Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The Four Attitudes of Learning—and Living, and Parenting, and Counseling

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

People continue to be baffled by the idea that school counseling has a curriculum. More than just the epicenter of solving problems, the counseling center is the place where students get information and skills to build and pursue goals, work through challenges, and live life to the fullest. Just like the Math curriculum and the English curriculum, the counseling curriculum is a learning experience—and the classroom to apply these counseling lessons is life.

Since the idea of a counseling curriculum seems to be just a little too abstract, it might be wise to introduce the idea by linking it to two things people know—parenting and learning. As parents help shape the way their children look at the world, what are they hoping for—what qualities will their children exhibit to show parents they’ve achieved their goal? For that matter, beyond the content of the subject matter, how will a teacher know they’ve helped students develop an outlook that will help them engage the world of math, science, etc.—or the world in general?

Enter the four attitudes. These four expressions best sum up the perspectives held by active thinkers, as they make the most of every learning opportunity, and give the most of themselves. How they do so will vary greatly—but their ability to do so is dependent on parents, teachers, counselors, and all adults modeling the attitudes for them.

“Wow!” Society marvels at the delight young children show in the simplest things—a butterfly, raindrops, the box that the Christmas gift came in (which often gets more attention than the gift itself). High school teachers often lament this attitude of wonder is gone in most of their students, so teachers and counselors need to do everything possible to nurture this intuitive sense, making sure the student stays receptive to a wide array of new ideas.

“What is that?” Once the immediate impression instills a sense of interest, the student is going to need some information—what’s this thing or idea called, where did it come from, what is it used for, what makes it work? These questions are key to providing a baseline of expertise the student can use when applying the thing, idea, or skill being introduced. Counselors want to be sure not to skimp in this area. All students may like the idea of goal setting, for example, but the details of the process are vital to support this initial interest.

So does that mean…?” Once the student is introduced to the nuts and bolts of something, it’s time for the parent-teacher-counselor to BE QUIET. Giving the student time to internalize the essence gives them time to personalize the idea, and apply it to the rest of what they’ve learned in life. Of course, exercises giving students a chance to reinforce their understanding can be a huge help here. But there needs to be a time and opportunity for students to make this “thing” their own, and connect it with the rest of their world.

What if…?” Laying the foundation for the first three attitudes leads to the jackpot, where the student sees the new concept for what it is, and takes it—or something like it-- to a place it hasn’t been before—at least in their world, and perhaps even in ours. This step combines knowledge with creativity and imagination, making for broad thinkers, doers, and life-livers—the ultimate goal of learning.

Consider how every counseling interaction advances these four attitudes. You’ll find its relation to the attitudes is the key to holding student interest, and building student success.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

An Open Letter to Education Secretary Cardona

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Mr. Secretary:

I don’t often speak on behalf of the school counselor profession, even though I’ve been president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education (ED). But, circumstances being what they are, and emboldened by this being National School Counseling Week, I’m going to roll the dice of drawing the ire of some colleagues and speak for the team.

Mr. Secretary, you owe us.

We have been moving heaven and earth to get students to consider college—not because it helps the economy, or makes our high schools look good, but because college is the logical choice for many students to advance their personal and professional goals, and many don’t know that. We put on presentations, we hold information nights, we even talk about this with students and parents in elementary schools—in short, we stand on our heads to get this information out.

And so, the now-informed families who see the advantages of college are ready for their children to attend, as long as they get some help paying for it.

From you.

Last February, 6 million families had filled out a FAFSA. This year, that number is 3 million—and, with all respect, it isn’t because the other 3 million hit the lottery. It’s wonderful the new FAFSA has far fewer questions, but if students can’t get to the website to answer them, and colleges have to wait until March to put packages together, many first-time families we won over are going to give up.

Your department is likely doing the best they can with this—but there’s more to do. If you really want to help kids think college, your department can spearhead:

A Common SRAR Many of the more popular colleges ask students to enter their grades on the Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR). This helps speed up review of an application—but since most colleges have their own version of this form, redundancy discourages students from applying to college. An ED-produced SRAR colleges download into their data systems means students would only have to fill it out once. You could then say “Now that you’ve finished your SRAR, check here to start your FAFSA, and we’ll import your information from your SRAR so you’ll only have to answer 20 more questions.” If a college wants federal aid, they’d have to take your form.

Funding for School Counselors Federal COVID money was used in part to hire more school counselors, and the student-counselor ratio is now below 400 nationally. That’s still short of the 250 to 1 goal, but it’s progress. To help students more, we’ll need more funding.

