By Ashley Bartley, M.Ed., NCC

My final year of grad school, most likely during one of our NCE studying sessions, my school counseling cohort designed a t-shirt. The graphics on the back of the shirt read, 'Counselors' we don't give advice, we just smile and nod.' While I don't think our professors were too pleased with the design, it did point out one lesson we had learned. As counselors, we're not shelling out advice right and left. Part of our role is helping students feel empowered to handle situations on their own. After all, we won't always be there with them when they face a problem, but we can help equip them with valuable social skills and tools for emotion regulation, as well as ideas and strategies for handling problems and building resiliency. A tall order for the brief amount of time we have them!

We can do this work through a combination of four key areas:

  • Individual counseling

  • Group counseling

  • Classroom counseling lessons

  • Collaboration

Individual Counseling

Students are coming to us from every background, dealing with hardships other people can't fathom. First and foremost, make sure you are validating their story. Listen actively and support them as they share -- after all, they are likely to find some relief through the sharing process. As you work together and become more solution-focused, thoughtful phrases you can say (depending on the situation) might include, 'What have you already tried? What has worked for you? What did not seem to work? What did your teacher suggest? Have you told anyone at home about this? What did your family suggest?'

Those last two questions carry a lot of meaning. When appropriate, I encourage students to identify a trusted adult who can help them outside of school. If they can't think of anyone, I ask them to consider a coach, troop leader, parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. who might be able to help them if they have a problem. Roleplay is a great way to help a child practice what they might say to their trusted adult, empowering them to later do it on their own, either for this situation or a future problem.

I also have a few phrases I try to avoid as much as possible when counseling. 'Why did you'.?' is the first. I will bend over backward not to use a 'why' question. It might put the student on the defensive or imply that I believe what they did was wrong and I'm punishing them. Instead, I use workaround phrases, such as 'Tell me more about what happened…' or 'What was happening right before you…' I've found that students are able to open up more about what happened if they know I'm there to help and offer support.

Secondly, I avoid saying, 'I know exactly what you're going through. 'Even if I've had a similar experience, or know someone who has been through something similar, I would be minimizing their story with those sorts of phrases. Their experience and perception of the event can be polar opposites of what I think I know, so I don't try. Instead, I ask them more questions about their unique perspective and validate their feelings. And third, I don't ever say, 'Well, at least you…' Often when children are talking, they're not looking for someone to point out the silver lining and dismiss their concern. I know that phrase grates on me whenever I hear it! Sometimes people just need to sit with their feelings, and we are there to support them through that.

school counselor individual counseling

Group Counseling

I know scheduling groups during the school day can be tricky, but the group process can be such a rewarding experience for students. Small groups provide a safe setting where students can learn from each other and I can give feedback on their discussions. As counselors, we can use so many different creative tools to allow students to open up to each other and share, from icebreakers, to games, to discussion topics and craft activities. Students can gain confidence and learn skills through role-play, and they can show each other they're not alone in the things they experience. Use data to determine who to invite to your small groups. Then, collect pre- and post-group data from students, teachers, and parents to focus on which skills are most needed and how the student improved in those areas as a result of your sessions. Don't forget to share your data with stakeholders afterward!

group counseling

Classroom Counseling

I use classroom counseling as a Tier 1 intervention to allow students to get to know me and my role in the school while working together to learn a skill. In the classroom environment, I cover topics I think the entire grade level will need, and I focus on social skills and problem-solving in every grade.

classroom counseling

I always remind my students there is not one magic answer to solve every problem. For example, when teaching them different ways to respond in a bullying situation, I say, 'What works for you might not work for someone else. Or, what works for you in one situation might not work in the next situation.' It's important for them to have several strategies they can try. I love using many of Trudy Ludwig's books with my fifth graders. She provides strategies that go beyond simply ignoring the problem and include surprise and humor while avoiding unkind responses. For younger students, I read my new book, Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle, and follow it up with a sorting activity or classroom scoot game so they can practice knowing when to ask for help and when to try to solve small problems on their own. My blog post, 5 Ways to Minimize Tattling in the Classroom, gives more specific ways to teach students how to handle small problems.


Consider how you will collaborate with other school faculty and staff, families, and your community in order to provide resources to help your students feel more confident and successful both at home and at school. You might help teachers create calm-down boxes or calm corners within their classrooms so students can de-escalate without leaving the room. You can work with your local United Way or Salvation Army to help meet basic needs, from school supplies to winter coats. You can connect families with local resources for parenting classes, community counseling opportunities, and other family programs. (You can find articles about the benefits of school, family, and community partnerships by searching the ASCA website.) If you don't have a resource directory already, work with your school social workers or other counselors in your district to compile a directory of local resources for quick reference when a family needs assistance. These partnerships will also help you advocate for the school counseling profession, as well as establish strong relationships between stakeholders for helping students in the future.


Ashley Bartley, M.Ed., NCC is a school counselor and author whose writing has been published in The Joyful Life Magazine and on the Kindred Mom Blog. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from The University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in School Counseling from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, where she grew up. She also has a diploma from The Institute of Children's Literature and is a National Board Certified Counselor. She lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband and three young boys. Her first book, Diamond Rattle Loves to Tattle, releases with Boys Town Press July 2020.


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