The Power of Notes

I have a very simple, tried-and-true, stand-by counseling technique that I believe could benefit and improve the practice of all educators — not just school counselors.  It is a quick, easy, and effective tool that often takes only a few moments to use with a long lasting impact.  It is a practice that creates connections, is student-centered, and promotes well-being in the classroom.  It is a tool I turn to over and over again and am continually shocked, amazed, and surprised with the outcome.  What is this magic tool?  A note.

Dr. Linda Metcalf writes of uses notes in her counseling practice to connect with students, remind them of their goals, and to celebrate successes. When I first learned of this tool to support counseling, it naturally stuck in my mind.  Personally I have always enjoyed writing and sending hand-written notes.  These might be to give thanks, to celebrate, or to simply say “I’m thinking of you.”  In my personal life, I have always received positive feedback about how meaningful notes are and how they make an individual feel.  Therefore, when I learned this could become part of my professional practice, I was an immediate believer.  If a note has such an impact to someone who does not necessarily “need” support, how much more of an impact could it have then on a student who is working through a problem, issue, or stressful event.  I was excited to see if this was a meaningful and authentic tool to add to my counseling tool-box.

The first time I wrote a note to a student, I was unsure how it would be received.  I was working with a student who lacked a positive school affiliation.  He had bought into the belief that he was not smart, a troublemaker, and that no teacher liked him.  After meeting a few times together (and feeling like our sessions were not moving forward), I decided to write him a note.  It was simple.  I took construction paper, some markers, and sat at my desk.  In the note, I greeted him, told him good morning, and that I was very excited to have him at school that day.  I wrote that I could not wait to see him after lunch and hear how his morning had gone.  Then, I went to his classroom and placed the note on his desk in an inconspicuous place.

That morning, during passing periods, I noticed that this student was smiling more and seemed a little more happy.  At lunch, he was engaged with friends and joined in a game.  At our session that afternoon, he did not mention the note but he did seem (for the first time) to be excited to connect with me and create a plan for how to complete some missing assignments.  It was the first time that he fully bought into our counseling session and advocated for his own needs instead of believing what others thought of him.

Since this experience years ago, I have regularly used the note as part of my counseling practice.

If a student is struggling to separate from parents and caregivers in the morning, I write a note saying how glad I am they are at school and how proud I am of them for joining their learning community without fear.  

If a student is new to our school and trying to transition in, I write a note acknowledging the fear and bravery that comes from entering a community where no one knows you.  

If a student is working through a death or divorce, I write a note commending the student on his/her ability to be at school, learning, thinking, and participating when her/his mind might not feel like it.

 If a student has been working on changing a behavior from an undesirable one to a more pro-social one, I write a note praising the student on a time I “caught” them in the desirable behavior and stating I am eager to see the momentum continue.  

At times, a student will come by and say “thank you” for the note.  Most often, they do not.  I do see little changes, though, whether it be in a smile, a change in behavior, stopping to say hi more often, or a little more buy-in during future interactions.  I do often hear from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders that when the student read the note, there was a genuine smile on the student’s face.  And, every once in a blue moon, a student writes me a note back!  For me, that is enough to keep writing notes and believing in the power of them to positively impact students.  In fact, the note is one of the most used tools in my counseling tool-box.IMG_0380

Is there a student you think could benefit from a personalized note?  Have you used notes in your educational practice before?  Are there other ways you think a note could benefit the school community?

What You Have to do in Education

I am currently embedded in a culture where tutoring is a commonplace activity. The school day ends and teachers head to the homes of students to provide tutoring support.  This happens at all grades, across all subjects, and with all levels of academic support.  It is also a serious thorn in my side.  Why?

In counseling, I am consulted by teachers, parents, and administration on a regular basis.  Stakeholders are seeking out advice, strategies, and interventions to support students across all domains — academic, social, behavioral, and emotional.  It is one of my roles to coach, collaborate with, and offer support to adults so they, in turn, can support students.  So, imagine my frustration — when offering strategies, interventions, and solution focused strategies — to hear the stakeholder reply, “I don’t have time.  I have to go tutor.”  

You HAVE to go tutor?  You HAVE to go?  


You choose to go.

Do you know what you have to do??

  1. Get to know your students and build authentic, genuine relationships with them.
  2. Act as a facilitator of learning while providing engaging, meaningful, relevant lessons to students.
  3. Provide feedback that helps a student understand where they are as a learner and provides an idea of what they could do to improve their learning practice.
  4. Engage with students in the classroom by being up, inquiring with them, modeling learning, and dialoguing to help them make meaning of their inquiries.
  5. Provide differentiated instruction and assessments to meet the needs of all learners in your community.
  6. Look at students holistically and support their social, emotional, and behavioral needs along with academic.
  7. Spend time planning, marking, moderating, and collaborating to ensure that student lessons are meaningful, engaging, and differentiated as well as goal-oriented and objective driven.
  8. Demonstrate compassion and empathy to all students, treating them with respect and dignity.
  9. Put students at the center of every decision, conversation, choice.
  10. Involve parents in the educational process sharing both areas of strength and areas for growth.
  11. Be human.  Admit when you make a mistake.  Laugh at yourself.  Share something about your life.  Why?  (See number 1).
  12. Give time.  Lots and lots of time.  More time than you often want but time your students deserve.

