Yesterday at 1:35 I received a phone call from a second grade teacher, confirming that I was coming to her room at 1:50 to do a class lesson. I had three kids in my office and--because of the day I’d been having--no plan. Did I panic? Only on the inside. But it turned out to be my best lesson yet with this class, so I thought I’d share.
For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been teaching these second graders about the Zones of Regulation. It was time to introduce the concept of the Size of the Problem. This particular room has more than its share of children who collapse on the floor rending their garments if someone else is chosen to be Line Leader. So here’s what I did:
-Grabbed my trusty stack of index cards (if you stick with me you may want to buy some stock in index cards). On each of 18 cards I quickly jotted down a common kid-problem. This was easy, as all were--as they used to say at the beginning of L.A. Law--”ripped from the headlines” of daily life at PLS. I would have made more but, you know, time. I tried to achieve a rough balance between small problems, medium problems, and really big problems. Examples are below.
-I took another 8 cards and wrote kids’ common reactions on each of those. Again, there was a range of sizes of reactions, from “Let it go” or “Say, ‘It’s no big deal’” to “Cry loudly” or “Hit someone.” For obvious reasons I did not include some of the less-common yet highly imaginative behaviors from my Counseling's Greatest Hits list, like "wet your pants whenever you hear the word 'no'" or "chase a classmate with a booger."
-For the lesson, I read each problem card aloud and handed it to a student. If the student felt the problem was small, he’d stand by the cubbies. If it was medium, he’d move to the center of the room, and if it was large, he’d stand by the window. We all discussed whether we agreed with his choice, and had him change spots if indicated (here was where I realized the activity would work better with a smaller group, just because this took quite a bit of time, but it was still good).
-After we finished that, all students with problem cards then moved to the rug with their cards, while I handed each of the remaining 8 a reaction card. I would choose one problem card child to stand and read his card to a reaction card child. The reaction card child would then act out whatever was written on her card. The kids LOVED this because sometimes it was so silly.
Kid A: “You raised your hand, but the teacher called on someone else.”
Kid B: (shrieks and kicks a chair)
I made sure to create a couple of small problem/big reaction matches like the one above, as well as at least one big problem/small reaction combo (“Your uncle is in jail.” “It’s no big deal.”). Some of the others were appropriately matched. We'd decide whether each reaction was expected or unexpected when given the size of the problem.
This turned out to be an effective way of demonstrating that 1) problems come in different sizes, 2) reactions also come in different sizes, 3) it’s pretty weird when the size of your reaction doesn’t match the size of the problem.
In closing, I'd like to make a final, extremely important point. Please note that the size of my reaction (internal shrieking and swearing) totally matched the size of this problem, thus proving that I am not weird at all. Q.E.D.
Examples of problems (be careful that the big problems aren't a real-life issue for anyone in the group): You raised your hand but the teacher called on someone else; you’re stuck on a math problem; you just came back from Speech and you’re not sure what you should be doing; your uncle is in jail; your mom and dad are yelling at each other; your mom packed a kind of yogurt you don’t like; you didn’t get the red playing piece in the board game; no one will play with you; someone is sitting in the seat you wanted at lunch; your landlord is making you move out of your apartment; you have a substitute teacher; someone cut you in line; you fell and hurt your knee at recess; someone pushed you; your best friend is ignoring you (I could go on and on)...
Examples of reactions: Let it go; break your pencil; ask for help; tell yourself, “It’s no big deal;” fix the problem yourself; throw yourself on the floor; cry loudly; use a calm-down strategy; tell how you feel; run out of the room, etc.
Today was a very VERY busy day in School Counseling World (maybe because of the super moon last night?). It was a day that called for a little retail therapy after school.
But since I'm not a normal person, my retail therapy did not take place in a shoe store. It took place on Vistaprint.
Look. How. Awesome. . .
So, yeah. I enjoyed the Minute Meeting thing last year, but there were some aspects that didn't really work for me. For one thing, "Minute Meeting" was something of a misnomer so there were only a couple of classes in which I got to meet all of the students. In all, I met slightly more than half the students that way. Not bad, but nowhere near as many as I had hoped.
