5 Ways to Ease Your Students’ Worries about Middle School

Students may hear all sorts of stories about middle school from older siblings and friends, whether they are well-meaning or intending to scare. Help them to know their own experience will be unique and to keep an open mind about the transition. They may hit it off with that teacher everyone warns them about, or they may find their own niche in a new activity. I’m sharing five ways you can help ease your students’ worries about their transition to middle school.

  1. Visit your local middle school(s). 

Plan a field trip (or walk, if close enough to campus) for your rising middle schoolers to visit the middle school they will attend. Coordinate with the middle school to select a time when your students will be able to visit areas throughout the building and actually see students in class (but not the locker rooms — if your timing is off by just a minute, it could get awkward, trust me!) If your students feed into multiple schools, make separate trips if possible so students can see the actual school they’ll be attending.

If possible, request that older students, especially your own former students and/or older siblings of your current rising middle schoolers be the tour group leaders (e.g., 8th grade ambassadors). Ask that they be available to greet the buses as they arrive.

Make plans to tour the gym, locker room, cafeteria, music room, exploratory/elective classes, and other important areas of the building. It’s always fun to hear a demonstration from the band and to listen to different instruments. Our band director hosts a “band night” in conjunction with Parent Night, where students have a chance to try out all the different instruments.

Pro tip: While you’re there, take a picture of a bank of lockers so that you can show next year’s students what they will look like. My students always want to know how big the lockers are (and whether someone will try to stuff them inside!)

  1. Invite the middle school counselors to visit your school. 

In addition to visiting the middle school, the middle school counselors make a special trip to our school to talk with our students about electives, exploratories, and band options. They also help them register on-the-spot, in the comfort of their own classrooms, after they’ve had a change to talk with their families about their decisions.

  1. Normalize their questions and worries. 

It’s so helpful for students to hear their peers express the same worries and questions they have about middle school. I’ve compiled lists of commonly-asked questions by 5th graders and sorted them into categories in this helpful presentation we explore during my middle school transition unit. Before the presentation, I also gauge their feelings about middle school with these short writing prompts.

  1. Practice opening combination locks. 

My fifth graders’ favorite classroom lesson each year is when I bring a class set of combination locks to practice opening. Pay attention to their efforts, and if you notice students struggling with opening a combination lock, suggest purchasing one to practice over the summer, or offer time during their lunch when they can practice in a small group with you. While middle schools typically provide the combination locks, the basic steps to open them will be the same, so they will build up muscle memory by practicing with you or at home.

Reassure your students that it may take a few days to get it, and that faculty will most likely be available to assist, especially at the beginning of the year and after extended breaks. I bring a class set of locks, purchased on Amazon and from Wal-Mart, and I use this Opening a Combination Lock presentation to facilitate a discussion about lockers, show directions for opening the locks, and even play a game at the end of class! 

  1. Involve the entire family.

Look into whether the middle school will offer a Parent Night or Open House in the spring/summer for your students and their families. It helps for a student to picture themselves in the school and begin to recognize faces of teachers and faculty there.

Don’t forget to collect data from your students before they head off to middle school! I do this by giving exit interviews to them on our final class together. I also ask for their advice for rising 5th graders, and videotape their messages to share to next year’s group the following August, when we return to school. You can find many of the activities I mentioned, as well as a few others, in my Middle School Transition Bundle available in my store, Counselor Station.

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

8 Partnership Ideas to Support Families During the Winter Holidays

Do you coordinate holiday assistance for families at your school? Here are some quick partnership ideas for the holidays! These are all partnerships I’ve done in the past with my local communities.

