Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bullying: Role of the Bystander

In my new role within my school district, I have spent a lot of time exploring bullying prevention resources in order to support school counselors with the development of programs for their specific school cultures.  One of the main things that I have been looking at is the role of the bystander.  It is not simply the bully and the target, but it is other students, teachers, parents, and school staff that are also involved by either witnessing or being aware of bullying taking place.  Bystanders can either take a passive role and ignore what is happening, or they can take a stand to support the target of the bullying and send a message that bullying behavior is not welcome in their school community.  Many of those who fall into this bystander role, though, are unsure of what to do in the moment.  In this video from Ireland, two boys are being harassed because of their sexual orientation.  However, what transpires shows that a simple gesture from a bystander can quickly turn the tables.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Body Image: Video-to-Share

With over a half-a-million teens estimated to have an eating disorder or disordered eating, anytime a public persona can break through the constant barrage of airbrushed media imagery to tell adolescents that how they look is more "normal" than a photo-shopped picture is worth sharing.  Take a look at a recent interview with Jennifer Lawrence:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Follow-Up: Eating Disorders in Boys

Last February, I wrote about the rise in eating disorders amongst boys, and how they can often go undiagnosed and untreated because they are most often associated with girls.

This past week, a story aired on NPR that shared the story of a boy struggling with bulimia.  Take a look at the video below:

The story goes on to highlight the differences in eating disorders between boys and girls:

  • Boys and men tend to be more focused on getting lean and muscular versus girls who are often focused on becoming "skinny"
  • Boys and men with eating disorders tend to have a history of being overweight versus girls who are typically thin to begin with
The similarities in both boys and girls are:

  • There can be a history of perfectionism, obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and or other mental health disorders such as depression
  • Very often there are some environmental stressors that trigger the eating disorder

Most treatment programs are geared towards women and girls, and so boys who enter them often feel isolated.  That is changing as more and more clinicians and medical professionals are recognizing that eating disorders are effecting boys and men in addition to girls and women.  It is important that as you share information and education about eating disorders with students and families that you make sure to include boys in your programming.  It is possible that large amounts of food being consumed by a teenage boy is simply indicative of a growth spurt, but if combined with some other risk factors, there may be some reason for concern.

For the full NPR story, click on this link.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

College Readiness in the Facebook Era

We know that our students (and their families) are actively using social-media in their everyday lives.  They use it to connect with friends and family, but they also use websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. to gain information that helps them make decisions about both the here-and-now as well as their futures.  As school counselors, how do we use that technology to enhance and better communicate with our students and families about college planning, financial aid, and career development?

Please join me, courtesy of College Week Live, on Thursday, October 17th from 3-4 p.m. Eastern Time as I share some thoughts and ideas about harnessing technology to support our work as school counselors with regards to College and Career Readiness.  I will discuss:

  • Developing a framework for using social-media to enhance and support your work
  • The basics of setting up a school counseling department Facebook page and/or Twitter account
  • Survey results about how high-school counselors currently use Facebook, Twitter, and blogs
  • Blogging for your department or exploring blogs for your own professional development
You can sign up here for this free webinar.  CEU's will be awarded at the end of the presentation.  We will be using the hashtag #CWLCEU for those of you on Twitter and Facebook if you want to follow along with the conversation threads.  I will also be tweeting out information using that hashtag during the presentation.  How, you might ask?  Magic, and maybe some information I'll share with you during the presentation.

"Thank you" to those of you that took the time to complete the survey.  The survey is now closed.  Your responses directly support the content of this professional development opportunity.

Hope to see you all on the 17th!

Editors note:  This post was edited on October 14th to reflect that the social-media survey was now closed.  The survey that was originally posted here was also removed.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Teen Depression from a Teen's Perspective

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 11% of adolescents will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder by the time they reach 18 years of age.

I came across this Ted Talk that looks at this topic from the perspective of a teen who has dealt with depression throughout his life.  He describes what it is and isn't, and what it feels like to him.  The statement that struck a chord with me, though, was when he speaks to the fact that as a society, we would treat physical illness in children and teens with the utmost sense of urgency, not resting until we had made the kid well.  However, with mental illness like depression, we can have a tendency to blame rather than support the person afflicted.

For more information, watch the full video below:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hunger Games

We all have those teachers that we remember because they supported us in extremely important ways that we are really only able to fully appreciate now, as adults.  Mrs. Cooper was one of my 7th and 8th grade teachers.  I adored her--she was dressed to the nines every single day and it was always clear that she loved her students and really wanted them to do well.  She whole-heartedly supported my aspirations of someday becoming a fashion-designer, and constantly encouraged me to learn more about the field and to continue my drawing, which I had taken to doing during most of my classes.  I even remember that she called my mom one night to remind her that there was a 48 Hours special about the fashion industry on that evening and to make sure that I watched it.  Only later in my life would I appreciate this acknowledgement and encouragement of who and what I was as a middle-school boy in a mid-size town in the middle of the Midwest.

Needless to say, I did not become a fashion designer.  But at the time, I was obsessed to the point of watching and reading everything I could get my hands on related to the industry.  Style with Elsa Klensch was regular Saturday morning viewing, and shows such as Designing Women held me in thrall, not only for the sassy wit and repartee, but for the clothes.


Recently an item appeared in my Facebook and Twitter feeds from a variety of sources that has continued to trouble me.  A school district in New Jersey sent a letter home at the opening of the school year that stated:
"If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded." (source:
This caused enough of a stir that a national morning news program had a segment about it that featured two panelists, a parenting blogger and a school-counselor & therapist.  You can read about and view the segment here, as well as read a follow-up response by the parenting blogger.  The school counselor states at one point that if a child goes to the register with his/her lunch, is unable to pay, and the lunch is taken away and ultimately thrown out, that this is a "teaching moment," presumably for the child and then for the parents when the child goes home complaining of hunger and humiliation.  The school counselor appears to be in agreement with the policy of the school district in that it will help to hold parents accountable and make them responsible.

This whole exchange is concerning to me on many fronts.  First, we know that hunger has a direct impact on academic success in schools.  It can be simplified even to Maslow's hierarchy of needs--if kids are hungry, they are not going to be able to focus on instruction or higher-order thinking and they will lack the fuel and energy to process information and critically apply it to the work at hand.  In an era where teacher, administrator, and school evaluations are tied to standardized test scores, this link between nutrition and achievement is key.  It makes strong academic sense to make sure that children are fed and thus able to have productive learning days in school.  Secondly, because, as school counselors, we are trained in child and adolescent development and are tasked with keeping up with research, we should be one of the voices at the table speaking for the importance of maintaining programs that support the steady and reliable nutritional needs of our students.  We are ethically tasked with removing barriers to academic success for our students.  If we know that hunger in children is correlated to academic success, then do we not have an ethical obligation to share that knowledge with our stakeholders and advocate for our students?  Further, the concern in the letter from the schools system as well as from the school counselor in the news segment is that the parents are not filling out the required forms to qualify for federal free/reduced lunch.  Yet, this policy ultimately does not effect the parents.  Rather, it has an immediate impact upon the child, both in their lack of a meal and in the social-shaming experience of having food withheld, possibly in front of their peers.  In a very basic sense we are putting the kids in the middle in order to try to get their parents to comply.

