.  Regardless, whether it is your whole school, a small group, or just you as an individual, it is important that all school counselors become familiar with the risk-factors present for LGBT students as well as best-practices for how to assist them.  If you have not yet dealt with this issue in your job, I can almost promise you that you will at some point.  When that time comes, it will benefit both you and the student/family if you have already gained knowledge, familiarity, and a certain level of comfort with this topic versus flying blind.  Further, by getting this information, you will be best able to lead your whole school community in ethically and properly supporting a middle school student who comes out of the closet, an elementary school student who was born a male but who identifies as female, or a gay high-school student who has special considerations when applying to colleges.  Thus, in the future, there is hope that studies will no longer show that school counselors lack competency to support these students as they move towards academic success.

The following article was sited within this blog post:
Bidell, M. (2012).  Examining school counseling students' multicultural and sexual orientation competencies through a cross-specialization comparison.  Journal of Counseling and Development 90, 200-207.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Still need to find a four-year college?

It is now May 3rd.  Students were supposed to commit to their final choice of college by May 1st.  So, it's all finished, this latest college admission season.  Right?

Wrong.  Every year, around this time, the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) posts a list of colleges and universities around the country that still have space available for admissions.  As of this writing:
  • 362 colleges/universities have space available for freshman students
  • 374 have space available for transfer students
  • 373 still have institutional aid (grants, scholarships, work-study) available
  • 354 still have campus housing available
  • 70% are private schools; 30% are public (source: www.nacacnet.org)
This data will continue to change and remain posted until June 29th.  This survey of colleges and universities is participatory, so there may be further colleges and universities with space that are not on this list.  According to the published fact sheet, an additional trend is that is that from 2005 to 2011, there were less than 300 schools with space available at this time.  Last year, in 2011, there were 279.  This year there are 375, a sharp increase.

So, which of your students might benefit from this information?
  • Students who have yet to apply to a four-year school.  These may be some of your procrastinators, but these might also be students who were unsure if they would get admitted to a four year school based on past grades but have shown improvement and gained in maturity.  Further, they may be students who are first-generation college students who have struggled through the admissions process. 
  • Students who applied to four-year schools and did not get admitted either to any of the schools on their list, or did not get admitted to any of their top-choice schools.  These students are looking for plan B's (or C's, D's, or E's).  They may have gotten accepted to a "safety" school, but have since decided that school is not really for them and are looking for other options.
  • Students who have gotten accepted to schools, but who did not receive the financial aid package necessary for them to attend.  It is especially important to pay attention to the schools on this list that still have financial aid available.  As I've written about before, the stronger they are as students as compared to the general applicant pool of that college or university, the more scholarship and merit aid they are likely to receive.
If you have any students who you think may fit into these categories, it might be worth touching base with them as soon as possible to see if they would be interested in putting in additional applications.  Bon chance!