I think this list is only the tip of the iceberg.  There are so many things you have to do as an educator.  Sometimes, these things often take time, energy, investment, and commitment outside of the contract hours.  Sometimes, adding these things into our days seem like our often meager pay is being spread even more thin.  Sometimes, doing these things is not lucrative like private tutoring is.

However, do you know what the catch 22 is?  The more you make time for the “haves” of education, the more simple your life often becomes.  Why?  Students feel valued. Students by in.  Students pro-social behaviors increase and undesirable behaviors decline.  Academics typically improve and your attitude toward students becomes more compassionate and positive.  In fact, call me controversial but I posit that if you practice all these “haves” off on a regular basis, your tutoring job might have just become obsolete.

In your experience, what are some other “haves” in education.  What should be included on this list?

Using a Graffiti Wall in Classroom Counseling

I am always looking for new strategies and ideas to help students unpack their thinking. Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver counseling lessons in grade 3 classrooms. The Unit of Inquiry was “Who We Are” and the central idea was “Decisions determine consequences.”  The grade 3 team noticed that many students were struggling with tattling.  When in a collaborative planning session, they asked if classroom counseling lessons could be tied into their unit because when students tattle, they experience natural consequences — often in the form of negative feedback — from peers.  It was decided that through the counseling and social-emotional lens, students would inquire into the ideas of tattling vs reporting.  

As I began to think about the counseling lessons, I realized that tattling and reporting are big concepts for grade 3 students to comprehend.  I began to think of all the visible thinking routines, protocols, and strategies I had in my toolbox to help students think about their thinking and make meaning out of these two big ideas.  I began to reflect that many routines like See, Think, Wonder and Chalk Talk have already been used numerous times by the teachers this year.  I wanted to try something new to help students tap into prior knowledge, learn from their peers, and begin to make sense of what they know and what they don’t.

Enter an awesome member of my professional learning community, The Relevant Educator, who suggest I try using a Graffiti Wall.  A graffiti wall is a thinking strategy where students use pictures, powerful words, symbols, and colors to share their thoughts and connections around a specific topic.  Similar to a chalk talk, students work on a large piece of paper to create an individual and collective understanding and unpacking of a big idea.  “Brilliant,” I thought.  Grade 3 would be my new strategy guinea pigs.

The Set Up

Since the inquiry was around “tattling” and “reporting,” two large pieces of butcher paper were hung on the wall with these words in the center.  Since we use Kelso’s Choice as a school wide problem solving method, two additional posters were created with “Big Problem” and “Small Problem” as the prompt.  Bright colored markers were placed by the posters, as well.

The Introduction

The posters were introduced with a brief check in for prior knowledge and understanding.  Students were asked if they were familiar with graffiti.  (I was amazed at how many of them had examples and understanding of it).  Some examples of graffiti were shared for those tuning in to the idea.  It was explained that students would be sharing their knowledge, understanding, ideas, and thoughts around the concepts/ideas on the poster using graffiti — pictures, colors, powerful words, statements.  I asked them to do their best to show and represent rather than tell.  **Note, students were very excited when I mentioned graffiti as the first response was “WE GET TO USE SPRAY PAINT!!!”  No.**

The Activity

Students were fully excited and engaged in the activity.  Due to the familiarity with a chalk talk, they instantly got to work on sharing their understanding on the “graffiti wall” through pictures and powerful phrases.  I facilitated when to rotate to the next poster so that students were spread out working on all 4 rather than having 22 students en masse at one.  Every student had the opportunity to share their understanding on each poster.  After the time was up, we moved back together as a group to share some of our thoughts, what we noticed about what our classmates shared, how our understanding of the concept word changed, was challenged, or grew.  We then formed a working definition of each term — tattling, reporting, big problem, small problem — based on their images, dialogue, and connections which became the anchor for the rest of our counseling lessons.


Big problem example. Those are bees attacking the student.


Creatively using a horse and owl to solve problems.

Reporting Copy

This wall clearly shows that reporting is thought of as only report cards.