The school counselor in the segment goes on to say that while he thinks this policy may provide "teaching moments" for students, he does not think that any child will really be forced to go hungry, and that he himself has paid for many meals for students.  At best, this is sending mixed messages.  At worst, it only shows the school district policy to be a punitive scare-tactic that is not really meant to be enforced, almost as if we are playing "hunger games" with students and families.  In an era of positive-behavior management and responsive (and responsible) intervention, we should, as school professionals be practicing what we preach.

I am not naive--I understand that school districts around the country are facing extremely difficult financial challenges as federal and state funds are reduced and deficits increase.  Any expenditure and line-item in a school system's budget is going to face more scrutiny, and very tough decisions will have to be made.  I am not questioning the reality that this is probably a very real financial concern for this school district, who are more than likely trying to keep as much money as possible in areas that directly support instruction.  However, as school counselors we should be advocating on behalf of our students for solutions that go directly to the parents and the concern that forms are not being filled out, rather than a policy that publicly punishes the student for something they may have little to no control over and that moreover we know also impacts academic achievement.

In our counselor trainings, we are taught to look beneath the surface of statements and behaviors in our students to try to ascertain what the true issue may be that is causing distress.  This is no different.  The value here would be to examine why the forms are not being turned in by parents and guardians.  If there is a language or cultural barrier, perhaps community outreach is the answer.  This can be done through establishing parents liaisons to communities, going to homes and families that there is concern over directly, or perhaps visiting community centers or faith organizations to share information about the importance of the federal free/reduced lunch program and to offer assistance in completing the paperwork on the spot.  Additionally, if the concern is getting parents into the school to complete the paperwork, sponsor a back-to-school fair and include a meal to entice participants or perhaps drawings or give-aways.  My experience has always been that local businesses are very often willing to donate gift-cards or meals for such events--it helps them with their community-engagement work, and it allows schools to entice families to enter their doors and begin partnerships to support children.

Beyond this initial push, once the deadline for forms has passed, schools can target those families who are unable to purchase meals yet who have not yet completed paperwork.  Schools could develop teams to divide up to go to parents and families directly to complete the forms, and perhaps again work with local businesses and Parent-Teacher-Student-Organizations (PTSO's) to develop a support fund to help defray the cost of meals while teams were working with families to get the paperwork completed, something that I have seen work first-hand.  If communities have been able to rally to such causes as Blessings in a Backpack that discretely supply food to students and families in need on the weekends, perhaps the community of this school district would be able to work collaboratively towards a solution to this particular issue that does not leave kids missing meals.

There is a statement made by the school counselor during the television segment that I whole-heartedly agree with--we are one of the wealthiest nations in this world with an abundance of food to go around.  In fact, we waste almost half of our food, according to recent studies, which brings me back to Designing Women.

As a middle-school boy, dreaming of my future catwalks and runway shows, I distinctly remember one episode of the series entitled "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" in which one of the main characters goes to her high-school reunion and is humiliated because she has gained a lot of weight since she last saw most of her classmates.  During the show, she meets a young boy from Africa who is touring the country sharing his story of hunger and the loss of his family due to starvation.  In a speech that the character makes upon winning the award for "Person Most Changed," she shares that she met this boy and realized the absurdity that she spent the day upset because she had too much to eat while there were people in this world dying and worrying about where their next meal would come from.  That one part of that speech has remained with me all of these years, making me cognizant of the fact that I have never had that worry.  However, for many people, including many of our students, this is their everyday.

As school counselors, we possess the skills, knowledge, and political savvy that allows us to build bridges that can help our students who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.  Let's use it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Do High-School Counseling Departments Use Social-Media?
Greetings, School Counselors!  Some of you have already started your vital and important work with students and your school communities, and others are gearing up in the next week or two.

On October 17th at 3 p.m. ET, I will be leading a session on "College Readiness in the Facebook Era" for College Week Live's Professional Development Series.  I'd love to see you there, and next month I'll be sharing more information about that presentation.

In preparation for that session, I am collecting information on how high-school counseling departments utilize social-media to enhance their post-secondary advising practice.  If you are a high-school counselor, I would love your input!  Please click here to take a short survey--it should take no more than a few minutes to complete. I will share information about the results in my October session.

Best wishes for a smooth start to your school years!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Road to RAMP: Checking the Rear-View Mirror

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

This past week a few members of my school counseling team and I met to do a final review of all of our Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) narratives. We had revised all of the supporting materials prior to the end of school, but left the narrative edits for later due to time constraints as well as wanting to have a bit of distance from the school year to be able to take a little bit more of an objective look.  Well, with those edits the application is almost completely finished.  A colleague is in the process of editing our final section, which will be a video summation/reflection of our program, we will have an outside reviewer take a look, and then it will go before our principal and a school board member prior to final submission in October.  However, the bulk of the work is now complete.

Just like that, four-years of work is represented in twelve folders worth of documents on a server.  Humbling.

I have no idea if we will achieve RAMP status or not--only time will tell.  However, as I think back on the last year, or even four years since we really began this process, regardless of what the outcome is I think this journey has been valuable all unto itself.  As with all things in life, I think it is important to ask the question, "What have I learned?"

  • Give yourself time.  Lots of time:  Program transformation is, I believe, more successful and more likely to weave itself into the fabric of your school if it is done over a period of years versus a period of months.  Additionally, as we were doing the final writings and edits on our RAMP application, we were able to go back and speak to components from a longitudinal perspective.  The Mission statement in our application is actually the third incarnation of our original Mission statement written four years ago.  Not only could we discuss how we developed the current one, but we could speak to how it had evolved from its previous two ancestors.  Further, the lessons, the groups, the goals, etc. are now standard practice for us.  Our "RAMP" year was not the first year we had done most of these components.  This has given us time to figure out how they fit into our particular school culture, work out any "bumps," and has allowed the components to become fixtures of our program.
  • Collaboration is key.  I am so proud of our school counseling team and the work they have done over the last four years to complete this application.  Rome was not built in a day, and neither was RAMP.  If you work on a large team, as I have, you have a variety of people with different backgrounds and strengths.  Some people are probably familiar with the ASCA National Model, some may not be.  Some may be rockstars with technology and data, others may be great at relationship-building and communication.  You owe it to your team to work together to transform your program on the timeline that is best for them, and to do it in such a way that you are utilizing their strengths so that everyone is able to contribute in a way that is comfortable.  You owe it to your team to provide education on aspects of the ASCA Model that they may be unfamiliar with. You owe it to your team to listen to them if it gets to be overwhelming at times.  If your goal is to develop a comprehensive school counseling program, then it is important to make forward progress at the same time your are honoring the team's timeline so that there is buy-in and so that everyone can internalize the process for themselves.  Additionally, to move forward you need the assistance of the other stakeholders in your building--teachers, administrators, parents, and students.  If you have taken the time over the years to build strong relationships with your school community, this will become apparent very quickly as people jump on board to support you in your RAMP application.  I have been so fortunate to get to work with amazing people who have jumped in to give feedback, assist, and cheerlead us through this process.
  • Everything interrelates.  I've alluded to this in previous posts, but I think the greatest intellectual gift for me during this process has been that an additional light-bulb went off in my head somewhere in the middle of the year.  The RAMP application process really allows you to see, in action, just how effective a comprehensive program can be towards increasing student achievement and supporting students and families.  When you set clear, reasonable, and measurable goals grounded in outcome data and then develop lessons, groups, and additional programming to support that targeted intervention, it becomes a machine specifically built to help kids be successful.  One cog links with another cog, and suddenly there is momentum across the board and you are having an impact on the entire system, not just an individual piece here or there.
The end of this road is in sight up ahead, but I think it is important to keep checking in that rear-view mirror to make sure that you are not only moving towards your destination, but that you are also remembering the journey and how you got there.

