Chintan Girish Modi
Yashvi Gada loved her counsellors at school, and there are a number of reasons for that – from how young they looked to how pleasant their voices sounded to her, from the vibes they gave off to how they commanded respect without asking for it, from how they could be trusted with keeping things confidential to how they did not seem biased towards anyone in particular and were nice, open and caring towards each and every student. She liked approaching them to discuss things she felt concerned about.
Mujahid Ali Khan sought the help of his school counsellor after he was diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. He got all the support he wanted with respect to the mandatory tests and certifications required by the government. However, he is not sure of what else the school counsellor did during her work hours. There was an air of secrecy surrounding her cabin, and the school apparently did little to clarify or explain her role to the students. He wonders if he would feel comfortable sharing personal details and emotional issues with someone who was essentially a stranger.
Ishaan Jajodia never went to a school counsellor but now wishes that he had. In the first school he studied at, he was unaware of the fact that there was someone available to him if he wanted to go and talk. He thinks that the school did a terrible job of communicating with students about what was on offer. He later found out that friends of his with learning disabilities had benefited significantly from that professional support. His second school was more effective at communication; the counselling department had an active outreach programme, and they would talk to groups of students about mental health, growth and development instead of addressing only children dealing with specific problems. He liked these counsellors because they had gained trust by building strong bonds with the student community, instead of using positions of authority to alter student behaviour in a normative way.
All the three people mentioned above completed their schooling in India between one to three years ago, and are now college students. They were enrolled at schools that share certain similarities but also exhibit some differences in their approach to providing a counselling service. They do not constitute a scientifically selected sample of individuals but their stories appear to affirm some of the conclusions drawn by Claire L. Fox and Ian Butler in an article titled “‘If you don’t want to tell anyone else you can tell her’: young people’s views on school counselling,” published in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Vol. 35, No.1, February 2007. The study leading to this article was conducted as part of a National Evaluation of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) Schools Teams, conducted by researchers at Keele University, UK, in collaboration with a researcher at the NSPCC. This research, based on surveys and focus group discussions, was driven by the aim of assessing the views of young people about school counselling. Many of its findings are relevant to Indian school contexts.
Most young people who participated in the study seemed to find value in having a school counsellor. Most knew of the school counselling service; however, a substantial number did confess a lack of awareness. Among those who were aware that the service was available, their knowledge of what it involved was limited. Just over one third of the students said that they would approach the school counsellor, and this number included more girls than boys. One of the perceived benefits of the school counselling service was the promise of confidentiality. Students felt reassured that personal information shared with the counsellor was safe, and it would not be shared with family, teachers or friends. Interestingly, the perception of the lack of confidentiality was also found to be quite strong among those who were hesitant to approach the school counsellor. Some were against the idea of having teachers double up as counsellors because they were worried that people in the staff room would invariably get to know what was shared in private. Boys, in particular, expressed concerns about other people finding out. This was associated with the social stigma of going for counselling.
Another primary reason for not accessing the service was the counsellor being a stranger, and students feeling uncomfortable about sharing personal matters with them. Some of the suggestions to improve the school counselling service included better promotion of the service for students to know what was available, a room in a discrete location so that people would not know who was going in or coming out, an increase in the number of counsellors, the availability of full-time counsellors at schools that had only part-time ones, ways to get to know the counsellor better. It was also suggested that schools have male counsellors as well as female counsellors because there are times when students feel more comfortable approaching someone of the same sex. Those in India who are responsible for developing, managing, delivering and promoting school counselling services ought to consider these suggestions.
Here is a checklist that your school could use. It is meant to guide self-assessment and discussion, and not intended as a finger-pointing exercise to find fault with schools that do not have facilities that other schools have.
- Do all students know that there is a counselling service available on the school premises?
- Do all students know where the counsellor is located, and how they are to be contacted?
- Do all students know the role of the counsellor, and the scope of their work?
- Do all students know the range of issues they can approach the counsellor for? Examples: peer pressure, bullying, examination stress, relationships with parents and siblings, sexual abuse, etc.
- Are students welcome to visit the counsellor only if they need a solution to a specific problem they are struggling with, or can they just drop in to get to know the counsellor before they seek their services?
- Does your school devote time and effort into emphasizing the importance of mental health and emotional well-being?
- Are your school counsellors friendly, welcoming, non-judgmental, respectful of confidentiality?
- Does your school burden the counsellors with administrative duties that keep them from being available to students?
- Is there a separation of roles in your school between the special educator, career guidance counsellor, and mental health professional?
- What are the ways in which a student can determine if the counselling service is being beneficial to them or not?
- Does your school send students to counsellors as a way of disciplining or punishing them, or is the choice to approach a counsellor made by the student?
- Are your school counsellors given opportunities to expand their knowledge of best practices in their field, and to improve their skills?
- How does your school work with teachers, counsellors and students to address the social stigma associated with using a counselling service?
- What are the mechanisms available at your school to support students who report being physically, emotionally or sexually abused by counsellors?
- Do your school counsellors have adequate opportunities to engage in self-care so that their burn out does not affect their ability to support students?
The answers to these questions cannot be assumed to be Yes. There are endless possibilities for improvement. Students, student representatives, counsellors, teachers, parents, and school administrators need to work together to ensure that each student is able to freely access the school’s counselling service to secure mental health and emotional well-being.
In January 2015, the National Council of Educational Research and Training in New Delhi came out with a draft of ‘Guidelines for States on Guidance and Counselling’ prepared by the Department of Educational Psychology and Foundations of Education and the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan Project Cell.
It states, “Learning and understanding about self is as important as learning about various school subjects. Every child has the potential to develop self-understanding which includes understanding of abilities, interests, behaviours, attitudes, values, conflicts, anxieties, likes, dislikes, impulses/emotions, goals, one’s role in society etc.”
Apart from laying out guidelines related to the nature and range of professional counselling services that need to be offered to students at school, it asserts that India’s National Curriculum Framework, 2005, views guidance and counselling as part of curriculum. “In this view, guidance and counselling functions can be carried out through the curriculum by integrating guidance philosophy and practices through curricular offerings, thereby adopting a proactive and preventive approach. Educational, career and personal-social development of children can be promoted by creating stress-free environment for learning, encouraging students to understand themselves, relating subject matter to self and needs of students, helping children learn independently and cope with demands and challenges, facilitate development of healthy peer relationships through group activities and classroom climate, etc.”
These functions cannot be carried out by one counsellor per school or even a number of counsellors per school. They require the involvement of the entire school community in creating a school culture that is committed to treating all students with respect. This kind of education would be hugely transformative for everyone involved. The question is: Are we willing to take responsibility, ownership and initiative?
The author consults with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. He also offers creative writing, peace education and gender sensitization workshops for students and teachers. He can be reached at email@example.com, and tweet to him @chintan_connect.