My Reflection

  • Having the prior knowledge and experience with a chalk talk was both a help and a little bump.  It helped students as they already knew the butcher paper was a working document to share their ideas. They understood there was no “correct” answer but just a medium to make sense of their thinking.
  • It was a little challenging in that students wanted to write their thoughts and ideas in detailed sentences instead of drawing, coloring, using powerful words.  Also, some students simply wanted to star, check, or put a smiley face by other student’s drawings (as you do in chalk talks) instead of share their own images.  This really upset some students that certain student pictures were “liked” while others were not. 
  • I should have allowed more time.  Students felt rushed and like they could not get all their images completed in the manner they wanted or needed.  They also needed additional time, at the end, to view their peer’s work and see other thinking. 
  • It was clear that students had no real concept of “reporting” in the context we were discussing it. Therefore, we spent more time discussing this concept and coming to a working definition for our counseling lesson. 
  • Due to the size of the paper and how it hangs on walls (like graffiti), the teachers could not leave the papers up in their rooms for further investigation.  This activity does require space.

Overall, I was glad I was a risk-taker and tried a new strategy to help students unpack their thinking.  I do believe it was successful in making sense of thoughts and ideas and challenging misconceptions.  I had students report they enjoyed the drawing (and some got pretty creative with their images). I think with some fine tuning, this activity will definitely be used again in both a classroom and group counseling setting.


Small problem art. Not sure what is in the student’s hand but he/she is choosing one of Kelso’s Choices.

How Your Classroom Management Practices Lead to Counseling

Startling statement:  Whole class behavior management plans cause your students to need counseling.

Let me state that again.  When a teacher chooses to use a whole class behavior plan — move the clip, flip the card, Class Dojo, beans in a jar, table points, class points, etc., etc. — it can impact a student so much that they need to seek the intervention of counseling.

You think I am being dramatic?  Up until a month ago I would have thought I was being dramatic, too.  Unfortunately, this is pure truth. I am the counselor providing the intervention services to students who have been negatively impacted by their class-wide … umm … “intervention.”

In the last month, I have been approached by three different parents who have students at our school.  These students are in different grades, different classes, and in no-way are connected to each other — friends, family, classmates.  Each parent has sought me out to share their concern about their child and the student’s outlook on school.  While each situation is unique and different, there is commonality — the fact that a whole-class behavior system has negatively impacted their child.  In fact, each student is so impacted that the parent requested individualized counseling to help shift the student’s self-perception and school-perception from negative back to positive.

Example 1:  My child lost all of his friends

A student was in a class where a behavior clip-chart was used.  The teacher made it clear that the students could move up the chart when an individual’s behavior was above and beyond the expectation.  The students could also move down the chart when the individual’s behavior was off task or not meeting the classroom expectations.  Often, this one student was moved all the way to the “bottom” of the chart where his name was placed on the red circle.  This meant the student had reached the bottom and his behavior was so “bad” that he could not possibly get any worse (well, according to this teacher and this chart).  

After a while, the mother started noticing that her child no longer wanted to go to school.  Her son would often cry in the morning and try to come up with any reason he could think of to stay home.  Mother also noticed that her child was not getting invited out for playdates anymore.  Her son also reported that no other student would play with him at breaks.  When mother and child began to ask past friends why they stopped playing with him, the response was always similar.  “(Name) is always on red and getting in trouble.  We don’t want to be friends with him because we will be ‘moved down’ too.”

So now, a new year and new grade and this same student still finds himself without friends and not being invited to playdates.  The social shaming that occurred was due to this child always being labeled as “bad” in public and then — through the power of repetition —  perceived as true by his peers.  This student now meets with me to help rebuild his self-image, belief in his ability to demonstrate positive behaviors in school, and to build social-skills around how to make new friends.  Thanks, whole class clip chart.  You helped alienate this boy from his peers.

Example 2:  A girl would rather be alone

The teacher uses table points as a whole class management strategy.  Be on-task, the quietest table, the quickest to clean up, the group who finishes their work first.  Your whole group does this — you get a coveted point.  What are the points used for?  A party, a treat, free time.  It does not matter but your success or failure is tied to 3 or 4 other individual’s success or failure.  Once again, after experiencing this for a few weeks, a girl’s parents approached me very concerned that their daughter always seems to be anxious about coming to school and upset when she returns home.  When they asked why, their child shared all about table points.  This student gets so anxious, frustrated, and upset by having to wait for her 3 table mates to do what the teacher expects/asks (ultimately never doing good enough to get the “table point) that she does not want to be in class.  She told her parents “I would rather just sit alone.”  The parents asked the teacher if this request for an individual table could be granted and the teacher reported that learning to work in a group is a needed skill.  Therefore, no, their daughter would be expected to continue in the group setting (and for her behavior “success” to only be depended upon the behaviors of 3 of her peers).

Now the student meets with me to help her with her anxiety and build some stress-release skills she can use in class.  We talk about the perceived importance of table points and how she can re-focus on her celebrating her choices, behaviors, and ability to follow teacher directions and try to not worry about her peers.  This is hard to do, though, when a carrot of a party, free time, or treats is being dangled.  So, the counseling continues.

