Seeking Guidance? Ask Your School Counselor

“If you spend 10 minutes with a room full of students between the ages of 11 and 15, they will reveal the hundreds of different people they can be in a matter of moments.”

Thus, in their book Fires in the Middle School Classroom: Advice for Teachers from Middle Schoolers, Kathleen Cushman and Laura Rogers capture the challenge that middle level teachers face.

The evolving dynamics in middle school classrooms offer teachers myriad opportunities to hone the art of understanding their students and selecting appropriate teaching strategies and classroom management techniques. Those techniques may work for most students and in most classes, but it’s unlikely they will address every student behavior or need. Many students are dealing with difficult situations at home that teachers have no control over—situations that can affect student behavior and, in turn, the effectiveness of teachers’ instruction.

Fortunately, most middle schools have school counselors on staff whose specialty is helping students deal with and manage their unique situations. Although they may not be able to change what goes on outside the school, by working together, teachers and school counselors can support student success in the classroom. By sharing information, teachers and counselors can develop a synergy that helps both professionals promote student success and well-being.

Here are three questions that teachers can ask the school counselor to get some insight to help the student succeed in the classroom.

1. Why is this student so angry/unkempt/sad/silly/defiant?

Some middle school students’ challenging behaviors in the classrooms can be explained by influences from outside the classroom. A recent move, a death, a new baby, divorce, and homelessness can significantly affect student behavior. With a more complete understanding of the root causes of students’ behaviors, middle school teachers are better able to understand and support the students.

While middle school teachers may refer students to counselors, students may seek out counselors themselves, and parents may request that their child be seen though the schools’ referral process. School programs like Response to Intervention, instructional support teams, and student assistance programs provide other avenues for student referrals to counselors.

Regardless of how a counselor becomes aware of a student, the focus is on creating a safe and trusting counseling relationship to support student growth. This is where the teacher–counselor partnership is critical.

Counselors can help teachers understand challenging students by working with them to collect data about the frequency and severity of the behavior issues and by speaking with the students’ families to determine if changes in the home may be influencing students’ school behavior.

Although some information that students or parents share with the counselors may be confidential, counselors will always do their best to communicate what they can with teachers to help them understand their students without breaching confidentiality.

2. How do I help a student move beyond troubling behavior?

School counselors can help teachers address student behavior by leading individual advising, small–group sessions, and classroom lessons designed to help students overcome personal challenges that may be a cause of their inappropriate behavior. In some cases, counselors will pursue additional avenues to support students whose needs may be greater than the support offered in a school setting.

For behaviors that may be rooted in academic difficulties, counselors can refer students to appropriate school personnel for academic screenings and psycho-educational assessments which may generate an Individualized Educational Program or a 504 plan.

Counselors may refer students with medical or mental health concerns to psychiatrists, psychologists, or physicians to ensure students are properly evaluated and treated.

Successful outcomes take time and often require several interventions before finding one that works; however, the student assistance offered by school counselors can help students overcome personal challenges and shine in the classroom.

3. How can I help students get the food/clothing/shelter/therapy/medical attention they need?

The recession of 2008 caused dramatic increases in American child hunger and homelessness and impeded many families’ abilities to provide their children with the things they need to succeed in school. Lack of regular access to basic needs like food and shelter can strongly affect students’ classroom performance and behavior. As the most constant points of contact between students and schools, teachers are often best positioned to identify changes in students’ access to basic needs.

Teachers can help students  receive access to community-based resources by communicating  their students’ needs to school  counselors. Counselors’ interactions with teachers, administrators, and community agencies position them to be intermediaries between the organizations and the families and children who need their resources.

The holidays, in particular, can be a difficult time for families facing financial burdens. Counselors often work closely with organizations such as the Salvation Army, local food pantries, and government programs to give families access to meals and gifts that can make the holidays meaningful for them. The community contacts sustained by a school counselor are a valuable asset for middle school teachers dealing with their under-resourced students.

Counselors also connect with school social workers and pupil service personnel to arrange for additional resources, such as transportation for a student who may be homeless.

Finding Guidance

School counselors can help middle school teachers overcome these difficult behavior challenges by providing information about students who have difficult personal situations, collaborating on interventions designed to help students overcome their personal difficulties and be successful in the classroom, and identifying community-based support to help meet students’ basic needs.

By recognizing the roles of school counselors and learning to ask the right questions, middle school teachers can ensure that their students receive the support  they need to thrive in the classroom.

Joshua D. DeSantis, a former middle school teacher, is an assistant professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania where he teaches education technology and curriculum development.

Danielle G. DeSantis is a school counselor at Steelton-Highspire School District in Steelton, Pennsylvania.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2013.