Monday, July 8, 2013

ASCA Conference 2013: One Conference, Two Worlds

Going to a conference of school counselors is not unlike going to your own birthday party, wedding, etc.  The focus is on you, or, in this case, your profession, 24 hours a day.  Everyone there "gets" you.  You live, eat, breath, and "reception" school-counseling for one to four days, and upon returning home go through conference withdrawal in which you rediscover silence, your cat, and conversations that do not involve "achievement gaps" and "evidence-based interventions."

One of the many benefits of this annual pilgrimage to the World's Fair of school-counseling is that through the sessions, meet-and-greets, and networking opportunities you are able to gain a perspective on emerging themes in the profession as well as take the pulse of where we currently stand and where there is still work to be done.  The bonus of the national conference is that you are gathering this information not just on a local or even state level, but from the perspective of programs and professionals from across the country and even from around the world.  Taking the short-view, you can see how what you do within your school and community can impact larger goals.  Looking at the bigger picture, you can determine if you have the capacity and the time to make larger contributions at the national level.

This year, I felt one theme emerge fairly quickly: We have come a long way and are looking towards the future.  So many of the sessions and conversations this year were centered on "next steps" for the profession of school-counseling.  Many schools and districts have adopted the ASCA National Model and are using it to have an impact on students and communities, demonstrating this through data that shows how school-counselors are directly effecting academic achievement.  The number of Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) recipients continues to be impressive, and on this year's list many of the schools were re-RAMPing, which says that they have been running data-driven comprehensive school counseling programs for years.  What's next?

Taking the model even further, that's what's next.  The conference sought to really answer this question through its offerings:

  • Leadership:  A cornerstone of the ASCA National Model, school counselors have always been leaders within their buildings.  There is now a text that offers theory and practical work on how to develop these skills specific to our profession.  This is exciting information that helps us to not only be stronger educational and instructional leaders, but also helps us to develop into leaders within the school-counseling field.  As was repeatedly stated during multiple sessions, school-counselors are the ones with the whole picture in a school--we see it all.  This gives us a unique vantage point and opportunity for leadership.  Additionally, a new edition of school counseling Ethics and Law was just released.  So much of our job lives in the world of "grey" versus black and white.  It is incumbent on us to have strong ethical and legal knowledge not just for us, but for our schools.  Further, in order to navigate ethically within our schools we must be politically savvy and have strong relationships with students, parents, administrators, and community members alike. We are the ones looked to as leaders and resources when issues arise with student confidentiality, records, technology, and best practice.  As such, this is an area of education in which we have the ability to become and assert ourselves as experts.
  • Research: As discussed above, we have grounded ourselves in data-driven practice and are now testing interventions and gathering data on the effectiveness of these interventions.  This naturally leads into practitioner-based research so that we can began to establish best-practices and share empirically-supported interventions across the profession.  One of the sessions I attended was about three school districts in the U.S. who studied ways to reduce "summer melt," the idea that the number of students at the end of their senior year who state they are attending a two or four-year university is not the actual number who enroll in two and four-year schools the following fall.  In some instances, large percentages of students are "melting" away over the summer due to a lack of information and guidance on the final processes needed to fully enroll and start in college.  These three school districts all tested programs that took place the summer between students senior year and first year of college involving text-messages, information send-outs, and meetings with student and parents to include finalizing financial-aid packages and plans.  The data from all three districts showed a reduction in the amount of "summer melt," and is something that all school districts could look to as a model.  Additionally, I was able to participate in a session entitled "Data and Research" in which 14 counselors shared information about specific interventions, grounded in outcome data, that were shown to have a positive impact on student achievement.  These ranged everywhere from small-groups focused on reducing discipline incidents to school-wide efforts to decrease unexcused absences and tardies amongst its students. These types of researched interventions are important not only as contributions to the school-counseling research cannon, but also as a means of continuing to establish our profession as one that is necessary to schools and student success.
  • Education and Mentoring:  Finally, we need to look at ways that we are paying it forward for the next generations of school-counselors.  How are you sharing your knowledge and expertise in the field with those who are coming up?  Whether you've been a school-counselor for six months or six years, your perspective is valuable and could help someone who is considering entering the field or someone who has been in the field but who needs inspiration or support.  You could consider blogging about your experiences, as Danielle Schultz and Andrea Burston shared in their session.  I attended an excellent session, co-presented by three counselor educators, one of whom was fellow blogger Dr. Erin Mason, about continuing your own education and becoming a counselor-educator at the university level. Things to consider: CACREP status of the school, Ed.D or Ph.D, length and format of the program, future earnings potential.  Bonuses: Researching and teaching what you are interested in, mostly in charge of your own schedule/time, ability to impact large systems of people/schools/communities, ability to serve on state and local boards/organizations.  Additionally, as was discussed in multiple sessions, getting involved at the state level and mentoring other school-counselors, whether you help them to formulate strong SMART goals or are serving as a RAMP resource, can help you to share what you have learned over the years in a way that can both teach and support someone else.
It is an exciting time to be in school counseling.  However, not for everyone.

I also attended a session on helping undocumented students find pathways to two and four-year colleges.  If you are someone who is in high-school counseling or follow the admissions process, you know these resources are constantly being sought by school-counselors around the country.  Thus, this session was packed.  The presenter, a high-school counselor, had spent many years developing relationships with area colleges and universities as well as building partnerships with professionals in immigration law in order to serve her students and provide them correct information.  She knew the nuances of everything from registering her students for the SAT/ACT to navigating the very complex world of financial-aid/scholarships.  She also informed us that as she was a school-counselor in Philadelphia, she currently did not have a job.