Example 3:  From Engagement to Disengagement

This student is a model of engagement.  He loves everything about school.  He actively inquires,  makes meaning, participates, and takes action to apply his knowledge.  His is vibrant, passionate, and radiates zeal for learning.  Or maybe I should say, that was him.  Now, thanks to a whole class behavior strategy of all being penalized for the actions of a few, this student is different.

Parents report he no longer wants to get out of bed in the morning.  He has faked sick three times to go home.  He becomes grumpy and moody when his parents try to ask him how his day was.  They suggested he talk to a counselor.  Here’s where I enter. After meeting with the student, he finally disclosed that the real issue is that “he is always in trouble.”  However, this is for nothing he does but rather, the fact that the teacher has a whole class management strategy that when a few students are off task, all students’ heads go down on desks and lights get turned off until ALL students can settle.  

Even at this young student’s age, he can articulate that this strategy does not make sense.  When many students are demonstrating expected behavior, why are they being “punished” like the ones off task?  Why, when he always does what is expected, does he have to stop his learning/inquiring/exploring to put his head down?  He feels embarrassed.  He feels shame.  He feels tired of being lumped with the other students. He feels frustrated the teacher never comments on his positive behaviors.  He feels like giving up.  Guess what?  He is.

I share these examples not to guilt people or embarrass their strategies.  Rather, I encourage teachers to examine what whole class behavior management strategies they have in place.  Switch the lens and ask yourself:

If I were the student, what are all the ways I could be impacted by this whole class intervention?  

How would I feel to be the student always in trouble?  The student always on task?

How would this impact me socially?

What message about behaviors do I want to promote to my students?

How does my plan change undesired behaviors to desired behaviors?

Most importantly, ask yourself, “Do I want my ‘management’ strategy to be the reason a student might have to see a counselor?”

Reactions vs Responses

In my daily counseling practice, I have a mantra that I repeat over and over again.

“Respond.  Don’t react.”  

Being a counselor in an elementary international setting with over 1,100 students on my caseload, a lot comes my way.  No matter how planned and organized I am, the day comes at me how it wants (sorry plans).  This can cause stress, frustration, and what I refer to as counseling triage — what needs done NOW vs what can be put on the back burner?  In times of stress or busyness, it is easy to react to a situation rather than respond.

What is the difference?  A reaction is jumping into something — a conversation, a reply, an email, an interaction — based on emotion and the need to “get something done now.”  A response is a well thought out reply to a situation that is student centered, solution focused, and based in rational, logical, reflective thinking.  Responding is not about one person having the power but rather about mutual understanding of an issue.  A response builds and keeps trust and does not demean the situation or the individual(s) involved. Responding creates win-win situations and opportunities for individuals to grow, develop, and change.

Reacting allows you to move through “issues” in a quicker manner and check more things off your to do list since you are able to say or do the first thing that comes to your mind without much intention behind it.  However, reactions are typically visceral responses often based around negative emotions you might be feeling.  This means that often people receiving the reaction end up with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, broken trust, and bad lingering feelings long after the interaction is over.  Reactions are also quick fixes that may work for the counselor but do not necessarily lead to long term change and resolution for the other parties involved since someone is having a issue decided for them instead of making meaning him/herself.  Let’s be honest … reacting is WAY more easy and WAY more natural than responding — but not the ideal interaction.

So how does one choose to respond instead of react?  Anytime I am confronted with an issue — no matter formally or informally — I automatically make myself pause.  In that moment of space, I ask myself, “When this interaction is over and future counselor self is reflecting on this interaction, how do I want to feel or think about how it was addressed?”  Now … I know that seems like a long thought to have and it is!  However, by stopping to ask myself this question I have just allowed time to think prior to responding to the issue at hand.  By looking at the situation in a “back to the future” style, I think about how I will feel if I respond to the situation instead of react.  

Will future counselor self feel proud of the response?  

Will future counselor self feel like all parties were listened to and their voices heard?

Will future counselor self reflect that all parties involved were treated with dignity and respect?  

Will future counselor self feel like she solved the problem for a student (staff member, parent, stakeholder) or will she reflect that she helped guide the individual toward his/her own resolution?

For example, say I just sat down at my desk to catch up on emails and case notes in the only 30 minutes I have free in a day. Now a staff member walks in my office wanting to consult about a student, what do I do?  I might be filled with irritation that the staff member did not schedule ahead.  I might be frustrated that my only half hour to complete this portion of  work is now going to be filled by something else.  But, I stop, pause, and think about how I want to look back on this situation.  Would I like to feel like I burned a bridge by telling the staff member I am too busy to consult?  Would I like to feel like I pushed aside my task to consult but then felt bitter later when I was finally catching up on emails and the other staff member had long headed home?  Or would I like to feel like it was a win-win situation for both parties by stating that I am actually unavailable at this time but would be happy to meet after school, once students had left so let’s get something on the calendar?

