"When you walk into Claudia Trinklein-Engman's office at Tamalpais Valley School in Mill Valley, California, you'll see a poster prominently displayed on her wall. It says in big letters, "It's Your Choice! When you have a minor conflict..." and proceeds to list several options for children to resolve conflicts, such as "Apologize," "Use Humor," "Compromise," "Get Advice," and "Walk Away." Trinklein-Engman, who has been a K-5 school counselor for over 16 years, says that much of the focus for counselors at the primary school level is on resolving social conflicts. This is part of her job's preemptive nature — to teach kids positive social skills before they reach the middle school age, when social conflicts can become more frequent and more serious.
When I or many parents of my generation think about school counselors, we remember mostly the "guidance counselors" who sat at their desks in middle school and dealt primarily with "problem students." Many things have changed since we were kids, not the least of which is that the term "guidance counselor" is passé. School counselors are present in primary and middle schools throughout the country, and their jobs have become much more proactive.
Breaking the Bullying Cycle
One thing which has not changed all that much, unfortunately: bullying. There always have been — and sadly, probably always will be — kids who try to build themselves up by putting others down. In its most severe form, bullying can include physical violence or intimidation; but more often, it is subtler and more insidious and emotional in nature. These issues are often the province of the school counselor, sometimes in concert with the principal.
The counselor's job is not just to discourage (or in certain cases, discipline) the bully, but also to help the bullied child overcome his feelings of helplessness and despair. Trinklein-Engman recalls an instance of a little girl who was having a "horrific time on the playground," being called fat and dumb and told to "go away" by her peers. "After we talked about it for a while," recalls Trinklein-Engman, "she needed to remind herself that she could be a good friend and a good person." She asked Trinklein-Engman to write this down on a piece of paper, which the girl slipped into her pocket. A week later, the note, a bit more tattered, was still in her pocket.
Counselors in the Classroom
Jill Cook is the assistant director of the American School Counselors' Association (ASCA), a group comprised of 24,000 school counselors with chapters in all 50 states. She says that the biggest changes at the primary school level have to do with the amount of time counselors now spend in the classroom. "Counselors may go into classes regularly, even teaching lessons on such topics as bullying, peer interactions, and friendships, good touch vs. bad touch, being organized with schoolwork," she says. "Peer and friendship issues, though they're not as elevated as in middle school, need to be addressed constantly."
Other, more serious topics under the watchful eyes of school counselors are divorce, death in the family, illness, or other family crises; and all levels of learning disabilities, from ADD/ADHD to Asperger's and autism. Counselors serve both as a conduit of information between school and home, and as a sympathetic and knowledgeable ear for the child and members of his family. They need to walk a fine line, however, between doing their job and becoming over-involved with a family, or overstepping the bounds of their role. Jeannie Abutin-Mitsch, a counselor at two primary schools in Westminster, CA, says, "We try to be very neutral and focus on what the child can do, and what family members can do to support the child. If needed, we refer to outside sources for family counseling."
Abutin-Mitsch says that the most important traits for primary school counselors are empathy, resilience, good social skills, and flexibility. "If we have these skills as counselors," she says, "we are better able to handle the situations we encounter and the people we deal with." Not to mention that these are some of the precise traits counselors spend their time trying to instill in children.
"Many children have a very hard time admitting their mistakes," says Trinklein-Engman, recalling that poster on her wall. "Children typically begin arguing and justifying immediately, and I often have to remind a child that, at this moment, he has upset someone. This is not about being a bad person. This is not about being imperfect. It is about making a bad choice and being challenged to accept responsibility for that choice.'"