This was the other world at the ASCA Conference.  At the same time that so many of us were having animated conversations about the next-steps we could take in leading our schools and school district or getting excited about mentoring a fellow school-counselor we had met over lunch, the backdrop was Philadelphia, a city and school system wrenched apart by difficult budget choices, the collateral damage of which was laying off school-counselors, fine-arts teachers, and instructional assistants.  The ASCA Conference held a session to share information about school-counseling and the situation in Philadelphia with members of the media and various political entities.  The summer will tell if there is any resolution to the layoffs.

My mind comes back to the students in Philadelphia or in Chicago, a city also experiencing closings and layoffs, who have lost the resource of their school-counselor.  Our urban schools are often those with the greatest need, and school-counselors are the ones able to assist students with personal/social issues that may be impacting academic achievement, and they are invaluable resources for connecting students to post-secondary opportunities, just as the presenter above has done for many years.  There is no way to replace that kind of expertise, and one has to wonder just what will become of these students in the future when they have lost that advocate and knowledge-base to help them attain their goals.

As a profession, we need to remain with feet firmly planted in both worlds.  On one side, the world that  continues to dig deeper, taking the lead, building research, and sharing our expertise with other professionals.  On the other, the one in which our colleagues are at-risk of losing their jobs and their students at-risk of losing an educational expert able to help them navigate school and life while setting and meeting their goals for future opportunities.  In this way, we are able to celebrate how far we have come, look towards to future, and at the same time be mindful of our responsibility to support and advocate for school-counselors and students the world over.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

ASCA Conference 2013: Blogger Meet-and-Greet

Always wondered what your favorite school counselor bloggers are like in person?  Planning on going to the 2013 American School Counselors Association conference in Philadelphia in a few weeks?  Danielle Schultz of School Counselor Blog and Andrea Burston of JYJ Counselor Blog have organized a school counselor blogger meet-and-greet for the evening of Tuesday, July 2nd from 8-9 p.m.  Details are in the flyer below--hope to see some of you there!

Danielle and Andrea are also leading a conference session about blogging if you want even more information--check it out at the conference.

See you in Philly!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

School Violence and Resiliency

In the last few weeks, another school-violence plot was uncovered and thankfully stopped in Albany, Oregon.  As with any of these incidents, there are always a lot of questions raised: Why?  What warning signs were there?  How can we prevent things like this from happening in the future?

As school counselors, we are often looked to for answers to these questions in an effort to help try to make sense of what seems unthinkable, and to reassure communities that schools are safe places for students and staff.  I was able to discuss this topic this past Wednesday on KGAL Talk Radio (starts at 37:38), a station based in Albany, Oregon, where this latest incident occurred.  One of the main questions the program host had for me was, "What are the warning signs?"  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has a list of risk factors for youth violence.  It is important to note that just because a student may be exhibiting or experiencing some of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that they are going to commit an act of violence--correlation and causation are not the same thing.  A few of them are:
  • History of victimization
  • Substance use and misuse
  • History of emotional distress/mental health concerns
  • Exposure to family violence
  • Antisocial beliefs (spoken, written, posted online)
  • Poor family functioning
  • Low parental involvement
  • Inconsistent, extreme, or relaxed discipline standards at home
  • Social rejection amongst peers
  • Membership in a delinquent or anti-social peer group
  • Lack of involvement in school or community activities
  • Poor academic and school performance 

Does this mean that every child that has one or more of these risk-factors is planning to do harm?  Of course not.  However, as school counselors we deal with that list every day at all levels, elementary through high-school.  If a child is not having success with peers at school, we develop friendship and social-skills groups to help them build connections with other students.  We might also work with students on finding some club or activity they can participate in that would increase their connection to the school and community.  Meanwhile, we are educating our whole schools about bullying, the roles of bullying (including that of the bystander), the consequences of bullying, and how to report bullying, all in an attempt to lessen student victimization and isolation as well as increasing empathy amongst our populations.  If students are not finding success at school, we help teach study and organization skills.  We work to build relationships between teachers and students to improve communication and therefore, academic success.  If a child is struggling with mental illness, we work with the family and additional support personnel such as a school psychologist or social worker, connecting them to resources within and outside of the school to give them the help they need.  Our relationship with the families of our students can often allow us to help strengthen the connection between students and parents if they are going through a particularly difficult time together.  The very nature of our role within schools is to support all of our students, and we are uniquely qualified to help address the risk factors presented here.  Further, in my interview, one of the things that I felt was most important about this latest incident in Albany, OR, was that it was prevented.  The student in question made statements that were concerning, and ultimately someone reported this to the authorities.  Again, because our role in schools is ideally a non-punitive one, we work hard to establish relationships with all of the students on our case-loads so that they feel comfortable talking to at least one adult within building.

Beyond addressing individual risk factors, school counselors can also help to develop resiliency skills in children.  What is this, exactly?  Basically, we are teaching skills and strategies that help children develop protective factors and build coping mechanisms so that as challenges inevitably arise throughout their lives, they are more able to deal with them successfully.  By teaching these concepts, you are giving them a "toolbox" that they can open when the road gets bumpy, even if there is no one else around to give them support.  Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, has developed a resiliency program, based upon work by Henderson and Milstein.  There are six components:
  • Increase pro-social bonding
  • Set clear, consistent boundaries
  • Teach life skills
  • Provide caring and support
  • Set and communicate high-expectations
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful participation

If we look at these six components in more detail, school counselors are highly qualified to teach students skills, help them practice these skills, and then assist them with applying them to their own lives.  As stated before, we teach lessons and develop groups to help students develop appropriate social skills.  We teach children coping skills.  We are able to provide support to not only students, but also to families, teachers, and school personnel.  Through goal setting and post-secondary planning, we are helping to communicate high-expectations but also giving them the steps to reach these expectations.  Finally, though our lessons and groups, as well as by connecting them to activities, clubs, and groups, we are helping students to find ways to share their unique thoughts and talents in a meaningful way with their communities.  For more information and additional resources that you can use to help build resiliency in your own students, click on the links presented above.  

However, as I spoke about in my radio interview, to be able to form trusting relationships with students and families, to be able to develop and implement interventions that address possible risk factors, and to build resiliency in all students, we need to have school counselors present in every school, and we need to have reasonable ratios.  The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 1:250.  Yet, Oregon, where this latest incident occurred, stands at 1:553.  More extreme situations exist in states like California, where the ratio sits at 1:1016, or in the city of Philadelphia, which has just enacted a school budget that will cut school counselors, in addition to arts programs, librarians, and athletics--programs that can help decrease isolation and increase connections between students and schools.  Given the opportunity, we are capable of doing so much to create safe and welcoming environments for all students, as well as develop supportive interventions for students who are struggling.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Safe at School: Feedback Needed

The American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the School Social Work Association of America are partnering with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to gather important information about the climate of our schools and the preparation of school-based mental health and academic support personnel.  If you are not familiar with GLSEN, they are one of the leading organizations assisting schools in supporting the needs of sexual and gender minority youth.  Beyond this, they have a wealth of resources and curriculum to support educators and students in building safe and inclusive educational environments for all, and are strong advocates for creating bully-free schools.

