Lend Me Your Ears

Zeba Raziunnisa

April 2008

For years we have been grappling with issues of poor performers, bullied kids, distressed students and teen suicides, but the recent spate of school violence has catapulted a pressing concern into the limelight – Where are we heading?

The school shootings, which are a relatively new occurrence in India, have shocked the nation and led to a frenzied activity in school circles. There have been discussions and deliberations, closed meetings and open forums, in short, an all time high active dialogue. And a resounding echo that rings is – Where have we gone wrong? Who is responsible and who is to blame?

After the finger pointing and the blame game, the one thing that is clear is that we all are in the game together – parents, principals, teachers, students and counsellors. The spotlight, though, is suddenly on the school counsellor and her/his role.

The role of the counsellor
The ASCA (American School Counselors Association) gives us a rather simple definition of a school counsellor’s goal – “Helping children develop into well rounded individuals.” This seemingly simple goal encompasses a whole lot of things. A friend, a guide, an advisor, a mentor and a confidant, the school counsellor helps make learning a positive experience for the students.

With her knowledge, ability, skill and sensitivity, a school counsellor can understand that what is good for one child may not necessarily be good for another. By understanding and sometimes just listening to students, which can be very cathartic, the counsellor can give the students an opportunity to manage their emotional and behavioural difficulties and function more effectively both in school and at home. She uses methods like appraisal, counselling, consultation, coordination, classroom instruction and collaboration. A counsellor may use a variety of personality and vocational assessment methods to help students explore and understand their career interests and options.

The counsellor’s work includes counselling students, assessing their learning and behaviour, assisting schools to identify and address disabilities that affect student’s learning, helping parents make informed decisions about their child’s education and liaising with other groups concerned with the well-being of students. The school counsellor also provides individual or group counselling for students. For example, if a student’s behaviour is interfering with his or her achievement, the counsellor will observe that student in class, consult teachers and other personnel to develop a plan to address the behavioural issue, and then collaborate with them to implement the plan. Additionally, professional school counsellors may lead classroom guidance sessions designed to be preventive in nature. These could be on a variety of topics as per student needs or deal with personal and social issues. Today, AIDS awareness and sex education are an integral part of the counsellor’s guidance program.

A high school student at Nasr School, Hyderabad, Naina, says, “Our counsellor is very helpful and friendly. We feel free and have no inhibitions talking to her about a lot of things we could never discuss with our parents. Also my friends whose parents live abroad go to the counsellor anytime they have to discuss something, it really helps.” She adds, “The counsellor also conducts vocational exploration and assessment with eighth grade students and helps us overcome our confusion and make decisions in choosing our electives.”

And that is not an all inclusive list of the school counsellor’s responsibility. The present times make it imperative for every school to have a qualified psychological counsellor. There have been frequent demands for having a counsellor in every school, but the cry usually comes only after the damage has been done. “We need to rethink counselling,” says Zenobia Rustomfram, School Counsellor at Nasr School. According to her, “Counselling needs to be promoted and made a part of the school philosophy and the emphasis be put on preventive and developmental counselling.”

The thrust is on early identification and intervention, for a relatively small snag could well snowball into a major crisis. For instance, if a child is witness to parental disputes or violence at home, he could get emotionally disturbed, fail academically, be socially rejected and end up with a poor self-image. He would then have difficulty relating to peers, become unsocial, lose respect for the laws of society and finally express himself in an unhealthy or destructive manner. Children who experience social rejection are more likely to drift from mainstream society and become targets of depression, homelessness, unemployment and other symptoms of social dysfunction.

The importance of school based intervention cannot, therefore, be overemphasised. The school counsellor could either have a child-centred or environment-centred intervention or in some cases, both could work in tandem. For instance, in a child-centered approach, the counsellor would seek to strengthen the child’s coping abilities to counter environmental stress and develop self-management and self-monitoring skills to cope with disadvantages which he/she may have to handle. The approach is essentially centered around and designed to empower the child.

The counsellor also helps by providing consultation services to family members. She can collaborate with teachers and parents, and involve them in understanding the mental hygiene of students as well as identifying students with behavioural problems. The counsellor also needs to have professional collaborations with other mental health professionals and work towards a pro-active approach to intervention.

