The role of school counselor is never an easy one. But, some days can be a bit more challenging than others.
Press Elementary Counselor Susan Washa knows this firsthand. One day, she spent more than two hours with a student after the student took their frustrations out on Washa’s office space.
Even so, there was no complaint in Washa’s voice as she talked about it, “The student was calm and happy when they left, so that was rewarding,” she said. “A few days later, the same student came up and gave me a high five and said they couldn’t wait to see me.”
While not typical, such situations are part of the job, and they offer a glimpse into the sometimes unpredictable day-to-day experience for Washa who, in the spring of 2018, was named McKinney ISD’s Counselor of the Year.
She also played a primary role in Press recently earning the 2018-2019 Texas School Counselor Association’s prestigious CREST Award, a state-level recognition for comprehensive school counseling programs that excel in the way they serve students.
The kids at Press know Washa well, and she knows them. She has spent the past seven years of her now 27-year education career at the school, and she meets individually with each of Press’s roughly 600 students twice a year to check in with them and set goals.
That’s a lot of meetings.
And, those are in addition to the time she spends with students who come in and just need to talk or who find themselves in the midst of a crisis such as a family loss, divorce or conflicts with peers. She also leads small groups for students who need ongoing support, and she teaches guidance lessons in Press classrooms throughout the school year.
Much of her work seems to fall into the category of social and emotional support and education, and she and the students who come to see her spend a lot of time with “sand trays.” A cabinet in her office is stacked with them—clear flat bins filled with fine sand and toy figures that students use to communicate what they are going through.
“It’s a way for them to play out what’s going on in their world without having to talk it out. They can show it with the sand tray,” said Washa.
Such efforts reap important short and long-term rewards.
“Students are able to seek out and receive Mrs. Washa’s support in many ways, so they are able to resolve personal matters that might otherwise prevent them from learning and being successful at school,” said Press Principal Chris Clark. “Individual counseling is not therapy, but it does help a student at a specific time of need.”
In this age in which student safety is on everyone’s mind and a vast array of approaches have been posited, more attention has pivoted to the mental health component of school safety and security plans, and the role of elementary school counselors and their impact on social and emotional skills has taken on increased significance.
In a recent poll cited in the October issue of Educational Leadership magazine, 82 percent of U.S. adults said they believe it’s important for schools to help students develop interpersonal skills such as being cooperative, respectful of others and persistent at solving problems. The study also reported that 76 percent of adults would prefer funding for mental health services for students over armed guards in schools.
“The focus on social and emotional learning is perhaps one of the most unique aspects of comprehensive school counseling,” said MISD Senior Director of Guidance and Counseling Jennifer Akins. “It connects to mental health and managing strong feelings, anxiety, anger and conflict resolution—things that students sometimes need support to learn. Those skills enable them to make healthy connections to friends and peers and help them feel a sense of belonging and being cared about in a school.
“Research has demonstrated pretty conclusively over time that students’ ability to feel connected—that they belong on a school campus—drastically improves academic outcomes and also helps students retain new information,” Akins added. “A school counselor has unique training to help students close behavioral skill gaps. All of the things that support mental health and positive coping strategies are proven to reduce incidents of school violence.”
MISD this year hired three additional IMPACT (Individuals Maximizing Positive Advocacy for Children and Teens) counselor positions to supplement the work of the three IMPACT counselors the district already had in place.
“IMPACT counselors work on prevention and parent meetings and training for teachers,” said Akins. “They are able to serve in a consulting and supporting role for some of our elementary and middle school counselors as well, so that when they have students that might have additional needs, there are more supports than were previously available.”
All of this is focused on the long-term well-being of MISD students. Washa pointed out that the difficulties for older students who are isolated, who are seen as loners and who are struggling emotionally began at a young age.
“That started in elementary,” she said. “They were developing their self-worth in elementary; they were developing all those social skills. Then they go to middle school, and they don’t have a lot of friends, and they are sitting by themselves…I think now the light is shining on that. And, now we’re focusing on trying to help those kids [at an earlier age],” she said.
But, Washa’s hope for Press students moves beyond coping with life’s struggles today. The administration and staff at Press are focused on showing their students all of the positive possibilities that lay before them—and then, inspiring them to pursue those possibilities.
“At Press, we talk about our future,” said Washa. “We talk about college. We talk about our careers. We talk about goals. The teachers set goals with them, too. So, we’re really striving to make them understand that it’s your choice. You can choose your path.”
Washa’s career has covered a variety of educational settings—inner urban schools, private schools, large districts…but, she said that ultimately the setting didn’t matter.
“Kids are kids,” she said. “They all have their own self that they are trying to become. You know, they’re trying to become this great person. I always tell them, ‘Be the person you are meant to be.’”
And, sometimes, who a kid is meant to be is so much more than he or she ever imagined—until someone like Susan Washa shows up to aim the light a little farther up the path.