Guide to an effective counselling service

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Whether you have your own or share a counselling service, it is important that how it operates is carefully managed within your school. In this article, Samantha Garner describes the structure you should have in place to make sure it meets your students’ needs.

Summary

  • It is important that the counselling service is given clear recognition and status within your school.
  • Schools should monitor the use of the service to ensure that the students who need it have access.
  • Regular and structured evaluation can help check that the service is effective and meeting expectations.

We are always looking to support the mental health of our students and ourselves, and providing school counselling is often part of that support in many schools. There are several models of in-school counselling, from employing your own counsellor to ‘buying in’ a counselling service.

Whatever model you use, the counselling service should provide a lot more support than just seeing students one-to-one. Any school counselling service should be part of the school and should add value for all students and staff. This article outlines some of the considerations that should be made with any school counselling service.

Accessibility

The location of any counselling service should not depend on whatever room is available. Various surveys of students have shown that they would like:

  • a concealed entrance
  • a sound-proof area, nicely furnished with a comfortable chair.

In order to access the service, they would like it to be:

  • easy to drop in and be seen quickly
  • accessible during holidays, in or out of school.

This is completely understandable. If you’re going to be revealing your innermost thoughts, you want it to be in a quiet, nice environment and when you need it.

Ideally, students should be able to access the school counsellor even when they are absent from school, especially if their absence is related to mental health issues. For example, perhaps the counsellor could see them off-site or the student could access counselling without walking through reception.

Being part of the school

Whilst the physical location should be private and confidential, it’s important that the counselling service has a high profile and is seen as part of the school. There is a real stigma around mental health which can affect student willingness to access the service. By having a higher profile and being considered as part of daily school life, we are reducing the stigma and encouraging more students to feel comfortable accessing the service.

The school counsellor(s) should be visible around the school whenever possible. Mental health and the counselling service should be an open topic for discussion. Perhaps they can be involved in assemblies or provide material for PHSE. Staff should talk about the school counsellor openly and the benefits of counselling.

The school counsellor should work with other departments in the school, such as Pastoral and SEN, giving tips and advice to staff on how to support students. The school counsellor should also provide information on the types of problems they are seeing most commonly. These issues can then be discussed in PHSE or the school can consider whether their systems and approaches are having a detrimental effect on student mental health, and hopefully improve them.

The counsellor should definitely be involved if students they are seeing are referred to external support such as CAMHS and there should be protocols in place for working with, and referring onto, other agencies.

“    It’s important that the counselling service has a high profile and is seen as part of the school”

Equity of access

The demographics of students seen by the counselling service should be regularly monitored to ensure equity of access. There are generally seven groups of vulnerable pupils:

  1. Special educational needs (SEN).
  2. English as an additional language (EAL).
  3. Free school meals/Pupil Premium (FSM/PP).
  4. Males.
  5. Ethnic minorities.
  6. Looked-after children (LAC).
  7. High-mobility children.

The demographics of the students on the school roll should be similar to the demographics of the students seen by the school counsellor. If there are large disparities, then you need to look at why.

Why some groups of students are not accessing the service and what can be done about it will need to be investigated.

What about the staff?

The counselling service should be a source of information for everyone in the school. They can provide leaflets and recommend websites, for example, to help students, staff and parents to improve their understanding of mental health issues and the support available. This should include information on counselling and how the school counselling service operates; i.e. how referrals are made and what happens in the sessions.

The extent to which counselling services support staff varies between schools. Whilst they may not provide individual support staff with advice, they may make general mental well-being suggestions; for example, a half-termly email to all, offering ideas and including reminders about how to take positive action to support mental well-being.

Evaluating the service

As with any intervention, its practice must be constantly evaluated and reviewed. Evaluation can also provide evidence to ensure that funding is continued. You might ask your counsellor for termly reports detailing:

  • how many students they have seen
  • how many are new and how many are ongoing
  • what the average number of sessions given to each student is
  • what the main types of issues are
  • how referrals are made
  • if there is a waiting list.

Whilst counselling has to be confidential, every counsellor knows it is important that we evaluate our services, which is part of producing reports, to ensure that we are providing the best service possible for our clients – the students.

Asking what students/parents think about the counselling is an important but often overlooked part of evaluation. We are trained professionals; we understand all concepts and often forget that this isn’t the case for everyone. Students should be involved in developing and evaluating mental health provision in the school, including the counselling service. The toolkit on Page 25 contains suggested survey questions to gain student feedback on the service.

Counselling can have a negative reputation and people’s opinions may be based on someone’s bad experience. By asking for their views, we can work to ensure that people have the correct understanding and therefore that they are more likely to use counselling. Do consider the language you use in the survey and tailor it to the subject. It is quite acceptable to use jargon, but parents and students are less likely to understand.

Supporting the counsellor

The counsellor themselves will need ongoing support and development. An external service is likely to ensure this happens. If you have a school-employed counsellor, then you need to check that appropriate clinical and managerial supervision arrangements are in place.

Continuing professional development opportunities should be available and taken up. When a new counsellor begins, they should undertake the same induction procedure as other staff. Schools should try to include counsellors in staff training and briefings where appropriate.

Conclusion

Having a school counselling service is a great way to support mental health in your setting. Gain maximum effectiveness by making it part of the school and not just an add-on.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Sam Garner

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students (www.garnereducation.co.uk). She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (www.rebalanceprogramme.com).

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