  1. Toy Lift: When I worked at a middle school, we had a local “Toy Lift” to collect toys and gifts for families in need. With permission from families, we gathered lists with sizes and interests and went to a giant warehouse to shop for presents! The organization delivered the gifts to our school, and we distributed them to families in time for them to wrap for Christmas.
  2. Marine Corps Toys for Tots: Consider organizing a toy drive at your school with your SCA officers to collect toys for Toys for Tots. I also coordinated with Toys for Tots to provide gifts for students in need at my school. 
  3. Salvation Army Angel Tree: We partner with our local Salvation Army to invite families to participate in their annual Angel Tree program. Because we send home food bags with many of our families, we sent the flyer home in a food bag for several weeks in a row. Later, I collaborated with them to check our lists to ensure we were not duplicating families when we offered our “Giving Tree” to families at our school. 
  4. United Way: Our local United Way is always a great resource for school supplies through their “Stuff the Bus” program. I have also coordinated with them for purchasing gifts for families. 
  5. Partnering with local law enforcement and fire/rescue stations: We have partnered with local agencies to provide warm coats (“Operation Warm”) and bikes for our families in need over the holidays. We even got our firefighters to deliver the coats to the school on ladder trucks, which was very exciting!
  6. Giving Tree: We offer our own Giving Tree to students at our school. I send a survey to all faculty and staff members asking about who might want to sponsor a child over the holidays, and gauge how many students we can sponsor. Consider whether you will shop for all siblings, or just the ones who attend your school. We double-check with other local groups to make sure we are not duplicating resources, and invite families to participate by filling out an information page and a wishlist with sizes and interests. Check out my full 57-page resource here!
  7. Thanksgiving dinners/meals: I offer information about local organizations who serve community Thanksgiving dinners or who offer tickets to pick up a free turkey and food box and distribute that information to families who may benefit. 
  8. Consider resources and partnerships you can create within your own school division with your school’s PTO/PTA, school social workers, community groups, etc. 

Another tip: Keep track of your partnerships from year to year and the students/families you are able to help. These lists will help you when you start to screen your lists next year. For example, if you invite a family and they opt not to participate, denote it and keep it in mind the following year. Thank you for all you do to support your students and families during the holidays and throughout the year! You are making a difference.

Coordinate your school’s holiday assistance program with all the information, forms, and helpful tips you need from start to finish!

Winter “Size of the Problem” Escape Room Lesson for Elementary School Counselors

Cascades Gorge Hike at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia during the 2019 Virginia Counselors Association Conference.

Temps are dropping QUICKLY here in Virginia. I’ve just returned home from the Virginia Counselors Association conference at The Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, where I enjoyed three days of professional development and a few quiet evenings to recharge before coming home to my hubby and three little boys! After my Saturday sessions, I braved the 3-hour Cascades Gorge Hike with our expert guide, Brian Lafontain, and I was a bit intimidated by the forecast in the 20s, but the day turned out to be gorgeous, and the chilly, fresh air felt amazing in my lungs.

I’m excited to return to my school this week and do a winter “Escape the Avalanche!” Escape Room activity with my 5th graders. Students will work in four groups to solve four quests to escape the avalanche while learning to discern the size of a problem and apply coping strategies.

This 48-page PDF activity includes a mini lesson about “Size of Problem” and “Coping Strategies,” followed by a Challenge from Meteorologist Size-Mic Mike and a 4-puzzle Escape Room complete with four quests and four different printable prizes. Students will solve the code word/sentence at each quest to redeem for one of four tiles to glue onto their team’s map. Afterward, students receive printable prizes. This resources includes two printable bookmarks and two printable pencil toppers! As a bonus, there are three related bonus activities at the end of the lesson to use as time allows or in follow-up lessons and activities.

Check it out, and while you’re there, don’t forget to download this “Hot Cocoa Breathing” Printable Freebie! I know your students will enjoy having this mindful exercise in their repertoire this winter!

And just for a little teaser… I’m so eager to share another project I’m working on, also related to discerning the size of a problem! Coming soon!

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!

Peer Pressure and Healthy Choices Red-Ribbon-Week-Inspired Lesson for School Counselors

Confession: I do not implement a school-wide Red Ribbon Week event. Instead, I teach classroom lessons about making healthy choices around that same week in October. (This year, it is October 23-31, 2019). My “Peer Pressure and Healthy Choices” classroom lesson is one of my favorites to teach in the upper elementary grades, because it involves movement, unique partner and group pairings, and prizes. Spoiler: The students love it, too! We talk about peer pressure and discuss the difference between positive and negative peer pressure. The students take away tangible items to remind them of their pledge to make healthy choices, and they create a goal of a healthy choice or habit they would like to develop or maintain. I also love that it ties in closely with October Halloween themes by using spiders, spiderwebs, and trolls. Check out my upper grades Red Ribbon Week lesson here!

