Returning to School After Extended School Closures

Even more than ever, schools will be focusing on social and emotional learning (SEL) in returning to school after this extended closure due to COVID-19. So many students have been without structure or consistency for the last nine weeks, and we still have a long way to go. School counselors and teachers will be looking to model or reteach self-regulation skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills. I am guest-posting over at Bright Futures Counseling today with “4 Ways Elementary School Counselors Can Empower Students to Solve Problems.” Our programs are already designed to reach students through individual counseling, small group counseling, classroom guidance, and collaboration, and we can use those outlets for focusing on SEL. In the post, I elaborate on how I use each of these elements of my program to begin to equip students with the tools they need to solve problems. I hope you’ll join me and Rachel over on her blog to check out the post! You can find it here: https://brightfutures-counseling.com/blog/4-ways-elementary-school-counselors-can-empower-students-to-solve-problems.

Is your district creating a school reentry plan? I’ve been reading through idea posts in my various counselor groups, and I’d encourage you to join us on Facebook at Elementary School Counselor Exchange or “CoVID School Re-entry Think Tank” to join these conversations. Feel free to share ideas in the comments below!

Helping Students Diffuse Anger with Healthy Coping Skills

One of my most common questions in classroom counseling is, “Is it okay to be angry?” Some students respond with no, it’s not okay to angry, or that they are “bad” if they are angry. I always reassure my students it’s okay to be angry — we ALL get angry — but it’s never okay to hurt someone or break something when we are angry.

Unless it’s my stress ball cat. Because that just happened.

As counselors we are often called to help diffuse students in crisis, and sometimes we are working with them in the “in between,” when students are calm and seem to know all the right answers, when their bodies are calm and it’s easy to self-regulate.

For my youngest students (usually preschool, kindergarten, and first graders), I love to read “Cool Down and Work Through Anger“* by Cheri Meiners as part of her “Learning to Get Along” series. It is simple to read, with relatable examples and clear visuals for each example. It includes feelings such as sad, hurt, and angry, and helps children understand “All of my feelings are okay.” It explains how anger can manifest in physical symptoms and provides clear examples of healthy coping strategies.

My older students love the humor in the analogy Julia Cook provides in “Soda Pop Head,” which you could pair with a 2-Liter of soda (or can) for an easy object lesson — just be careful of your mess! You want to keep a good relationship with your custodians!

Balloons are excellent tools for explaining how anger works. Most students will tell you that when the balloon gets too full of air, it will pop! And I use that demonstration sometimes. I also LOVE to make up a fictional story of a child who gets progressively angry throughout the day. As I tell the story, I continue to blow air into the balloon without releasing any of it. Eventually, it gets so full that I let go, and the balloon flies willy-nilly all over the room. I explain how when we bottle in our anger all day, incident after incident, we will eventually lose control, just like the balloon. My students looooove this example (and the sound effects)! I retrieve the balloon and tell the same story again, only this time, after every anger-inducing situation, I ask the students to tell me a healthy way to cope with that problem. As they come up with examples, I release air from the balloon, so it never fills completely, and the main character never loses control or explodes.

Games are always a fun addition to a small group. My anger-themed groups are called “Rocketships.” One of my favorite group games to address anger is “Escape from Anger Island.” It allows students to choose from one of six categories they’d like to focus on regarding their anger: “Know your hot buttons,” “Self talk,” “Talk it out,” “Deep breaths,” “Reduce stress,” and “Relaxation Techniques.”

One-on-one in individual sessions about anger, my go-to game is “Mad Dragon.” It’s very similar to Uno and each for students to learn regardless of whether or not they know how to play Uno. Along the way, thoughtful prompts facilitate natural conversations and sharing related to the topic of anger. In individual sessions, I also sometimes use “What to Do When Your Temper Flares,” if I want more of a guided discussion/workbook. I found it at my local library!

In classroom counseling lessons, I help equip students with coping strategies by giving a menu of ideas and allowing them to identify and practice ones that might work for them. I help them understand that what works for one person might not work for someone else, but we all need healthy ways to cope and someone at home and/or at school to talk to about our feelings. I’ve also helped students diffuse their anger by taking walks, playing basketball, and punching my sequin mermaid pillows, which often turns into them smoothing the sequins back and forth — wonderfully calming!

Everyday Coping Skills Mini-lesson and activities to develop and practice coping skills

My favorite lessons for teaching coping strategies are Cactus Coping Skills and Everyday Coping Skills. The printable coping strategies page included in Everyday Coping Skills is perfect to print, laminate, and display inside a classroom cozy cube! At my school, all kindergarten classrooms are equipped with a cozy cube, as well as both administrators’ offices. I’d have one, too, if I had the space in my new office! The coping skills categories I highlight on the printable include: Create, Move, Talk, and Pause, with examples from each category, so students can identify their preferred strategies.

