Now more than ever, today’s youth are bombarded with digital stimulation, activities, school work and family issues. Juggling all of these things can hinder their academic success and induce mental health concerns. School counselors say an open-door policy with students, parents, teachers and the community is key to helping to shape children into healthy adults. Dealing with the whole child in the school setting is vital to address their physical, emotional and mental well-being.

Today’s school counselors accomplish this via a number of strategies. According to goodtherapy.org, school counselors offer individual counseling to help students resolve personal problems. They may also offer group counseling to help students enhance listening and social skills, learn to empathize with others and find social support.

School counselors provide support to school staff by assisting with classroom management techniques and by developing programs to improve mental health or school safety.

In July, school counselors from around the state converge for the annual Arkansas School Counselor Association and Arkansas Department of Education Counselor Conference to discuss these issues.

SOCIAL MEDIA’S IMPACT

Carla Choate, longtime counselor at Beebe High School, says she’s looking forward to attending the conference session on digital citizenship.

“For a while, we just tried to ban cell phones, but now we’re having to embrace that it’s a reality of the world and something we need to educate on about proper etiquette,” she says. “For the mental health aspect of it, social media can be a real danger, because it gets kids off balance. Everything becomes so instant and sometimes they react without thinking it through.”

Megan Reese, counselor at Butterfield Trail Middle School in the Van Buren School District, shared an example of a student, Angela Allen, who was murdered five years ago.

“It all began with social media,” Reese says.

Allen, 16, met a man in an online community.  He turned out to be a convicted rapist.

“We need to do more about educating parents about social media and how they can keep up with their child,” Reese says. “[Parents] need to do more than simply check their kids’ social sites. They need the passwords so they can see all activity.”

PARENT PARTNERSHIP IS KEY

Establishing a good rapport with parents is a priority for school counselors to ensure the overall health of each student.

“The more a school knows about a student’s social history, the better,” she says. “When a family issue arises, for example, we’re better equipped and can connect you to outside help if needed.”

Julie Flowers, middle level Counselor of the Year and a longtime counselor in the Lakeside School District in Hot Springs, echoes Reese’s sentiments.

“Parents being involved enough to know what’s happening day-to-day in schools is so important, and it’s so easy to stay in contact with us these days,” she says.

Donna Wilchie, secretary of the Arkansas School Counselor Association and president-elect of the Arkansas Counseling Association, encourages parents or guardians to ask for help from school officials.

“Sometimes they see issues at home that we don’t see,” notes Wilchie, who is also an elementary school counselor in the Conway School District. “Parents can be hesitant to tell us something for fear a report will be made. It’s not always negative. We know kids have struggles and can relate to what’s going on to find them help. It’s better than just not showing up to school.”

Choate adds that if a parent or student wants to talk, “our doors are always open and they talk about anything.”

COMMON ISSUES AMONG STUDENTS

Sadly, schools are often the target of senseless acts of violence and students increasingly face serious topics such as drug abuse and suicide. Arkansas school counselors work hard to stay on top of these concerns as well as everyday issues such as lack of education support at home, anxiety, depression and social problems.

Reese notes some issues stem from her school’s high-poverty demographic. She says one of her missions is to think of ways to partner with parents to help students achieve academically.

“Kids want accountability, listening and unconditional love from their parents,” Choate says. “Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day that a parent can give, stopping all activity to just listen to your child about their day can have a big impact and give the child just what they need.”

Juggling schoolwork, extracurricular activities and family dynamics can induce anxiety in children as they try to keep up. Choate says children need to find a healthy balance.

“Finding a healthy balance and good support network to help them, whether it’s a teacher, coach, family or youth group leader is important,” she says, noting the students who have the most difficult time lack a support system.

Depression and neglect are other common issues, Wilchie says, which is why in her school, specific agencies exist to help handle those concerns.

“Counselors are the liaison between the partnership of home and school,” she says. “Many times parents think they have to be with an agency or qualify for certain things to receive help, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes they just need to let us know they need us.”

WHAT’S NEXT

The four counselors say they enjoy the annual conference.

Choate looks forward to going with her fellow Beebe counselors, saying, “If you are from a school with multiple counselors, the conference is a good time to spend time with each other and bounce information off of each other.”

The conference is also a place to learn about impending changes and ways to help make counselors’ jobs more efficient and effective.

“We always need to be aware of what might be down the road for students, but be proactive early on, such as for things like suicide prevention,” says Flowers.

As one of the presenters at this year’s event, Wilchie will lead a session titled “Love Matters,” exploring ways to increase tolerance and acceptance within the school environment.

“The goal is to bring awareness to acts of kindness and to encourage students to step out of their comfort zone to reach out to people who are different,” she says.