Asking myself to reflect on the situation as if it has already happened allows me to take the initial emotional reaction that I may have to a situation and approach it in a more meaningful, productive way.  Using this approach in counseling also models for students that sometimes the best way to approach situations is with a stop, think, reflect model.  I can inform students that I am going to allow a few moments of silence to think about how to best respond to a situation.  I inform them it is important to me to think about how future self will feel when this interaction is done.  Then I can tell them this process is called responding to a situation.  Just jumping in and solving it would be easy but that would be a reaction.  Students pick up on the pause, think, reflect model and then can choose to apply it as situations come their way.

So, when situations come your way, stop, pause, and in that space ask yourself, “How does future self want to feel when they reflect on this interaction?”  In that brief question, you have just decided to not react but respond.  Easy, eh?!?

My Magic Question

I have a magic question.  It is simple yet powerful.  It is empowering and not degrading. It is:

“In the future, what would I see different?”

I use this question all day, in all situations, with all ages of students.  If I am speaking with a student about an undesirable behavior I have observed — I ask this question.  If I see a student who has forgotten or is struggling with a school routine or expectation — I ask this question.  If I am dialoguing with children who are stuck in conflict or trying to make sense of the choices they made — I ask this question.

This question is magic because it …

  1. Moves the conversation from an authoritative lecture to an supportive learning opportunity
  2. Empowers students to be thinkers and use their voice
  3. Creates a natural opportunity for student reflection and proposed action
  4. Creates a sense of student buy-in where the student can actually follow through on the “difference” they name
  5. Shows the student you don’t define her/him by his/her current choice/action but rather …
  6. … Shows the student you believe they are capable of changing behaviors and making positive choices
  7. Allows students to practice problem solving skills and become solution-focused

This question has not failed me.  Sure, sometimes students stop and hesitate before answering.  However, I like to believe it is because they are genuinely surprised that someone would ask and then they are thinking of an honest, thoughtful response.  I love the way that when I ask this question, a sense of worry visibly disappears from student faces.  They know that this is not a punitive conversation where they will end up “in trouble.”  Rather, it seems that when students hear this question, they realize that I am supporting them in their behavior and action development. It is always inspiring to hear the response of a student who clearly has a plan to choose a different plan of action in the future.  It is also liberating to spend more time listening than talking.

So, go ahead.  Steal my magic question.  I dare you.

A Back to School Wish

My wish for educators in the upcoming school year:  Reclaim your passion.  

As educators we spend so much time planning, organizing, meeting, and aligning.  We spend hours in professional development learning about new techniques and best practices.  We structure our classroom, build lesson plans, peruse resources, decorate bulletin boards, collaborate with colleagues, prepare assessments, and think endlessly about how to best engage students.  We focus on the big picture and hone in on the small details.  I can’t help but wonder — as we get caught up in the doing — how often do we step back and reflect on why we entered education in the first place?

Choosing to join the education field is typically driven by a passion:  Passion to develop students as life-long learners.  Passion to challenge status-quo and shift educational paradigms.  Passion to impact the lives of young learners and have them impact you as an adult learner.  Passion to never settle for “good enough” and instead challenge through inquiry.  Passion to make a difference and to believe that the work you are doing has a lasting impact.

What was your drive?  What is your passion for education?  Do you even remember? Or, has it become lost in the nitty-gritty?  In the “to-dos” and standards based assessments?  In the budget cuts and difficult parents?  In the long hours and low pay?

What would happen if, when planning, organizing, and polishing the classroom you carved out honest time to reflect on your choice to join education field?  What if you reconnected to your passion for _________________ that caused you to become a teacher, counselor, administrator?  What if you wrote down your original hopes and dreams when you thought of becoming an educator and re-read that statement every day?

I believe that when we reclaim our passion and remember the heady goals we started on this journey with, then we will be better educators.  By tapping into our passion we will teach more passionately, connect with students more passionately, build an effective school community more passionately.  Reconnecting to our educational passion will not only refresh and recharge us but will also be noticeable to others around us.  Perhaps, our renewed sense of drive and purpose might even inspire students and co-workers to be a little better, try a little harder, or be a little more passionate about their education.

So go ahead.  Reclaim your passion.

Student Centered Educators

As an educator, every action taken, every decision made, every choice being weighed should be in a student’s best interest.  By always keeping students at the center, an educator is most likely to create a purposeful, meaningful, and authentic learning environment that serves all students — not just a handful.  Over the years, I have noticed a variety of practices that clearly indicate an educator is making decisions to promote student centered teaching and learning. Here are a few of my anecdotal observations of student centered practices:

1. Teacher is never behind a desk.  A student centered teacher is actively engaged with his/her classroom.  This means being up, moving, checking in, asking about new learnings, dialoguing, providing new strategies.  Sitting at a desk when students are in class only benefits the teacher — not students.

