Rokie Thompson talked to Mary Montaut
Counselling is for everybody, not just for somebody with a so-called problem, it’s for all, and I think it can’t be in isolation. It is not a specialised thing that happens in a little room, where some change is going to take place because somebody has been to see a counsellor. I don’t see it as taking place in a little room with one counsellor, especially for students – I would like to see a lot of counselling theory permeating all of us, and therefore it would become part of how we are all learning about ourselves and each other. I try to avoid labels altogether, and one of the areas I was thinking about for this article was bullying. I really question labelling any child a bully – it may be a convenient word, but I am most uncomfortable with it, in that the bully is in as much need of support and attention as the perceived victim. A person may have bullied in the accepted sense of the word, but that is not all they are. Children are being labelled in primary school and I think it is wrong to label somebody at such an early age – and ‘bully’ is just one exam ple.
When I meet a young person for counselling, I really try to see the story from their point of view. I use the idea of a jigsaw puzzle, that when two people are looking at a jigsaw puzzle and doing it together at opposite sides of the table, one of them is looking at it upside-down. I try to look at the problem with them, the way they are seeing it, and then not to interpret it. In school, very often, their mother or father or teacher might have told me about their story. I try not to bring that in, I try to leave it outside and build on what the young person is telling me and then look for avenues to explore together. Whether those avenues are with me or with other important people in their lives, that can be facilitated.
A Difficult Process
Counselling in school is not an easy process because it’s not like most of the students’ experience – they’re always being told what to do. Many times they’ve been referred and they have not chosen to come. That is very difficult to work with. I accept totally that some of them do not want to come; that is their choice and I accept it. Another problem is that they will tell a tiny part of the story and have no intention of telling you any more, and I accept that. Sometimes they don’t even begin, because they think there’s no point. And sometimes a young person can be sitting talking quite freely and then the bell will go and they have football – they want to go and play football, so of course they go and play football, and it’s right they do, but it’s very difficult to then come back to where you might have been just before the bell went. It can be hugely frustrating, but realistically that’s the way it is. There are a lot of young people being referred who do not want to be present and so they just go through the motions. They’re clever, some of them, and they know exactly what is going on. They have thought up their answers and they chill out, which you sense very quickly and then you know that this is going nowhere. Sometimes it’s enough just to say that you know what’s happening. I might ask if they want to continue with this or are we going to change track? Sometimes they smile and laugh, or they might say OK, but sometimes they take the attitude that they’ve been to the counsellor, they’ve said what they thought the counsellor wanted to hear, they’re gone. That’s pointless.
Teachers Aware of Difficulties
Teachers are very aware that young people have difficulties, and that there may be things happening at home and in the rest of their lives. They may not be aware exactly what, but they sense there is something. They will either ask the student whether they would like to see the Guidance Counsellor, or they will say to the Guidance Counsellor, I think it might be a good idea if you saw James or Mary. Teachers often have a good understanding of what might be going on for the student, but they have to cope with the situation in the classroom. It is very different from talking to somebody one-to-one, and therefore the Counsellor can take a different approach. Teachers are very sensitive, and they also have a lot of skills. Many teachers are in the Pastoral Care Programme and they would be running similar courses, where there is personal development work going on all the time. That is a very good part of the system. Where it falls down is when a student really does have major difficulties. There is very little backup or support. The problem is, what happens when you need to refer? Let’s say that the teacher is faced with the problem in her classroom, and is very concerned, so she refers to the Counsellor. The Counsellor recognises that there is something really serious here and it needs to be referred. The first thing to do is to get the parents’ permission, which does not always come, there can be some huge difficulties there sometimes.
If you do get the parents’ support, then where do you refer? It’s supposed to be your school psychologist, but they are few and far between and they have a massive number of schools to attend, so they cannot give the time commitment that is required to work with a young person. You can refer to Social Services, if they happen to be within a certain catchment area; but even if they are in the catchment area, they’ve still got to decide whether they will take them or not. And then you try psychologists, you try private practitioners and you end up with the Garda. They are the only ones who will respond, who to will take responsibility for a problem that’s presented to them and not just send it on. At one school where I worked, there was a Child Centre near us to which we could refer, and the Centre and the school built up a relationship so that we could communicate more easily. That was good, but it was also very limited.
Guidance Counselling and Career Guidance
Sometimes I wonder whether Guidance Counselling is confused with Career Guidance. When I trained as a Guidance Counsellor, the whole thinking was that the Career Guidance was very important in itself, but it also gave an easy way for a young person to come through the Counsellor’s door and then say what was really concerning them. That really works in a lot of cases. It also gives the young person the opportunity of coming for several visits. You can’t move in a school without somebody knowing, so to be able to say that you are going for career guidance is helpful. It helps the confidentiality.
But sometimes the emphasis is on Career Guidance – all the information about entry to college and so on – because that is what the parents want. Parents want to know what their children are going to do when they leave school, which is very important. The hard er thing to tell them is that a large number of the students don’t know what they want to do. They have ideas and they apply to lots of courses, and it can be very confusing to families. It would be much easier for them to say that James is going into catering, or something like that. But Career Guidance is all about a process and about recognising people’s different processes, and just as you can’t change the colour of your eyes, you can’t rush or force your process of considering what you are going to do with your life at sixteen or seventeen. In fact, to a certain degree, the points system and some application systems recognise this and allow a certain amount of flexibility, but some parents just see the points and get frightened; whereas the young people who understand the points system are not frightened by it, in the sense that they know how to use it to their own advantage, which is what it is meant for. If parents could see that, maybe they’d be a little less anxious about it.
As a School Counsellor, you can get caught between the very serious problems and the ones where you can move things on with a little information. Sometimes all somebody needs to know is where to look for entry requirements to progress, and if you give them the details, then that will be all they need and it is very empowering. And it is good when that happens, but of course they are not all that simple.
By becoming aware of their own process with the Counsellor, a student involved in their own search for information learns more about themselves and gradually is able to make decisions both within the short term and the long term which will hopefully keep opportunities open to them in the future. The key is that the student is hands-on the whole the way through the process themselves. I would like to see that in school counselling, with the students going to the Counsellor because they want to and staying there to sort things out. But in reality – what do you do? You go round to the classroom door, you pop your head in and you say, “I’d like to see Mary.” So Mary comes out, saying, “Will I bring my bag or not?” … and then you take it from there. Ideally, there are programmes right through the school intended for them to get to know you, so that when they do have a problem they feel that they can come to you. But the reality is that they don’t necessar ily seek the Counsellor; they seek a teacher they like, or the matron, or a friend.
Anyway it is apparent that no Counsellor could cope with all the demands, it’s not possible. But I think in the context of the teacher in the classroom, you’re going from a student who is so disruptive that they are wrecking the class for everybody to the very silent one who needs as much attention – the whole span is in the room. Now who is going to get the attention? Who is going to get referred? And who wants it? I would like the whole counselling ethos of the school much more dissipated. It’s about integrity and honesty. And that I think is why I did train in psychotherapy as well, because I was always looking for more, always going on courses for a weekend or whatever, and it was never enough. So then I did the training in psychotherapy where I went through a long, intensive process myself, and certainly that opened up a lot. But not every Guidance Counsellor has that opportunity!
Rokie Thompson is a School Guidance Counsellor working in Dublin.