If you feel like School-Based Counseling is hard, you are not alone! As a School Counselor, Social Worker, or School Psychologist, you are the social, emotional, and behavioral support person for technically hundreds of children on a daily basis at your school sites. At any moment, a teacher or principal can call you and ask you stop everything and come and help a student in crisis. Whether you have 5 or one of 45 students to counsel, addressing social and emotional needs of children is challenging.
A little about my experience as a School Psychologist…
As a school psychologist, I have had plenty of training in counseling theory and practice when working on my degree and credential. Once on my own, however, I didn’t always feel confident with my ability to make good progress with my counseling students. I would connect with some and see progress, but not all. Over the years, I’ve realized that with the right tools, mindset, and organization I had the skills to help a variety of students with different social and emotional needs.
By tools, I an referring to counseling tools, such as worksheets, games, videos, and other engaging activities. Over the past six or seven years I started making my own games, forms, worksheets, therapy art activities, and using YouTube videos. Suddenly, I felt more like I could provide counseling easily through having this variety of engaging activities for several therapy topics. I also have purchased some board games, but I kept finding that, despite the price, they would barely meet my students’ needs and were not as engaging as what I could make myself.
On to the Tips…
But feeling confident in your counseling takes a little time, a few steps, and a little, not a lot, of money. Hopefully, your district can reimburse you, but if not, the products shared will not break the bank. Some of my tips below are free, but take time, which is also a valuable commodity. But putting the time into them will pay off in the end. If you want to feel more confident and less overwhelmed with providing counseling services to your case load, then hopefully these tips and tricks can help! So, please read on!
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you would definitely know by now that I believe that organization is the key to success as a school psychologist or counselor. It’s really the key to success in life, as executive functioning skills are so important when adulting. There are just so many due dates, schedules to juggle (yours and others), and meetings to attend. If you do not currently have an organizational system for your counseling services, you are probably feeling like you are always playing catch-up, and not meeting your students’ needs.
Here is my counseling-specific tips for organizational tools and strategies.
Have a Plan
Do you have individual counseling or groups with specific topics, such as Social Skills, Anger Management, or Coping Skills? If so, then planning out your counseling activities weeks ahead of time will really help. (If you want to see my system, go to minute 7:40 in the video above.) It’s not very complicated, but planning does take time, a Google Doc system, and sticking too it. Plus, once you make it for one group, you can use it for future groups that are similar.
When planning my counseling groups, I try to mix it up with activity types. For example, I will always start with a rapport building game or activity for the first. Then I will alternate weeks of videos, games, and worksheet activities. Based on my experience, variety, novelty, and fun help students feel engaged and wanting to come to counseling. Depending on the age and type of group, you can also do social story coloring book or other arts and crafts activities for your sessions.
Here is an example of the activities for an 8-week group (Elementary) working on a variety of Social Skills:
Week 2: Videos related to teaching Manners
Week 3: Game related to video lessons theme from prior week
Week 4: Videos related to Play Skills
Week 5: Social Story Coloring Book for Play Skills: Sharing and Taking Turns
Week 6: Game for Practicing Social Skills
Week 7: Videos related to Conflict Resolution
Week 8: Game for Conflict Resolution
Have Tons of Engaging Activities
If you working with minimal activities provided by your district like I was my first few years as a school psychologist, this might be a reason why you feel like you are not effective at counseling. But, it’s not you! It’s your lack of materials and tools for providing counseling! While some counseling is talking to students without an activity, I’ve found that videos, games, and other types of activities can better engage kids in discussion, learning, and practice of social and emotional skills. This is because it makes counseling fun, which is needed for elementary school students in particular.
Before I discovered Teachers pay Teachers, I had 3 counseling related game boards that cost around $30 a piece. I also had regular old UNO and JENGA and had an office with outdated worksheets for some counseling topics. Luckily, my district did give me a stipend of money to purchase a few new games every year to add to my collection. But, that money is pretty much gone these days, so I have to either use my own money or make activities.
Luckily, I discovered about seven years ago that I really enjoy making my own games and activities specific to my students’ counseling needs. As I worked with students with different areas of need throughout the years, I have created more and more games, social stories, and worksheet activities. I also have created videos lists of all of the counseling and SEL videos that I use with my students.
If you are looking for an inexpensive way to build your counseling activities collection, then please check out my Counseling and SEL Activity books for Counselors, School Psychologists, and Teachers!
Here are the videos lists also if you’d like to have quick access to a variety of counseling and SEL topics for Grades Tk-8:
Consult Regularly with Teachers and Parents for Progress
I know that you are busy!!! However, it really helps your students’ progress with counseling if you regularly talk to, or even just email, your students’ teachers regularly to see how they are doing. Sometimes the students will come in to counseling and not report any instances of difficulty from their week. This is to be pretty expected, as children rarely want to admit responsibility or may have difficulty recalling their week. If you ask their teacher, however, you will likely discover one or more incidents that can be addressed in your counseling session.
Once I know of an incident or issue, I will rarely call a student out on it directly. Instead, I use the knowledge from their teacher to help guide my activity or sneak in a related question or prompt in order to engage them in a discussion of what would be a better choice. For example, if I have a student who has occasional aggression and I find out about an incident on the playground, I can use that information as a question or prompt in my Conflict Resolution game.
Yes. Sometimes, I will pretend to read a question about their incident on a card that asks something different. (Just don’t let them see the card, right?) It’s sneaky, but you have a better chance of a game question facilitating discussion about their own personal incident than asking kids directly what they did and why in my experience. Also, kids rarely know the “why.” That’s your job to help them understand.
Consultation also helps when knowing when a student is meeting their counseling goals and when they can be exited. School based counseling, even with an IEP does not necessarily have to go through the entire school year. You don’t have time for that! Instead, measure progress, and use professional judgement to determine when a student is able to implement the learned social or emotional skills. This might take some convincing of parents or teachers, however, as some have a hard time letting go of your support services.
Don’t be Afraid to Advise for a Higher Level of Care
While there are limits and rules to what you can recommend or refer a parent to as a school-based professional, there are times when a higher level of care is needed. Sometimes children will need to be evaluated by a Doctor, Psychiatrist, or other medical or mental health professional. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing a good job. As teachers or school-based mental heath professionals, we just don’t have the credentials for a medical or mental health diagnosis. We also cannot prescribe medications or make medical recommendations.
This is especially true for students that you might be supporting with suicidal ideations, attempts, or other significant mental health or behavioral needs. Many students with Autism that I support also have home ABA therapy in addition to their school-based behavioral or other supports. Our role is to support for school-based issues, which does not necessarily include significant mental health needs or home-related trauma or issues. Your focus should typically be on the student’s functioning at school. While home issues can spill over into the school environment, if they do not, then an outside therapist would be more appropriate.
As School Psychologists, Counselors and Teachers, our goal is always to support students with their learning, peer relations, and other school-based issues. If a student is taking up half of you day on a regular basis, they may need more support. Don’t feel like a failure if this happens. You are supporting an entire school-full of children (or more!). Knowing when to refer out for more support is part of your professional knowledge. You can do it!