School-Based Counseling at Good Samaritan
What is School-Based Counseling?
I was a counselor in private practice for several years. I worked with kids and teens of all ages. And while the clients I worked with made progress, the practical side of making room in the day for counseling was cumbersome for a lot of the families. Many parents were interested and felt their children would benefit from regular counseling, but scheduling was difficult at times. Parents have jobs, usually during the daytime hours. Kids have school until midafternoon. So getting appointments settled became a juggling act. Either the child had to be pulled out of school early, or sessions got squeezed between dinner, family time, and extra-curricular activities. We made it work, but it was not lost on me that trying to schedule a therapy session to address anxiety seemed to be creating more anxiety.
It’s only been in the last decade that I’ve seen clinicians, parents, and schools partner together to find a more effective way to do this whole process. While a lot of what kids struggle with is happening at home, not all of it is. There are issues at school too. Sometimes emotional turmoil is kept inside until school and then released via disruptive behaviors. What if we had mental health services on-site to address these needs? What if students could get the ongoing counseling they need while at school?
These were the questions we were hoping to answer when GSBR started the School-Based Counseling Program last year.
Our goal was to have regular counseling available on-site so kids could get the support they needed without families having to do the juggling act of scheduling. Instead, the process begins with a parent/guardian or school staff making a referral to the school counselor for a student they think would benefit from counseling. My coworker Jessi and I then contact the parent/guardian, introduce ourselves, and set up a first session.
We also work with the school counselor to make sure the student is having counseling at a time during the school day when they are not missing any core classes. We are not school counselors, nor are we replacing them. Rather, we are partnering with them. While the school counselors are addressing educational needs and immediate concerns, we are working on heavier issues – ongoing behaviors, trauma, etc.
Does it really help?
In one word, yes. Counseling does help. Obviously, I’m biased because this is what I do for a living. However, counselors are not miracle workers. The process requires the investment and participation of the student. But when someone is ready and willing to do the hard work of healing, it doesn’t just change the present. It changes the future.
Typically, immediate concerns are what opens the door for counseling. Outbursts of anger. Ongoing struggles with anxiety or depression. Difficulty communicating emotions or connecting with peers and family members. And those are certainly problems we want to address. But the goal is not just immediate relief. The goal is setting up the student and family to maintain progress in the future.
Last week at a staff meeting, I was asked to share my heart for school-based counseling. Why do I do what I do? It’s hard to narrow it down into just a few words, but it really has to do with that future aspect. I want these kids to have a safe place to identify their emotions and talk through them. Healthy emotional expression is a lifelong beneficial skill. Some of the students have been through significant trauma, and I want them to heal from it now so it does not have lingering effects. I want these students to learn the skills to heal, grow, and enter adulthood with a healthy view of themselves and those around them. It’s never too early to start working on your inside world.
Let me share an example from this past school year.
I worked with a middle school student I’ll call Emily*. She was struggling at the beginning of the school year and things got worse as time progressed. Emily’s parents had divorced within the last year and both were starting to date other people. Emily was overwhelmed with the emotions of the divorce and all the changes happening in her family structure. For her, the pain came out as anger. Outbursts of anger were happening at home and started to bleed over into blow-ups at school toward teachers and peers.
As Emily and I started working together, we were able to get down to the root of things. She wasn’t just a “bad kid” who had “anger issues.” She was a preteen in a lot of pain who didn’t know what to do with the hurt. Emily was able to make the connection that the anger bubbling right below the surface was really just a cover-up for the pain she was feeling about her family changing. When she finally let herself get in touch with that pain and began to work through it, her outward behaviors started changing. She didn’t just blow up anymore. She started recognizing the moments when she was getting worked up and practiced stepping away and breathing.
The day Emily and I wrapped up our time working together, her teacher stopped me and thanked me. The teacher gave me a recent example where a peer yelled at Emily. Previously, Emily would have yelled right back, gotten worked up, and probably continued in a way that got her sent to the office. This time, Emily took a deep breath, responded calmly to the peer, and walked away.
That’s why I do what I do.
Because it’s never too early to change the pattern and set a different course in life.
In recent years, Good Samaritan Boys Ranch has been making strides to grow beyond our fences and stables. The boys here at the Ranch will always be our heart, but we want to do more. We now have Transitional Living and Stabilization Services programs. School-Based Counseling is another step in becoming more than a Ranch. We want to help more people. And I’m really excited to see what’s in store for our program.
Read part 2 of this series here!
*The name and some of the details of this story have been changed to protect the student’s privacy.