2. Planning is done in advance with learning goals, objectives, and assessments in mind.  The plan is differentiated and based on learning styles and learning needs. “Planning” that occurs day of and is done via Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers is a clear indicator that a student’s needs are not at the center.  A one-size-fits-some worksheet is easy for the teacher but not necessarily best for promoting purposeful learning among students.

3. Educators develop themselves professionally on their own time, on their own accord, often on their own expense.  Student centered educators are always seeking to better their practice knowing that keeping current on essential practices, new innovations, and changes in pedagogical thinking ultimately impacts and benefits their students. Student learners are always the focus when new educator learning is taking place.  A non-student centered teacher’s PD occurs one hour a week at school mandated staff meetings.

4. Classroom doors are kept wide open.  Student centered educators welcome other educators in — at any time — to be observed by peers who can then provide feedback, reflections, and suggestions around teaching practice and methods.  This open door policy keeps teachers always growing, developing, and reflecting, which hopefully can stop stagnation of practice. This always benefits students.

5. Reflection is part of the daily teaching practice.  A relevant, student centered educator is reflective in nature so as to always question what went well and what needs to look different in the future.  Student feedback is used as part of the reflection process so that the student’s voice is a driving force of tweaking or adjusting current practices. Anytime a student voice is considered for future development of self, this is a clear indicator that the educator is student centered.  By skipping reflection, an educator most likely assumes that what he/she is currently doing is working just fine. In all actuality it may be working at the benefit of one or two students but most likely not the entire learning community.

6. More time is spent listening than talking.  A student centered educator recognizes that the model of a teacher talking to students is antiquated and not student centered.  Listening — really listening — to students helps educators tap into what students are saying but more importantly, what they are not saying.  This creates a space for student centered educators to assess needs and support thinking and learning.  Listening to student voice is a great tool to drive one’s work.

7. Students are approached holistically — not just assessed academically.  Student centered teachers are constantly looking to serve the academic, social-emotional, behavioral, and developmental needs of their students.  They seek to understand the big picture of each individual student and meet the student where they are across all facets of learning.  A student centered educator knows that you cannot separate academic success from other life circumstances.  Each child is a system and you have to make little tweaks along the way in order for systemic change to fully occur.

8. Students are empowered to do their own thinking.  Rather than tell students what and how to think or what to memorize, student centered educators provide opportunities for students to explore, inquire, and make meaning.  Students are encouraged to think and think deeply.  A student possibly learning something new or innovating on their own (without the teacher telling them the information), is invigorating and exciting to a student centered educator — not intimidating. The educator will support the learning process, necessary skills, and provide encouragement. They will not be providing prescribed thinking for the students.

9. Play is recognized as a learning tool — not a waste of time.  No matter the age or grade, student centered educators engage students in play so as to learn and construct meaning.  Student centered educators recognize the power of play to inquire, connect, and unpack learning opportunities for students.  Even though play can be messy, unstructured, and chaotic (read: more challenging to monitor, facilitate, and assess on the teacher’s part), it is a powerful tool for growth and critical thinking. So, though it might be stressful, a good educator recognizes that play is healthy for student development and learning (= student centered).

10. Mistakes are acknowledged and admitted to students.  Recognizing and naming when you make a mistake or an error is a huge trait of being student centered. Removing the misperception that you have to be perfect is a gift that a student centered educator can give students.  Help students view mistakes as learning opportunities instead of opportunites for shame and embarrassment.  Model the practice of admitting when you erred and see the students follow suit.

These are just a handful of indicators that an educator is always thinking of students first.  By no means is this a complete list.  It is just a starting point to question if — at the end of the day — am I working to put students first?  What other traits are indicators of a student centered educator?  What else would you add to the list?

Simulations in Guidance: Mock Day

Socratic Seminars.  Tea Parties.  Historian’s Breakfast.  Process Dramas.  In today’s relevant classroom, simulations are everywhere.  Simulations — intentionally staged activities and event that bring real world experiences in the classroom setting so as to enhance student learning — are an integral portion of a student’s learning and understanding of concepts in today’s global classroom.  Simulations — no matter how simple or complex — are a powerful learning tool in that often mimic real life and real world experiences.  According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, the very best learning experiences occur when doing the real thing.  Simulations fall only second to the “real thing.”  Therefore, to create meaningful learning for students, simulations should be planned and included in their educational process.

So what does this mean for a school counselor?  How can a school counselor create simulation experiences that are meaningful, authentic, and have a lasting impact on student learning?  How does a counselor engage students using simulations that impact the academic, social-emotional, career, or global development of a child? Should school counselors spend time creating simulations or should that work be left to homeroom teachers?

