There are generally three ways to provide school-based counseling. Looking at MTSS, the levels are Tier 1, which is SEL (Social Emotional Learning), which is provided through the general education setting. Then there is Tier 2, which is generally small group counseling. Finally, there is the sometimes dreaded Tier 3, which is typically individual counseling.
Though it doesn’t have to be, individual counseling sessions might seem a little scary. One-on-One sessions usually mean that a student has a high level of need. This can be nerve wrecking because it might feel like there is a lot of pressure on YOU, the counselor or counseling provider, to make some BIG changes in a short amount of time. If this is how you sometimes feel when providing individual counseling, please read these three tips to make your individual counseling sessions easier on you, and more productive for your students.
Tip #1: Prepare for Your Sessions Well Ahead of Time or Invest in Pre-made Curriculums
I believe that having a plan makes things easier for all three tiers, of course. But if you are trying to improve your individual counseling skills, starting with a specific plan is the first step. Planning your sessions in advance for individual counseling will definitely save you a lot of time and stress. If you are planning your session activity five minutes ahead of the scheduled time, it might be time for you to invest in some pre-made curriculums or in setting aside time to plan. If not, you might be repeating conversations, activities, or not using the time productively. Just doing a “check in” is not counseling, but is often what results from lack of planning.
The benefit of Pre-made curriculums is that the work of planning has been done for you. This can be a real time-saver to have a ton of activities that are ready to go, in a pre-determined order, instead of fishing for a specific game or worksheet with minutes to spare. Of course, you will have to print out any of the materials in advance, but in terms of planning a session, pre-made curriculums can save a ton of your valuable time.
If not using a pre-made curriculum, your will need to outline the topics you want to cover in each session and the overall and daily goal you’re aiming to achieve. As a school psychologist, I am always working towards my students’ specific counseling goal written in their IEP. However, if the student does not have an IEP, consult with the student’s parents or teachers to see if there were any specific situations of difficulty during the past few weeks that can guide your session planning topics.
Once you’ve determined your goal for the session, all that’s left to do is fill in the spaces in your outline with engaging, but helpful, activities that will help them learn a skill, reflect on their behavior, or discuss their areas of difficulty.
To see all of the CFPF pre-made counseling curriculums, please check out my different 6-24 week curriculums for a variety of counseling topics.
Tip #2 Develop Authentic Rapport and Trust
Getting students to like you and want to share with you can also be a bit of a challenge. It’s actually much easier with a small group to build rapport because the students with good social skills can model engagement and enthusiasm for participation. My secret weapon with both small group and individual counseling is always playing rapport building games. This makes things light, while creating moments of real discussion if you have the right game and questions.
Here are the games to play for rapport building, or “Getting to Know You”, with both individual and small group counseling. The Jenga one is always a hit, but if you only have a deck of cards, you can play the “cards” rapport building game.
When building rapport, do not do the following…
Ask a million questions. While I like to get to the point…no one wants to play the dating game in a counseling session. By having a fun activity, such as an “All about me” coloring worksheet or a “getting to Know you” cards or Jenga, you can learn general information about your student that can help facilitate discussions about what areas of their life or school they perceive as challenging. Good rapport building games generally do not have only counseling-related questions. You have to sneak those in with some fun ones in order to help the child relax and start sharing.
Overshare about yourself… A little humanizing is good, but a lot is not. Counseling is not about you though. So, try to restrain your self-sharing.
Forget to mention the parameters of confidentiality... Make it brief, but make it clear
Use Engaging Activities that will Facilitate Meaningful Discussion
Counseling children is very different from therapy with adults. Your students may not have decided on their own to attend counseling. Other kids might not recognize their areas of difficulty. It can be hard to just bring up a topic of difficulty and get down to the why without any activity. Just talking. This is especially true for younger children.
Types of activities that can facilitate meaningful discussion can include a video, game, worksheet, or art-therapy activity. I like to mix it up week after week, so that the activity feels novel, even if the discussion topic is repetitive. Counseling can be like hammering a nail…It takes a few strikes to get it to sink in. Don’t worry if it feels like you are having the same discussion over and over again.
And don’t take it personally when your student does not show signs of progress. If the student just had mild sadness, anxiety, or behaviors, they probably wouldn’t need individual therapy. So, progress is going to take time and patience.
I have a student that I’ve been working with on using coping skills for weeks now. I’ve particularly focused on “Size of the Problem” and different types of calming strategies and breathing. He even has a behavior chart to reward him for calming down when frustrated. But did he have a meltdown over not getting a purple pipe-cleaner this week? Yes, he did.
Below are some examples of games and worksheets that I use with my students. Just click on any that you think may be helpful in supporting your student or students with their individual therapy and stay confident! You are doing great and I thank you for your good work and care for your students!
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If you are OK with spending $3-$5 on a few fun counseling activities for your students, please just click the pictures within this post and they will all link you to the product in my Counseling Fanny Pack of Fun store.