Also, having lunch with me is now a highly coveted "thing" in our building. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and invite different kids to eat lunch with me throughout the year as a way to at least meet them and touch base. I'm putting class lists on my bulletin board so I can check off those who've already come and see who I've missed.
I think I can have some success with this because:
1) I can eat lunch with 3 or 4 kids at once, so can get through an entire class in about 8 lunch periods.
2) Since our 500+ students are now divided among 5 different 20-minute lunch periods, even if I only schedule lunches one day per week I can see up to 20 kids in that one day.
Of course good intentions and all that, but it feels pretty doable (stop laughing). I'll let you know in June.
Did you know that the Caped Crusader made his first appearance 75 years ago this summer? If he was 25 when he started fighting crime, that would make him older than I am! Holy colonoscopy, Batman!
There are lots of superheroes who've been around long enough to collect Social Security. Yet there’s no denying---especially if you’ve turned on a television or spent more than five minutes on Pinterest---that their appeal is as strong as ever (which, sadly, is more than can be said of me).
Using superheroes as a way to connect with clients in counseling is certainly not a new idea. I’ve done it off and on, here and there, since the early 90’s, and I’m sure lots of clinicians were using them long before that. But recently when I was creating a superhero-themed “social language” summer school program for ten elementary-aged students, I started to think more consciously about the reasons why superheroes are so effective as a counseling tool, especially with children. There are a lot.
1. Superheroes have POWER. Most of the time a superhero looks like a perfectly average person, but that appearance is deceiving. Even those whose alter egos are from traditionally disenfranchised groups like minorities, women, or dorky teens end up acquiring great power (see Cyborg, Wonder Woman, and Spider Man). Kids by definition have virtually no control over anything, so they identify with those characters and root for them in a big way.
2. Superheroes lead exciting lives. Flying through the air, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, crawling up the sides of skyscrapers, and driving really fast are all a heck of a lot more interesting than going to school, feeding the cat, and going to bed at 8:30. Trust me, I should know.
3. Superheroes overcome major life challenges. The backstories of many superheroes often include a tremendous loss, a traumatic history, or a serious character flaw. Bruce Banner has a teensy anger management issue. Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker's parent figures are murdered. Yet heroes don't allow adversity to define or limit them; in fact sometimes these challenges are what drive them to achieve greatness.
4. Superheroes can fight back. Sure, they have vulnerabilities---some significant---but they also always have at least one major strength that helps them fight or stand up to their enemies. Kids will buy in to the idea that they have a special power too, making it part of our job to help them figure out what it is and how to use it.
5. Superheroes often have a dual identity or a secret self, which can foster feelings of loneliness or of not fitting in. Dude, who doesn't? I think we can all relate.
6. Superheroes almost always win in the end. Even when things spiral out of control and our hero appears doomed, we don’t completely give up hope. We may clap our hands over our eyes for a moment, but some tiny piece of us remains confident that our hero will triumph. The whole exercise fosters resilience and optimism, two traits we wholeheartedly try to grow in our kids.
7. Superheroes can be a way of connecting with others. They've been around for so long and have such a broad appeal that people of all ages and backgrounds, or who have a fraught history with each other, can use them to find common ground.
8. Superheroes get to wear capes. ‘Nuff said.
That was eight solid therapeutic reasons to go with a superhero theme for my social language program. But engaging the kids was only part of my goal. I also wanted a way to teach skills within the superhero framework.
I turned to Michelle Garcia Winner’s Superflex: A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum, a resource I used during the school year. Her Social Thinking theory involves working with students to help them try and understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings so they can adjust their own behavior accordingly.
What I like best about the Superflex curriculum is the cast of “Unthinkables:” dastardly foes who get into people’s brains and make them (for example) only think about their own plans, get stuck on their ideas, or have huge upset reactions.
The Unthinkables were a perfect addition to my Superhero Training Academy.
9. The Unthinkables are easy for kids to accept and understand as part of the superhero narrative. Every superhero has his nemesis, and each nemesis has his own special method of causing trouble, just like the Unthinkables. In Superhero Training Academy, our daily “B.O.L.O. (Be On the Lookout) Briefings” on the Unthinkables were a crucial part of the day. My friends took the acquisition of this information very seriously. They wanted to know what to look for and what special powers or strategies would defeat each Unthinkable we met.