For prizes, I print colorful bookmarks and pencil toppers for the students (included in the lesson download), but I also collaborate with our local high school and Office on Youth to provide tangible Red Ribbon Week prizes for some of the “flash giveaways” I do throughout the lesson to keep students on their toes. We distribute red ribbons, bookmarks, pencils, and stickers from the high school. Because I only distributed the items to my upper grade students (3rd, 4th, and 5th graders), I was able to make the prizes last for several years.  

Substitutes: In a pinch, this is also a great lesson to leave for a substitute! It is very scripted, does not involve technology, and the students stay engaged for the entire 45 minutes! My maternity leave sub left very positive feedback about this lesson when she filled in for me during maternity leave!

What do you do to recognize Red Ribbon Week at your school? Share your ideas in the comments below!

12 School-Family-Community Partnership Ideas for Elementary School Counselors

School counselors have so many responsibilities on our plates, and one thing I know for certain is that we cannot do this work alone. I’m grateful my graduate school program emphasized the importance of school-family-community partnerships, because they have truly become the backbone of my program. I’ve compiled a list of a dozen types of partnerships I’ve created over the last 12 years, some within my school community, and others in our larger communities and beyond. Each quarter, I include a list of the partnerships I’ve created recently in my school counselor newsletter (template here!).

  1. PTO/PTA: Reach out to your school’s parent-teacher organizations for additional support and even potential funding for your programs. Ask the PTO president or faculty representative when they will have their annual budget meeting, and submit a small grant or proposal (or ask for a few minutes of their time). In the past, I successfully wrote a grant for my own SmartBoard! This year, I wrote a small proposal for hygiene items for 5th grade girls. The PTO is also a wonderful place to recruit parent volunteers – I had several volunteers who managed my clothes closet and school supply closet, keeping things organized and with an inventory with what we did/didn’t need, which was helpful when organizations called about donations. (Just make sure you follow your school’s procedures for proper sign-in and background checks).
  2. Local chapters of professional counselor organizations: Seek out local chapters of your district, regional, or statewide professional counseling organizations. Many provide networking events, socials, and professional development opportunities throughout the year, which will keep you sharp and put you in contact with other professionals and resources in your specific area.
  3. Foster care organizations: Reach out to your local foster care support groups for ways you can collaborate and support them, which in turn, will support the students and families at your school and in your community. We collected backpacks for our local foster care organization to make “Journey bags” for children during new placements, to replace the trash bags they were previously given to collect their personal belongings.
  4. Career Day: Planning a Career Day at your school is a great time to make connections with your students’ families and local organizations. Our Career Day committee reaches out early in the year and gives a “Save the Date” gift to presenters each year to ensure they have next year’s Career Day on their calendar.
  5. Resource fair: Collaborate with local agencies and host a resource fair for school counselors in your district on a workday. Invite representatives from organizations who can bring literature and information about their community programs. This event is great to learn more about the resources available in your community, which then helps when you need to refer families to community supports. We’ve invited therapy dog training programs, grief counselors, incarceration camp directors, energy assistance programs, warm shelters, our local Community Services Board, and dozens of other agencies who support children and their families and caregivers. Some local organizations are able to provide more intensive support than you may be able to provide, so it’s a win-win to refer families to their resources and services. (Make sure you follow your district’s guidelines for distributing literature to your families — we have a disclaimer statement that our school system does not support or endorse the organizations in addition to a list of guidelines for distribution.)
  6. Organizations supporting families: Partner with a local agencies who support your families, for example, local programs supporting families who have a child with cancer. They provide information, gas money, local connections, and more. We’ve raised money for pediatric cancer research and even worked with organizations including Monkey in My Chair (with permission from the families). Plan a schoolwide 5k to provide further support and raise awareness for these organizations.
  7. Local and national businesses: Each year, my school has an allotment from a large corporation to provide students with much-needed hygiene items, including deodorant and feminine hygiene products. Pay attention to program deadlines and how to get your school on the list. Many places require ordering supplies nearly a year in advance for delivery the following school year.
  8. After-school enrichment opportunities: Local organizations such as Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Girls on the Run are a fun way to bring extracurricular activities to your students. Grab a few colleagues to help sponsor or coach alongside you, and advertise the opportunity to your school community. Don’t be afraid to pioneer a new program — I was the first to bring Girls on the Run to my school district, and now we have teams all over the county! Is there an organization or hobby you love? Think about how you can use it to connect with your students! (I love running, so GOTR was a great outlet for me!) Too busy to stay after yourself? Recruit parent volunteers to teach after-school classes, such as origami or cooking, and help support their efforts!
  9. Local Religious Organizations: I am often approached by local churches asking how they can best support our students. I keep a running list of school supplies we need, as well as those we don’t need! Do you have notebook paper coming out of your ears, but no zipper binders? Be honest and gracious. When churches call ahead, I can help give direction for meaningful ways they can serve.
  10. Local camps and universities: Parents are always asking about summer activities for their children, and chances are, your community may also offer camps for specific needs. I spent many summers volunteering at a local grief camp for children who have lost a family member, and now I feel confident in referring my students there, knowing they are in good hands in a wonderful program. Other camps may include a camp for children with incarcerated parents or a grief camp weekend at a nearby university. Keep an eye out for camps that provide scholarships or payment options. 
  11. Holiday Assistance: Collaborate with community resources to provide holiday assistance to deserving families. Some families may need extra assistance in the winter, including winter coats and warm clothes, energy assistance, or gifts for children. We collaborate with a local network of churches and teachers to provide assistance, and we begin the process as early as October!
  12. Local Agencies Supporting Schools: Check with your local Office on Youth, United Way, Salvation Army, and other resources for a list of programs and services they provide. We are fortunate to receive family education programming through our Office on Youth, including parenting classes and support groups, we receive “Stuff the Bus” supplies from The United Way, and holiday assistance from our Salvation Army. The Office on Youth also teaches Family Life Education as part of their programming.

