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Any counselor that works in an educational setting—elementary, middle, or high, private or public—and has worked for more than one day knows that a schedule should be written in pencil. There will be interruptions. There will be unexpected crises. The one constant is that the day’s scheduled events will change. Many days our door seems to be revolving with a variety of student needs. “My boyfriend broke up with me between classes!” “She invited all the other girls to her birthday party, but she didn’t invite me.” “Every time I take a test, I feel like I’m going to throw up!” And then there are the BIG DEAL issues that come through the door as often as those that might appear trivial. “My dad threatened to kill my mom last night.” “My friend showed me her arms, and she has cuts on them.” “My mom left us last night.” “I want to run away from home.”
There have been days when I have provided counseling services, large and small, to no fewer than a dozen students. These are exhausting days, with a pizza delivered to my home and a long hot bath in my future that night.
When it is time to document all of these contacts in a quick, effective, way, I use COUNSELING NOTES. LuAnne, another Square Peg, developed this format using Microsoft’s Excel Pivot Tables. She designed it, and I have implemented its use for the past four years by keeping my counseling notes using this terrific program. You get to decide how simple you want it to be based on the amount of detail you put in the “Comments” section. Best of all, it tracks the number of contacts you have by date AND by student. I print it out at the end of each year both ways, alphabetically and chronologically. I can quickly see that I saw “John Doe” 11 times when referring to the alphabetical printout. I can easily find that I counseled 47 students during September when I arrange it chronologically. And, there’s MORE! At the end of the year (or whenever desired), pivot tables allow me to see how many students I have seen by counseling category (family problems, anger management, social skills instruction, grief, etc.), the school or grade level with the greatest need for my support that particular year, and how many consultations I provided. Separate graphs and charts quickly show this information in such a way that I see my counseling services during the school year. It is much more than a spreadsheet!
In a nutshell, this tool allows me to keep sole-possession counseling notes in a quick, simple manner AND is excellent documentation of my time…proving time and time again that I am a needed member of my school community. It is not unusual for me to have 400+ student contacts across an academic year. Using COUNSELING NOTES keeps my counseling notes organized in a way I have never previously been able to accomplish. I am NOT, by nature, an organized person (ask anyone who works or lives with me!), and this is simply the best tool for counselors I have ever personally used. Want to prove your worth in a statistical, data-driven way? Use COUNSELING NOTES.
Remember, there are legal and ethical guidelines when keeping counseling notes as they relate to student records. See my post STUDENT RECORDS: Yours, Mine or Ours?
I work daily with a great team of seven guidance counselors and four school psychologists. Each is highly skilled. It is not unusual for us to discuss, or even debate, a variety of counseling issues. One that resurfaces on a fairly routine basis is the issue of student records, particularly concerning our COUNSELING NOTES. I’d like to take a minute to quickly review what the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends regarding our records on students:
- First and foremost, make sure you are keeping educational records that are required by your school board policies, as well as state and federal laws/regulations. This extends beyond counseling notes and refers to all student records. Be familiar with FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, 1974) and how this impacts educational records.
- Keep your counseling notes, referred to by ASCA as sole-possession records, separate from educational records, per state laws on this issue.
- Remember that sole-possession records are designed to be a way for you, the counselor, to remember your sessions with students (e.g., what the topic of discussion was, what strategies for coping may have been taught, what the student’s reason for seeking support was, what day you saw the student, etc.). Here are potential limitations to sole-possession counseling notes:
- Even though they are not typically part of the student’s educational records, they could become so if shared with others or if they are available to others in written or verbal form. So, keep your counseling notes private, period.
- Sole-possession records could also become part of a student’s educational records if they include information beyond your professional opinion or personal observations.
- Likewise, be advised that individual student notes can possibly be subpoenaed. What you are required to disclose may depend on your state laws, your credentials, and the situation-at-hand so it is advisable to consult with your school board’s attorney if subpoenaed.