10. Unthinkables allow children to separate the "unexpected" behavior from their own sense of self. When we tell kids their behavior is "unacceptable" or they're "making a bad choice," they hear, "You're unacceptable" or "you're bad." But when the adult and the child are working together to recognize and defeat an Unthinkable, the child herself is part of the team, not the cause of the problem.
This is a subtle difference, but don’t underestimate the power of the message, "You’re not a 'bad kid,' you’re one of the good guys. You're just temporarily under the influence of one of those sneaky Unthinkables. "
If there's not an existing Unthinkable for a social-emotional issue you'd like to address, you can customize one. For example, to correlate with the Zones of Regulation concept of Size of the Problem, I created "Magnifying Man," an Unthinkable who makes even very small problems appear large.
Dispelling feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and self-blame: those are the amazing therapeutic powers of superheroes and the Unthinkables.
Read more about the Summer Social Superhero Squad
p.s. I've dedicated a whole page to giving you some ideas, activities, and printables. It's still a work-in-progress, so keep checking back for updates. Enjoy!
Those of you who have been checking in on my Facebook page this summer know that I had an absolute blast teaching in the Extended Year Program. This was my first summer school experience in my new district, and---for the first time ever---I was given a whole class instead of acting as a specialist providing 30-minute lessons to a bunch of classes.
This made me more than a little nervous.
The other day I got a lovely message from a reader (I just love saying that---thanks, Rebecca!) who is a new school counselor. She wanted to know if I had any special advice for someone who's just starting out.
I've been doing this job for over 20 years yet still feel like I know nothing. However, I gave it the old college try:
When you're new, much depends on what you're legally required to do, whether the position is new or if expectations are already in place, and what kind of administrator you have (laissez-faire or micro-manager).
Do you have to provide direct services for kids on IEPs or 504s? Many counselors don't---it's against ASCA recommendations--- but it's a HUGE part of my job; this past year I had 43 kids I was legally required to see weekly for the entire year.
Yesterday a member of the Facebook group Elementary School Counselor Exchange (an awesome group, and well worth joining if you're on FB) shared a pin from Vermont artist Cynthia Emerlye showing her "Instant Comfort Boxes." As it happens, I had come across this gem of an idea from Cynthia last month and absolutely fallen in love.
The idea is simple. You ask your student to think of a feeling they often need help with like anger, anxiety, grief, or jealousy. They write the word on the outside of a small matchbox, and decorate it however they'd like. Inside they write a word or phrase that they can take a peek at whenever they're having that feeling, like "breathe" or "you are enough."
I stocked up on matchboxes (at Target or the grocery store they're about $1 for a package of 12), and two weeks ago tried this activity with my 4th grade boys' anxiety group, a Kindergartener who's looking for an adoptive home, and a 1st grader who lost her mom a year ago.
Every one of those kids LOVED the project, even the boys who are not terribly crafty or artistic. One of them has pulled his out of his pocket every time I've seen him since. He wants to make another for when he's feeling angry.
I'm sorry I didn't take pictures of any of the kid-created ones. The photo above is the box I made for my Kindergartener in foster care. You can see I added a tactile element---a tiny felt heart that she can rub with her fingertip. We wrote down the names of people who love her on a small piece of paper and folded it up to place inside as well. Foster mom reports that she reads it to herself every morning before school and every night before bed.
The first grader wrote, "Mom is with me" inside hers. She keeps it in her desk.
I love love LOVE this! Try it with your kiddos. It packs quite a therapeutic punch for something so small. Let me know if you come up with any other ideas of how to make them even more awesome!
Ahhh, thirteen and a half days until summer vacation. Not that I'm counting or anything!
This week I was composing e-mails to a couple of parents who'd asked me for some suggestions about how to work with their kids over the summer, and it occurred to me that a letter to all my kiddos' parents with some pointers might be a really useful thing to send home.
Now I must note here that I've been working as a school counselor since 1999, and this is the first time that this admittedly brilliant idea has ever occurred to me. I may be old, but I'm also slow on the uptake.