School-family-community partnerships can really take your program to the next level and introduce you to people and services you may not have met or known about otherwise. You may even have several in place that you don’t even have to think about, because your collaboration is so automatic! Do you have that parent volunteer who is always willing to help? A local author who would love a chance to share at an assembly? Grad students looking for meaningful internship placements? Opportunities are all over the place, and by reaching out, you strengthen the fabric of not your own school community, but the surrounding community as well.

How Schools Can Streamline Afternoon Carpool Lines

If your family is anything like mine, afternoons are nothing short of chaotic. We are constantly on the go, picking up our kids from daycare, preschool, and elementary school, feeding them (my crew is ALWAYS ready for a snack), and getting them to their next activities before homework, dinner, baths, and bedtime. I know the families in our school carpool line also have places to be. Unless I have a meeting, I wrap up my workday as efficiently as possible to maximize family time.

This was the impetus for streamlining our carpool line pickup procedure at school. With the exception of my very first year as a school counselor, I have always been a part of the afternoon dismissal process, and I am always looking for ways to shave minutes off the process. We load anywhere from 75-100 vehicles per day, many with multiple children.

The backstory: Years ago, I wrote a proposal of ideas for streamlining this entire pickup process that also tightened up on safety measures. It had 2 columns; the current problems on the left, my proposed fixes on the right. My administration laughed and told me, “Clearly you don’t have any kids, you have too much time on your hands!” I was a little taken aback, and hurt, and a million other things, but I’m proud to say that eventually, my ideas were ALL adopted and last year at my new school, we took them a step further.

I went from juggling a clipboard, a pen, and a walkie-talkie — and, on many days, an umbrella– to simply holding my Smartphone. I rarely reach for my walkie anymore.

We created a digital carpool line log. To put it simply: Each vehicle is issued a numbered hangtag. I walk the car line, typing the vehicle hangtag numbers into my phone on a Google Sheet. As soon as I hit “Return” after each number, the student’s name automatically populates in the column next to the number. The car rider team inside with the students receive this information real-time, quickly line up those students in the order of the numbers, and Safety Patrols walk them outside, in order, to our curbside “valet” service, where more car duty team members are waiting to load them into vehicles, 3-5 vehicles at a time.

The technical stuff: This digital car rider duty log requires at least 2 Smartphones or computers/iPads to access Google Sheets using Wifi or data during car duty. This is intended for use in schools that issue numbered hangtags to vehicles picking up students. Use this log to streamline the entire pickup line process. This log ensures that students will be lined up and ready in the order of the carline.