Additionally, GLSEN does an amazing amount of research, examining everything from school climate as it relates to LGBT youth to the specific experiences of LGBT students of color.  One of their next projects is to examine the pre-professional and professional training of school counselors, school psychologists, and school social-workers with regards to creating safe and supportive environments for all students.  If you are a middle-school or high-school counselor, psychologist, or social-worker, please take 15 minutes and complete the survey at  The more school helping professionals that take this survey, the stronger the data will be and the better picture they will be able to paint of just where we stand in our profession with regards to this topic.

Please pass this survey on to the other mental health and academic support personnel in your building, and feel free to share this information through Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Road to RAMP: Putting It Together

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

It's April, and we are in full-fledged RAMP application mode.  Programs and groups are in the process of being completed, narratives are being written, data is being collected, and reflection is occurring at a frenzied pace.  Planning for the final component, the Program Evaluation, is underway.  Why now?  The month of May starts with AP testing, followed immediately by our state End-of-Course exams, and once June hits we are knee-deep in graduation.  For us, this next month is really the best opportunity we have to complete as much of the application as possible.

As we are in the throws of all of these tasks, I cannot get the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim's Putting it Together out of my mind.  I have decided that if I ever facilitate a presentation on this stage of the RAMP application, I will first play this video--in my head I've already designed a collaborative learning activity around it.  Take a listen to the whole song and you will understand why:

Bit by bit, putting it together.  
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art.  
But without the proper preparation having just a Vision's no solution, everything depends on execution.  
First of all you need a good foundation otherwise it's risky from the start.
Gathering supporters and adherents...

Sound familiar?  So much of this song encapsulates the RAMP experience.  This is not a do-all-of-it-in-one-year or one-sitting process.  Rather, it takes bits of work over time and then piecing that work into a whole for a successful application.  It is important to have a strong foundation--Mission, Vision, Beliefs--before you begin, as these will inform the rest of your program's components along the way.  However, just having this foundation is not enough--there is importance in how you implement and execute your programming based on these fundamentals, or else you are not going to be able to effect change.  Further, you cannot build a comprehensive school-counseling program in a vacuum--you have to build relationships with stakeholders in order to garner support for your work with students, families, and the school community.

As we have begun to write our narratives, I find that the "nerd" in me is really enjoying "putting it together."  The narratives are forcing us to go more deeply into the work that we have done.  We find ourselves looking back as to what the impetus and data were that compelled us to implement a certain program or set a specific goal.  We are looking at the format of the conversations and collaboration that have occurred, helping us to form a common set of Beliefs in our practice, determining how we use our time, deciding which team members would be responsible for certain programs, and why curriculum fits within certain ASCA standards.  Most important, it is helping us to make the connections between all of the different components of the application for ourselves.  I must admit that I am truly humbled as we are finalizing this process by the amount of work and dedication that our school counseling team has made as a result of this process.  Sometimes you get so caught up in the day-to-day that you forget to take a few moments to step back and see just how far you've come and appreciate how hard everyone has worked.

If you and/or your team are also in the process of "putting it together," here are some things to consider as you compile your data and write your narratives:

  • Follow the rubric:  Each component of the RAMP application has specific criteria that can be found in the grading rubric.  There is information about what the expectation is for the entire component, but also separate information that specifically states what the narrative is supposed to cover.  Further, look at the expectations for scores of "4" and "5," as they also contain information pertaining to how a strong narrative should read.
  • Gather your data, including longitudinal data:  Collecting the data on the programs and interventions you have currently been running is important, but I am also referring to past years of data, or longitudinal data.  How have your Beliefs, Mission, and Vision come about and been changed and reviewed over the last several years to get to its current incarnation?  What data from past years led you to the program and achievement gap goals in your application?  Were there experiences in previous years that helped you to determine the membership and focus of your advisory council or small-groups?  This would be a great time to also review past needs assessments, either of your entire program or from specific components.  The rubrics for the narratives are often asking for you to give the reviewer some past context for a specific component that is founded in data.
  • Do a final check to make sure everything ties back to the goals: This one was key for me.  I will admit to you out there in the blogosphere that I was stuck for the longest time on the curriculum lessons.  Our small-group that we were focusing on clearly supports one of our goals. Our goals, calendars, management agreements, etc. are all supported by our Mission and Vision statements.  However, I was somewhat baffled by how all of our curriculum lessons were going to be measured with outcome data, given that so many of the lessons at the high-school level are focused on post-secondary options and career planning, which is not something that can be easily measured until graduation.  It took two conversations with Super RAMP Mentors for it to suddenly lock--they needed to somehow be lessons that addressed the goals, all of which are mired in outcome data.  Two of our lessons already tied in nicely to two of the goals, and members of the team were able to easily construct a targeted lesson for the third that actually adds a stronger layer to our original program.  Moral of the story: keep asking questions based on the rubrics.  If something still doesn't seem to make sense, e-mail, call, or ask someone in person to make sure that you are on the right track.
  • Collaborate on and have someone review your narratives, preferably with the rubric in front of them:  One of my extra-duties this year is to help coordinate our RAMP application.  As such, I am responsible for a lot of the writing of the narratives, keeping us on schedule, and reviewing of materials.  However, for us this is a team process, and it cannot be done alone.  Last week I sat down with another team-member and worked on one of the narratives.  She sat with the rubric in front of her and as I was writing she was asking key questions about what I was including or not including and letting me know if what was clear in my mind was actually clear on paper.  As a result, the narrative is not only well-constructed and understandable, but it contains all of the nuances and components that are asked for in the rubric.  If you are responsible for writing all of them, have someone else look at them and offer comments--if they do not easily understand an idea, then a reviewer might not either, and it is probably worth another look and some revision.  If you are part of a team, have other team members who may have more knowledge of a particular component collaborate with you on the narrative so that it is as full and detailed as possible.  However, ultimately, you want all of the narratives to have the same feel and a similar voice, so it may be best for one person to go through at the end and edit them to make sure the style is cohesive and unified.
If you've been in your data collection year, as we have, you are coming to the end of your road.  While we often have a million things to do as we approach the summer, these narratives really offer us the opportunity to make the connections between our past, our present, and our future, as well as stop and reflect on the amazing transformations that have occurred within our programs, our personnel, and our communities.  By "putting it together," we are able to demonstrate how far we have come as a school and as a profession.  Good luck!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Reflection: The Bully Effect

Last year I wrote a post about the movie Bully, a powerful documentary that followed the lives of several kids, families, schools, and communities who were effected by bullying and harassment.  A year later, you are left wondering how the people involved are doing and how their lives may have changed as a result of the movie.  Recently, a follow-up documentary called The Bully Effect, produced for Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, has been airing (check local listings, On-Demand, and other television video services for viewing opportunities).  This piece follows up on most of the stories and people shown in the original documentary:

Overall, this new documentary conveys a message of hope for the kids and families in the original movie, and aims to show just how powerful an effect the film has had on kids, schools, and communities across the nation.  Alex, a child who was physically assaulted on a daily basis in his school and on the school bus, now has many friends and has turned into a powerful advocate and speaker against bullying across the country.  The father of Ty, a young man who committed suicide, has also turned into an anti-bullying speaker whose mission is to reach as many schools and kids as possible with his message.  Kelby, a young woman who was harassed and bullied because of her sexual orientation, has been in a relationship for three years and has the continued love and support of her family.

