Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

Lessons I Learned As A School Counselor

There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of one of my old students. Sometimes I see a teen that bears a resemblance and that triggers a memory. Or, I look at social media and one of them has posted a picture that elicits a smile or a cringe.  On rare occasions, I receive a sweet note of gratitude. More often, however, it’s in the quiet moments that I find myself remembering. Remembering the connection. And missing it. 

I remember the time my 11th grade academic support class awaited my arrival in a circle on the classroom floor with all the desks pushed to the edges. This was my male dominated class with 14 males and 4 females and they were sitting in a circle waiting for me.

I remember the 10th grade circle that made me weep as I witnessed the most authentic displays of compassion between students as they shared their struggles with their families and mental health.

I remember the tangents the students would take during discussions just to see how far off topic I would go. Miles and miles it turned out.

I had teachers and fellow counselors tell me that my “circles” would never work.  

Teens, especially males, won’t want to share in front of their peers.

School is for learning and academics, not warm and fuzzies.

“Those” kids are difficult and don’t care about school.

I ignored the warnings. I dismissed the criticisms. Instead, I held each student to the highest standard and expectation. Regardless of the failed classes, drug and alcohol use, poor behavior, lacking social skills, risky decisions, or poor self-control, I expected their best version, as best as they could muster on that day. Days varied. Mistakes happened. Successes achieved. All were celebrated.

There’s a lot of research and focus around resiliency and the strongest predictors of success: grit, growth mindset, adverse childhood experiences, past success, self control, ability to delay gratification, self esteem, and conscientiousness to name a few. I believe there’s value and truth in every one of these traits and/or factors. 

In my twenty years of working with youth, I have come to believe that there is not just ONE answer or ONE method. There isn’t a neat box that each youth fits into or one specific protocol to follow. The buzz word in the educational realm is best practices. Research based best practices. In the world of psychology, “best practices” is more nebulous and highly subjective, in my humble opinion.

 My “best practices” was different for every student. I met each student where he or she was. I didn’t expect an Algebra 1 student to miraculously take Calculus the following year. Nor did I believe that the chronically absent student would attend every day. But I expected growth. Because I believe that we are all capable of growth when given the space, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and resources needed. Growth happens at frustratingly varied rates, but it happens.

Just a few years ago, I received the most lovely and thoughtful gift in the mail from a former student. It was a Yoda patch with the saying, “There is no try. There is only do or do not.” I said that line to my students a thousand times a year, if not more. (Often I attempted Yoda’s voice, which sadly sounded more like Kermit the frog.)

I couldn’t “try” to believe in my students. I had to DO it. Most of my students had lost hope in themselves. They failed to see their light, their brilliance. With so many setbacks and disappointments, it was easier and safer for them to expect failure.  

I understood and I listened to the litany of reasons as to why failure was imminent and fated. I kindly agreed to disagree. Embedded within the job description of school counselor (and therapist), comes the unique and difficult task of maintaining hope and finding alternatives in dire situations. School counseling is not for the faint at heart. Working with youth never is. It was brutal some days – and I’m not just talking about the mistakes made by the students; I topped the charts with some cringe-worthy whoppers. Counselors are human too, after all. I don’t have a road map with the location of a unicorn carrying the happy, perfectly adjusted teen.

I do have one piece of advice, however. It has to do with Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard. According to Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard creates an environment that allows for healthy development. Unconditional positive regard, “…means caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs,” explained in Rogers in a 1957 article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology. “It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have his own feelings, his own experiences.”

Simply stated, practicing unconditional positive regard means accepting and respecting others as they are without judgment or evaluation. You accept them, no matter what they say or do. You see them as a person, not a set of behaviors and operate under the assumption that they are doing the best that they can.

 I’ve compiled a few tips to help integrate more unconditional positive regard in your interactions with others:

 Expect people to have internal resources. 

How often do you assume that others don’t have the skills or knowledge to figure things out by themselves? How often do you give advice under the guise of being ‘helpful’? Did the person ask for advice? When we immediately move into “fix it ” mode, we risk sending the unintended message of “you aren’t qualified to handle this on you’re your own.” Teens especially get irritated and hurt by their parents’ good intentions.

Suspend judgment or bias. Begin to notice the lens through which you view others.  Notice if you’re picking out only the negative behaviors or choices of others and try the opposite. See others in a positive light regardless of whether or not you approve of their actions.

Listen without a soundtrack. Many times we think about our own similar experiences while someone else is talking. If we’re rehearsing what we’re going to say, is that listening? It might be interesting to clear your thoughts and focus on hearing what the other person is saying. This can deepen connections between people. To be truly heard feels great.

Allow others (and yourself) to be different. Notice how often you use the phrases ‘that’s wrong’ or ‘you’re wrong’ or ‘I’m wrong’. What if it’s just different? What would happen if you stopped seeing yourself and others in terms of right and wrong? This is about practicing self-compassion. Accepting and not judging your own mistakes helps remove judgment about others’ mistakes. 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you. Questions? Comments? Concerns?

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