THE BEST PART! Simply type the vehicle hangtag number, and the names of the students assigned to that hangtag automatically populate in the next column! If needed, click the checkbox for who is picking up the child (mom/dad/gma/gpa/other), or type in the adult’s name. If a car does not have a hangtag, just type that student’s name in the field after verifying the adult picking up.

This log also provides a digital record of all car riders for each day of the year. The directions pages include instructions on how to flag a student if there is an emergency alert (no pickup allowed by certain people), how to add daycare van pickups without hangtag numbers, and how to save a copy and clear the shared sheet so that it is ready for use again the next day without having to re-share.

The Setup: When setting up this system before use, type all students’ names and numbers as hangtags are issued to families, and from then on, you will only have to enter the hangtag number! The names will populate on their own. Names are easily editable from the source sheet if you need to add additional hangtag numbers for new students or change a student’s name.

My digital car rider duty log includes a 6-page PDF with a clickable link to make a copy of this 2-page Google sheet, as well as a directions page complete with screenshots and tutorials. This resource does NOT include numbered hangtags or tech support for the Google Sheet, but thorough instructions are included!

Want to check it out? It’s available from Counselor Station on TpT! Car Rider Duty Carpool Log – Populates Names from Car Tag Numbers Entered

Not quite ready to go digital? Don’t want to ditch the clipboard and walkie just yet? Here’s a FREE, simple car rider log printable for you to try!

Terms of Use – Counselor Station

How School Counselors Can Prepare for Open House and Back to School Nights

Schoolwide events are excellent opportunities to connect with families to provide information about your school counseling program. It is also a great chance to provide referrals to community resources. 

Visibility

Consider where to set up to be the most accessible to families. Is it in your office? Your classroom? A table set up in a heavily-trafficked area of the building? The cafeteria? Is there a concurrent event going on, such as a book fair? Take advantage of the opportunity to gain exposure instead of using the time to complete paperwork. Visibility is key.

Information

Just like teachers, parents prefer to access information in different ways. For some, face-to-face conversations are most efficient; for others, websites, and for others, a brochure or letter about your program. If your school provides you with a webpage accessible from the main site, take advantage of it to post links to resources, your school contact information, any calendars or schedules you’d like to share, and more information about your educational background and your program. It is also a great spot to include your mission statement and your monthly newsletters. Before the start of each school year, ensure your website is updated with the most current information. 

Webpages might include: 

  • Individual counseling information and referral process
  • Group counseling information and referral process
  • Classroom guidance topics and/or schedule
  • Referral to community resources (with a disclaimer that the activity is not endorsed by your school division — check your division guidelines before posting)
  • Your background — education, training, endorsements, certifications, and any hobbies or family information you’d like to share
  • School contact information and preferred methods for reaching you at school
  • Monthly newsletters with program updates and classroom topics

It is helpful to have similar information on a handout as you speak with families and caregivers about your role in supporting students.

Scavenger Hunt/Passport Activity

While Back to School Night is an important chance for students to meet their teachers, it is also a great opportunity for families to get to know the specialists around the school. Consider creating a scavenger hunt students can pick up on their way into the building to complete after their classroom tour. Provide each specialist with a stamp or sticker to put on the “passport” the student must complete in order to redeem for a prize (small snack or other reward). If the students are already visiting the gymnasium, art studio, music room, and library, advocate for your program by including your name, “School Counselor,” and location on the passport. Create an inviting space to meet families — an attractive display set up in the foyer of the school, your warm and inviting office to host students, or your classroom space, if you have one and it is somewhat ready. While my office is usually almost-ready by Back to School night, parents may not know where to find me, so a small table in the foyer attracts significantly more traffic.

Information to Display and Share

I post infographics to display information about my program. I include information about:

Tangibles

Consider drawing more traffic to your table with a small basket of giveaways — candy, stickers, stress balls, etc. For a budget-friendly option, cutting up an inexpensive pool noodle can make 72 stress rings. I found that a serrated knife works better than scissors for cutting the pool noodles. I keep a pile of sticker pages for student to stick onto their scavenger hunt pages, and I also placed a fun spinner and conversation cubes on the table for students and young siblings to play with as we talked. 

School events and family programs are a great way to connect with your families throughout the year and advocate for your program. Consider hosting a family event of your own, including a breakfast event during the school day! (I have created flyers for all sorts of breakfast events here and here!)

What are some of your favorite ways to connect with families?

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?

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