Saturday, May 21, 2016

End of the Year Tips for the Overworked School Counselor

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tonight I was reading some posts on Facebook from fellow school counselors who were venting about all the stress and pressure they were facing at the end of the year.  The most common complaints were about failing seniors, angry teachers who lost their planning time due to being pulled for testing, lost counseling time due to non-counseling duties, inconsiderate parents, clueless administrators, and just being generally overworked.  Reading their posts, reminded me of a conversation I had with a first year counselor at one of our high schools. As the counselor and I were talking about one of her failing students, I suggested she call him down to talk to him about some assignments he was missing in his virtual class.  After I heard her typing on the other end,  she said... "Well, he is (fill in the teacher's name) room and I can't call him out of her room. If I call up there and she gives me an attitude, I am going go off on her!" I was kind of taken aback by her comments because she is generally a gentle soul, but she was just getting started! After we talked about the student, she began to vent about the behaviors of some of her colleagues;  told me that she felt exhausted and overworked;  and expressed her anticipation of summer vacation.  At the end of our conversation, I told her that she sounded really stressed and I asked her if she was getting any rest.  Her answer was not surprising to me as she told me that she not sleeping well and had a lot going on at work.  Long story short, she was experiencing the typical end of the year counselor burnout.

End of the year burn out is real!

The Overworked School Counselor: The Struggle is Real!

As school counselors, we may or may not realize that we are overworked.  In fact, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce surveyed 400 school counselors and found that counselors still face being overworked, carrying high student caseloads, performing non-counseling duties, and face the increasing emotional needs of their students. In fact, one Indiana school counselor described today's counselors as being caught in a "No Man's Land" because our profession lacks a defined role.  Because of this lack of definition, every school district has its own unique prescription for using its school counselors. In another article about Indiana school counselors, one of the contributors agreed that school counselors are overworked and lack enough time during the day to take care of all their responsibilities.  As school counselors, we know this to be true no matter what state we work due to increasing student ratios, increased student needs, and demanding schedules.

The comments from my counseling colleague took me back to the time I was feeling overworked and stressed.  In fact here is a excerpt from my blog back in 2013 chronicling my typical workday.

My workday begins at 7:45 am each day.  As I am walking in the door, I often have two or three students stop me to ask questions.  When I finally make it to my office door, someone is knocking on our main suite door to get in.  Some mornings, we can have 15-20 people stopping by, in a short period of 10 minutes, to pick up a transcript, ask a question, complain about a class, or ask to talk to us because they got in an argument with their parent.  As my morning starts, I am expected to check and answer all my email immediately, answer my phone or return calls promptly, come to an administrator's office to talk to an upset student, and address parent concerns when they walk through the door.  Oh, don't forget the emergency situations!  The suicidal student, the kid who is bullied on the bus, the kid who reveals that he or she was hit by a parent, or a student having a meltdown in the bathroom.  Often by lunch, I have seen a minimum of 15 students and parents, and made 3 classroom calls.

Forget a lunch break!! If I eat lunch at all, I eat while I am talking to a student (I often beg his or her forgiveness) or while I am running to a classroom to grab a student. Throughout the day, I am often working on spreadsheets of student failures, identifying who has not taken a standardized test, talking to a student who needs to take credit recovery in the evening, or encouraging a kid just to come to school.  By the end of the day, I can have up to three meetings (sometimes all at the same time) and then I have another 50 emails to answer before I leave.  Finally, my day ends at 5:00 pm and I pour myself in my car and head to the gym for a little self-care.  After the gym, I head home, grab a bite to eat, talk to my family, and then start making my plans for work the next day.  

Unfortunately, I was not able to sustain my frenetic work schedule. Due to the craziness of my work life, my quality of life and health began to decline.  One day I walked out of my closet frustrated that I could not wear a lot of my clothes.  Shirts were too tight, pants would not make it over my thigh, and don't get me started on my jeans.  Urgggghhh!!!  Over the last two
Stress increases cortisol and cortisol causes weight gain!
years, I had put on over 20 pounds and I really believe it was due to stress and my insane work schedule.  In fact, I can guarantee putting in 14 hour days, working late into the night, working on the weekends, answering constant emails, assisting with testing, meeting with parents on a whim, and coordinating copious programs will have a negative effect on your body.  Therefore, I decided I had to do something because I could not afford to buy another wardrobe.

Finally,  I had to make a decision in my career: keep going or make a job change.  I won't go into my career change here, but just know that I decided to change jobs to keep my sanity. Though I miss being present in a physical high school, right now I am happier and content being the virtual counselor!!