More Counselor Training Most school counselors never had a unique course in college counseling. Syllabi exist for these courses, as does a list of course outcomes. If the 500 institutions offering school counselor training want to keep federal funding, require them to adjust degree requirements to include a separate course in college counseling.

Cash for College If you really want to win back the 3 million students now sitting on the FAFSA sidelines, announce ED will give every FAFSA filer $100 cash. Congress will fund this in an election year, and you’ll mean it when you say filing a FAFSA leads to money.

Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office is considered the gold standard in government action, largely because he didn’t really care what Congress, the courts, or anybody else thought—the need was great. When it comes to college advising, Mr. Secretary, the need is also great. Sir, it’s time to lead.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Note to Your Principal About National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Principal:

This was a little awkward for me at first. I’ve never been crazy about telling people when my birthday is—even if I’m filling it out online—since it seems like I’m saying “Hey, look at me, it’s time to make my day special”.

That was my first thought for next week, which is National School Counseling Week. But then I took a closer look, and realized next week isn’t about me, the counselor. It’s about counseling, the work done here in the office.

With that in mind, it’s easy for me to ask if we could promote this week with some activities designed to increase awareness of our office, and the services we offer our students. Here’s what we have in mind:

Theme of the day Many students know the counselors for things like schedule changes and testing, but not all of them know the full range of counseling services available here at school. To meet that need, we’d like to focus on one facet of our service each day next week:

Monday—What Is Counseling?
Tuesday—Mental Health Counseling
Wednesday—Academic Counseling
Thursday—Other Personal Counseling
Friday—College and Career Counseling

Daily events To support each theme of the day, we’d like you to include a brief morning announcement that describes that particular part of the counseling curriculum. We’ll have handouts and videos available on that subject in the office all day. At lunch, we’ll make a brief presentation about this part of the curriculum, and how students can make the most of them. Students who attend the presentation will be eligible for a giveaway of a book, gift card, or college and career swag. We’ll make the same presentation 30 minutes before school for parents to attend, and offer the same presentation right after school. Students are welcome to attend these sessions if it’s easier than coming by at lunch.

Teacher involvement We’ve also put together a School Counselor Quiz each day for teachers to present. This 5-minute exercise includes 5 multiple choice questions designed to raise student awareness of the services available in the counseling office, and their importance in the students’ daily lives. We’d ask you to ask teachers to engage in this activity during the third period of every day. That way, all students are exposed to it, but exposed only once.

Faculty presentation We’d also like 20 minutes at next week’s faculty meeting to highlight the many services we offer. We’re going to tailor this presentation to include counseling services offered by the district or the community for faculty members. These aren’t part of the school counseling curriculum, but this is as good a time as any to remind faculty that they matter too, and help is available for them. We’re also bringing snacks.

Evening speaker We’re excited that a panel of local mental health professionals has agreed to make a presentation in the auditorium next Thursday night on the topic “Supporting Students in the Post-Covid Era”. Their presentation will focus on the needs students have, and include a discussion of community resources available to support those needs. The school counseling department will follow with a presentation of the services available here in school. The evening will include with a panel of parents who have agreed to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and overcome with their students, thanks to taking advantage of these counseling services.

Your support of our office is greatly appreciated throughout the year, and I hope you’re able to support, promote, and attend these events.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Making the Most of Scheduling Season

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Most high school counselors have a love/hate relationship to scheduling. If building schedules is part of your duties, you get to actually see all of your students, and that’s good. On the other hand, if all you do with this time is put together a list of classes, that’s more a matter of logistics, and less a matter of counseling.

What are the best ways to make this time rich with counseling interactions? Here are some tried-and-true approaches to consider:

Advanced communication Giving students a heads up that scheduling is coming is a good way to prepare them for the task. Letters/emails/and texts to home (and parents) gives students a chance to think about what they’d like to take next year, and, with encouragement, explore some possibilities.

Provide examples Really effective advanced communication goes the extra mile, and provides students with examples of schedules to consider. For many high schools, this is pretty easy to do—of course, you’ll want to add some language saying these examples are only examples:

Ninth grade Most ninth graders take the same English, Science, and Social Studies classes, and their Math and (if available) World Language classes are typically assigned by ability. Throw in the Phys Ed class that’s likely required for all freshmen, and building a 9th grade schedule likely boils down to deciding on one or two electives. That’s easy to spell out.

Tenth grade Tenth grade is also pretty predictable in most high schools, with grade-level English and Social Science classes, one of two or three Science classes, and the next level of Math and World Language. Again, this leaves room for a couple of electives, and those are easy picks.

