Counselors Build Trust, Skills So Students Get Needed Support

Anthony Wayne Local Schools counselors (from left) Jillian Cowell, Stephanie Huntley, Amy Barbour and Jennifer Minni are among those who support students and parents. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KRISTI FISH and KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTERS— Walking through the halls of Fallen Timbers Middle School last week, Waterville Primary counselor Jillian Cowell saw several of her former students – and remembered each one by name.

“Mrs. Cowell!” exclaimed one girl, running up to say hello.

“How are you doing?” she asked a boy who was nearby at his locker.

The exchanges illustrate how impactful school counselors are, not just for the time a student is in a particular building, but also in the years to come.

FTMS counselor Steph-anie Huntley knows that firsthand. 

“My high school counselor was amazing. I visited her every other day. She was a huge support for me and a friendly face,” Huntley said.

National School Counseling Week was February 6-10, but counselors are part of a team – including parents, teachers and administrators – who are devoted to supporting children academically, emotionally and socially throughout the year.

“A school counselor wears tons of hats: advocating for students, helping them with their social-emotional needs and making sure students are getting what they need support-wise in and out of the classroom,” said Kristen Reilly, a Gateway Middle School counselor. That role also includes supporting the staff, doing student scheduling and looking at academic and behavioral plans, she said.

Building relationships is at the core of being a counselor, said Kelsie Moritz, a Maumee High School counselor. Like others who entered counseling after first being a teacher, Moritz, Reilly and Anthony Wayne Junior High counselor Amy Barbour each decided to earn a master’s degree in school counseling in order to be able to devote more time to helping students.

“I saw that too many things were interfering with their ability to succeed,” said Barbour, who started her career as a math teacher.

“I wanted to have more time to support the students and listen to what they have to say,” Moritz added.

Jennifer Minni, who is also a Fallen Timbers Middle School counselor, taught but also worked in children’s services before being introduced to counseling.

“I love working with families and kids,” Minni said. “You have to have a lot of energy and be flexible. Every day is different.”

The job that each counselor does depends on the age group, but the core components are the same: individual counseling, classroom lessons and small group sessions. 

At the elementary level, Cowell visits every classroom monthly with lessons on topics such as career awareness, self-regulation and self-awareness. At the middle school and junior high, those lessons might include how social media affects communication skills.

“They’re in constant communication with each other outside of school,” Huntley said of the students. “And sometimes they carry something that happens (on social media) the night before with them to school the next day.”

In addition to classroom lessons, counselors hold small group sessions of three to eight students to focus on specific needs. Participation can be at the request of the teacher, parent or student. Counselors also work with teachers to problem-solve on how students can achieve their goals.

Birthday breakfasts, fun lunches and themed weeks are among the other ways that counselors encourage students to gain positive social skills. 

On top of planned lessons, counselors expect the unexpected when it comes to student requests or teachers bringing in students who need help with anxiety, stress, planning assignments or helping with relationship conflicts.

At the middle school level, kids are figuring out who they are as individuals and sometimes changing friends, so there might be relationship struggles, Reilly said.

“A lot of what we deal with has to do with anxiety,” Moritz said of high school. It could be anxiety related to testing, relationships or figuring out coping skills to deal with confrontation. “A lot of things that might be minor to an adult can be huge and life-altering for our students.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and its interruption of a routine school schedule for two years has had a major impact on kids, counselors agree.

Consider the kindergartner, Cowell said. Two years is almost 50 percent of that child’s life. Even older children showed signs of not just interruptions in a school routine but also in learning how to relate to other students and adults.

“Last year, you heard worldwide about students not knowing how to behave in school,” Cowell said. “Learning to come back together was a challenge.”

Because of COVID-19, schools began seeing more of a need for counselors, Reilly said.

“Students might not know how to have that social relationship to peers, and they might be more sensitive to things and need extra support in and out of the classroom,” she said.

Even before COVID-19, the role of a school counselor was shifting from one that was more academic-based to one that includes addressing mental health and social-emotional needs, Moritz said.

While counselors are trained to address many of these needs, they also know when to seek more resources.

“If a student is coming to us for social and emotional support, and if we don’t see an improvement, we need more focused intervention,” Minni explained. 

Both Anthony Wayne and Maumee schools employ social workers who provide that additional assistance, such as connecting to outside counseling with a licensed mental health professional or to organizations that provide financial help, food, shelter and other needs.

“As a school counselor, I never feel like I’m on an island,” Moritz said. “I have relationships with the teachers and administrators and also great collaboration with the elementary and middle school teachers.”

The Anthony Wayne counselors agreed, adding that community is another important component.

“We’re in a community that offers fantastic support. It’s a great partnership,” Cowell said.

Parents should always feel welcome to contact the counselors about any concerns – whether it’s a family going through a divorce, a child not wanting to go to school or a disagreement between friends that’s spilling over from social media into the classroom.

Students are also encouraged at every age to see the counselor as an ally. In Anthony Wayne schools, the therapy dogs in the primary schools and middle school help open those lines of communication. 

In many schools, counselors meet briefly with every student at the beginning of the year to learn about their personality, needs and expectations. 

Through these introductions and in casual conversations in the halls, classrooms, lunchroom and at special events, counselors build rapport so that students come to counselors before a problem escalates.

“We want to let them know that coming to our office isn’t a bad thing,” Barbour said.

In Maumee schools, students can fill out a Google form requesting counseling assistance, so they don’t have to be scared to ask for help, Reilly said.

“We really build the relationship, so they are comfortable with us,” she added.

Thankfully, the stigma around seeking help has lessened over the years, and that has opened to door for students and parents to seek help more often.

While their role is serious and sometimes demanding, the counselors all agree that building those relationships has its rewards.

“What I think is pretty powerful is seeing the growth in our students, such as seeing them apply the things we are working on in the classroom,” Moritz said.

“I have the best job in the world,” Cowell declared. 

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