What Challenges Should School Counselors Expect as Schools Reopen?

May 26, 2021 •

Prior to COVID, most school counselors named their greatest challenge as the number of students they had to advise. Now, in the wake of a global pandemic, counselors face obstacles they likely never imagined. These include managing increased levels of student stress, teaching other staff members how to access mental health services, creating trauma-informed approaches to learning, and logistical roadblocks of helping students access virtual school.

What Challenges Should School Counselors Expect as Schools Reopen?

Whether in-person or with continued distance learning, counselors need to be prepared to interact with students experiencing increased levels of anxiety. Some may even exhibit signs of trauma. A study published by NBC News and Challenge Success found the pandemic has significantly increased student stress thanks to:

  • Increased workloads
  • Less engagement with studies
  • Strained relationships with teachers and classmates
  • Fears about college and the future
  • Less time to relax and play

The solution is two-fold: speaking with students individually to address their needs on a personal level and making other staff members aware of student sensitivities. Although educators themselves cannot replace trained mental health professionals, they must be able to recognize signs of distress in students and react accordingly.

Acknowledging COVID Affected Communities in Different Ways

People of all ages are grappling with emotions linked to nationwide protests and demands for social change. Some minority communities continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to various factors, including job conditions and a lack of healthcare. Children of all races in socioeconomically disadvantaged conditions are suffering as families grapple with rapid cost-of-living and inflation increases.

To illustrate, people from ethnic minority groups tend to work in low-income fields like food service and warehouses. These environments put them into close contact with others and routinely lack sick pay. This is just one explanation for why these groups have suffered higher rates of COVID and related deaths.

Provide the Right Support

It is important for school counselors to recognize some students may need unique support systems. This means overcoming educational opportunity gaps and teaching students to positively manage their thoughts and emotions. The best way to achieve both is by establishing relationships of trust with families and community leaders.

To build these relationships, counselors need to actively reach out to marginalized families. Ask about their educational concerns and where the school needs to focus its improvement efforts. It’s equally important counselors form partnerships with community members who can promote the school’s programs and help families feel more connected.

Ensuring Staff Members Know How to Direct Students to Mental Health Services

All school staff need a clear understanding of how to refer students to counselors and/or mental health clinicians. A separate training session can be used to deliver this information, but it’s crucial that all staff members attend.

Schools without clinicians should create relationships with mental health providers in the community. Together, you can then develop a student referral system and also let parents know of the partnership. Students’ needs should be considered in both distance learning and in-person situations, and schools might additionally consider using telehealth to deliver mental health services.

Cross-Cultural Barriers

In all instances, students and their families need access to treatment that meets their cultural and linguistic needs. For instance, all family members may not speak English. Pairing these students with a therapist that speaks their native language or arranging for an interpreter can therefore ensure families stay involved in their children’s mental health solutions.

Cultivating Safe and Supportive Classrooms

School counselors often feel isolated in their efforts to connect with students, a scenario that in and of itself must be overcome. Addressing mental health needs must be a coordinated effort throughout the school, starting in the classroom. These spaces need to be safe and supportive for all students, some of whom feel safer at school than at home.

Counselors can ignite this process by working with teachers to form positive bonds with students. Research shows that when students feel emotionally connected to educators, they exhibit positive social behavior and grow academically. While it’s hard for teachers to get one-on-one time with each student, they should work with counselors to identify such opportunities. A few ideas include:

  • Checking in with students on their way to transitional periods, such as lunch or recess
  • Stopping by each student’s desk during creative lessons like drawing or journaling
  • Creating a warm classroom space with bean bags, floor cushions, and rugs

Creating a Trauma-Informed Approach

For most people within the school environment, COVID-19 raises fears for safety. This can add to pre-existing trauma and disparities for some people, while for others, the pandemic has ignited new grief that may be the result of increased violence and abuse at home. Many families have experienced adversities related to increased economic hardship, isolation, and unmet basic needs.

Having said all this, a trauma-informed approach can help schools create a sense of protection. In turn, it’s easier for educators to teach, students to learn, and staff and administrators to connect. Families will likewise feel more secure in knowing their children are being cared for.

A trauma-informed system is one in which all parties recognize and respond to the impacts of traumatic stressors. Administrators and educators must collaborate with counselors to make trauma awareness part of the overall school atmosphere. As this knowledge becomes infused in the day-to-day curriculum, everyone will be better equipped to support each other, including the students.

