By Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant
Many students (and some teachers) in Belize tend to think of counseling as a form of discipline or something for the mentally sick: a suspension requirement or talking about one’s problem(s). That is totally wrong. Real-world counseling is relatively new to high school students and/or adults in Belize, and is very much unlike what is portrayed in common fictional scenes on TV. During my term as counselor (two years) at a local high school in Belize I continuously stressed my position as being that of a guidance counselor instead of counselor. What’s the difference? Basically, guidance focuses on helping a student make important choices/decisions (about classes and teachers, about home and family, about peers, and about a future vocation or career), and counseling focuses on helping a student make important changes in his/her life, and includes various forms of therapy. A guidance counselor focuses on helping a student do both: make important choices and necessary changes. Although discussing the past may be helpful in some situations, guidance counseling helps a student focus on coping with his/her own problem(s) in the present and future, and on setting short term and long term goals. Guidance counseling provides students with tools for dealing with problems and enhancing quality of life. Tools include parent/teacher/peer relationship skills, anger management, or techniques for controlling thoughts and actions. Despite past issues in a student’s life, guidance counseling focuses on the present and whatever specific problem(s) that a student is targeting.
Counseling may have had some roots in dealing with mental disorders hundreds of years ago, but since early 20th Century it has gone mainstream and does NOT deal with mental illness. (Psychiatrists deal with mental illness.) Each student can benefit from guidance counseling. Seeking counseling does NOT mean one is mentally ill. Rather, counseling is a sign of resourcefulness not a sign of weakness. When life at home and/or school feels like it’s spinning out of control, guidance counseling provides tools to help students control the spin. Each student has to juggle the demands of schoolwork, a part-time job (with or without pay for some), family, health, and social circle at school and in the community. Guidance counseling can help a student manage these demands more gracefully, whether he/she is short-tempered, overstressed, dealing with grief, depressed, or just confused. Getting a handle on everyday school and home demands will help a student to function at a higher level and experience more joy.
The idea of being in counseling for many years is ridiculous. It’s another TV cliché. Yes, some students may benefit from ongoing counseling, especially if they have a long-lasting issue or illness. But many school, health, or quality of life issues can be addressed in a short time – days or weeks. As few as one to three sessions can help a student make significant changes in his/her life. And the benefits go beyond relieving stress and anxiety or setting goals. Short-term counseling can help a student improve his/her relationships at home and/or school, brush up on academic skills, adapt healthy habits, and become more effective in pursing academic or career goals.
It has become a running joke: counselors merely sit in an office and just listen and say things like, “How does that make you feel?” Although listening is a crucial part of the job, guidance counselors also do a lot of talking. This includes asking targeted questions, helping students set short term and long term goals, and teaching skills to help them meet their goals. Guidance counselors may even assign homework to help students practice new skills.
Good guidance counselors do not ever stop studying. They work hard to keep abreast of all kinds of therapy and ways to help students. They are totally in charge of the content and structure of each conversation with students. They research, prepare, and use various types of therapy to work with students:
* solution-focused- identify and implement strategies that have worked in the past
* interpersonal- help a student to improve interactions with the people in his/her life
* cognitive-behavioral- help a student to recognize and change self- defeating thoughts and behaviors (very effective in working with students who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse by showing him/her how to adapt healthy habits
* acceptance/commitment- help students become more flexible in meeting challenges (emphasizes acceptance of uncomfortable experiences; helps students commit to actions that support personal values; very helpful in coping with family/school/peer related stress, or other medical condition)
Guidance counseling is most effective when counselor and student develop a relationship that is positive. A student can then learn how to work through his/her differences with teachers/parents/peers respectfully. In the end, a guidance counselor may not be able to dig a student out of a big hole, but he/she can teach students how to build bridges over smaller holes. One of the biggest mistakes students make with regard to guidance counseling is waiting until they are forced to go see a counselor. Seeking counseling, whether by a student or adult, is a sign of resourcefulness not a sign of weakness.