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Planting Seeds to Make a Difference: School Counseling at the Elementary Level

LPIE is proud to provide funding to support the counseling and wellness program in the Lafayette elementary schools.

School Counselors play a critical role in the Lafayette School District, working with teachers, meeting with students, and interacting with parents to support students’ mental health and academic growth. Our students have greatly benefited from their support; but the counselors have historically been spread a little thin, dividing time between schools. This year, for the first time, each elementary school has a dedicated school counselor. The counseling program is funded in part by generous parent donations to LPIE. The impact on student mental health and wellness has already been profound. And the best news is that our school counselors are just getting started.

LPIE caught up with Rachel DeChristofaro, school counselor at Lafayette Elementary. Known to the students as Miss Rachel, she is one of four counselors—along with Maddie Blake (Happy Valley), Jennifer Girard (Springhill), and Stephanie Haren (Burton Valley)—who are each dedicated to one of our elementary schools. Asked what drew her to the profession, she shared, “I was always that kid who was the more observant one. I have a passion for understanding people’s minds and how they can make connections with each other. I help people process what’s going on with them and understand where their emotions are coming from.”

Rachel DeChristofaro, School Counselor at Lafayette Elementary

At Lafayette Elementary, Miss Rachel has been working closely with the other elementary school counselors to put together a program to support students. As the year goes on, they meet regularly to discuss trends and refine the program. The breadth of work that they do as counselors hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the depth. Having a dedicated counselor at each site means they can get to know each school even more thoroughly than before, resulting in a comprehensive and stable program that students and teachers can access in ways that haven’t been possible until now.

One of the first things to know is that there are several support staff at each school site, including school counselors and school psychologists. Each has different roles with similar ends—helping students grow and succeed. One of the biggest differences between the counselors and psychologists is around testing. A school psychologist’s goal is to understand why a student has a particular challenge and generally uses a test to determine an answer. A school counselor has a similar goal but is more focused on helping kids recognize and process their emotions.

This year, Miss Rachel has been getting into the classrooms and establishing a framework to discuss the big emotions that kids feel daily. The elementary counselors have developed a series of lessons that they cover, each over a 3-week span, delving into topics like feelings, mindfulness, friendship, goals and dreams, and the Zones of Regulation. Lessons may typically use a book as a starting point, and each counselor will work with the class to break down what’s happening. Taken together, the lessons create a shared context and vocabulary for discussing wellness.

With this framework in place, Miss Rachel can work with teachers to address individual and grade-level challenges. She meets with teachers in each grade to identify some of the biggest trends like anxiety, loneliness, and low academic performance. This raw data serves as a starting point to create groups where students can explore challenges and solutions together. Some of the groups that have arisen this year include ones focused on friendship challenges, peer connection, and overcoming shyness. In each of these groups, the successes have been great. The kids are checking in with each other and making connections. Together, they are identifying problems and working towards solutions.

Finding an opening to discuss mental health with kids isn’t always easy, though. Older kids can recognize and articulate their feelings, but they may not want to talk. Younger kids are experiencing the same big emotions but can’t understand the underlying challenges just yet. What Miss Rachel likes to do is provide the space for the important moments to happen. Engaging in play therapy and having organic conversations allows things to come up naturally. Younger students will say things like, “I get mad sometimes and I don’t know why”. Older kids will self-refer to the counselor to talk about challenges with a friend. Both situations are jumping-off points for bigger conversations. As time goes on, kids become better able to name what they’re experiencing.

Having dedicated counselors at each school means each counselor not only gets to know the school community but establishes deep trust with students and parents. And having a dedicated space on campus for a counseling center means that students have a physical place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes all kids need to do is get away from the craziness of recess. Miss Rachel has been opening the counseling center to provide that safe space.

Rachel DeChristofaro awaits students in the warm and welcoming student counseling center at Lafayette Elementary School.

And what is beginning to happen is profound. Miss Rachel notes that crisis counseling has increased, not because kids are experiencing more problems, but because kids now have a place to go when they need someone to listen. Having a school site counselor means there is a dedicated person on campus with whom to develop a foundation of trust. More trust means that students are not only opening up about their feelings but processing them as well. And having an adult to talk to and a place to feel safe means that students feel supported. And when students are supported emotionally, the groundwork is set for deeper academic work and growth.

For her part, Miss Rachel says this is the “most supportive school I’ve ever worked at.” The teachers are very supportive of the counselors’ work and will come to her to discuss specific behaviors that they are seeing in the classroom. Sometimes they will ask her to perform a classroom observation or pull a student out for a conversation. The goal of each interaction is to merge wellness and academics. “What I would love for everyone to understand is that we do similar things as other mental health professionals; here, we work together to collaborate on students.” Working with younger kids is not only a joy for her, but a real opportunity to make a difference in their mental health. They are “still innocent, still working through their lives, and still growing. We can plant the seeds to make a difference as they get older.”

Miss Rachel has only been here a short time, but she sees strong connections across the community. Working at Lafayette Elementary has been a very positive experience, and she is so thankful for all the support. In turn, Miss Rachel would love to do whatever she can to help parents and caregivers make positive connections with kids, because supporting wellness doesn’t end at school. The most important thing that adults can do is to connect with kids at home. “The more time you spend with kids that is uninterrupted, the better,” she says. Putting aside twenty minutes to focus on them goes a long way. “Life is busy, but kids appreciate connection,” she says. “It all starts with asking, ‘How was your day?’ And when presented with ‘Fine,’ say ‘Tell me more about what ‘fine’ means?’ Get to know what makes them feel comfortable at school. Ask questions.” And when it comes to wellness, she says “Give it a chance!” In her own words, “the progress since August has been amazing!” Let’s keep it going!

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