Part of my goal is always to help my students to identify resources and people who can help them when they begin to feel dysregulated and how to recognize those symptoms. It’s important to help them explore options in the various places they are most likely to get angry, whether it’s at home, at school, on the bus, or out on the field. We all get angry, but by recognizing anger patterns and healthy coping strategies, we can help them diffuse before they lose control.

Now to go find some super glue for my stress ball cat…

*Counselor Station is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.Thank you for supporting the blog!

Organizing Your School Counseling Program in 2020

Happy 2020!

Last night, on the eve of a new year, I went through my school counselor planner and listed what worked in 2019 and what didn’t work, and I added to my gratitude list. I am so grateful for you and this counseling community!

Whether you are a seasoned counselor or just finding your rhythm, now is a great time to reflect on your program mission and goals. Moving into 20202, what are your school counseling program goals? What worked for you? What didn’t work? Is there a program you’d like to implement? Do you want to work on better communication with teachers and parents? Is there something you need to let go of so that you can take on something else, or just have space to breathe?

Here is a quick roundup of resources to help you kickoff an amazing semester!

GETTING ORGANIZED – The beginning of a new semester is a great time to reset. My planner is editable and undated and comes with soooo many different forms you can use for planning your program, from goal sheets to follow-up logs to small group planning! Print it all, or print what you need for a customized option! Are you in need of newsletter templates to send to parents or to include in your schoolwide newsletter? Fresh new intake notes forms? I have you covered!

 WINTER-THEMED LESSONS: My students love these engaging winter lessons! Divide students into groups for a challenging escape room, where they learn to discern the size of a problem, or split them into teams for a fun snowball toss game, where they learn to identify their preferred coping skills!

MIDDLE SCHOOL TRANSITION RESOURCES: This semester, I’ll take my rising 6th graders to the middle school for a visit, and I do an entire middle school unit leading up to their visit. We talk about our questions and worried, they share what they’re most excited about, we compare and contrast elementary and middle school, and they even practice opening combination locks! Check out my unit here: Middle School Transition Bundle.

I hope you have a fantastic start to 2020! 

Ashley

Six Fall-Themed Activities for Elementary School Counselors

Happy October! October is by far my favorite month, but also my busiest, both at home and school! From family programs, to community partnerships, Red Ribbon Week, schoolwide programs and assemblies, fundraisers, and preparing for holiday assistance programs, my co-counselor and I stay busy! Can I just add how grateful I am for our local coffee truck that parks right outside of our building with delicious pumpkin roll lattes a few times a month? Here are some of my favorite fall-themed counseling ideas to save you some time and give you some inspiration!

PUMPKIN PATCH FALL-THEMED ACTIVITIES

  1. By now, I’m sure you and your teachers have started to identify students who may need some extra support with friendship skills. Check out my fun pumpkin-themed Pumpkin Patch Friendship lesson for use in classroom instruction, small groups, or even individual sessions. 
  2. Introduce a Pumpkin Patch Breathing Board for a fun, mindful breathing exercise to open and close your classroom lessons and counseling sessions this fall!

PEER PRESSURE AND HEALTHY CHOICES

  • 3. Red Ribbon Week is coming up Oct. 23-31, and I recently wrote a blog post about how I teach “Peer Pressure and Healthy Choices” concepts to my 5th graders using my Peer Pressure and Healthy Choices lesson and a the generosity of a few community partnerships. This year I’m passing out bracelets, pencils, and bookmarks as my flash prizes throughout the lesson.

FAMILY EVENTS

  • 4. It’s also book fair season, which we pair with Donuts with Grownups and other breakfast events — such fun, easy ways to encourage family involvement in your school! I have so many editable flyers for all sorts of creative breakfast events!

NATIONAL BULLYING PREVENTION MONTH

  • 5. National Bullying Prevention Month coincides with a unit I teach 5th grade using Trudy Ludwig’s books, “My Secret Bully” and “Confessions of a Former Bully.” I love how Trudy provides 8 responses beyond simply “just ignore it,” and I’ve created a fun Response to Bullying Scoot Game to practice similar phrases. 

ATTENDANCE

As always, thank you so much for supporting Counselor Station. Feel free to check out more ideas and posts here on my blog, Counselor Station, and on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest).

Happy fall, friends!

Supporting Students with Incarcerated Parents through Small Groups, Bibliotherapy, Community Resources, and Play Therapy

10-session group counseling curriculum for students with an incarcerated parent

Does your school population have large percentage of students who are raised by grandparents, single parents, or other family members and caregivers as a result of parental incarceration? It’s not always easy to know which students have a parent or loved one in jail or prison, but many times, it will come up in individual counseling sessions or in conversations with friends. Teachers are also great resources for finding out which students have an incarcerated parent. When it does come up, I have a variety of resources I turn to in order to support not only the student and other siblings, but also the caregiver at home.