Bottom line, your sole-possession counseling notes are for YOUR EYES ONLY. Keeping these notes in a confidential, secure location and keeping them only for your individual reference in order to document student contacts by date, name, and reason, is paramount in protecting your counseling notes from becoming public. My rule of thumb is that I create these notes with the expectation that they will stay private but with the knowledge that they COULD become public. Thus, I only put information in my counseling notes that I am comfortable having someone else know should that happen.
Following are two excellent articles by ASCA that further discuss counseling notes:
The American School Counselor Association’s Code of Ethics is found at:
Over the years, one thing I’ve learned is that a friendly chat, a few words of encouragement, or a five-minute “touching base with” conversation can go a LONG way with students. It is rewarding to see the appreciation in students’ faces when you take a little time to intentionally talk with them individually, genuinely asking how they’ve been.
In counseling, we are taught that our counseling sessions with students should be a minimum of 30 minutes, perhaps longer for teens. In a school setting, this creates multiple issues… missed instruction for students and a reduction in the amount of students a counselor is able to help in a given day. While there are certainly situations when students need significant time to meet with the counselor, the use of “counseling chats” is a strategy I find beneficial, and they’re fun!
Sometimes my “chats” are planned—I set aside an hour or two to run anywhere from 5-10 students through my office (or perhaps we stand outside their classroom or sit outside on a bench on a pretty day). If the chat has been fairly benign and problem-free (always a good thing!), I give the student a chance to bring up a potential issue towards the end by saying “It’s been great catching up with you. Before you go back to class, is there anything bothering you that you want to talk with me about?” Sometimes this results in our “chat” turning into a counseling session. Most often this is not the case, but either way, it clearly sends the message to the student that I continue to be available as a resource if something were to arise.
I find that counseling chats:
- show students you continue to care and are genuinely interested in them,
- allow you to follow-up with many more students,
- give you time to work with new students in crisis while still keeping up with previous student-clients,
- allow students to continue receiving tidbits of counseling information,
- remind students that there is at least one adult who cares about them in a meaningful way,
- remind students that I am always available.
Personally, I find that counseling chats fire me up. They are motivational as a counselor because they give me a chance to interact with students who were previously in distress under more favorable circumstances. We get to “debrief” and celebrate success and improvement. CHATS are prevention and an excellent way to stay connected with students, even after problems have been resolved. If you are interested in being more intentional in having CHATS with your students this year, here is a free handout that reviews the basic components and a mini-poster that serves as a visual reminder to do CHATS throughout the year.
One School Nurse + One Behavior Specialist + One School Psychologist =
The Untested ESSENTIALS of Learning
A square peg in a round hole is an idiomatic expression which describes the unusual individualist who could not fit into a niche of his or her society. ^ Wallace, Irving. (1957) The Square Pegs: Some Americans Who Dared to be Different, p. 10.
Above found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_peg_in_a_round_hole
Most employees of school districts are… [insert a drum roll here]…teachers. And the customers of their expertise are the wonderful students who walk through the doors of their respective schools each day, ready to learn all the fascinating things teachers have prepared to teach.
[Insert the sound of screeching brakes] Hold on a minute!
What happens if a student walks through the doors of the school and is not 100% ready to learn? What if the student is not even 50% ready to learn? What if the student is hungry? Sleep deprived? Scared because yesterday another student threatened to beat him up? Worried because her mother’s boyfriend threw her mother around the kitchen last night? Angry because her family’s electricity was turned off the night before? Sad because his grandfather is dying? What if the student, himself, is sick? Or has a learning disability? Or has attention span issues? Or…well, you get the point. The list of hypotheticals is endless.
In an average day in a classroom of 25 students, there are probably at least 5-6 students who have some sort of barrier that interferes with his or her ability to learn academics optimally. That’s where we come in…The 3 Square Pegs. Our jobs are to provide support services to students, their families, and the teaching staff so that teachers are able to teach, and more importantly, students are able to maximize learning.
