To change an attitude

Zenobia Rustomfram
cover-story2 I began counselling in schools in 1987 at a time when the idea, though not entirely new, was novel to Hyderabad. The establishment of a new species with professional skills was difficult to digest and was therefore considered with mixed feelings. Many regarded it as an extravagance which was a drain on the economic resources of the school, some saw the counsellor as a threat, as someone who would indulge the children and spoil them, while others who were apparently undecided chose to wait and watch. From battling with role clarity and stigma towards the service to having a space to counsel, it has not been easy.

As juxtaposed to that is the appointment of counsellors this year by the CBSE Board to help students and parents cope with stress and anxiety. A welcome change indeed, and an indication that counselling is gaining a foothold in our education system.

Factors contributing to the change
This change in attitude has come about due to various factors. Two major institutions – the family and the school – responsible for offering support and the inculcation of values have been shaken from their foundations, as a result of which alternate support systems have of necessity come in.

Family bonds are weakening due to long and odd work hours and the support and security that was unquestioningly provided by parents or extended family is lacking.

Our education system, in its attempt to reach out to large numbers, is cramming classrooms with children where the teacher has hardly a minute to spare for each child. Gone are the days when all round development of the student was emphasised, instead; there is a trend to pack information – far more than the students can absorb.

To complicate matters the media is creating a type of pressure that did not exist a few years ago. It is the pressure to perform and not be left out. Crimes are sensationalised creating a warped impression on young minds. Everyday we are inundated with reports about the increase in suicide and crime rates among students, anxieties among parents and inhuman treatment by teachers.

Today we need people to understand themselves, be self-learners with a set of life skills that will help them be responsible and accountable for their actions, improve the quality of their own and others’ lives at home, work and in the local community, make transitions for themselves and grow up to be caring individuals respecting themselves and those around them. All these are the goals of counselling and so it has come to be accepted as a much needed service.

Counselling may be defined as “an interaction between individuals where the counsellor adopts certain skills to introduce and sustain in the counsellee the learning process of self-exploration, leading to self-understanding, action and change in behaviour so as to solve her own problem.”

As generally understood by the layperson counselling is not:

  • Giving any form of advice
  • Jumping to problem solving prematurely
  • Expressing opinions and judgments
  • Taking charge of problem solving.

What is the scope of counselling in schools?
Counselling is much more than a quick-fix service to help children with problems. It is not restricted to children, but encompasses parents, teachers, management and the community; in short, it is a systems approach which believes that problems with any one group will affect the normal functioning of the other groups. For example, a crisis in a family will affect the performance of the child at school which in turn will affect his relationship with the teacher and other students.

There are many ways that the service can be developed depending on the needs, infrastructure and monetary considerations of a school. I began with a focus on children and parents in the initial years after which I extended it to teachers, the management and the community. Accepting the extent (and the constraints) of time it takes to counsel each child with a problem, my approach is two-pronged – a curative and a preventive one. I counsel those who seek individual help and also reach out to many by tackling age appropriate topics of a developmental nature with each class. Thus, a graded series of topics that cover personal, social and health issues are dealt with. These range from understanding oneself to developing self-esteem, from life skills to careers.

In addition to one to one counselling with parents, there are group meetings where information on parenting skills is imparted. These range from preparing children for school to guiding them for a career to managing homework.

Teachers are assisted in understanding group dynamics in the class so as to be effective communicators. As leaders they are equipped with value based teaching methodologies. Besides this, I am a liaison between teachers and management on the one hand and parents and students on the other, communicating effectively and bringing about desired changes.

This couplet written by an 11 year-old will illustrate the essence of counselling,
“All I want is a listening ear; far away from the gossip fear;
Then I will shed my tears, and they will wash away my fears.”

A brilliant, sensitive student, prone to weeping bouts once came to me expressing a desire to commit suicide. She was distraught with grief that no matter how hard she tried she could not please her parents who always kept reminding her of what she could not achieve. On probing I found her parents were on the verge of separation and the father found fault with her to vent his anger against his wife. The wife to prove that she was a good mother was unconsciously pushing the child to fare better. Having put up with this for a year she had gradually begun to believe that she was not good at anything. This was beginning to affect her actual performance. Meetings were arranged with her parents who were counselled about how their behaviour was affecting their daughter. They were helped to resolve their issues in a mature way. Simultaneous support was created in school by taking the class teacher into confidence. Through a series of sessions her self-confidence was restored and she was assisted in dealing with the crisis in her life.

Help without judgment
Mrs. Chitranjana, a teacher at Nasr School, Hyderabad feels that while teachers are in a position to identify the problems children face, they lack the time and professional skills to go about solving them. Mrs. Padmaja, another teacher, feels that most children might not feel as comfortable confiding in a teacher as they would in a counsellor.

A parent opines that a teacher finds remedies to problems, while a counsellor solves problems by making a cause and effect connection. She also feels the specialised training that a counsellor has equips her with the right way of going about solving problems. Yet another parent feels relieved that her child is safe and better off consulting a counsellor who will give the right advice rather than a wrong one she gets from a peer.

Students who form a large chunk of beneficiaries feel that a counsellor gives an objective view which is not often given by those close to them. They also feel the counsellor has the time, patience and a desire to understand their point of view which is not often experienced with parents and teachers. They look upon a counsellor as someone they can turn to for specific information and to clear their thinking.

Some skeptics resisting counselling argue that when the number of students per class is less, the teachers can devote individual attention to every student. Some others feel that teachers are the best counsellors as they know their students well and are also equipped to understand them because of the training they receive in Child Psychology as part of the B.Ed. course. With due respect to their training and thought, I beg to differ. The counsellor is equipped to identify problems and prevent them in the initial stages which experienced teachers may sometimes miss. Besides, she also has a professional way of solving problems. There have been instances when well meaning teachers have tried to help students but due to lack of professionalism have created bigger problems.

We must accept that change is the only constant in our lives and we have to keep pace with it to make smoother transitions. If the need to protect our environment has resulted in the introduction of Environment Studies, then why do we resist introducing counselling when it can help future citizens in their onward progress, help them understand themselves and others better, and equip them to deal with life situations in a better way?

In conclusion I must admit that these 21 years have been rich in professional growth. My vision will be fulfilled if counselling is looked upon not only as a service, but an integral part of the school system and the students’ curriculum complementing and supplementing the other subjects. Till then I will continue to strive.

The author is a counsellor based in Hyderabad and has over two decades of experience. She can be reached at zsr@rediffmail.com.