Friday, August 18, 2017

School Counseling Program Annual Calendar

The ASCA National stipulates that each school counseling program develop and share an annual calendar with all stakeholders and update it regularly.  I like a simple one page calendar that I can post by my office door and easily copy and distribute where appropriate. I include the most important activities and events for the school counseling program for the entire school year.  These include monthly awareness, classroom lesson themes, small groups, and other activities like the advisory committee meetings, conferences, and analysis of data.  This calendar communicates the program's priorities and is a public relations tool that informs stakeholders about specific details like the dates of parent workshops. I update it at least quarterly and adjust for changes in planned activities, snow days that require changes, etc. I have the calendar drafted before the start of the school year so I can get important dates on the school-wide calendar and avoid conflicts.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

School Web Site

We have not gone back to school yet so I spent several hours today updating my school web page. See it here I still need to tackle the calendar and a few formatting issues but otherwise it is ready to go. The primary audience for my school web page is parents but I do have a Counselor to Counselor page.
We have to use a standard format as part of  our school's web page but after a year I have adapted. I like the Blog embedded feature. The Blog and the calendar are the parts I update most frequently during the school year. When I make a new blog post on my school web site there is a button I just click and it goes to my Twitter feed. My Blog posts are read by many more parents than the monthly newsletters I use to spend much more time writing. There are many more features I can add but last school year our school had no IT support. We have a new staff member this year for that role so check back later, I am hoping to make some improvements once I get some training and technology support.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Back to School: Part 4 - Effective Strategies for Helping Students Reduce Anxiety

Helping students with anxiety is a topic I have researched, lived, and presented on extensively. I share most of my presentations in LiveBinders so if you want to see the PowerPoint from the ASCA webinar, my state conference presentation, or from the ASCA National conference on anxiety check them out on the Anxiety, Stress, and Worry tab The binder also has links to some good articles and resources about helping children reduce anxiety.

There are new resources being developed all time to help children manage anxiety. For individuals, I begin by assessing how big a concern anxiety is for them. I do this a variety of ways but one all the students seem to favor is selecting the stone that represents the amount of discomfort their worries are currently causing them daily. I have a small pebble, a 1-2 inch rock, and a 4-5 inch rock that I keep on my window sill and bring out. I say, "you could have a little anxiety and it fits in your pocket and you only notice it occasionally, a medium size rock in your pocket that you would notice every time you moved, and a heavy rock that would weigh down your backpack." Once I know how big a problem the child perceives their anxiety issues to be I start assessing their coping tools. What have they tried so far that works to reduce their anxiety when they are stressed? What did not work? If I do see a student for ongoing short term counseling we set a goal to reduce anxiety and quantify it (for K-1 to make it a pebble and for grades 2-5 to reduce it from a __ to below 5 on a 10 point scale). I have found that students who are highly perfectionist or compulsive do not like groups and will only agree to individual support.

If possible I try to have most students with anxiety issues participate in small group counseling. It has many advantages and students  help one another as much as I help them. For groups, especially in grade 2 my students love worrywoos The books in this series are great and the website offers some good materials to create activities.I have done a whole group based on the worrywoos.  For more resources check out my pinterest/worry--anxiety-stress board. Some of my favorite picture books on anxiety are: Hey Warrior, Caterpillar's Wings, The Huge Bag of Worries, and The Worry Glasses. I generally teach a strategy each session and provide members opportunities to practice (calming exercises, deep breathing, mindfulness, etc.)

Stress is so pervasive in my school I teach a class lesson on techniques to reduce stress in grades 3-5. I think this further helps normalize anxiety issues and gives all students a few tools to self-regulate when experiencing normal stress. Since we use Second Step I use their lessons in the classroom.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Back to School: Part 3 - Counselors Supporting Students with Anxiety

Last year I wrote an article for ASCA "Address Student Anxiety" it provides lots of details about how to help It discusses how to work with parents, staff, and students in the school environment.

