Guidance counselors are tackling tougher problems Focus becomes emotional support

October 01, 1991|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

School had been in session for just a week and one little girl sat in her Carney Elementary School first-grade classroom in tears.

The teacher could not discover what was wrong, so the child was sent to talk with the school guidance counselor. After a bit of soothing and coaxing, counselor Katherine Patterson discovered the source of the child's anguish.

"She couldn't cut straight on a line," Mrs. Patterson said.

Welcome to the world of guidance counseling in the '90s. It's not what it used to be, say veteran counselors.

Calming youngsters who believe anything less than perfection is failure, holding sessions for children from single-parent households, working with abused children and helping students improve learning skills all fall under the umbrella of counseling -- an umbrella that once only covered career planning and discipline problems.

The world has changed, and although children are still children, the situations they face often are more complex, counselors in the county say.

"Guidance was a narrow vocational service," said Mrs. Patterson, a Baltimore County counselor since 1971. "Back then, we didn't have the social issues that we have today. Now, the population is very diverse with many, many needs."

Mrs. Patterson sees more children going home to empty houses because their parents are at work, more from single-parent households who feelguilty for loving the non-custodial parent and more who feel intense pressure to be perfect students. The little girl who was crying because she couldn't cut on a straight line needed reassurance, she said.

"I told her that the teacher doesn't expect her to be perfect.

"We [counselors] used to talk mostly about careers and educational needs," Mrs. Patterson continued. "We talked about the world of work and what mommy and daddy did."

She still talks about those things but she also runs programs for students from single-parent households and for some who social services authorities have identified as having been physically or sexually abused.

Youngsters from single-parent homes are reassured that they are not at fault, not the only ones in the situation and that it is OK to love both parents. Abused children are encouraged to discuss their feelings and referred to professional help.

Counselors often must deal with family problems that have spilled over into school.

Sue Bridges, a counselor at Patapsco High School near Dundalk, recently counseled a girl who was afraid to go home to alcoholic parents. "She doesn't know what's going to happen at home," she said. "There is real fear."

Mrs. Bridges, a counselor for 19 years, alerted the Department of Social Services and plans to keep an eye on the teen.

"It's not necessarily the student with a drug or alcohol problem," she said. "I have students who don't have drug or alcohol problems but someone in their family sure does."

Baltimore County secondary schools have had counselors since 1947, elementary schools since 1950. About 250 counselors serve the district's some 90,000 students.

Counselors must have a master's degree in counseling and guidanceand be certified by the state. Before July 1985, they could have a master's degree in any subject if they had 30 hours of counseling courses.

"Counseling, consultation and coordination" are the three areas a counselor must master, said Thelma T. Daley, the counseling coordinator for the county school system.

Counselors no longer just wait for troubled students to be sent to them. They visit classrooms to offer tips for latchkey kids, help new students who are afraid of school, oversee peer support programs and teach learning skills.

Jerilyn C. Roberts is a counselor at Western Vocational Technical Center in Catonsville with almost 20 years experience. With older students, she deals with teen-age pregnancy, suicide and young people in a panic because they are unsure about their career plans.

She said her greatest reward comes from helping students through difficult situations.

Mrs. Roberts recalled the case of one 17-year-old high school senior who was pregnant.

The guidance counselor referred her to people at the Baltimore County Social Services Department who could help her with day care and dealing with community colleges.

The girl graduated from Western after giving birth, Mrs. Roberts said.

In 25 years of counseling, David Bearr has seen the profession become one that school administrators value highly.

"Principals are much more aware that we have an impact on the total school population," he said.

Faith C. Hermann, principal of Catonsville Middle School, said that this year counselors at the school already have worked with children who needed to talk about their parents' divorce, separation, unemployment and, in one case, abuse.

"They are absolutely vital," she said of her school's two counselors.

For the last four or five years, Mr. Bearr, who works at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown, has been focusing on students' learning styles.

That involves teaching students how to manage their time, helping them understand how they study and devising ways to improve their study skills. Though not required, working on learning skills is important because students become aware of how they perceive things and how they take in information. "It enhances the individual," he said.

Individual attention is what several students said they like about counselors.

"She listens to you," Melissa Spinnato, 15, said of her counselor, Mrs. Bridges. Melissa said that she and her peers appreciate having an adult, other than their parents, to talk with. "She doesn't try to solve the problem for you, but she supports you in your decision."

Heather Sanbury, 17, a senior at Patapsco, agreed. "She's here in school, and she knows the teachers," Heather said of her counselor. "And she isn't as judgmental as your parents."

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