Eleventh grade Many high schools give students choices in all subjects at this point, and students can customize more of their schedule. This is also when many high schools allow students to take Dual Enrollment classes, or classes in the Voc-Tech area. This letter will be more detailed, and should include any required grade-level classes, but it’s still a good idea to present 4-5 examples to get them thinking ahead of time.

Twelfth grade This advanced communication often includes a printout (or link) of the remaining graduation requirements the student must complete, so they can build their schedule accordingly. Be sure to include any required courses, but be ready to still spend some time in the meeting focused on scheduling nuts and bolts.

Group meetings? With an advanced communication in place, many counselors hold scheduling meetings in small groups, or even grade-level classes. This gives you a chance to review the scheduling information; more important, it gives you a chance to put in some kind of counseling lesson appropriate for the grade level that can typically be 10-20 minutes long. Many counselors will devote this time to grade-level counseling about college or careers, but it’s also a good time to present on topics of mental health, study skills, hygiene, or any other facet of the school counseling curriculum.

Advanced review There will always be students who, for a number of reasons, will best benefit from an individual meeting. This is best scheduled before meeting the group meetings, and requires the counselor to review all students in advance, to determine who to help one-on-one. In requesting the meeting, supportive language is a must—“I want to make sure we build a schedule that best meets your needs, so let me know when we can meet.”

Scheduling time doesn’t have to take away from counseling duties—in fact, it can be a great way to enrich meaningful relationships with students.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A Note to Seniors About Your Parents

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Students:

You may remember I encouraged you in 11th grade to start meeting with your parents once a week for 20 minutes to discuss life after high school. This is the best way to keep your parents in the loop, while still staying in charge of your own future.

Since then, of course, your plans have nicely taken shape, and the folks feel pretty informed. With this mission accomplished, it’s easy to see why you might feel you can stop these weekly meetings.

Yes. About that.

It would seem something has happened since you first carved 20 minutes out of your week to talk with your parents. To begin with, they’ve learned to give you space; most parents think it’s crazy to limit themselves to 20 minutes a week to talk about your future, especially during the weeks in the fall when you were working on applications and telling them absolutely nothing beyond their allotted time. They’ve learned to trust you more, which will come in handy over time—like once you’re on your own, when you buy your first couch, and name your first child after a Taylor Swift song.

But something else has happened. Because you met once each week when no one was rushing to get you anywhere, your parents had a chance to see what you’ve made of yourself since the last time things weren’t so crazy—which for most families, is when you were about four. I have to tell you—they really liked what they saw. And they’d like to keep seeing it every week for 20 minutes.

This probably makes no sense to you, but when you came home and said “Last Winter exam! Yes!”, they said, “Last Winter exam? No!!” They told you they cried when you went to this year’s Sadie Hawkins Dance because they thought you looked nice, right? Nope—last one. And remember how they once dreaded having you home from school for any reason? Not so much now.

Through the 20-minute meetings, your parents realize they have a child who is smart, knows who they are, and understands a little about how the world works—and that child is moving out of the house in six months. Giving you up then is something they’ll figure out; giving you up now is something they would just as soon not do.

Of course, you don’t have to talk about the future—now is not the time to sit in the living room, holding hands and listening to the cuckoo clock chirp away until the college decisions arrive. Order some food in, catch up on a movie, work a jigsaw puzzle—do something, and do anything together.

Love is as much a verb as it is a noun, and showing them what you feel at a time of uncertainty (for you and them) can make a memory that will last far longer than whatever State U or a potential employer has to say in a couple of weeks.

No decision will change the way they feel about you, just like it shouldn’t change the way you feel about yourself. Twenty weekly minutes of meeting time that isn’t “required” will bring that home as nothing else can, and build a stronger base for whatever is next.

Give it some thought. They’re sure thinking about it—they’ve told me as much.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Failure of FAFSA

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

My December holiday had a rough start. I went to my usual bagel place on a weekday, in the middle of the morning, and walked right up to the counter—no line, no massive crowd. Without even turning around, the clerk who was in the throes of making a bagel sandwich said “We aren’t taking any new orders.”

How odd, I thought. The door was open, the lights were on, and there were clearly enough bagels in the baskets to feed an army. In addition, no “Sorry, but…” or “Can I buy you a coffee while you wait?” They just didn’t want my business.