One of the most useful books for counselors on this topic is Working with Parents of Anxious Children: Therapeutic Strategies for Encouraging Communication, Coping, & Change. The author, Christopher McCurry, outlines the behaviors and symptoms to look for in children with anxiety disorders, and offers a guide for clinicians who work with their families.

When working with children who are reluctant to come to school I try to make a deal with the families, you get them in the building and I will keep them here. Many parents have told me how much they appreciated knowing that if they hung tough and got their child in the door I would work out a plan to make them feel safe inside.

If you have been a counselor very long you have probably had a child brought to you after the bell crying and clinging to a parent. Once you can get the parent to leave the building then you need to start your work with the child with the goal to get them in their classroom ASAP. I generally start by saying, "I am here with you and you are safe." Often I begin by acknowledging that right now their body does not feel OK. This begins the psycho-education of teaching them common body responses to anxiety and normalizing what they are feeling but correcting the misconception that they are "sick". Next I address their emotions and generally have them scale their unpleasant feelings. I have many scales readily available in my office from simple color coded and 1-5 scales for the young ones to 1-10 with a range of emotion vocabulary for older students. Finally their distorted thinking needs to be addressed. I acknowledge that they are telling themselves they are not safe in school (away from parent) but in reality they know they are - it is just their "worry brain" sending a false alarm. Once the student begins to calm down I try to get them to walk with me to class. 

I find small groups to be the most effective place to teach skills to students who need help with emotion regulation. I cannot possibly provide individual counseling to all my students with anxiety issues.  I offer groups for students who need to develop coping tools to students in grade 1-5 using both CBT and Mindfulness.  I typically start my first round of groups in late September or early October which means the first few weeks of school I am probably doing more individual counseling than any other month. Students with anxiety issues are my number one referral reason and this is typical for most school counselors from both elementary and secondary levels according to surveys conducted by ASCA.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Back to School: Part 2 - Help Teachers Handle Students with Anxiety

Many teachers do not understand anxiety and need some basic information before they understand saying "Just relax" or "Calm Down" will not help. If students had the skills to do this they would. Anxiety is often confused with other issues like ADHD, willful behavior, and school avoidance. Teachers often blame the caregivers, and although they may play a role in making the anxious behavior worse, they are not the cause. Teachers can provide parents with strategies for preparing the child for school and the classroom. At our school we invite students we know are very anxious to visit the classroom before the regular Open House so they can have a few minutes to meet the teacher and get a feel for their new class privately. This has helped many students feel more confident on the first day of class.

Particularly at the beginning of the school year, or after a long break from school, students with anxiety are going to frequently show signs of increased stress. What helps anxious students can frequently benefit all students: provide a warm and inviting classroom environment, establish clear routines at arrival, give students movement breaks, go outside whenever possible, play relaxing music, dim the lights for a quiet time after lunch/recess, practice mindful breathing. Students with anxiety need an organized and predictable routine and warnings when there will be changes.

Teachers can use help identifying common triggers of anxiety like morning meeting when students are expected to give eye contact and greet peers, assessments, large assemblies, the cafeteria,  presenting in front of class, and substitutes. The teacher should also know what helps a particular student gain a sense of control and calm (such as a pass to go get a drink). Many students with anxiety benefit from having a list of 3 "safe persons" that they can go to for a break or help, especially when the regular classroom teacher is not available.


Reaching and Teaching Stressed and Anxious Learners in Grades 4-8: Strategies for Relieving Distress and Trauma in Schools and Classrooms (2015) by Barbara E. Oehlberg

Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children 2nd Edition (2016) by John Dacey, Martha D. Mack, Lisa B. Fiore 

On line

This site does a good job of explaining Anxiety in the Classroom

Some students with an anxiety disorder will be eligible for a 504 Plan. Some of the common accomodationsor modifications requested are described on these sites

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Back to School: Part 1 - Resources for Parents to Help Children with Anxiety

August means the end of summer vacation and the time to start back to school. Children frequently experience a wide range of emotions about the start of a school year including excitement, worry, and sadness. The emotions about a new school year can start showing weeks before the first day of class. Many parents report an increase in meltdowns and anxious talk at bedtime even before the "Meet Your Teacher" Open House.

