Going Beyond "Guidance"
It used to be that if kids were having a hard time socially in middle school, they could at least look forward to the refuge of home — away from the bullies — and, traditionally, the comfort of their families. They had the after-school and evening hours to recharge, gain solace from home, and buck up before the onslaught the next school day. Today's kids have no such refuge. With their perpetual connectedness to the web via e-mail, IM, text messaging, Facebook, and other social networking sites, kids are connected, for better or for worse, 24 hours a day.
"It is a huge problem," says Tammi MacKeben, a middle-school counselor in El Paso, Texas, who was selected as the 2008 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). "Technology makes it possible for kids to say awful things about each other on the Web. The kids can't escape it, it's all around them — and parents don't know how to stop it. Someone can spread a rumor about a kid, and it's worldwide within five minutes."
This is where an effective middle-school counselor can come in. Counselors today are trained to be much more proactive, to try to preempt the kinds of behavior that lead to social torture (and, for some of us, tortuous memories) in middle school.
Of course, bullying (cyber or otherwise) is just one of many issues facing today's middle-school counselors. Any parent not living under a rock understands that some kids begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs in middle school. Other typical issues on the middle-school counselor's plate are friendship/clique formation and exclusion; academic challenges, often tied to social issues; death and divorce; and more positive subjects like community service, career and future planning, and cultural diversity programs.
A Day in the Life
For MacKeben, a typical day means spending about 30 percent of her time in the classrooms conducting group lessons (for example, self-esteem, anti-bullying, career planning) and another 15 to 20 percent seeing students individually. The rest of her time is spent planning programs or seeing groups of students with specific needs: in El Paso, this includes groups of English-language-learning students, anger management groups, divorce support groups, and 8th graders who need help choosing their high school curricula.
Middle-school counselors need to have a keen understanding of the psychological, hormonal, and emotional changes that are taking place — and which may affect girls differently than boys. Compared to primary school counselors, the issues facing middle-school counselors can be described as more specific (less theoretical), more serious and impactful (both social and academic issues), and in some ways more dangerous (the introduction of drugs, alcohol, cutting, severe bullying, etc.).