Many students may not know the whereabouts of their loved one. Sometimes they are told that their loved one is “sick,” “at work,” “getting help,” or simply, “away.” In these cases, I encourage the caregiver to answer the child’s questions honestly with age-appropriate information. Students need to know that their parent is safe, and oftentimes when they believe their parent is sick, they may write their own version of the story, causing undue anxiety and stress. In cases where it is appropriate, it is healthy for the student to be able to visit and see their parent is safe. Before taking a child on a visit, I encourage the caregiver to visit the incarcerated parent alone first, so they can give an accurate representation of what to expect on the visit. Call or check your state/locality’s rules and procedures regarding visitation before you go.

I’ve compiled a list of my go-to storybooks* to read with children who have a loved one in jail or prison. My favorites include “My Daddy is in Jail” by Janet Bender and “Far Apart, Close in Heart” by Becky Birtha. My students love how relatable “My Daddy is in Jail” is, with a child’s illustrations and meaningful discussion prompts throughout. If it is the child’s mother who is in prison, I just change the words as we read. But I also tend to grab “Far Apart, Close in Heart,” because it applies to having either a mother or a father in jail.

Other related books I’ve pictured include: “Visiting Day,” “The Night Dad Went to Jail,” “What Do I Say About That?” by Julia Cook, “Mama Loves Me from Away,” “A Terrible Thing Happened,” and “Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents.”

*Amazon affiliate links used, which help support this blog.

Students of ALL ages gravitate toward and enjoy playing with my Hape dollhouse (pictured below). Dollhouses can be invaluable for school counselors, as a child’s play is so telling of their experiences and perceptions. Sand trays offer a similar experience, and play therapists and counselors use them often for observing through play. I keep a small police car, ambulance, and fire truck beside my dollhouse, and I’ve noticed students as young as three years old gravitate toward the police car to act out some of the memories they have of police officers at their home. It can be a wonderful idea to invite local law enforcement to visit your classrooms and school-wide Career Day events to explain to children how they help keep people safe and show they are not “bad guys.”

Students who have an incarcerated parent can also share ideas and offer support to each other in a small counseling group. These conversations can help students know there are other students at school in their situation. I offer a “Coping Kids” group for students who have a loved one in jail/prison. Each of my 10 group sessions includes an introduction, icebreaker, activity, discussion, and closing. The icebreakers are helpful if I am bringing together students who are not familiar with one another, but also for helping students who may think they know each other well know each other even better.

Before the group, I send home helpful information pages for the parent or caregiver at home. This 2-page Offering Your Support” caregiver information guide“(included within my group counseling curriculum resource) encourages honesty about the incarceration using age-appropriate information, as well as my list of books for caregivers to look into and a consent form for the child to participate in an 10-session group, “Coping Kids,” for children with an incarcerated parent. On the first day of group, I administer a short pre-group inventory to help me know which topics are most pressing for my group. Group members also participate in an icebreaker and come up with their own rules and goals for the group. They can also write down something they want me to know and begin collecting stickers on their group attendance chart. Throughout the group sessions, I collect all the students’ activities in a folder to go home with them on the last day of group.

Group topics include: Sharing stories, All feelings are okay, Coping skills, Identifying trusted adults, In and out of my control, Self-esteem, Optimism, and Growth mindset. Students need to know all their feelings are valid and that it’s okay to be happy while their loved one is away. They may also need to work through feelings of guilt about their loved one’s absence. During the final group session, I administer the post-group inventory (identical to the pre-group inventory), we talk about our favorite parts of the group, and we celebrate our progress with a popcorn party!

After group, I also share a local camp opportunity in my area, which offers a weekend camping experience in the fall and a longer, week-long camp in the summer for kids with an incarcerated parents. They work one on one with camp counselors and celebrate many major holidays during the weekend camp, from Christmas to birthdays. Youth mentoring programs throughout the year are also invaluable resources for offering support to your students through referrals to community resources.

My Coping Kids 10-session curriculum is now available on TPT at Counselor Station. Don’t have 10 weeks to commit to a group? No problem! Simply use the feedback from the pre-group inventory during session 1 to identify your students’ most pressing needs, and cherry-pick the topics most relevant to your students. Many of the activities would also be suitable for individual counseling sessions. Be sure to leave a comment here or feedback in my shop to let me know how it works for your program!

What are your go-to resources for students who have an incarcerated parent?

*Counselor Station is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.Thank you for supporting the blog!