I always recommend to parents, that if possible, not to travel just before school opens, instead plan to be in town and attend the Open House and get children back on a school schedule (generally earlier bedtimes than were the norm during summer). Also to try to arrange a play date with a classmate once it is known who will be in each class. We can all appreciate that having a familiar face in class helps with Back-to-School jitters. I remind parents that for children the start of the school year can be highly stressful. It is important that parents express optimism about the new school year and not feed into the child's concern about a certain teacher or classmate. Parents can also role-play with their child to prepare them to greet the teacher at Open House, introduce themselves to students they do not know, etc.

Most children will adjust to a new school year within a month. If after the first month of school a child is reluctant to come in the building on their own or expressing regular concern, I encourage parents to talk to the teacher and myself to see if we can help with the adjustment or discuss if a child may be experiencing serious separation anxiety. The main differences between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder are the intensity of your child’s fears, and whether these fears keep him or her from normal activities. Children with separation anxiety disorder may become agitated at just the thought of being away from mom or dad, and may complain of sickness to avoid playing with friends or attending school. When symptoms are extreme enough, these anxieties can add up to a disorder that affects approximately 4%-5% of children in the U. S. ages 7 to 11 years. It is less common in teenagers, affecting about 1.3% of American teens. It affects boys and girls equally. If a parent collaborating with the teacher, counselor, and student can't improve a students anxiety a referral may be warranted.

It is very important that parents understand anxiety if they are going to be successful in helping an anxious child. Parents need to work to make an anxious child feel safer not let them avoid the source of anxiety. There are many good books to help parents learn more about anxiety and related concerns. The ones from the past 10 years I recommend are the following:

Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by R. M. Rapee et al. (2008) provides parents a guide for assisting their children in overcoming a variety of worries, fears, and anxieties.

Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety by Donna Pincus (2012) helps parents identify and understand anxiety in their children, outlines effective and convenient parenting techniques for reducing anxiety, and shows parents how to promote bravery for long-term confidence.

Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Andrew R. Eisen & Linda Engler (2006) helps parents/guardians: a) identify child’s unique safety needs; b) empower child with simple and effective coping skills; c) guide child to better sleep and regular school attendance; and d) monitor progress.

Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal with Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries by Diane Peters Mayer (2008) shows parents how to deal with a wide variety of problems, from test and homework anxiety, to bullying, and fear of speaking up in class. Mayer also offers easy-to-learn techniques for children including breathing and relaxation exercises, focusing techniques, and tips on proper diet and exercise that help relieve stress.

Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, Revised and Updated Edition: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life--from Toddlers to Teens (2014) explains some of the ways they "help" actually makes children more anxious. The book explains how parents and children can work TOGETHER against the anxiety.

Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons (2013) offers an effective approach to help children and teens push through their fears, worries, and phobias to ultimately become more resilient, independent, and happy.

Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help by Allison Edwards (2013) guides parents through the mental and emotional process of where a child's fears come from and why they are so hard to move past. Edwards focuses on how to parent a child who is both smart and anxious.

Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children 2nd Edition (2016) by John Dacey, Martha D. Mack, Lisa B. Fiore (Author) designed to help parents, teachers, and counselors support young people suffering from anxiety. Offers an array of innovative strategies organized into the authors’ four-step “COPE” program. Each strategy is accompanied by a set of activities contextualized with full details of the appropriate age level, materials needed, suggested setting, and a template script.

There are several good web sites that offer advice to parents regarding anxiety. These have good free resources for parents and and

Future posts will focus on resources for counselors, teachers, and children to develop a helpful approach to anxiety.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Explain going to therapy to young children

When I need to refer a student for private therapy parents of young children frequently ask me, "How should I explain that I am taking my child to a therapist?" I was happy to find this simple children's book written by a few private psychologist which explains some things that typically happen in therapy, about confidentiality, and that it will take more than one session to help. I am sure I will be sharing this with several parents once school resumes.