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IWCS School Counselors Support the Well-being of All Students

Video:  IWCS Counselors Support Student Well-Being

 

In recent years, Virginia has recognized the importance of mental health resources in our schools.  To provide better access to those resources, lawmakers have implemented guidelines that require additional school counselors at all levels across the Commonwealth.  Isle of Wight County Schools has increased the number of counselors throughout the division, which has proved invaluable to our students, teachers and parents, even more so since the pandemic.

Many people are familiar with the counseling position in high school, especially with their involvement in preparing students for life after graduation.  But what about their other responsibilities?  How are counselors supporting students in all grades?

In elementary schools, the counselor focuses largely on the social and emotional needs of younger children.  The counselor should be the person students can come to without judgement according to Jamie Brinkley, school counselor at Carrsville Elementary.  Building a rapport with students provides them with a sense of belonging and a boost of self-esteem. Counselor Marie Berkeley at Carrollton Elementary describes herself as a cheerleader for the children as she provides encouragement to every student. She runs several clubs for students and will seek out those students who may have trouble making friends with special invitations.  The safety of the small group and support from Berkeley provide a comfort zone for the students to improve their interactions with peers.  At Hardy Elementary, Tracey Gilchrist provides leadership opportunities for her students.  Recently the fourth graders collected stuffed animals for young patients at a CHKD facility which helped them understand how their actions can benefit others in need. 

Since the pandemic, counselors are seeing more students who require social/emotional support and assistance with peer interactions.   Brinkley found some students who were behind academically faced self-esteem issues which negatively impacted their relationships with classmates. Kasey Ortolano, who provides counseling at both Hardy Elementary and Carrollton Elementary, is seeing an increase in separation anxiety, which she attributes to students being home for so long when the pandemic hit.  Many students have found it difficult to cope with their new environment. Berkeley agrees, adding she’s seen increases in crying and irritability.  Current second graders were in Kindergarten when school closed and thus have not had a regular school year.

The struggle is not just noticeable in younger students.  Tiffany Duck, a counselor at Windsor High, is seeing the same thing.  “Students are anxious about their coursework, they’re anxious about being around a lot of people. So much of their life has been disrupted,” said Duck.   “We’ve been here to help settle those nerves and help them find their new normal.”  Smithfield High Seniors Akilah Frye and Neelie Harris stressed the importance of students using their counselors as a resource for mental health issues, noting that counselors have the training and expertise to handle these situations.  In fact, Virginia requires all school counselors to have a Master’s Degree or higher in counseling, exceed Virginia’s educational requirement of a Qualified Mental Health Professional working with children and adolescents, and participate in mandatory training in the recognition of mental health disorder and behavioral distress, including depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide, and substance abuse.

While they are trained professionals in supporting student mental health and well-being, they know their success relies heavily on collaboration with parents and teachers in order to truly make a difference. Ericka Jurist from Smithfield Middle stressed the importance of consulting with teachers to find out the needs of students.  Working directly with teachers on classroom activities gives her an opportunity to support the students in a group setting.  Martella Hawkins, school counselor at Westside Elementary, knows it can be challenging for both teachers and students to find solutions to conflicts that may be occurring in the classroom.  She encourages her teachers to look at the situation through a different lens and find ways to build a partnership between the student and teacher.  Counselors across the division spoke to the significance of working with parents.  The partnership with parents is a vital component to the success of each child.  “We want to make sure the school and home are working together as one,” said Symphonie Linyear, counselor at Georgie Tyler Middle School. Counselors keep an open line of communication with parents and serve as an important link to community resources for families in need.

The additional counseling positions across the division have improved student access to counselors.  Melitta Brinkley, who serves as a school counselor at Smithfield Middle along with Jurist, stressed the importance of counselors being available to students.  “There are so many emotional concerns and mental health issues facing our students,” said Brinkley.  “We need time to sit and talk with students so we can help them.”  Berkeley noted the extra position at Carrollton allows more time in classrooms and working with students in groups.  Stefanie Robertson at Windsor Elementary highlighted the various projects she and her co-counselor Shawna VanSkiver are able to implement in support of student well-being with two counselors on staff for part of the week.  VanSkiver splits her days between Windsor Elementary and Georgie Tyler Middle which provides her a unique perspective.   “Working with Kindergarten through eighth grade, I see them from being little and not knowing how to function in a school to their evolution as young adults heading to high school,” she shared.

School counselors have other administrative responsibilities in addition to those related to student well-being.  They serve as the 504 Coordinator at their school and ensure the rights of students with mental and physical disabilities are addressed.  The position involves numerous meetings and even more paperwork.  At the high schools, counselors support the school testing program, from SOLs to PSAT, there is always some form of testing occurring in the high schools during any given month. They also work with students on planning for life after high school.  Ann Fike, who is a counselor with Duck at Windsor High, not only assists students on preparing for college, a career, or military service, she helps them with life skills, such as managing a checking account or how to dress for an interview.  Thinking of life after high school can be very intimidating for students.  Fike said,” I tell them to not look at their decision as what they will do for the rest of their life, but what they will do next year.” Both Fike and Duck enjoy hearing from former students about what they are doing after high school and even running into those working in the area.  The graduates are appreciative of the role Duck and Fike played in their lives.

Even with additional responsibilities, the school counselor’s priority will always be supporting the emotional needs of students.  Jennifer Carter, who works with Hawkins at Westside Elementary, stresses the importance of being able to be a safe place for the student who may be struggling.  Carter recalls the physical transformation of an anxious student who came to talk to Carter.  At the start, the student was wringing their sleeves due to their anxiety level.  By the time they finished talking, the student had completely rested their arms and relaxed their body.  “They feel heard and that is so powerful,” said Carter.  Providing student emotional support at an early age is critical to improving their well-being as they mature.  At the elementary level, counselors are helping with conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and communication.  By working with students early, it helps them understand how to respond to various situations in an appropriate way. 

The pandemic disrupted student exposure to coping strategies taught by the school counselors which may be contributing to more students struggling with emotional regulation.  Those adults now are providing students with opportunities to practice understanding and handling their feelings.  The counselors realize the important role they play in helping every child live a healthy and happy life, regardless of age or grade level. Robertson summed up the sentiments of all the counselors across the division when she said,” My favorite part of being a school counselor is feeling like I’m making a difference in a kid’s life.  That’s why I do what I do.  That’s my why.”

 

 

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