Anyway, I wrote the letter, which is general enough to send home with all the students on my caseload yet I hope still helpful. Here's the link to a PDF of the letter. As always, help yourself!
Hip hip hooray, it's time for more data collection!
Seriously. I'm not being as snarky as I may sound. (You know me so well). Even though "data" is becoming something of a dirty word to a lot of us, I'm actually collecting information I can use to answer the #1 question for school counselors: Am I effective?
A large part of the answer has to do with my relationship with the teachers in my building, and whether they view what I do as helpful to them and to their students. It's not enough to be a good counselor to the kids; I also have to effectively collaborate and communicate with the adults.
This--the end of my first full year in a new district--is the perfect time to find out how teachers think I'm doing (as nerve-wracking as that may be for a sensitive overachiever like me). So I've bravely turned to my new best friend, Google Docs, to create a teacher/staff survey.
UPDATE 9/3/2018: Here's the link to the document. I've had to change it to "view only" because people kept changing my original despite detailed instructions on how not to do that. It was very stressful. So now you'll have to make your own from scratch in your Drive, but you may of course use my questions if that helps!
Girl drama. It's out of control in grade 4. Herds of girls are my door daily, sobbing: she's stealing my friend or I was her friend first. The jealousy, hurt feelings, and need to control others are sapping my mental energy if not my actual will to live.
Anyway, I've been going nuts trying to figure out a way to make it stop. I've had meetings with girls individually and in groups, have had the principal read them the riot act, have spoken with a few parents, and have played both the Good Cop and the Bad Cop---all to no avail.
FInally, over the weekend, I snapped awake at 4:30 a.m. with the idea of using a flame as an analogy for friendship.
Today at snack time I called down six of the most frequent of the frequent fliers. We went outside (so I wouldn't set off any smoke alarms), and I pulled out a box of 24 tea light candles. I shook half a dozen out of the box, and lit the first one, telling the girls it represented the friendship with their closest friend.
Then I said, "Imagine that now one of you decides to make a new friend." I used the flame from the first candle to light the second one. Then I asked, "Did the flame on the first friendship get any smaller when I lit the second flame?" (A: no).
I repeated that action again, and asked the same question---did the flame get any smaller when a new flame was lit? Again, no. I asked how many candles they thought I could light without the flame changing (A: a lot!).
We talked about how the human heart isn't like a drinking glass that can only hold a limited amount. It's more like the flame that can grow as much as it needs to without being diminished. One of the girls asked, "But what if someone is stealing your friend?" So we had to talk about how no one can "steal" someone else unless that person wants to be "stolen."
Finally, the climax of my demo was to show what happens if you try to protect your friendship and not let anything or anybody else come close. I put a small glass upside down over the first tea light, and in just a couple of seconds the flame went out. I defined the word "smother" for them. Smothering your friends doesn't protect your friendship, it damages or even destroys it.
After my demonstration was over, we brainstormed a list of positive behaviors that "fan the flame of friendship" and negative behaviors that "smother the flame of friendship." Here's the T-chart I gave each of them.
I know this was kind of an advanced concept for 4th graders. Heck, I know some adults who still struggle with it! What I'm really jazzed about though is the potential this flame analogy has for expansion (like, letting your light shine?). I'm going to keep thinking about this and maybe try and come up with a set of Flame of Friendship activities for next year. Stay tuned!
Crisis Intervention, Fights with Friends, and "My Teacher Sent Me:" Data Collection on Unscheduled Sessions
Because my district is REALLY struggling financially and I'm the newest of only four school counselors, I figured it would be wise for me to have information on hand to show how much of my job involves crisis intervention or dealing with the unscheduled and unexpected.
Before the start of the school year I made a Google Doc form for that purpose. I've been spending maybe 5-10 minutes after school entering the name and general presenting issue of whoever has shown up at my door that day. That version has been okay, but it doesn't quite capture everything I want to track.
So I created a new form to collect data on the number of unscheduled kids I see, how those kids get to me, how much time I'm spending with them, and (super important from a CYA standpoint) whether these sessions with kids in crisis are forcing to miss any of my kids on IEPs or 504s.