Just like a homeroom teacher, a counselor should be skilled in creating simulations to engage student inquiry and learning.  One way I have managed to successfully use simulations to create meaningful learning opportunities for students is during our elementary to middle school transition program.  In spite of all three divisions being housed on the same gated campus, our grade 5 students complete a comprehensive transitions guidance program.  This includes classroom guidance around reflecting on the elementary and PYP experience, having questions answered about middle school and the MYP, participating in middle school tours, meeting middle school ambassadors and advisors, attending a middle school assembly, and more.  However, what came to surface is that even with all this programming, students still walked around with a lot of unease and trepidation about what middle school looks like, feels like, and sounds like. The unknown experiences were causing a lot of stress.  I could answer all the questions I wanted about changing for PE but since the students had never experienced this activity — their unease remained.

Enter guidance simulation activity.  

After consulting with the grade five teaching team, a Middle School Mock Day simulation was designed and implemented.  This means our grade 5 students spend a whole day experiencing middle school in the comfort of their own elementary hall.

Students in first five minute transition period.  Chaos ensues.

Students in first five minute transition period. Chaos ensues.

How it works:  Each homeroom teacher is assigned a teaching subject for the day. These subjects are based off the current offerings our grade six students have.  We bring in specialist teachers to cover specific subjects and to create prep periods for our homeroom teachers.  A master set of student schedules is created based on the middle school timetable (55 minute classes with 5 minute passing periods).  Students are assigned a schedule at random with consideration being made to accommodate mother tongue class needs. PE space, break space, canteen needs, supervision, and supplies are all arranged as necessary.   A meeting is held with all staff involved or impacted by Mock Day to go over logistics and questions.  Students are then briefed about the day and informed that, just like in middle school, they are going to have a random, rotating schedule of classes that is made up of random groupings of their peers.  They are informed that they might not have all the classes being offered (as true at the middle school level) and that they might have different peers in each class.  They are also notified about now only having one lunch break (compared to the 2 in elementary) as well as only having one small “play” area instead of a playground.  They are told about the daily advisory class in middle school which in the simulation means the students go back to their homeroom teachers to do some debriefing and reflecting about the day.  Just like in middle school, advisory is a brief time with a trusted adult to discuss current things happening in the students’ lives and create strategies or interventions to solve problems and be successful.  In the Mock Day simulation planning process we try to balance the amount of information we provide students so that they are comfortable while still leaving room for inquiry and for an organic experience to unfold.  It is important to let the day play out for the students — we have not made everything “safe” for them which would create an inauthentic experience as there are always unknowns in life.

To allow the simulation to have the most impact we also enforce middle school rules: students must wear pants (no shorts) with their uniform, they cannot use mobile phones as devices, they collect tardies if they do not make it to class on time during the five minute transition and — the biggest one of all — the students have to change into and out of their PE uniforms prior to PE (which every student is guaranteed to have on his/her schedule).  *Out of all the biggest fears, worries, and concerns about moving to middle school, changing for PE is consistently listed as the biggest worry.  Once again, we could talk about it being easy and not scary but until the students experience it, the fear remains real.*

On Mock Day, students arrive to school with their schedules and begin the rotation process.  A bell is used to indicate the start and end of classes and warnings are provided as the 5 minute passing period counts down.  When staff see students struggling, frustrated, or perhaps engaged in an undesirable behavior, we pull the student aside to have a conversation and to make a connection to middle school. Every situation is presented as a learning experience.

Students during the first 5 minute transition period.  Chaos ensues.

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The energy at the start of Mock Day is high.  Students are excited, staff are engaged, and learning is occurring authentically.  Not only is there the academic learning, but more importantly, social and emotional learning is taking place.  It is amazing to see the student energy shift throughout the day when students get settled in.  The frenzy dies out and the confidence sets in.  Students are spending more of their transition time at their cubbies (lockers), having snacks between classes, visiting with friends.  Also, after their PE changing experience when students successfully change clothes, fill their water bottles, and make it to class on time, the smile on their faces is evidence that this unease about changing is diminishing — through experience, the students have developed in the social-emotional domain.

By the end of Mock Day, students are tired yet happy and invigorated.  The feedback/reflection sheets are genuinely positive and supportive of the simulation process.  Student feedback shows an increase in confidence about middle school, a connection that middle school is not that different from middle school, an excitement to move up to the middle school campus, and a lot of thanks for having the mock day simulation.

So, do simulations have a place in guidance?  Is it the school counselor’s responsibility to provide experiential learning opportunities for students?  Absolutely.  By providing a Mock Day for our students, the middle school transition process moved from theoretical to concrete.  Students developed not only in the academic but also the social-emotional domains.  Through a simulation, students were able to experience activities that helped alleviate concerns and fears.  The simulation helped students develop confidence and understand that in all actuality, middle school is not so different from elementary.  Most importantly, the simulation allowed students to face the unknown in a supportive, familiar environment surrounded by their peers and teachers who could address concerns and celebrate successes as they happened.

