Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Counselors Clean Up After the Holidays

By Patrick O'Connor 

Whether or not your school lets you put up a tree, plug in a fire marshal-approved menorah, or put an inflatable Frosty in the hallway, the last ten days in America’s school counseling offices have been all about cleaning up after the holidays, as only school counselors can.

Tell me you haven’t talked to these students lately:

“My aunt came in from Fresno and said I’d never make anything out of my life if I don’t take Algebra I by eighth grade.”

“My brother came home from college and laughed at me for wearing a varsity jacket.  He wore the same thing in high school!”

And my all-time favorite:

“My parents got a little carried away with the whole ‘Peace on Earth’ theme of the season, and decided colleges want me to help the poor.  What can I do?”

Welcome to the eighteenth day of Christmas, when students are finally back into their routines long enough to reflect on the holidays and realize that a great deal was done for them—but a lot was done to them as well.

What’s a counselor to do?  Get students back to their center, of course.

*  Auntie may have meant well when she decided to share the academic advice she heard on talk radio, but this really didn’t help, since students are perpetually worried about who they are and how they compare to others.  After empathizing with the student, try asking these two questions:

“So, if you were taking Algebra I now, what grade do you think you’d have?”

Assuming the student answers something like D, F, or Q, respond by saying:

“So your aunt really thinks that would impress a college?”

The point is to assure the student that what matters is if they’re giving their all to their studies.  If they are, great; no one, including a college, could ask for more, and no hard-working student needs to wonder about that.

If they aren’t, it’s time to talk about what more could be done with school work, not because Auntie is right, but because that’s what’s best for the student, and the student knows that—that’s why they’re talking to you.

*  There’s an excellent chance the one who needs counseling is the big brother who’s back at college, not the little brother who is shivering in your office because he wore no jacket at all to school today.  Still, it won’t help to tell your client his brother has issues—chances are he needs to hear something like:

“Wow.  That doesn’t look like your brother’s jacket.  That’s yours, right?  You earned it, right?  Then I guess you have the right to wear it with pride, just like many of your teammates do.”

And that will probably be the end of that.

*  I’d need a week to articulate my dismay over the parental attitude of “go help the needy—it will help you get into college.”  Along with colleges, high schools, city councils, and darn near everybody else like to have community members who make the world a better place and think of someone besides themselves.  Community service can help teach that…

…which is exactly why you should prepare a special list of community service options and send it to the parents, along with this note:

“Here’s a list of activities you can do as a family in our community—but you have to do them together. Colleges will tell you-- charity begins at home.”

Keep these ideas in mind, and it may turn out the best gift your students received wasn’t wrapped in paper after all.

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