Coping with students’ challenges and stress
“Maam! Maam! Maam! Pawan is at it again … please come quickly!” I heave a sigh and cast a look of intense longing at my cup of steaming hot coffee which will, like several others before it, languish on my table and die an icy death. But rush out I must, because Pawan would possibly be marching up and down a corridor, humming to himself, but refusing to enter class for reasons that he would reveal to me in due course. However, right now, he needs to be calmed down and brought back to class. He is, by the way, autistic. A little later, Ajit might get bored with Venn Diagrams. So he may decide to entertain his classmates with imitations of animals (very realistically, I might add), which of course, will not amuse the Math teacher, who will then send him to my office for a little chat. Given that Ajit has been diagnosed of ADHD (hyperactive, to the knowledgeable layperson), he will welcome this opportunity, so as to wander about the school field on his way to my little office. He will proceed to entertain me with his latest escapades. Ajit will also listen to my suggestions on how he should attempt to control his impulses, will share how he has made the effort to do so (usually, he does) and then take a stroll via the canteen on his way back to the class. He has often offered to be my assistant, should I ever need one! As Ajit leaves, Jaaved would be shyly hovering outside my door. An excellent artist, his dyslexic fingers produce the most exquisite origami creations, which I am more than happy to display on my shelf ….. and so the day proceeds.
Being a school counsellor is not a job or a profession. For me, it is an adventure, an ongoing journey that is fulfilling and enriching in a variety of ways. Working with children is always challenging, but the rewards are manifold and hugely satisfying. However, the journey is fraught with hurdles and potholes, navigating which can take its toll on the most intrepid counsellor. Stress, therefore, is not only the end result; it is a way of life.
The first challenge lies in the sheer variety of issues that are brought to one’s attention. These range from the diagnosed cases who grapple with syndromes like ADHD, Autism (ASD), Specific Learning Disorders (SLD), Depression, OCD, to issues of behavioural aberrations which are as yet undiagnosed. Children and young people often require a patient ear. They want someone who will quietly offer a tissue and not laugh, not judge, not pontificate or lecture. Problems may be as simple as a young man piecing together his broken heart after being rejected by his very first crush, to the aggressive bully who is beaten at home by a drunken father, the shy boy who gets bullied because he is “different”, because he isn’t a “ boy’s boy and a man’s man”, or the girl who refuses to go home after school because she is petrified of the tutor who “teaches” her many other things beyond the school books. A good counsellor is empathetic, offers unconditional regard and support, but is rarely personally involved. However, the human being inside has moments of deep, heart wrenching sorrow at the pain, misery and despair of these young souls in distress. It sometimes may be a challenge to stay logical and pragmatic, managing one’s emotions does become a task at times. This then becomes an area of concern, because a counsellor who is unable to maintain an empathetic boundary is definitely headed towards trouble.
Building a rapport is the first step in a good counselling relationship. Counselling is a matter of honesty and trust, and it is imperative for a school counsellor to connect with the young people one is working with. Once the connection is established, the counselling process moves forward smoothly. Unfortunately, this is often the area of greatest difficulty. Given the kind of problems they face, and the phase they are going through, young people find it easier to trust their friends. More often than not, they also admit to having issues with the adults in their lives, so trust deficits are inevitable. It may take a while to earn the trust of a young person, but the time and patience spent in the effort is definitely worth it, given that it translates into a bond that often goes beyond school life. I have no qualms in admitting that some of my counselees consider me a friend. While strict adherents to psychological principles may frown on that approach, I find it quite satisfying. It might also speak of rebellion against the accepted practices, but then, I was never fond of rules – and this may be one of the reasons why I get along well with young people anyway. Of course, it also helps the counselling process and produces results. The point is, that it is necessary for the counsellor to develop a particular style of functioning, which will encourage trust and enable the counselee to unburden himself/herself.
If dealing with troubled children is a challenge, then dealing with parents is sometimes a Herculean task. The tussle usually starts when a child is identified with issues in school. Like athletes on the racetrack, the counsellor faces the first hurdle of parental denial, and often outright rejection of the fact that the child has any problem at all. Then begins the slow process of trying to offer insight and assistance. It takes a while, often months, and the counsellor may be left exhausted at the end of the process. Happily, with age and experience, over the years, it has become easier for me to explain issues to parents. Additionally, I must admit that with increasing awareness and understanding, more and more parents are voluntarily approaching the school counsellor, to talk about the issues their children are facing or to seek advice and assistance. If acceptance is an issue, then another difficult situation thereafter is cooperation and collaborative effort. Very often, the parent may feel that it is now the school counsellor’s responsibility to ensure that the child fares well in class, despite the issues he / she may be facing. Very often, the problem is rooted within a discordant and disruptive home atmosphere and may be caused by a parent (or both). In such cases, dealing with parents becomes a minefield that even the bravest soldier would avoid. The counsellor, however, has no option but to boldly go where no one else would dare to, because, at the end of it all, it is the child’s welfare that is paramount. Hence, it is a sensible move to have printed guidelines, documents that outline school policies on counselling and counsellors’ role and responsibilities, and even to involve the Principal or members of the management in interactions with very difficult parents.
