Navigating the World of Public Schools

Public Schools Header Image

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

As a therapist and school counselor, I would like to provide some resources for those of you who work with school-aged children. The main questions I’ll attempt to answer are: Why would you need resources; What resources might be helpful; and How would you access the resources available.

First, Why would you, as a non-school based therapist need to worry about what is happening for your client at school? Your child client likely spends a great deal of time at school. This is a very different environment from home, and children’s behavior sometimes looks quite different between the two settings. For example, a child may be described as displaying difficult, acting-out behaviors at home but quiet and well-behaved at school.

There are also plenty of cases where a child might not display any distressing behaviors in the home environment but is struggling at school. You may get children referred to you because of their school behavior, so in that case you would have an easier time treating your client by finding out first-hand about the school and child’s experience there.

Even if school does not appear to be the issue for your client, it can be helpful to find out about their experience of their school environment and what is working well. This gives a more complete picture for you as you set out to determine best practices for working with them.

Through my years of work in schools, I have seen a variety of behaviors. There are some patterns of behaviors to look out for because they happen more frequently for some individuals in schools. For example, staff tend to grow alarmed when they see children running out of the classroom, throwing objects (sometimes very large such as desks and sometimes in a dangerous way such as at other people), and yelling or causing general disruptions or defiance within the classroom. Other common concerns include children who do not speak at all, who sleep during the class day, and those who hide under desks. Social skills are put to the test in a major way at school, so this is another area where some children get identified as having concerning behavior. This could include sexualized or aggressive behavior towards other students.  

For middle school students, behavior may include a greater frequency or intensity of defiance and aggression within the classroom or with peers. Suicidal ideation and other mental health concerns may be noticed more as the child grows older. In high school, mental health concerns may become a more common factor causing children to seek treatment with you.  

At any level, children who act out and externalize their feelings with uncontrolled body movements and/or verbalizations will more likely get noticed. Adults may not so easily recognize the needs of students who internalize their feelings and do not act out.

When school staff or parents are at a loss for what to do, they often turn to therapy in the hopes that this could help change a child’s behavior. Sometimes, they are at a loss to explain the child’s behavior and are hoping the therapist will be able to uncover the true secrets as to what is going on with the child. This is where you might get involved.

As an outsider to the school community, there are some helpful things to keep in mind as you are working with the child and family. A child’s behavior is a function of his or her environment, so it will help you to get to know the child’s school for yourself. For example, some school staff or faculty have a pattern of engaging in power struggles with students, but this is likely not the information you will receive just by talking to the adults in the child’s life. You will have to dig deeper by looking at data or making your own observations at the school. Through this kind of investigation, you might find the true reason for the child’s behavior really has to do with someone else’s behavior. Finding out this information will give you a better chance at coming up with effective interventions that align with your client’s experience.

This leads us to the next question topic: what information might you look for within the school setting?  Some basic questions you might do well to ask include the following:

  1. What is the child’s behavior at different points throughout the day? There are grids that staff use to denote what a child was doing every 5 or 10 seconds for a 20 minute period. That child’s behavior is compared to a variety of peers and what they are doing at the same time as the client. If this is done at a variety of times, subjects, and settings, it can give you good information about potential reasons for your client’s behavior. Ask someone at school if you can have a copy of this information or if the information hasn’t yet been collected, see if they would be willing to do so.
  2. After identifying a particular behavior you want to learn more about, find out what happens just before the behavior occurs (antecedent) and what happens just after (consequence). This may inform you as to why the child is behaving as s/he is. For example, many times in school settings a child is inadvertently rewarded for behavior that the school staff actually wish to extinguish. Examples of this include when a child leaves the classroom, they might be allowed to go to a different setting, spend time with a preferred adult, or not be required to do the classroom work; or, if a child makes noise or otherwise disrupts in the classroom, perhaps they receive attention from staff or students.
  3. What are the goals that the child has and how do those goals compare to the goals of school staff and caregivers? If you are able to speak to staff at the school where your client attends, you could learn a lot about what is working well and where some potential difficulties are arising just by talking to people and gathering anecdotal information.

If you work exclusively outside of a school setting, you may be wondering how you would go about navigating the system to get the information you are looking for. One good place to start would be with your client and/or their caregivers. Ask them to set up a meeting between you and school personnel so that you can begin getting to know the people in your client’s school environment.

Once you build relationships with some school staff, you could ask for some help gathering the more time-intensive data that is involved in tracking a student. If the student’s behavior is especially troublesome for the school, they likely will already have this type of data on hand as it is required for moving forward in a process of getting a student more intensive resources.

In your efforts to help a client make changes in their life, gathering more information about their experience in the school setting will better inform you and your practices. It will take time, but may well hold some keys as to what is really motivating your client’s behavior. In that way, learning more about your client’s school setting can be well worth the extra time and energy you put into it.

Guest post written by Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC

Guest post written by Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC

Jenny Pelo, MA, LPC, NCC is a school counselor and community-based therapist in the Denver area. She has worked with children and adults at a variety of ages and developmental levels. She enjoys helping others heal from trauma and finding meaning in their lives. Spending time outdoors, rock climbing, and being involved with a meditation community bring her great joy in her own life.