Bullying. Anxiety. Stress. Social skills challenges. Loss of a family member through death or divorce.
These are a few of the most serious challenges plaguing young kids in school these days. And before you think this is just a public school or secular private school problem, take note: our Catholic school students are dealing with the same issues.
It is why the Catholic Charities School Counseling program – currently working in eight K-8 and pre-K through 8 schools in the Diocese of Nashville – is needed now more than ever.
“It’s a huge resource for schools to have counselors, because if a child has something going on with them, if they’re depressed, if they’re anxious, it affects other things like their ability to concentrate and pay attention,” said Lisa McGovern, LCSW, supervisor of counseling services for Catholic Charities. “They’ve got really good education at most of these schools, and an environment that promotes value and beliefs that support the importance of each person. And then you’ve got a counselor there who can address the emotional component, which really allows a child to be free to experience the benefits of the other two.”
There are plenty of factors that can upset a student’s emotional well-being. Take bullying, which is certainly not a new problem, but in today’s social media-focused world – especially for youth – the methods can be more stealthy, and the consequences more devastating.
“It’s incredibly challenging, because a lot of the bullying can be so subtle,” McGovern said. “It’s not like you go and knock a kid down on the playground, and he’s got a bruise or a black eye. It could be whispered things, and it can be very difficult for the adults to even hear it, to be able to act on it.”
In response, school counselors try to raise awareness of the consequences of bullying with classroom presentations, and by collaborating with principals to determine the most appropriate and effective ways to deal with it. The counseling team strives to stay abreast of the topic by accessing information about new challenges as well as interventions, and up-to-date research concerning bullying’s impact on the victims as well as the school community at large.
Students are also dealing with issues around the loss of a family member to death, a parents’ divorce, or, too typical for the student population at one school in Clarksville near Fort Campbell, the deployment of a mother or father. There are social skills challenges, like kids maturing at different ages, or the presence of challenging behaviors like impulse control, which may interfere with children knowing how to relate successfully with their peers.
One school counselor was working with a student on the autism spectrum who was struggling to fit in. The counselor and student created and delivered a presentation for the class about what it’s like to experience autism.
“Then the whole class had a much better understanding, and so it wasn’t, ‘Wow, that’s such a weird kid,’” said McGovern. “They became more understanding and even more protective of this student. We’re learning a lot more about why this child’s behavior may be different, that we didn’t understand 20 years ago.”
However, the number one issue for several years now, according to McGovern, is kids dealing with anxiety from stress. Some of it is related to the pressures kids experience when the school work gets tougher, as they transition to the higher, more demanding grade levels. But often it has to do with the hectic pace of family agendas.
“Families are just busier today, with a lot more activities,” McGovern said. “There’s just a lot more pressure at younger ages.”
The overall goal is to meet the scholastic and emotional needs of the child. As teachers and school administrators attempt to tackle the former, the school counselors attend to the latter. “It’s helping care for the whole person,” said McGovern. “Whether it’s working with a student one-on-one, working with parents to let them know how to help their own child, making referrals to a resource that may help the family as well, or consulting with a principal or the school in managing situations to prevent problems from getting bigger, it’s a lot broader than just counseling.”
A benefit for schools, families
Individual schools contract with McGovern’s program for the on-site services of a counselor. There are numerous advantages to the school for doing it this way. Catholic Charities covers about two thirds of the cost of the counselor, and the school is not responsible for paying the counselor’s benefits. Additionally, a school can contract for one day or multiple days, whichever fits that particular school’s needs and scheduling requirements.
“If they’re a school that doesn’t really have the budget to have another full-time staff member, it makes a lot of sense, financially,” explained McGovern. “Another huge benefit is that we have a team of counselors, and we get together once a week for staff meetings, where we share resources and ideas – so each school benefits from the knowledge and breadth of understanding, and interventions, from any of the school counselors.”
As part of the deal, schools also get access to McGovern, who was a Catholic Charities school counselor herself for 10 years. As the program’s coordinator, she is responsible for the hiring of counselors; the main point of contact with schools for counselor scheduling; an additional resource to the principal; and a liaison to the Catholic Schools Office for any counseling concerns they might encounter.
Her most significant role is providing supervision and support to the school counselors, to encourage and enable them to get professional development, to make sure individual cases are properly staffed and that the counseling team is following best practice guidelines.
“There are so many neat success stories that we hear about children who are struggling, or falling through the cracks, and a teacher or a principal or maybe even a person at the front office notices something,” continued McGovern. “And then they have a counselor right there at that school who is ready and able to help.
“It’s a free service to the families, and they don’t have to worry about transporting this child to another resource in the midst of their busy schedules,” McGovern added. “We’re so grateful for the opportunity to be in these schools.”
For more information about the Catholic Charities School Counseling Program, contact McGovern at (615) 352-3087, or