Making a difference

Making a difference

Unbiased support

What role does a counsellor play in the life of a student? A significant one, says Maullika Sharma

Skeptics have often asked me what role I play as a school counsellor. What difference do I make? Do children even know when they need help? I have often pondered over these questions myself. And the answer I come up with is always a ‘yes’. Yes, I play a significant role. Yes, I make a difference. And, yes, surprising as it may seem, children always know when things just don’t feel right. The role of a school counsellor is manifold, and I am going to spend sometime exploring each aspect of it as I see it.

Firstly, and most importantly, the counsellor must provide the proverbial “safe space” for the students. By “safe” I mean one where they experience unconditional positive regard and non judgmental acceptance of the person that they are; where their confidentiality is sacrosanct; where all the threatening and terrifying forces of school, and the world at large, can’t get to them.

This is the most obvious role so I am not going to spend much time dwelling on it. However, besides being a safe space for the students, the counsellor’s room must also be a safe space for the adults — the teachers and the parents. The teachers, like the rest of us, maybe struggling with life’s challenges as well. In giving them access to this safe space, the chances that they will carry the impact of their life’s struggles into their classrooms gets reduced. It is important to help teachers deal with their emotional baggage so that they can be more emotionally available to their students.

Often the people most in need of this safe space are the parents who are trying to juggle issues of work, livelihood, relationships, responsibilities and parenting, all at the same time. Giving them the opportunity to get help, without the social stigma and inertia of seeking out a counsellor, can give them a whole different perspective on life — theirs and their child’s. I honestly believe, the younger the child, the greater the need to work with the parents.

The second role the counsellor plays in a school is to put the emotional and mental health of the students on the school agenda. This involves training teachers on the emotional impact of their words and deeds, as well as increasing their awareness on issues that positively or negatively affect a child’s self esteem and mental health and well-being. It involves helping them air and challenge their irrational beliefs about the world around them, their role and the role of children, among a host of other beliefs. Many children come from troubled emotional backgrounds and family systems, and school often provides them a second chance to experience normalcy.

Teachers need to understand the impact of their words and deeds on the lives that they are helping shape.

The counsellor also needs to play a similar role with parents, be it by conducting training sessions, or regular communications, or by family therapy sessions.

The third role is to help parents navigate the confusing landscape of mental health and illness that they may find themselves in; while at the same time making sure that the school systems are accepting of special support that may be needed by the child. Parents are often confused when they are unable to understand a child’s behaviour and if abnormal behaviour persists they don’t know where to go and whom to turn to. Also, if they are faced with diagnosis of mental illness for their child, they don’t understand the implications and often don’t know how to react or respond to best support their child. They are overwhelmed with their own anxieties and pressures, that they are unable to be available for their child when their child needs them most.

They are unable to accept the diagnosis and often go into denial about the child needing any extra support. Yet, acceptance is the only way forward. Acknowledging that it is neither their’s, nor their child’s fault is the only path forward and a counsellor can play a significant role in helping parents getting to this point of acceptance.

Finally, the last role as I see it, is that of an ombudsman for the parents in the school — not for administrative and routine issues, but for issues that have an emotional impact on the child. Parents often have no one to turn to for this — if there is a problem with a teacher they generally keep quiet because they don’t want the child to be further targeted in the school. Being assured of confidentiality with the counsellor helps them air their grievances. This gives them a feeling of being empowered as they are able to highlight the issue without fear of the child being harmed. It also offers them a different perspective on the concern that they have, while the counsellor simultaneously looks at the systemic problem areas along with the school authorities.

The goal of everyone — the parents, the teachers, the school administration — is the same, i.e. the well-being of the students in their care. However, in an attempt to perform their role better, each party inadvertently assumes the other one is wrong. A counsellor can help all parties remember that they are all in this together hoping to achieve the same end result. A counsellor can make the relationship more cooperative rather than confrontational.