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Elementary Counselors: ‘The Normal Has Changed’


Elementary school counselors at Kelloggsville Public Schools and Forest Hills Public Schools are helping students navigate their way through a world of evolving technology, high academic expectations and exposure to issues unheard of 20 years ago.

Lisa VanKampen, Hillary DeRidder, Aime Thurber and Laura Kuperus are bringing increased counseling services to Kelloggsville’s three elementary schools. They are part of a staff that also includes a middle-school and two high-school counselors.

“Schools need elementary counselors because it’s at this age students begin to develop their academic self-confidence, character and values,” VanKampen said. “This is when that foundation is set, and it needs to be nurtured later along the way.”

Thurber, VanKampen and DeRidder’s positions are funded through a three-year federal grant from the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program. They replace retired counselor Kay Oppenhuizen, who spread her time among all three schools.

“There wasn’t time to service the social and emotional needs of all kids in three buildings with one counselor,” said Tammy Savage, director of instruction.

The counselors are stationed at East, West and Southeast elementary schools. Students attend East in kindergarten and first grade, West in second and third grade, and Southeast in fourth and fifth grades. Services look a little different at each grade level, but consistency in approaches will help meet students’ needs as they grow up, the counselors say.

Focuses are on character-building, anger-management strategies and study skills, said Thurber, who works part-time at Southeast with Kuperus.

West Kelloggsviile second-grade students Natileigh Merchant and Kahari Cones make sad faces while talking about feelings with counselor Lisa VanKampen
West Kelloggsviile second-grade students Natileigh Merchant and Kahari Cones make sad faces while talking about feelings with counselor Lisa VanKampen

Creating Solid Ground for Students

The counselors present broad classroom lessons on topics like mean behavior versus bullying, study skills and fitness and nutrition. They also work to provide resources to parents to help children at home.

“The biggest thing right now is to develop relationships,” VanKampen said.

If bonds are strong, counselors can more easily address behavioral and emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, oppositional defiance disorder and attention deficit disorder, Thurber said.

Many Kelloggsville students come from low-income families. About 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. When students face socioeconomic barriers, needs are compounded.

“There are higher needs as far as the kids needing someone to talk to, help problem-solve (and) with distractions in the classroom,” Thurber said.

Learning what school is all about is also part of the puzzle for little ones.

“At the pre-kindergarten to first-grade level especially, many of the kids have never been in school before,” DeRidder said. “We are developing that structure of what school is and how appropriate behavior at home may be different at school.”

Another factor counselors face is that young students face intense issues and different circumstances than in the past. Lockdown drills to prepare students in the event of a school shooting leave children both terrified and desensitized. Some first-graders have smart phones and, academically, kindergarten is what first grade used to be.

“The normal has changed. Kids are growing up faster because everything is at their fingertips,” VanKampen said.

To truly meet students’ needs, there has to be a collaborative effort between the counselors and teachers, administrators and parents.

“It takes a village to raise a child, and we are part of that village,” VanKampen said.

Hillary DeRidder, East Elementary School counselor, reflects on the need for school counselors
Hillary DeRidder, East Elementary School counselor, reflects on the need for school counselors

More Stress, or More Talking It Out?

Judy Bouley is what kids call a “safe adult.” The full-time counselor at Central Woodlands 5/6 Elementary, in Forest Hills Public Schools, visits every classroom at least once a week, so hers is a face they see a lot. And the stuff she talks with them about is aimed at letting them know she doesn’t shy away from topics others might find uncomfortable.

Today’s topic is being a good friend by standing up to injustice, and what students think both mean. The first week of school, she talked with fifth-graders about a topic only they could know: fifth-grade stress.

In the hallways at the school is a bulletin board that asks “What’s your Inside?” Students are invited to tack up a colored circle of paper that describes their mood. They can write their feelings on the back of the circle, but that side is not displayed.

Bouley said 20-30 percent of the school’s fifth-graders volunteer that they regularly feel stress, and that figure is “much, much more” than she has ever seen. But she said that news isn’t all bad.

On the one hand, she thinks efforts to bring mental health into the open have helped reduce its stigma, which has led more people to seek help. And “more conversation is a good thing,” Bouley said.

On the other hand, students today have fewer face-to-face interactions than they used to at that age, and in many instances, virtual interactions are their real interactions. That makes young people less adept at reading facial cues and body language during communication, she said, which has also affected how teachers teach conflict resolution skills. And all this at a time when, developmentally, not wanting to talk to an adult is normal.

“We’ve entered a world of social contact through isolation,” Bouley said. “(Social media) really is an extension of their life for good.”

Forest Hills starts talking mental health to students in early elementary in terms of “pebbles and boulders,” or life’s fleeting annoyances versus those stressors or traumas that are far heavier than a youngster could ever be expected to carry.

“We also talk about situational sadness – the kind you can work through – and the kind that sticks around for a long time, the kind that leads a child to say to me ‘I’ve been sad for three weeks and I don’t know why.’

“They are so young and so impressionable,” Bouley said. “The hardest piece for us is helping them understand that they simply can’t carry the boulders, the parents fighting, the mother passing away on the first day of school.”

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Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Grant

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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