This came to mind on December 31st, the alleged day of the much-anticipated rollout of the new FAFSA. I won’t hide my bias here. Many were pleased to see a reduced-form FAFSA, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the research I’d heard (and can’t find) that said 95% of all students currently qualifying for federal aid would also qualify by asking just two questions—how many people are in your household, and what’s the household’s income? Announcing the rollout would come in December, when the admissions world is used to November access, smelled like the college student who wants to know if sliding the paper under the professor’s door at midnight on the due date still counts as on time.

I really wanted to be wrong about this, but I really wasn’t. Yes, FAFSA was up on December 31st, thus making the December deadline. However, its arrival came with a disclaimer—this was a “soft opening” of the new FAFSA. My only other experience with a “soft opening” has been with Broadway shows and restaurants. Websites that aren’t ready use beta testing, where they create a model of the real thing, and offer it to a select few.

Not so with FAFSA. Since December 31, the site has been up, and down, and up, and down, and up, and – well, you get the idea—before an audience of millions. It’s been up long enough for some counselors to ask pointed questions about the new form and format. It’s also been down long enough for first-time users to try and log in several times without success, concluding they’d be better off getting college money by working at Subway this fall.

This effort does little to assuage the many, many, many detractors of the US Department of Education. Since its inception, ED has built a reputation for either offering no help at all with significant education issues (their handling of instruction during COVID is a recent example), or offering solutions so limited or convoluted that they were either unsuccessful, or served as a disincentive for those seeking assistance.

This soft opening met the letter of the law requiring a December debut, while leaving educators, parents and students drowning in a wake of frustration. Students whose parents went to college, or students of means, won’t suffer a bit as a result of this adventure; the families of first gens who need the cash, and the help, will.

If ED is looking for a way to atone, try this. Put a line item in your budget where every student who files a complete FAFSA gets a $200 gift card. They can use it for college, they can use it for prom—heck, they can use it at Subway. Doing so would send the message that ED is serious when it means filing a FAFSA leads to cash—and, unlike the bagel shop that’s lost my business for good, it may bring some students back into the college-is-possible fold.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

To Improve College Access

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

As we return to our students, and during a time when the world is focused on goal setting, what better time to look at our profession and consider the big-picture changes that would improve college access.

Wider media coverage A poll (I can no longer locate) a few years ago asked adults what they thought the average tuition was at a four-year college. Their response was somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000, when, in fact, the average at that time was around $12,500.

Major media outlets are laser-focused on about a dozen expensive colleges. They also happen to be very popular colleges, which only feeds the bias; if Harvard is hard to get into, paying attention to Harvard must be important in the college search.

The media is doing a disservice to the millions of students who won’t go there, since they don’t cover the non-Harvards of the world, even though those schools is where most of the learning and growing occurs. Our society will be serious about college access when the New York Times covers South Dakota State with as much vigor as it covers Princeton. Until then, the notion of college for only a select few remains.

Better counselor training The National Association for College Admission Counseling has stopped keeping track, but at last count a few years ago, only two dozen of the hundreds of counselor training programs in the US offered a course uniquely focused on college counseling. Some offer a postsecondary planning course that gives college advising about 12-15 hours of their time, but veteran counselors know that’s just enough information to know what you don’t know.

There are other obstacles keeping counselors from being more effective in college planning, but all the time in the world and a caseload of 50 won’t matter if counselors have never been fully trained in the rigors of college counseling. Grad programs can easily rearrange the content of the myriad mental health courses required for school counselors to create space for a focused college counseling class, and the curriculum already exists.

Ratios The mental health crisis brought on by COVID loosened up the purse strings for counselors, dropping caseloads in many states. Most are still not even close to the ASCA-suggested ratio of 250 to one—and, frankly, I’ve always thought that number was high—so more funding is needed. Then again, so are more counselors.

Duties Schedule changes, testing coordination, and discipline don’t belong in the counseling office, and counselors shouldn’t be used as last-minute substitute teachers since they “don’t have anything to do”. One way to help with high ratios is to make sure counselors spend their time on true counseling tasks. Parapros and substitute teachers can be just as effective with non-counseling duties.

Administrative training Too many administrators ascend to their position with no clue, or training, in what counselors do. State legislatures and NASSP would do well to require all administrators to attend a two-hour orientation on the role and duties of school counselors. The value of what counselors do shouldn’t change just because the building principal does.

Early introduction to college advising K-8 students don’t need college advising if their parents went to college. Every other student does. It’s more than possible to introduce the idea of college without causing undue stress or recommending specific colleges—I know, because it’s already happening. K-8 counselors need to pick up this mantle, remembering it’s just as important to educate the parents of first gens and low-income students on the virtues of college as a choice. Without them, the conversation with the students goes nowhere.