Recognizing When You Need a Change
First of all, we have to realize what being overworked and stressed can do to our bodies.  When we are chronically stressed, we release the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can lead to weight gain, health problems, and changes in the brain which are often linked to mental illness.  When I finally had time to go to the doctor for my check up, he asked about my sleeping patterns and told me that my cortisol levels were preventing me from sleeping and causing me to gain weight. In addition, my stress level had caused my adrenal glands, which releases cortisol, to become depleted.

Second, stress causes confusion and forgetfulness. Not only is chronic stress dangerous to your body, but it can permanently change your brain.  Scientist at the University of California at Berkeley have found that chronic stress has the ability to "flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex..." Basically, stress can shrink your prefrontal cortex causing confusion or brain fog.   I have attached a great short video for you to watch to show you how stress impacts the body and brain.

Although you may not be able to change your schedule, work load, or make a job change, there are some simple things you can do to reduce the negative impacts of stress on your body and brain.  According to Psychology Today, there are five simple ways we can reduce the negative effects of cortisol on the body.

1. Incorporate at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day in your schedule. There are lots of websites with ideas for working out.  Here are a few below:
Fitness Magazine
Health Magazine
Fitness Blender
Steady Health
Lauren Hefez Workouts

Check out this link to 50 of the best workout sites.

2.  Take time for relaxation during the day (even for short periods of time).  Professors at John Hopkins University suggest that taking 10 deep breaths can slow down your heart rate, breathing, and reduce your blood pressure.

Here is a three hour video with relaxing sounds and music.

3.  Build in social connectivity and reduce isolation.  If you do not have colleagues you can reach out to in your building or district, there are other ways to reach out to other counselors.  Check out the following resources for making connections with other professionals around the world!!

66 Top Counseling Resources

The Gift of the School Counseling Blog

Twitter Chats for High School Counselors

4.  Find ways to have fun and laugh during the day.
In case you need proof that laughter reduces stress, here is some evidence from our friends in the scientific community.

5.  Play music in your office. In fact, as I am tying this blog post, I am listening to satellite radio. 

Here are some free radio stations you may be able to access at your job:

Need more? Check out this list of over 45,000 radio stations!

6.  Get plenty of rest...6 to 8 hours of sleep a night.  Sleep is really important and I will give you 11 reasons why you need to get your rest.
  • Sleep improves your memory.
  • Sleep enhances your life expectancy.
  • Sleep curbs inflammation.  Inflammation has been linked to illnesses like diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and premature aging.
  • Sleep increases creative ideas.
  • Sleep increases your stamina.
  • Sleep helps you  to study (for those of you in graduate school).
  • Sleep sharpens your attention span.
  • Sleep helps you to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Sleep lowers your stress level. 
  • Sleep helps you to be less careless.
  • Sleeps helps prevent depression.

7.  Eat a healthy diet (watch out for stress eating)!  If you were like me, I would often miss lunch and then pig out at supper...then, there is the ice cream eating binge at 10:00 at night.  Well, no more.  I decided to start eating healthier and happy to report I am almost 20 lbs. lighter.  Here are some tips for better eating habits.

  • You have got to drink water and limit the sodas, sweet teas, juices, and lattes.  I know...I almost died when I had to give up my diet pepsi, but it was adding weight not contributing to my weight loss.
  • Eat healthy carbohydrates, not prepackaged lunches, bars, chips, etc.
  • Limit your caffeine intake.
  • Watch the starch intake as these foods turn to sugar (you know...pasta, rice, potatoes).
  • Watch your portion sizes.  For example, your portion of meat should be the size of your palm.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast every morning and don't skip it!
  • Watch  your sugar intake and limit your dessert to once a week.  If you need a chocolate binge, eat dark chocolate. 
Well, I know this post is a little different from what I normally write; however, I felt it was important to address counselor stress as we leave one school year and start the next.  Make a commitment to take care of you because no one can do better than you!!

One additional resource:

Alternative Mental Health Treatments and Managing Stress

Monday, May 16, 2016

Guest Blog: A School Counselor's Role in Preventing Substance Abuse

Monday, May 16, 2016

Last year, I welcomed my first guest bloggers and received a lot of positive feedback.  Again, I am including a guest post written by Tim Wayne from Bradley University.   Hope you enjoy this information and I welcome your feedback!!

A School Counselor’s Role in Preventing Substance Abuse: An Infographic

Within the past decade, substance abuse among students below the age of 18 has risen. Despite more tools and research at our disposal, research tells us that students are less likely to understand the risks of taking drugs, have greater access to those substances, and receive less exposure to drug prevention messaging.

