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 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?

*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!

10 Tasks Elementary School Counselors Can Do to Prepare for Back to School

And just like that, we’re in Back to School season! In my district, we returned in July, and now that I’m back, I’ve been working steadily through my to-do list to prepare my school counseling program not only for the first day of school, but also for Open House (before school starts), the first semester, and the entire year. Laying a strong, organized foundation now will help things flow more easily as situations arise throughout the year.

  1. REFLECTION AND DATA REVIEW: In the back of my counselor planner, I keep a few running lists for reflection. What worked well over the past year? What are my goals for this year? Knowing my goals will help me with program and curriculum planning. Reviewing last year’s data, end-of-year student surveys, printing a needs assessment to give to teachers, and reviewing my 5th graders’ exit interviews are great ways to collect information for program planning each year. I also revisit my school counseling mission statement each year.
  2. CREATING A FUNCTIONAL AND INVITING COUNSELING SPACE: Summer workdays are a great time to set up your counseling space so that you can hit the ground running when the teachers return. In my district, teachers and counselors are required to work 3 summer workdays before the official teacher workweek, so I use this time to ready my space so that it is both functional for me and inviting/comfortable for students. This is when I design and hang my bulletin boards, unpack all my counseling gear, prep resources that need to be laminated, organize books and materials (themed tubs and books by color), and set up my desk. I use a variety of tried-and-true, functional resources I’ve purchased on TPT and also some I’ve created that double as colorful decor. I’ve used a variety of seating through the years, from beanbag chairs to plush spots on the floor, to papasan chairs, but a round table is always a must for my groups. I also like to keep my desk in a place where it’s not between me and my student.
  3. ORGANIZING A DOCUMENTATION SYSTEM: Before I begin working with students, I set up my database so that I am ready to document my services, whether direct or indirect. I have always used NoteCounselor to log my time. The creator, Mandy Chambers, is actually a school counselor in my town! Being able to quickly generate reports on my daily/monthly/yearly time expenditures has helped me advocate for my program. I also use it to document the date and time of my meetings with students, whether in the classroom, group counseling, or individual counseling sessions. (I actually use an older version of NoteCounselor through Microsoft Access, but there is a newer web version as well.) Each year I begin a new password-protected database and upload the names of every student in my caseload before the school year begins. (I can always add new students as they come.)
  4. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Inevitably, your district will have professional development meetings and opportunities during your first few days back. Use this time to keep an open mind about how to implement these ideas into your program. I’m excited to be implementing Responsive Classroom this year! At the same time, consider opportunities for professional development offered in your state and on a national level, from your local and state counseling chapters, to ASCA. Going to conferences keeps your program current and an added bonus — you can collect points toward recertification for your license. I appreciate the hours I can also count toward my national board certification. I look forward to these conferences to network and collaborate with counselors from all over my state each year! It’s also a nice change-of-pace from my day-to-day routine and gives me just a tiny break from my 3 precious little boys at home.
  5. SMALL TASKS: Schedule time to complete small tasks, from looking over any duties, committees, and specific assignments you have, to completing health modules, signing up for trainings (Mandt, Mental Health First Aid, etc.), or other tasks to keep your license current and fulfill your commitments as an educator. I update my website with current information and resources.
  6. SCHEDULE: I rely heavily on my school counselor planner to manage my personal and professional schedules. As soon as I have access, I transfer important dates into my planner: all committee meetings , all faculty meetings, all scheduled spirit days, and my own events (such as Veterans Day luncheon, Career Day, and Donuts with Grownups). My school uses a shared Google calendar so that everything is available and there are no surprises. This is also the time I look over the specialist schedule, as I am in the rotation teaching academic, career, and emotional/social lessons. Some years I am in the rotation, and some years I am out, but either way I make sure I have time in the classroom to educate my students about my program, the role of a school counselor, and preventative skills and strategies.
  7. PREPPING FOR BACK TO SCHOOL AND/OR OPEN HOUSE: School-wide events are a great time to advocate for your program and be visible to your students and families. My school creates a theme each year for Open House, when students arrive to meet their teachers and complete a scavenger hunt to meet the specialists. I always make sure I am included on the scavenger hunt and am listed using the correct title of “School Counselor.” This year, I am setting up a booth in our main foyer to meet as many families as possible! I’ve created a fun bulletin board and am using a spinner and conversation cubes to keep it engaging for students. I also have a New Student Welcome Letter I update and print for all parents outlining my counseling program and mission statement. Advocacy is key!
  8. BUDGET: Throughout the year in the back of my planner, I keep a running wishlist of resources I’m interested in purchasing for my program. In May, I place an order through my school and beginning in July, I can purchase additional resources, so this list is helpful to know how to best budget my counselor allotments. Consider where you might have a budget to spend, whether it is provided by your school, district, or PTO/PTA. Once you know your budget, prioritize the resources you need the most, from books to games to curriculum. In the past, I’ve written grants and even attended a summer-long class to acquire additional resources and technology for my classroom.
  9. ORGANIZING YOUR SCHOOL COUNSELOR RESOURCES: Full disclosure — I color-code *most* of my books. I started this with my kids’ bookcases at home and absolutely loved the look of it. But I also organize very specific counseling books by theme into labeled resource tubs, such as Grief & Loss, Family Changes, and Anxiety & Worry. I have a basket of fidgets I keep on my table, any water/sensory toys stay out on my windowsill, and art supplies are usually put away until needed.
  10. CURRICULUM PLANNING: Using the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, I map out my curriculum for the year. I do this before teachers return so that I can dedicate my undivided attention to the task. Then I begin to focus on my first several lessons for each of the grade levels I teach, beginning with an initial lesson about the role of a school counselor and how they can reach out for help. I also use this time to establish classroom routines, expectations, and we do fun icebreakers! My lessons are currently 45 minutes, once every 12 days in a rotation. I make sure that my class rosters are printed and ready with medical notes and other needs listed so that I can keep track of my classes and student attendance and so that I can work on learning their names from Day 1!

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but I find having these tasks completed before the first day of school frees me up to remain visible those first few days, checking in on new students and greeting students as they arrive instead of scrambling in my office prepping for whatever the day may bring. I can connect more readily with teachers while also feeling prepared for my classroom lessons and crises that will inevitably arise.

Oh, and a good cup of coffee also goes a long way, too! 😉

What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here. Check out my Author page for recent books and news. Join me on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and on Teachers Pay Teachers for helpful ideas and resources for your school counseling program or classroom! I’ve created over 100 helpful tools and resources for educators and school counselors. They include classroom counseling lessons, school counselor office printables, cooperative learning activities, a variety of newsletter bundles, planning guides for schoolwide programs and events, and more! Many of my lesson plans align with ASCA National Model Mindsets and Behaviors Standards.

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