I was talking to my counseling intern the other day about some of the challenges of counseling children. She was asking me about how to build rapport and have a conversation with a client of hers who really did not want to go to “counseling” and just gave shrugs and “I don’t know” when she asks a variety of questions during her rapport building activity.
I explained to her that the tough part about school based counseling is that students are often not coming to your office voluntarily, at least not at first. Many times, they are not aware that they even have something to work on. Whereas with adults, they mostly come to counseling voluntarily to work out their personal, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. It’s a little bit different with children, particularly children with disabilities.
Start by Building Rapport
My recommendation was to keep it to a minimum on the discussion about the child’s difficulties, and just focus on building rapport. I recommended that she can do this by introducing fun activities, such as an “All about me” art activity, a game, or other activity that is more fun. This will hopefully help him to feel more relaxed and comfortable with coming to see her.
The goal is to help the child become a willing participant. This may take a few weeks, however. With adults and children who want the individualized adult attention, it might be easier to jump right in to why they are coming to counseling. With reluctant children, who do not want to leave the classroom or have adult attention, it can take much longer.
My next recommendation was to have him watch videos related to the concerns that his mother and/or teacher indicated that he was having. In addition to some rapport building games or activities, videos might be your next best option for the reluctant talker. When a student won’t talk or acknowledge any areas of personal concern, I will often use videos.
This way, they are being provided information that they are there for, even if they don’t want to talk about it. Above is my handy-dandy list of video topics that includes topics, such as coping skills, emotional regulation, social skills, self-esteem, or using positive thinking. I use it to support teaching skills and facilitate discussions
Provide Sensory Items for Comfort
For students who are really resistant to participating with even just watching a video, I will give them a fidget, kinetic sand, or paper to draw on while playing the video. I will then pause the video on occasion, to check for listening comprehension and attempt to engage them in discussion about their own related behavior.
Add a Peer (Go from Individual to Group Counseling)
Pairing the student with a peer or putting him/her into an established group if possible may also be a way to encourage counseling participation. Peers can model how to participate in counseling as well as modeling the targeted skill that you are working on with your client. It might not work for every students, or you might not have a perfect fit, but even getting permission to “invite” one of their friends on occasion may help get the ball rolling and improve motivation.
Counseling children can be a very challenging at times. It takes patience, creativity, and the ability to not take it personally when a child does not want to jump right in to talking with you. All we can do as their counselor or school psychologist is keep showing up and show that we care. That is really the best way to build rapport and trust, which is just a slower process for some children more than others. Hang in there Counselors!