School Counselors Help with Back-to-School Trouble Spots
By Amy Landsman
Do you have a son or daughter starting middle school this year?
One great way you can help your child make the transition is to buy an inexpensive combination lock and then show him or her how to use it ahead of time.
Trying to master the combination lock at school can leave many a newly minted sixth-grader very stressed, says Cydney Wentsel, supervisor of the Office of School Counseling for Harford County Public Schools. Most middle schools require combination locks on the students’ hallway and gym lockers, she says, and any practice using them can make life a little easier.
As this school year begins, keep in mind that school counselors do much more than work with kids who have behavior problems and help students plan for college. They are on hand to foster the social and emotional development of kids at all grade levels, assist children in building interpersonal skills, and help with career decision-making. And, whether a child is entering kindergarten, middle school, high school, or any grade in between, school counselors are there to help make the transition from summer to fall a bit smoother.
For elementary students, Megan Napor, school counselor at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Sykesville, recommends easing kids into that back-to-school routine a couple of weeks before classes actually start. For instance, she suggests waking them up a little earlier to get them used to the school-day routine.
On the flip side, Judy Klinger, supervisor of school counseling for Carroll County Public Schools, advises parents to “begin to establish a routine at bedtime, especially for the littler ones.”
Napor also urges parents to talk about school in a positive, upbeat way.
“Just talking about school—‘What are you excited about? What questions do you have?’—and going school shopping together shows you’re invested in school,” she says.
Furthermore, children thrive on routine, and establishing a study routine before the school year even starts could go a long way in helping them get off on the right foot once it does begin.
“Have some structured learning time following dinner or before dinner,” suggests Klinger, adding that solving puzzles and coloring make fine late-summer learning projects.
On school-day mornings, Napor stands front and center in the lobby of Carrolltowne Elementary, helping kids separate from their parents.
“We call it the Kiss and Go Zone,” she says. “The front lobby is where the parents [should] say goodbye. We have greeters and staff members here, so there is a friendly face to say [to the kids], ‘It’s okay. We’ll get you to the classroom.’”
Klinger adds that it’s best for parents to follow the school’s established drop-off procedure.
“We really would rather the child be doing the normal routine like every other child,” she says. “What parents [often] don’t realize is, if they do something different or special, it almost heightens the anxiety, because it conveys a message to the child, ‘Oh, there’s something wrong. You’re going to be scared,” and it’s not like what everyone else is doing.”
Klinger adds that, if your child has serious anxiety about going to school, you should talk to an administrator and/or counselor, preferably before the school year starts.
Although the first few days of school may feel very stressful, Napor assures parents that “it does settle down after the first week,” and the kids are soon making friends and building relationships.
Middle is Major
Entering middle school is another major transition for most children.
Many middle schools hold welcoming events during which incoming sixth-graders can visit the classrooms and locker rooms and learn about the cafeteria procedures. Parents of very anxious kids may want to spend a little more time getting familiar with the new school environment.
“Just driving in the parking lot helps,” notes Wentsel.
“In middle school, there’s always safety in numbers,” she suggests to new students. “Going anywhere with a friend, even if it’s a friend you just met today, you will feel more relaxed.”
Again, if your child is having any problems, it’s important to keep the counselor in the loop.
“The counselor can be really instrumental,” says Klinger. “Whether they are literally peeking in on the child during the day or seeking the child out within a couple of days to see how they are doing.”
By the time their child completes eighth grade, some parents may assume that he or she is ready simply to breeze off to high school. In truth, many students struggle with this transition.
“It’s different from grade to grade, even in the high school. You have [many of] the incoming ninth-graders who, while they would not admit it, are scared to death,” says Klinger. “Then you have the seniors entering their final year. Where will they go, just nine months away? What they’ve known for 12 or 13 years is suddenly going to come to a screaming halt. So, [the students] have different needs depending on the age group.”
Carie Reese was the department chairperson of the high school counseling staff at Liberty High School in Eldersburg through the 2009-10 school year and has since transferred to Manchester Valley High School in Manchester.
Reese offers her observations: “It’s mainly ninth-graders—they come in, and they’re expecting to get the list of supplies—but there’s no longer a list of supplies. And then it’s just about coming to the big, scary high school.”
“We actually try to help them starting in eighth grade,” she adds. “We hold an eighth-grade transition day. We sit down and talk to the students. They tour the school to start getting familiar with the building.”
“The first week of school, we counselors go into the homerooms,” says Reese. “We introduce ourselves just so they can see us one more time and know that we’re there if they’re having a hard time adjusting.”
Reese notes that middle school counselors often give the high school counselors a heads up about which students may have anxiety or other challenges. The high school counselors can then focus on helping those kids feel comfortable.
Just like those combination locks, the school cafeteria is a source of stress for many students. Reese concurs that the lunchroom “is a biggie” for incoming ninth-graders.
And why wouldn’t it be? While lunchtime often offers students a welcomed opportunity to move and speak more freely among friends, for the kids who have not yet established friendships or whose friends have a different lunch period, it can feel mighty lonely and awkward.
According to Reese, school counselors keep an eye on new students to make sure they’re doing all right in settings such as the lunchroom. If a student appears to be particularly alone, a counselor might even try introducing him or her to other students who share interests or hobbies.
Reese adds, “We have peer facilitators [who are often older students] who work in the office. We try to pair them up with younger students.”
On the high school level, the counselors try to be especially visible. After all, it’s important for teens to feel comfortable about talking to their school counselor about their choice of classes and future plans—whether the students are college- or vocation-bound.
“There’s still really great support if you’re struggling with any kind of an issue,” notes Klinger.
Counselors are going to be much more involved with academic planning and troubleshooting at the high school level, “so we want students to feel very comfortable coming into the counseling office,” she adds.
For parents, Reese adds that, while your average high schooler doesn’t want Mom or Dad getting all mushy, he or she still needs your help and support.
“Just be positive and encourage them to try new things,” she says. “This will help them make the most of their high school years.” BC
For Back-to-School Tips
The American School Counselor Association has produced some handy back-to-school articles for parents, including “Preparing for Middle School” and “Getting Ready for High School.” Visit the website www.schoolcounselor.org, click on Parents & Public, and go to Articles for Parents.
Please Don’t Call Them Guidance Counselors!
Cydney Wentsel, supervisor of the Office of School Counseling for Harford County Public Schools, says the phrase “guidance counselor” is out. The preferred term is “school counselor.” If you call them “guidance counselors” they will “guide” you to the principal’s office. Just kidding.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. August 2010