But are we maintaining mental health?
For all that a counsellor can do and should do, it would not be inappropriate to wonder why we don’t come across friendly counsellors and happy kids prancing about in schools, but find hollow eyes and gunfire doing the rounds instead. A possible explanation could be the fact that most schools do not realise or do not wish to acknowledge the importance of maintaining mental health in schools. Schools have not moved beyond the weekly ‘PT sessions’, and construe anything other than strict academic pursuit to be against the interests of the school and the student. Considering the demands and ironic complexities of modern day living, these schools could do well to utilise the services of a qualified school counsellor. A majority of schools even in highly populated cities and metros do not have school counsellors and only a few top notch schools have genuine full-time counsellors. Incidents like the MMS scandal, the choking game episode and the classroom shootings only reiterate the need for qualified psychological counsellors in all schools.*

“In the past children would get all the guidance and support from the family itself. But owing to the break up of joint families and with parents getting too busy to be with their kids, the need for a guide and counsellor at school is strongly felt,” says Afreen Hashmi, a mother of two school going kids. “Children are just imitating the sensationalised and glorified depiction of violence in the media. They need to be taught to discriminate between what is acceptable and what is not. Differences and conflicts will always be there, but we need to teach them conflict resolution and management.”

Earlier this year the Women and Child Welfare Minister, Renuka Chowdhury, reacted to the violence in schools saying, “Children are now under tremendous pressure and we must try to de-stress them.” The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has blamed the lack of counselling and help with anger management for students as the cause for such ‘unfortunate and shocking’ incidents. The Commission has urged the Centre to bring in a legislation making it mandatory for all schools to have full time dedicated counsellors for students.

Even if such a legislation were ever to see the light of day, its effectiveness remains questionable. The ICSE board, for instance, has a stipulation on all affiliates having a school counsellor, but not all ICSE schools genuinely have one. The scenario in state run schools, which have no such stipulation, then, can well be imagined. But until such time when a legislation is enacted, there remain serious issues not just for counsellors, but for all educationists and adults: issues of the responsibility of the adult world to all its children.

When a 13-year old loses his life to a choking game or ‘Space Monkey’ (as it is fondly referred to sometimes in teen circles), questions arise as to what we are doing with our kids. Why do teenagers need to choke themselves to ‘get a high’ or to repeat their line, ‘Feel as if you were in a dreamland’. Have we deprived our kids the simply joy of being a kid, of feeling, imagining, exploring and discovering?

“It is a distress call, a call for help,” says Meera Kamalakar, senior teacher at Sloka, the Hyderabad Waldorf School. “Children are being neglected, in spite of all the material things parents buy them.” She blames the television and media for increasing violence in children and feels parents should spend more ‘quality time’ with children, putting away the television and the computer.

However fast and competitive our world may have become, we cannot do away with what nature has endowed us with, without having to pay a price for it. Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist makes a very vital point when he states, “It is very important to discuss emotions and feelings. In schools, it is intelligence that is given a round applause. Emotions are expected to be kept under control. This leads to an unhealthy society.”

Reacting to the rise in problems among school children, Rustomfram says, “We have an unbalanced educational system, with an information overload but no time to digest or feel the information. We have simply fallen short on value education.”

A typical day for an adolescent consists of about 8 hours of incessant school activity (sometimes an hour of sports or extra curricula is added in); and back home it is more of school/home work and then unchecked and unbridled internet access, unrestrained video games, mindless cartoons with leit motifs of power games and destruction and an evening at Mac Donald’s or KFC as an outing with a burnt out mom and an exhausted dad. Added to this is the pressure on kids to ‘perform’, for it is a competitive world out there. Darwin may have propounded the theory of survival of the fittest but we have made it our faith. It’s a ‘do or die’ life we are living.

When the adults have got it all mixed up, how then can we expect the kids to get it right? When the grown ups are unable to take the stress of modern day life, how then do we imagine the kids will? A loving and guiding hand is what they need and deserve, but are we willing to give it?

Zeba Raziunnisa can be reached at zeba_117@yahoo.co.in.