There are a wide range of warning signs when an at-risk student is having problems with substance abuse. When students begin to change habits, lose interest in extracurricular activities, or begin to slip academically, school counselors can help these students with direct intervention. However, school counselors can also play a vital part by spreading awareness and implementing prevention strategies to make a positive difference in their community before substance abuse begins to impact the lives of students.

Stemming the tide of substance abuse is a community effort, and school counselors are essential organizers of faculty, local authorities, and parents to convey consistent, effective drug-prevention messaging. Students need to be equipped with more than ‘Just Say No’; they need an on-going conversation about how substance abuse represents a serious issue in regards to their health and the well-being of their community.

Learn more about substance abuse statistics among teens in school, in addition to prevention strategies that school counselors can implement, with the infographic below created by Bradley University’s Counseling Program.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Helping Students With Anxiety: Resources for School Counselors

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided to write a post regarding a common mental health disorder that students are exhibiting in school.  Unfortunately, school counselors are often unaware of how to help students and families who face this disorder.  In this post, I hope to give some insight to school counselors about the mood disorder anxiety.
A few weeks ago, a colleague shared her concerns about a ninth grader who was skipping class and failing several of her courses.  When my friend confronted the student about her grades and skipping, the student told her that she suffered from anxiety and felt uncomfortable around large groups of students.  My colleague decided to meet with the guardian of the student to come up with a plan to help her when she was feeling anxious.  During the meeting, the guardian was resistant to many of my colleague's suggestions and felt that the student was truly unable to properly function in a classroom.  My colleague told the guardian that she understood her concerns for her child, but she was worried for the student's safety as she was constantly missing class and no one knew her whereabouts.  When the guardian asked the student where she was going, the student burst into tears and accused the guardian of not caring about her, threatened to run away, and got up to leave the room.  Instantly, the guardian backed down and told the counselor that her child needed time to regain her composure.  Calmly, my colleague listened to the parent,  but insisted a plan was needed to make sure the student was safe and academically successful.  Frustrated, the parent excused herself and left with her child leaving my colleague scratching her head.

What is Anxiety?

According to Healthy Place, anxiety disorders are a group of illnesses including generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Researchers believe that anxiety is a biological disorder that runs in families and may manifest from a series of risk factors like brain chemistry, genetics, personality, and life events. 

How to Help a Student Who Suffers from Anxiety?

School counselors are generally the first line of defense when identifying mental health disorders in teens.  Being able to properly identify and refer families to proper treatment is imperative for student recovery.  Although anxiety is treatable, 80 percent of youth are not getting treatment! Also, anxiety disorders are generally accompanied by other disorders like depression, ADHD, or eating disorders.

In my opinion, I don't think the student or parent was trying to be difficult. In their research, Hanie and Stanard found that students with anxiety are often misunderstood by parents and school staff. Students with anxiety typically try to avoid difficult situations, desperately want their anxiety to stop,  and often feel people are against them.  In fact, this student was using the same ineffective coping mechanisms she has probably used over and over to deal with her anxiety.    Dr. Katharina Manassis found that school refusal is a major concern of students who have mood disorders. She found that when students begin to miss school for long periods of time, they need to work with a professional (therapist) to create a plan to return to school. 

So, how can counselors assist students who miss school due to their anxiety? Some suggestions from Dr. Manassis include:

  • Escort the student to class.
  • Create a plan for helping the student to catch up in his or her class.
  • Remain calm and thoughtful with the student and family.
  • Schools should be flexible and allow variations in student's schedule.
  • Allow a staff person to be available to assist the student when he or she is having anxiety.
  • Schools should be flexible with academic expectations as the student adjusts back to school. 
In addition to assisting students in school, school counselors should refer the student to an outside referral.  Dr. Manassis suggests that students should see a therapist regularly regarding their anxiety.  Some therapies for students with anxiety often include:
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Family Therapy
Dr. Manassis warns that home school should not be a recommendation for students as it often becomes a lifestyle for the student. Also, changing schools may not always be the best solution as transition can be stressful for the student.  Dr. Manassis says that changing schools should only be considered if the school is toxic (i.e. bullying is present).

Helpful Tips When Students Are Having Anxiety

Therapist and Mental Health Vlogger, Kati Morton, gives some additional tips school counselors can give students. These suggestions include:

1.  Stay busy!  Anxiety often appears when students are quiet and allow their minds to run with thoughts.

2.  Help students focus on the area where they feel the worry and use deep breathing.

3.  Suggest that students begin to exercise - anxiety thrives when we have a lot of pent up energy.

4.  Suggest the student have an emergency contact list to reach out when he or she is anxious. Having at least five people is important so that if someone cannot answer, the student has a back up contact.