As a school counsellor, the adults one must interact with most often are the teachers. Teachers, to me, are superhuman creatures. Teaching as a profession has changed dramatically. Teachers are not only friends, philosophers and guides. They are story tellers, clay modellers, sculptors, subject experts and a host of other exciting characters rolled into one dynamic bundle of energy. Log books, lesson plans, unit tests, term exams, corrections, after class duties on the stage or sports field, weekend duties at carnivals, fetes and interschool events, and now, online classes in the pandemic era – the mind boggles to think of all the activities that teachers engage in , while managing home and personal lives as well. And if all this seems a trifle over the top and an attempt at apple polishing, well, errr, yes, it is that too (tongue firmly lodged in cheek!)! Because, it is obvious, isn’t it, that one needs the support and assistance of the teachers one works with.
I have had mixed experiences with members of the teaching faculty. In my initial years, youth and experience were against me, because how much can someone who is fresh out of University actually “know”? What about the years of experience that one has gathered as a veteran teacher? “Spare the rod and spoil the child, my dear?… and what is all this ABCD jargon you keep spewing all the time? … nothing like a good dose of supervised study after school to cure the most backward student!” Such advice is often freely given. In addition to actually handling the A-B-C-D ‘s (an actual cynical comment on the abbreviations of various diagnoses like ADHD, ASD, SLD), handling teachers requires oodles of tact, diplomacy and patience.
However, a good working relationship between the teacher and the counsellor is essential for the benefit of the student. Aided by the counsellor, subtle changes in the teacher’s attitude, approach and behaviour helps reinforce the desired behavioural changes in the student. A counsellor must cultivate goodwill and cordial relations with the teachers one works with, because they are one’s greatest support system when dealing with children. Nowadays, most teachers and educators are extremely open and accepting of the role counsellors play in assisting children with different psychological needs. Yes, there is the odd one or three, who will try to impress you with their “years of experience’ and advice on how to handle children, which will make you wonder at the relevance of your degrees. But, with an increasing number of awareness programmes, workshops and trainings, there is a general trend towards acceptance of the role of counsellors in the school system.
In this pandemic era, it is but obvious that the school counsellor’s role has changed too. Now, even more than before, children and young people are reaching out for help, and the counsellor has to be available even beyond regular school hours. Adapting to the online format of interaction has not been easy, even for counsellors. Most prefer to have a one on one session, because a lot depends on nonverbal communication, facial expressions, reading between the lines and picking up behavioural cues. With glitchy networks, regular interruptions of “Am I audible? Am I visible? I didn’t get what you just said…” and so on, make for disrupted sessions, which are not conducive to the process. Counselling requires a peaceful ambience and an atmosphere that encourages communication. Once the counselee starts sharing or is in the midst of an emotional outpouring, the flow ideally should not be interrupted. Finally, especially when working with children, the factor of “human touch”, even without actually touching the client (a strict no–no in any psychotherapeutic process), becomes an important part of the process. Laptops and online formats have made counselling a bit too impersonal, in that sense.
At the end of a normal workday, the counsellor returns home to don the garb of parent, care giver, problem solver, chief cook and dish washer, especially when these Covid times disallow the services of maids. Juggling personal and professional lives does occasionally take its toll, and mental and physical burn out is not unusual for counsellors, too. However, there are ways of combating the stress and strain, but that would be another topic of discussion altogether. One boon though is the take back from the entire process. Starting with the initial rapport building phase, going through parental denial, interacting with teachers and management, and eventually working closely with children and young people themselves, see-sawing between home, family and profession, counselling, and particularly school counselling, is a rewarding and enriching experience. And this is why – Pawan will be sitting for his Board Examinations in March 2021. He has come a long way from the little boy who would sit under the teacher’s table and rock himself when he was upset. He also wins awards for general proficiency. Ajit wins medals in track and field events, and never fails to take a selfie with me at the end of the annual sports day. Shazia, despite her acute dyslexia and the trauma of being molested by her tutor, has enrolled in a Nursing college this year. Sid has overcome his OCD, lives alone in the US and is studying to be a computer engineer … to know that I have contributed, in a very humble way, to each of their lives, and the lives of several others, is reward enough. The feeling fails description, and yet, it is what makes this profession worthwhile.