COLUMBIA —Bullying, depression, teenage pregnancy, heavy family issues and college applications are among the thorny matters school counselors regularly encounter. But events can also be seemingly small, like fighting with a friend.
To a student, said Sarah Sadewhite, a counselor at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, a crisis might be something adults think of as a minor issue. But it might affect the student in such a way that the child needs additional help from someone such as a school counselor. With a counselor's help, the student can be more successful in both dealing with the problem and at school.
Sadewhite is one of four counselors in Columbia and Fulton who were recently honored as mid-Missouri counselors of the year. Along with Leslie Kersha of Rock Bridge High School, Ann Landes, director of guidance at Hickman High School and Nawassa Logan of Fulton Middle School, Sadewhite received the mid-Missouri Counselor of the Year Award. Kathy Ritter, principal at Rock Bridge High School, received the mid-Missouri Outstanding Counselor Advocate of the Year Award.
10 nominees for the region
This year, more than 10 candidates were nominated for the regional award by school administrators and other counselors. Nominees were considered for their contributions in student guidance, leadership in his or her school's counseling program and efforts to create collaboration between the school, the district and the community.
"It's a great way to recognize co-workers," said Carolyn Roof, elementary counseling coordinator for Columbia Public Schools and a counselor at Mill Creek Elementary School.
The winners were selected by a committee of five retired educators. They were recognized at the Mid-Missouri School Counselors Association meeting Feb. 19 at Stephens College. Each winner received a framed certificate and letters of support from nominators and peers. The Missouri School Counselor Association will recognize counselors, directors/coordinators and counselor advocates of the year during the association's annual fall conference. Mid-Missouri's winners will submit nomination packets for this statewide award.
All winners said they were honored. "I'm very appreciative that my colleagues and district recognize and appreciate me," Logan said.
Support for all children
Roof said the four award recipients and the rest of Columbia's 58 professional school counselors help all of the district's children. "The professional school counseling program is beneficial to all students, not just those at risk," Roof said. The program is designed to aid students with personal, social, academic and career development.
Students in Columbia Public Schools are supported for the entirety of their education, from kindergarten to senior year. Focuses and problems differ with age groups.
In elementary schools, counselors introduce children to the counseling program and help them recognize it as a resource for them throughout their school years. Students in kindergarten through third grade attend a weekly class that helps them with study and social skills.
Taking on bullying
For example, Sadewhite, this year's elementary counselor of the year for mid-Missouri, said students learn how to handle bullying. She said counselors teach students to walk away from bullies or, if the situation is serious, to tell an adult. In the coming months students will learn test-taking skills, strategies for getting along with others and summer safety.
Elementary counselors also help kids struggling at home. Roof said family issues, such as divorce and grief are common issues with young students; early academic concerns appear in others. Roof said she has also seen a growing number of behavior issues and mental health issues.
As students grow older, counselors continue to work hard with them. Logan, the middle school counselor of the year for mid-Missouri, said middle school is a time for kids to begin finding themselves. She said frequent struggles for kids include changes in their thoughts, beliefs and friend groups. Most students move to a larger school with new peers whom they have not met before. She said many children lose old friendships and gain new ones; this can be challenging for them. School work, too, becomes more challenging.
A safe place to be
Obvious challenges such as family issues and the onset of puberty don't fade from students' lives, but Logan works with students to be successful at school despite other problems.
"We at least let them understand that school is a safe place," Logan said.
When students move from middle school to high school, added stresses and problems surface with many students. Kersha, the high school counselor of the year for mid-Missouri, said the guidance department at Rock Bridge focuses on post-secondary planning as well as helping students navigate the social life of high school.
Landes, secondary counseling coordinator for the district, director of guidance at Hickman High School and the counseling director of the year for mid-Missouri, said the guidance department is a major support system for students.
At Hickman, about 80 percent of students plan on going to college. Landes said a large portion of the guidance office's work consists of helping students prepare for post-secondary education — selecting classes, exploring interests and preparing applications. On the other hand, the department also helps those students who might struggle to pass classes and finish high school.
Kersha said the guidance department not only helps students succeed in school, but also it helps students learn how to have successful relationships with teachers so that they can get academic help and enjoy a mutual respect for each other.
High school counselors typically meet with class groups twice a year and then meet once with each student individually in the spring. However, Landes said many students are comfortable with the guidance office and use the counselors more than three times a year.
"We have kids that are in here every week," she said.
In addition to preparing students for their academic or professional futures ahead, high school counselors often help students with personal and social needs. Kersha said problems "run the gamut." She said issues with friends, stress at home and depression are typical problems with high school students.
Landes said she has seen more teenage pregnancy in recent years. The guidance department works with nurses to help those students get the medical attention they need.
Occasionally, the guidance office helps students who find themselves leaving home and living on their own. This transition is often difficult for high school students. Landes said the guidance department helps those students find housing and jobs.
'One of their best friends'
"We tell students their counselor should be one of their best friends," Landes said.
The majority of school counselors are not licensed therapists; outreach counselors in the Columbia district provide a link for students who need additional resources. If students show high distress or express an intent to harm themselves, a school counselor or an outreach counselor might help them get added support outside of school.
Those who are involved in school counseling and guidance tend to agree that it plays a critical role in a child's education.
"(Counseling) is a very important piece of the puzzle," Kersha said, "in helping kids have successful and positive school experiences."