All is not right with the world, however.  I was most concerned with the fact that, although Alex is doing extremely well, his family had to move into another school district in order to insure the safety of their children after his sister was assaulted on the playground of the same middle-school that Alex had attended.  The administrator who the family had sought out for support but who had done little, at least as portrayed in the context of the original film, has not only remained in the school district but was promoted to being a principal of a local elementary school.  Kelby has the support of her girlfriend and her family, but eventually the decision was made for her to drop out of high-school and get her GED after she was allegedly run down by a car close to school grounds with the intention to injure her based on her sexual orientation.  This continues to demonstrate that anti-LGBT bullying and harassment not only impact students socially and emotionally, but also academically.

The message to me from this follow-up documentary: advocacy is still needed, and we still have work to do.  Even after the national spotlight had been shown on Alex and Kelby's schools, the bullying and harassment continued to the point that they both had to leave not only in order to thrive, but in order to be safe.  Further, while they are now in places where they can be begin to move ahead with their lives, I wonder about the many other kids who are still in those schools and communities--if nothing has changed within those school cultures with regards to bullying and harassment, are they doomed to encounter the same hostilities, the same assaults, the same threats as Alex and Kelby?  If kids do not have even the basic need of safety being met at their school, how can we expect them to learn?  How can we expect them to achieve?  How can we expect them to move into meaningful post-secondary programs?  Indeed, the "Bully" effect has been huge as the stories of the children and families portrayed have made their way into hearts and minds across the country.  However, what seems amiss is that it has not yet made its way into some of the schools of the very kids who continue to inspire anti-bullying policies and conversations to this day.

School Counselors: Advocacy needed, and we still have work to do.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Just How Important Is That GPA?

How many times does "GPA" (grade point average) come up in conversations you have with either your students or their families?  If you're like me, you hear it on a daily basis.  Is my GPA high-enough to get into college?  Will a C+ in this AP class ruin my GPA?  Shouldn't I take a standard-level class and get an A versus an honors level class and get a B since it will make my GPA higher?  It can leave you wondering if the GPA is the be-all, end-all for students and college admissions.

A recent article in USA Today looked into this issue, and finds what college admissions offices have been telling us for years--that for many schools, the GPA in-and-of itself is not a key factor.  Rather, it is the grades students receive in their classes and the rigor and challenge of the classes themselves about which colleges are really concerned.  Below is the list of factors in rank order from the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC):


GPA is not listed.  When I share this with parents and students, they often go into shock.  Why is this?  Every school and/or school system computes GPA's in different ways.  When I was in high-school, in my district everything was factored in except for PE classes, and certain courses deemed more rigorous were given weights.  Other school systems weight nothing, regardless of the level of the class, while others will assign a +.5 weight to an honors class when someone else assigns the same level of class a +1.0 weight and another a +2.0 weight.  Some use 5.0 versus a 4.0 scale.  There is no real consistency from one school system to the next, and as college admissions offices receive applications from all over the United States and the world, trying to compare applicants by their GPAs is like comparing apples to oranges.  Thus, many colleges will recompute GPA's according to their own formulas to level the playing field for the students in their applicant pool, like the University of Florida in the USA Today article.  Some will take out all weights.  Some will only factor in "core" classes to include math, science, English, social-studies, and world language.  Others will not do any computations at all, but rather evaluate the transcript holistically, looking at the level of classes a student took and the grades they received in those classes.  Check out this video from the Office of Admissions at Virginia Polytechnic University (Virginia Tech):

If this is the case, why deal with GPA's at all?  They can be great tools in-house.  We use Naviance in our school system, and one benefit is that it allows students to compare their GPA's with the GPA's of past-students (no identifying information is given) who applied to a specific college or university.  Because the data is restricted to one school, this is a like-to-like comparison using the same GPA computation.  Thus, it can give a student a realistic idea of how they might stack up based on past year's admission data for their school.  However, even this needs a word of caution, as the rigor of the classes may not always be reflected within this one data point.  Thus, a student can have a really high GPA but not necessarily be competitive depending on their class choices, or a student from your school can have a slightly lower GPA than the average for a particular college but still be a strong candidate because of the rigorous classes they took.  Additionally, the GPA can be a good common reference point when talking to students and families in general about post-secondary goals within your own school population.  It is an understood measurement within your community to begin discussions about classes and college goals.

Still, the best advice for students and families may be to focus a little bit less on the GPA, take the most challenging and rigorous courses you can manage successfully within the context of your entire life, and strive to get A's and B's in all your classes.  That, in and of itself, is the best formula for the beginnings of a strong college admissions profile.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Road to RAMP: Get Your Group On

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

Let's face it--groups abound at the elementary level.  Changing families, lunch bunch, study skills, organization, test taking, friendship and social skills, and secret agent/random-acts-of-kindness, just to name a few.  During my three-and-a-half month elementary internship, I ran three groups of my own and assisted with a few others.  At high-school, it's a completely different story.

I'm going to be honest with you, blogosphere.  The small-group component of the comprehensive-school counseling program has probably been the hardest for us to implement, not from a lack of desire or skill, but because at the high-school level there are a lot of structural impediments to being able to garner the time, space, and access to students necessary to fully develop this aspect of the model.  Mission, Beliefs, and Vision?  No problem.  Guidance lessons?  Done and done.  Program and achievement-gap goals?  We've been doing those for years.  Groups, however...those have taken some time.

This year, however, we are finally up-and-running with multiple groups that cover a variety of academic, personal/social, and college/career topics, or combinations thereof.  Through the process of running groups over the last several years, I have learned through much trial-and-error some thoughts and ideas that might not only assist in how to structure and plan your groups, but garner support from your school community, as well.  Groups are an important part of your school counseling program for several reasons.  First, they give you more bang for your buck.  In a 30 minute time slot, you may get to work with one, two, or three students on an individual basis.  If you use that 30 minutes for a group, you can impact eight to twelve students.  Groups give you more reach into your population of students, helping us to better reach our goal of working with "all" of the kids in our schools.  Secondly, there is a great deal of power when students learn from each other.  In fact, if you work with high-school kids, you know that they are more liable to take-to-heart thoughts and ideas from their peers than from adults.  In my grief/loss group, the consistent feedback at the end was that the most beneficial part of the group was getting to be around other students who had also suffered a major loss and being able to learn from each other's unique experiences.  Through sharing with each other, the students learned much more than if I or another counselor would have worked with them individually.  Finally, groups allow you to target specific needs within your school.  Not every student needs a group on grief/loss or study skills, but when the needs in your building indicate that more than just one or two students would benefit from more in-depth exploration of a subject, groups are a way to address these issues while maximizing your time and reach.  So, how do you go about setting up a group, especially if they are not yet a part of your school culture?