This is one method of using simulations to promote guidance activities.  What are some other ideas on how to use simulations as a school counselor?  How have you used simulations to support the academic, career, or social-emotional development of students?

A Framework for Support


Part of the counseling practice involves providing support — support to students, support to parents, support to colleagues, support to administration. Often this comes in the form of professional support. Sometimes this comes in the form of emotional support. No matter the form, being supportive is a skill. It is a skill that needs thought, reflection, and action. It is also a skill that needs practiced and developed. Too often someone might believe they are being supportive and yet, their actions –however well intended — can be causing more harm than doing good.

As a practitioner, I have spent a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on support. I have come up with my own framework of support that is applicable to staff, students, friends, family, alike. In my framework, there are five points to always consider so as to be effective and intentional with support.

1. Support looks different for every individual. How I would define support is different from how my partner would define support is different from how my co-worker would define support. Every individual, in a time of need, has unique and particular ways that he/she would like to receive support. Each individual also has distinct, personal criteria that would be perceived as unsupportive. It is not enough to assume that my definition of support is the same criteria that anyone else would use to define support. Support is usually such a mashup of different standards that it is impossible to guess the criterion someone might place in the “when I feel supported” category. For some, support means a kind, comforting word. For some it might be being physically present with another person. For some, it might mean being left alone. For some it might mean springing into action and distracting the individual from whatever is on his/her mind. The list of possibilities is endless. Therefore, what I always tell people, “The best thing you do to support someone is ask them ‘What does support mean to you?” This is the first step in creating a genuine and meaningful supportive relationship. Have the person voice what support looks like, feels like, and sounds like — in his or her perspective. That way you (as the supporter) have a clear understanding of what the friend, co-worker, student, etc. is looking for. With a clear definition in mind, you have a clear starting point or jumping off place to ensure genuine support can provided.

2. Unless you know how the individual defines support, you are most likely setting up a situation of disappointment and failed expectations. The biggest mistake is jumping in to provide support without first having a clear working-definition of what support looks like to the individual who needs it. A co-worker is at a loss with her classroom and the behaviors of her students. She comes in saying “I don’t know what to do.” The counselor jumps in by coming into her class, creating behavior plans for specific students, reestablishing routines, doing guidance on pro-social behaviors — and the teacher feels worse than when she went in “asking” for support. Why? Because the counselor did what she thought was supportive. The teacher just felt challenged, undermined, and like her professionalism was being called into question. If the counselor had simply asked (prior to jumping into action) “What can I do to support you? What does support look like to you?” then the counselor would have been able to see the teacher just wanted someone to listen to her and validate her feelings. She did not need more than a quiet ear. In other words, we can spring into action based on our definition of support. We can walk away feeling proud of ourselves for being so supportive. The other party involved, though, might feel like we did nothing, that there was no follow through, or that we minimized his/her issue. The individual receiving support may feel like his/her expectations were not met and the person providing the support might never understand what they did wrong (which in this case was offer support based on his/her interpretation, not the person needed supporting). It’s a lose-lose situation for both parties involved. Start with a clear understanding of support and eliminate the confusion and disappointment that can ensue when neither party involved was aware of the others expectations from the start.

3. Support does not mean solving the problem or having the answer. A lot of people do not offer support because they do not feel like they know “what to do.” You don’t need to know what to do! Support means being present as an individual, friend, student, family member, works towards resolution, closure, or clarity. People often think that to be supportive means making the issue go away. This is simply not the case. Rather, be there, listen, validate, question, challenge the person asking for support. Let them bounce ideas off of you. Don’t feel responsible for having to make everything better. Just focus on being supportive in the way that he/she expressed would make him/her feel supported.

4. There can be too much support. There is a fine line between being supportive and being suffocating. If you feel that someone needs support — ASK. Don’t assume you can be of assistance and then find out that you are bothering, annoying, and adding additional stress to their life. Maybe you are not the person they will turn to. Maybe at this time they want to muddle through the mess on their own. Do not overdo the support or feel like you have to be involved in the support. It all comes back to that word “ask.”

5. Support is ongoing — not a one time event. If you step up to offer someone support, remember that you are making a commitment to him/her for an unspecified amount of time. Do not make the offer and commitment to support someone if you do not have the time, resources, energy, or capacity to see the process through to fruition. That is unfair to everyone and in that situation, no one walks away feeling good.

These are my go to points when people inquire into support. What are some things you consider when offering support to someone? What are some barriers to offering support? What are some tools you use to create meaningful supportive interactions?