So, how can you create a trauma-informed approach? Remember that, as an adult, you set the standards for student actions. Model good behaviors so children follow suit. Also adhere to the latest public health recommendations for social distancing, protective equipment, and hygiene. You should additionally:

  • Provide information to students in digestible amounts as moving back to live learning can be daunting
  • Encourage students to share their feelings about home and school
  • Show appreciation for every student you speak to

Supporting the Well-Being of Staff

It’s easy to forget about your own well-being, but school staff are also likely to deal with COVID-related stress. Think about your own mental health needs and then, as a school counselor, offer resources that promote staff well-being. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Letting staff know you’re available to talk
  • Giving information about mental health providers in the community
  • Hosting professional development sessions that promote ways to cope with stress
  • Creating time for staff to connect with each other
  • Using professional development time to reflect and process

Safeguard Your Own Career

When thinking about your own needs during this challenging time, it’s important to remember counseling comes with a certain element of risk. Even in the school environment, you can be sued for perceived ethical misconduct. This usually happens when a parent believes you haven’t maintained their child’s best interests, but other therapists and even friends may levy a suit against you for believing privately held conversations constituted psychotherapy.

A parent can also make an ethics complaint to your state’s licensing board. While your career may emerge intact from a lawsuit, a license suspension or revocation may stop you from practicing altogether. The best way to safeguard yourself and your career, especially as schools reopen, is with professional liability insurance, also known as medical malpractice coverage for healthcare providers.

Scenarios That Deserve Consideration

Professional liability covers you both financially and professionally if you are sued. While the school you work at may provide you with some coverage on their policy, it’s important you have your own. A professional policy is tailored to meet your needs and can protect you in even the most unlikely of circumstances. This includes client abandonment, such as if a student tries to transform the counseling relationship into one of friendship.

Such an attempt to cross boundaries can start gradually and subtly. But the point is a student feeling especially vulnerable may want to meet with you outside of school hours or seek help for personal concerns. When you refuse this, the student may feel neglected, tell his or her parents, and then proceed with a civil lawsuit.

Confidentiality Breaches

We know you’ve had plenty of ethics training, but even with all the knowledge you possess, it can be easy to violate a patient’s confidentiality. Examples in a school setting include:

  • Unwittingly sharing information about your sessions with a third party, such as another student
  • Sharing student records or information in a way that could cause emotional harm
  • Sharing information about a family’s efforts to obtain mental health treatment

Consider, for instance, a teacher who asks you to see a student who has been acting out in class. You meet the student several times, and then the teacher asks why that student is behaving in such a way. It can be easy to deliver the information and think you’re acting within the boundaries of your profession. But according to most ethical standards, you can only relay student information with his or her permission or with a sound legal or ethical justification.

Counseling Outside Your Scope

Again, from the outside, it appears completely harmless, but counseling students beyond your area of training can set you up for a lawsuit. For instance, if you’re meeting with a female student who seems to have an eating disorder, trying to diagnose and/or treat that student can put you at risk of a licensing board complaint. Failure to refer is a common reason for malpractice lawsuits.

Inadequate Documentation

One of the foremost reasons counselors and other mental health providers get sued is a lack of documentation. It is therefore crucial you keep detailed notes in a clinically responsible manner and remember to document:

  • Dates and times of your sessions
  • What you and the student discussed
  • Referrals you made to the parents or guardians for additional treatment services

How Insurance Helps

Professional liability essentially covers incidents that arise while school counselors work with students. If you’re named in a lawsuit, and a judgment is entered against you, your insurance will pay that judgment in addition to attorney fees and court fines and costs. The guidelines of your policy must be followed, but the point is you won’t have to pay that money out-of-pocket. Without insurance, you may be setting yourself up for financial ruin and jeopardizing the career you’ve worked so hard to establish. It’s important to note that even if you did nothing wrong, you would have to spend money to defend yourself.

Get the Protection You Need

Before you can be a beacon of light for students, you must first take care of yourself. This means preparing for new challenges as schools reopen and purchasing the insurance coverage you need. At NOW Insurance, we’ve made it easy to access helpful information and secure a policy today. More details about professional liability insurance for therapists are available on our website. Or, to obtain a quote in under three minutes, you can complete our easy online application now.

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