Well ahead of time...
  • Examine your calendar for the year and determine what windows of time might work best for running groups.  For example, in September and October we are extremely busy with seniors, freshmen, career lessons, and just getting the school opened.  However, in November and December there was more open-time, so that was a point at which some of our groups could run. In May, our entire school is heavily involved in state end-of-course exams, so that is not a good time for us to be running groups.  The goal is find some spots where you might have some time to realistically devote to a group without overloading your already busy schedule.
  • Pull data to determine what group/groups are needed.  This is key.  You might want to run a group on changing families, but if there is no demonstrated need for the group, you have to ask yourself if your efforts would be better spent on a different topic.  You have several places you can get this information.  First, look at your outcome data sources (grades, test scores, attendance, discipline/school safety).  Is there a group you could run that would target one of these sources?  Next, you can look at needs assessment data.  We determined our list of groups this year based on a previous assessment that showed us which areas students felt they wanted additional assistance.  Finally, you can look at anecdotal evidence, but be cautious and do some checks to insure the there really is the need that everyone is perceiving there to be.
  • Build relationships with faculty and staff.  You're going to need them when you start to find space for your group as well as possibly utilizing instructional time to run the group.  If your staff knows you and respects you and your work and sees you as a member of the school team, they are more likely to support your upcoming efforts.
  • Find a partner.  At the high-school level, we are often pulled in different directions, especially if one of our students is in a crisis.  Finding a group co-leader can help to divide the work-load of planning and running the group, give students another adult to identify with if they need follow-up and additional support, and better insure that the group will stick to its schedule, even if one of you is pulled away for any reason.  Don't be afraid to look a bit outside of your department if you need to--school social workers, school psychologists, and, depending on the nature of the group, teachers or career specialists might be great team-mates.
  • Plan like there is no tomorrow.  Determine what the goals are for your group, how you will gather data (process, perception, and if possible, outcome) on the effectiveness of the group, and then what the over-arching structure and layout of the group will be.  You do not have to reinvent the wheel--there are a million curricula and ideas out there, either in books or online.  You will probably need to tweak them for your particular population, but you should not feel like you have to design everything from scratch.  How many sessions will you need?  Determine the schedule for the group that will impact instruction as little as possible.  If you are in a school that has some sort of homeroom/extra period/remediation time built into the schedule, try to work with this.  If your school just has a standard schedule, try to rotate group sessions so that you are not constantly pulling students from the same class.  Make sure to reserve the space you will need well ahead of time, as it tends to go fast, especially if you will be utilizing computers or other technology resources as part of your group.
Right before and during the group...
  • Screen the students.  This is extremely important.  You need to gauge their interest and commitment level, give them parent-permission forms, and make sure that they are a good-fit for the group.  Some students are not yet ready for a group and may need more individualized support before beginning a group, especially as it relates to personal/social topics.
  • Use parent-permission forms.  This has several purposes.  First, for most of us, there are often policies and regulations in place that state that we have to get parent permission before working with students in groups over multiple session and extended periods of time.  Secondly, this is another opportunity to share the work that you and your program are doing to benefit the school community.  The letter should give a general overview of what the group will be covering, the goals and expected outcomes, and invite communication between you and the parent if there are ever any concerns or issues that pop up throughout the course of the group. 
  • Finalize plans.  This should be the point that you determine your curriculum and double check things like space reservations and the schedule to make sure the foundation has been laid for a successful and consistent experience for both the students and you.
  • Communicate with teachers.  This is key, and I truly feel this is why I have been able to successfully lead groups at the high-school level.  I create a group in my Outlook e-mail program of all the teachers for all the students who are going to be part of the group, and then I let teachers know the general purpose of the group and what topics we will be covering, how it will benefit them in their work in the classroom, and what the schedule of the group is going to be.  I also send out reminders prior to each session and follow-ups afterwards with attendance and general points that were covered.  In this way, you are keeping teachers in the loop as to why you are pulling students from instructional time, thus involving them versus keeping them out of the process.  Additionally, if teachers see themselves as partners, they can share with you when they are worried about a student in your group, helping you to better intervene or bring up topics of importance in the next session.
  • Involve students in determining the group norms and rules.  Every group needs some sort of guidelines, especially with regards to confidentiality if kids start sharing personal information.  You and your co-leader will want to talk about when you have to violate confidentiality as well as the goal of having the group members respect the stories of the other students.  However, let the students have a say in the rest of the norms--they almost always come up with what you would have listed and then some.
  • Give yourself time for reflection.  It is important for you and your co-leader to reflect upon each session.  What went well?  What did not?  Do any of the group members need individual follow-up before the next session?  Did you all forget something that you need to remember to bring up the next time they meet? If you went off-topic (and this will happen frequently) was it meaningful and beneficial or should you work to bring the group back into focus more in future sessions? Was there anything that came up in the group that is effecting you?  This does not have to be an hour discussion, but taking a few minutes will help to make sure that you are best addressing both the needs of the group as well as yourselves.
After the group...
  • Collect data.  Consolidate your pre and post tests, examine your outcome data, and even do some interviews of students in the group.  Compile that data into graphs and charts and share that with all the stakeholders.  This is key, as sharing this information with the teachers and school community members will show the impact you are having on students, as well as why it is important for you to access students during instructional time.  
  • Determine what follow-up, if any, you need to undertake.  Do some students need some continued assistance with individual meetings?  Would it be helpful to do a check-in session a month or so after the final session of the group?  Are there students that would benefit from another group that is slated to be done that year?  You want to make sure that students who may still need to access supports are able to receive them.
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect.  When all is said and done, you and your co-leader should take some time to look at the data and determine if the group was a success.  Regardless of if it had the intended outcome or not, some thought should be given to what worked and what didn't and what changes you would make if there is a need for this group again in the future.  This information should also be shared with stakeholders.
You'll notice that most of the work is done prior to the group ever starting.  The time you put in prior to planning, screening, and communicating about your group will pay off tenfold once you get in there and start running sessions.  If you do not know where to start, I would recommend trying to get one group in during your least-busy time of year (if there is one) and have it tie into some form of outcome data--grades, test scores, graduation rates, attendance, or discipline/school safety.  If you can plan a group centered around one of theses data points, you are more likely to get buy-in from your school community.  If, after you've run your group, it is successful, this may allow you to then assess additional needs and develop more groups on a wider variety of topics to better serve your student population.  Good luck! 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Resource: To This Day

This video has been making the rounds, and for good reason.  Not only is its message one of importance, but it combines powerful poetry, beautiful imagery, and music to deliver a reflection on the long-term effects of bullying in its many forms.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The "Courage Gap"

Continuing with my love of all things public radio, I tuned in last week to one of my favorite programs, This American Life.  The episode was the first of two in which the TAL team visited Harper High School in Chicago, where last year 29 current and former students were involved in shootings.  29.  Very early on in the radio program, the host, Ira Glass, makes a profound statement.  Basically, he poses the question, if this had happened in a wealthier suburban school district and not in the South Side of Chicago, where Harper is located, would this not have received national media attention?  Would there not be an outcry of horror and calls for change?