5.  Consider seeing a psychiatrist if his or her anxiety is not improving.

Worry Wise Kids has a list of accommodations that schools can put into place if a student is exhibiting symptoms of anxiety.  Some tips include:
  • Seat students away from other students who may be disruptive or distracting.
  • Allow the student to present class presentations to the teacher alone or allow the student to videotape the lesson at home to show to the teacher.
  • Allow extended time on tests.
  • Create a cool down pass (with a time limit of 5-10 minutes) for the student to wash his or her face or get water.
See more suggestions in this article, Sample Accommodations for Students with Anxiety.

Additional Resources 

Do you need additional resources for assisting students with mood disorders?  Here are some resources you may find helpful to use with your students.

Youth Mental Health First Aid 

Mental Health First Aid is designed to work with adolescents between the ages of 12-18 and introduces the participants to the unique risks and warning signs of those who work with adolescents. In addition, the course helps build understanding of the importance of early intervention and teaches participants how to work with youth experiencing a mental health crisis. Not only is this course appropriate for those who work with youth, but the course is also appropriate for older adolescents (ages 16 or older) as to encourage peer to peer interaction.
work with adolescents between the ages of 12-18 and introduces the participants to the unique risks and warning signs of those who work with adolescents. In addition, the course helps build understanding of the importance of early intervention and teaches participants how to work with youth experiencing a mental health crisis. - See more at:

Coloring Books for Teens with Anxiety
 Check out my post on how to use coloring books to help calm anxious students. 

Mental Health Resources for School Counselors
Check out resources from my post about Mental Health Awareness Week, 2014.
Additional Resources:
Ten Things to do for a Panic Attack
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? 
Anxiety and Depression Association of America 
Resources and Training for School Counselors 
Top Anxiety Blogs
Kids Crisis Booklet with Crisis Plan 
SPRC Safety Plan Template 
Crisis Wallet Card (great example)
SAMSHA Guidelines in Responding to a Mental Health Crisis  
Tips to Promote Social-Emotional Health Among Teens
How to Work Effectively with Police When Youth Are in Mental Health Crisis.pdf

Training Opportunities for Schools 

Description of Mental Illnesses
Songs About Mental Illness 
300 Famous People Who Suffer From Mental Illness 
Famous People Who Suffer from Mental Illness PowerPoint
CDC Mental Health Resources
CDC Human Development and Disabilities Resources
National Institute on Drug Abuse
Free Resources for High School Staff on Teen Drug Abuse
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
ACA Crisis Counseling
ACA Suicide Assessment
Disaster Mental Health Training for School Counselors
Youth Mental Health First Aid Training
The Current State of School Based Mental Health
Training on Teen Mental Health Concerns and Strategies for High School Staff
Way s for Teachers and Schools to Build Resilience in Youth
Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behavior in Youth
Many Youths With Autism Lack Options After High School
Adolescents with a History of Maltreatment Have a Unique Service Need That May Affect Their Transition to Adulthood
Mental Health and Drug Abuse
Adolescent Mental Health Information
The Role of High School Mental Health Providers in Preventing Suicides
Webinar on Working with Homeless Youth and Runaways
Building Resilience in Teens 

Resources for Students

Anxiety Fact sheet for Adolescents and Teens
Strength of Us-online community for young adults created by NAMI and other young adults. Young adults receive peer support and resources for issues that they are facing due to their mental health issues.

Some resources include:
Active Mind Mental Health Resources for College Students
Managing Your Depression
JED Foundation-Organization for the Emotional Health of College Students
Must Have Personal Information
Transitioning to College with a Mental Health Condition
Helping Families Support Students with Mental Health Issues in College
Resources for Families
Foster Club-Resources for foster students who want to attend college
Getting Accommodations in College
Must Dos Before Applying to College
Managing Your Mental Health Condition in College
The Why, When, What and How of Disclosure in an Academic Setting
What Happens to my Social Security When I Turn 18?
Things No One Told Me When I Left Foster Care
Vocational Rehab
Financial Tips
When to Disclose your Mental Health Condition in the Workplace
Applying for a Job
Resilience Card 

Organizations focusing on Mental Health
Youth M.O.V.E

NAMI-National Alliance on Mental Illness
Center for Health and Health Care in Schools-School Based Mental Health
NIMH-National Institute on Mental Heath

Hope you found some helpful information to assist you in working with anxious students.  If you have resources, please feel free to share and I will add them to my resource lists!
Getting Accommodations in College