What can you expect from our blog? Our focus will be on the multitude of untested essentials that are required for learning to occur. Head lice? Check. Classroom design? Check. Bully Prevention? Check. De-escalation strategies? Check. And on and on the list goes. These essentials will be in the form of a host of practices at the district, school, classroom, and individual student levels. With our 60+ years of collective experience in helping teachers teach and students learn, we think we have something to offer.
We are blessed to work in a school district that has vision. To be a small, rural school district with approximately 2,600 students, having a Nurse Practitioner designated as the district’s Director of the Coordinated School Health Program, a School Psychologist functioning as a district-wide counselor to support our excellent guidance counselors, and a Behavior Consultant who is currently the Director of our Alternative Education Program, we consider ourselves rather unique.
Per the meaning of “A square peg in a round hole”, we are unusual individualists who do not fit into a niche of our society (aka, schools). Don’t confuse our “not fitting neatly into our educational society” as meaning that we are not wanted there or that we don’t want to be there! We are welcomed and appreciated by the educators with whom we have the privilege of working. We just happen to think differently in some respects. While we all want the best for our students, our focus is on the many foundational essentials required for learning to even be an option. Teachers teach. They are under tremendous pressure to improve achievement and adhere to new national standards. The three of us provide support services, direct and indirect, to our district’s excellent teachers and awesome students. The result? Students who, for the most part, come to school happy, healthy, and ready to learn. Not BECAUSE of us, but with our help, these students achieve more academic, behavioral, and social/emotional success.
What can you expect in the days and weeks to come? The format of our blog, while it has the common thread of addressing barriers to learning, will shift as each of us take on the responsibility of writing one or two blog entries per week.
Emails frequently come in, asking for assistance regarding students who are, for a whole host of reasons, not learning. Inattentive. Defiant. Disrupting the learning of others. Not doing her work. Out of his seat. Blurting out. Hitting others. Tantruming. Anxious. The list goes on and on…
This is not an elementary issue. This is not a middle school issue. This is not a high school issue. This is not a public school issue. This is not a private school issue. This is an “equal opportunity” issue. In a given year, I typically assist students in grades preschool through the senior year of high school. And, since I often indirectly help the student, she may never meet me. She may not ever know my name. But, in order for me to help the student, the REAL target of my help is not the student. The REAL target of my help is the teacher, the one who wants the student to change somehow for the better. More attentive. More compliant. More cooperative. More in control. More school work completed.
As educators, we must be skilled experts in our areas of teaching. We must know what to teach and how to teach. But, equally important is the frequently minimized craft of managing students in the classroom. I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that to effectively teach any content whatsoever, we must first be able to manage the students whom we are teaching.
When a teacher asks for help in managing a troubling behavior of a specific student, the first question I ask the teacher is “What are YOU willing to do differently in order to have your student behave differently?” This is a crucial question. The student has absolutely NO incentive to change if status quo continues. When you begin to change how you respond to the undesired behavior, whether you start reinforcing desirable behaviors or you start punishing undesirable behaviors, the student’s behavior has a high probability of changing, as well. Ironically, this concept is true in any relationship between two people. Parent-child. Husband-wife. Siblings. Good friends. If you want the other person to change in some way behaviorally, your best chance of having this happen is by changing how you respond to that person when he or she is doing the undesired behavior.
Teachers are some of the busiest people in the world (you know it’s bad when you can’t find time in your day to use the restroom, and “lunch” is a 5-minute binge). It is not always possible to determine how much time a particular student’s behavior takes away from instruction, but if a student’s behavior IS depleting instructional time, the time it takes to implement a behavior plan for that student is usually well worth it.
Sometimes the best approach is to ask the teacher “What time of day—what hour, what class period, what subject—is THE ONE that you want to tackle first?” I’d rather a teacher fully commit to a simple strategy for 30 minutes or 1 hour and do it well (consistently and with integrity) than to attempt the strategy or plan for the whole day and not maintain consistency and integrity of the plan.
So, when you want to change a student’s misbehavior, be ready. You must first commit to changing YOUR behavior.