This past week, here in the DC metro area, Prince George's County, Maryland, saw additional shootings of teenagers, bringing the total up to six killed in the last six months.  Six.  Now, we have had attention paid here and there have been responses and calls to action from amongst county leadership.  When asked about the shootings, the county public safety officer said, "The thing that keeps coming back is people just don't know how to deal with conflict." (source:

College Board released their yearly report on Advanced Placement courses and test results.  While, overall, scores are up slightly, there are still large gaps by race and ethnicity.  Black and American-Indian students are still largely underrepresented amongst the whole population of students taking AP exams, and even more so amongst those students passing AP exams.


I recently attended a national conference for educators focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Allies (LGBTQIA) youth, put on by the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL).  The conference brought together educators and leaders from all around the country who shared best-practices for working with LGBTQIA young people in schools, to include program development, standards and policies, advocacy, and ethics.  Ever the planner and maximizer of my time (there may have been lists involved), I went to this conference with a very specific agenda--to gather information and see what others had down with regards to staff developments and policy for working with LGBTQIA students and families in schools.  I was a man on a mission.  In the first session I attended, put on by a speaker from Gender Spectrum,  as a group we were discussing situations that other participants were experiencing in their own schools.  One of the conference-goers brought forth a situation in which all of the best practices and policies were made known to school leadership, and they seemed to be sympathetic.  However, the school leadership was not choosing to act.  The presenter speculated that this might be because of several things, one of which was a "courage gap," meaning that there was a space between what the leadership knew and agreed was right to do and actually doing it, for fear of negative consequences and repercussions.  There was that one last leap that they simply could not take.

What is the role of courage in school counseling leadership?  In the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Model, 3rd edition, Dr. Anita Young writes:
"Once thought to be the job or administrators, advancing academic achievement, reducing barriers to learning and creating equitable learning environments are central priorities for school counselors...While there are many leadership characteristics and practices, utilizing effective school counselor leadership requires visionary thinking, challenging inequities, shared decision making, collaborative processing, modeling excellence, and a courageous stance." (American School Counselor Association, 2012, pg. 11)
Leadership is one of the prongs of the ASCA National Model, and thus of our profession.  As we develop comprehensive data-drive programs and become embedded within our school cultures, we have a real opportunity to help guide our schools to be more equitable for all students as well as create welcoming and inviting environments for everyone who walks through our doors.  Yet, I often feel that this point of the model is often the most difficult and challenging for school counselors.  We are a humble people, we school counselors.  Inherent within most of us is a desire to keep the peace, to broker compromise, and to keep the seas smooth versus making waves.  Our strong relationship-building skills allow us to do things like mediate between students, students and teachers, and help build consensus at committee meetings involving our school leadership.  Many of us do not like to stand up in the crowd and go against the grain.  However, part of our mission is to examine our schools and school systems as a whole, identify achievement gaps and areas of need, and then work to address these systemic issues.  Sometimes, in order to do this, we must be willing to speak out and advocate on behalf of what is best for students and to leverage our reputations and relationships to bring about policies and practices that either level the playing field or create safe spaces.

While I am no expert on leadership, I have learned through the years that we often mistake "managers" for "leaders."  What is the difference?  I believe it is this one piece, this final tip on the iceberg--courage.  Many school counselors have a vision, espouse a long-term strategy, hold to a set of core-beliefs, and possess strong skills with regards to their practice.  Additionally, they provide resources and even professional development to help bring others along and get everyone on the same page.  However, this is only the beginning.  You have a choice to make at this point--either you maintain the status-quo and "manage" what you already have in place day-to-day, year-to-year, or you begin to advocate for what your professional practice and data tell you is best for kids.  Courage and fear are yin-and-yang to each other--we cannot have one without the other.  To lead others through change is not for the faint of heart--it can have moments of great challenge, and can even involve risk to our professional and personal relationships, as well as our positions.  Yet, unless we are willing to truly serve as "leaders" versus "managers," we cannot ever really be the agents of change and advocates that our students and families need us to be.  This is no more real than in the school district of Anoka-Hennapin, which has received a great deal of attention in recent years do to a number of suicides of students who were bullied for their real or perceived LGBT orientation.  One of the middle school theater teachers, Jefferson Fietek, put his own job on the line in order speak up for policy change with regards to supporting LGBT students in the school district.  As I went from session to session at the CESCaL conference, I heard stories of other teachers, administrators, and school counselors who were putting themselves and their jobs in jeopardy every day by advocating for Gay-Straight Alliances within their schools or for policy changes that would make their buildings safer and more inclusive for LGBT students.  They possessed skills, the knowledge, and the resources to lead, but they also demonstrated their courage.

We can apply this to multiple situations in different schools around the country.  For example, because we have the pulse of the school, and because we are the connection between so many different stakeholders, as school counselors, we know first-hand what is happening in schools like Harper or in Prince George's County, MD.  We have opportunities to shine lights on what is happening with regards to young people dying in violent ways in order to garner support at higher levels to address this epidemic, to speak out until someone listens.   Additionally, we are trained in how to address conflict resolution, and can work with students, starting in the elementary schools, on building positive coping skills.  We can advocate for more resources with regards to social/emotional and grief supports.  We can help to build community between students, parents, neighbors, and law enforcement to try to develop webs of support both within and outside of the schools.  A colleague of mine on Twitter was asking what we could do about the inequalities that still exist in the Advanced Placement program around the country.  My answer: School Counselors.  Why?  Because we are positioned to lead.  We are the ones who academically advise our students, who help them map out the courses that they need to reach their post-secondary goals, and who encourage them and support them when they are taking rigorous and challenging courses.  We are the ones who can put our hands on course data, grades, and test scores, and identify areas of need and then advocate for support programs or changes in enrollment policies with teachers and administration to help encourage more minority students to take AP courses.  It is not enough for us to simply recognize these achievement gaps, we must also act to address them.  I am in no way implying we do all of these things alone--systemic change does not occur in a vacuum.  However, it may often be up to us to both determine where inequalities exist and then, using our relationship-building skills, lead others in addressing them.

Last year, I wrote about our responsibility as advocates and posed the question, "Who do you advocate for?"  This year, as I was working with a group of counseling interns last week on preparing for their upcoming interviews with school districts and schools, I said to them, "School counseling is not a career for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to do so much of the work that we do everyday."  And so, I ask you, do you possess the courage to lead?

The following work was cited as part of this piece:
American School Counselor Association (2012).  The ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs, Third Edition.  Alexandria, VA: Author