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Over the 24 years that I’ve served as a school counselor, I’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of students who are struggling to cope with the many and varied stressors in their life. These are students who are full of potential, but setbacks such as an illness, financial and family worries, social pressures and uncertainty about graduation can send them into a negative spiral that makes it difficult for them to focus and learn.
Like many school counselors, I serve a large caseload of students and have searched for effective ways to help these students build the healthy coping skills they need to navigate their stress and make life a little less overwhelming. But new skills require practice, and my quick, periodic check-ins between the many demands on my schedule just aren’t enough. I know how easily counselors and other staff can become discouraged about how many students need our help and how little time we have to do that well.
Last year, I discovered how my team and I could use a blended technology solution to bridge this gap. In the time since — especially as student needs have grown through the pandemic — technology has helped us in several vital ways.
- We’re meeting students where they are, at any time during the school year.
- We’ve increased the number of students we can reach with one-to-one personal relationships and daily check-ins.
- We’re supporting students who are going through stressful transitions back to school.
- We’re connecting more intentionally with the students on our caseload who need it most.
Helping kids in their environment of choice — online
My school uses an online program, EmpowerU, to meet the social-emotional learning needs of Tier 2 students and to help them become more resilient, confident and self-directed learners. This has enabled us to increase support for students while creating invaluable collaboration for our counseling team. We are seeing positive changes every day as students learn to overcome the challenges they face and develop the resilience they’ll need for whatever their future holds.
Throughout the school year, students are selected through our student support team to take a social and emotional learning course based on the level of support they need. I often tell students that this class is “all about them” — words most adolescents love to hear. They are assigned a “seat” in the program’s self-paced, online course, and they can earn an elective course credit. As one student completes the course after several weeks, we immediately identify another student to take that seat.
The real benefits of daily connection
Each school day, the students in the program log on for a brief lesson that is followed by texting support with one of the company’s 1-to-1 coaches. My students enjoy the lessons — but what I notice most are the benefits of daily online coaching to reinforce what they’re learning so that it sticks. Students can tell when they have someone in their corner. The master’s-level mental health professionals that serve as the student’s instructor for the course are exactly that, and they dramatically increase our counseling team’s capacity for daily connections.
I’ve also enjoyed seeing how our students and their coaches communicate asynchronously. This creates valuable time for reflection. And I love hearing my students comment about the fact that they will hear from their coach every single school day, even when they haven’t replied or may have fallen behind a bit since the last lesson. The daily connection shows students they matter. They are seen, heard, valued and respected. That in itself is powerful.
Support for tough transitions
We’ve found that a self-paced, online SEL class with personalized daily support can especially help students who are transitioning back to school. An extended absence due to a long illness, mental health crisis or family issue can leave students overwhelmed when they even think about coming back. This tech tool has become a go-to resource for us to support students, build their confidence and help them ease back into the structure of coursework.
One student survived a suicide attempt but remained hospitalized for several weeks — a daunting backdrop for even contemplating going back to school. A course with daily work (but with a pass/fail grade and flexible deadlines) turned out to be exactly what he needed. As he logged his personal reflections in the platform, I came to know him as one of the most thoughtful and insightful young people I’ve ever worked with. It created common ground for us, and it helped him build healthy coping skills that he will use for years to come.
Technology makes me more effective
The first time one of my students took the online course, I noticed how an online SEL platform could make me more effective as a school counselor. With regular reporting and real-time updates that I could easily access from any device, I’m able to see what my students are learning and working on, as well as their reflections and coaching progress.
Now, when a student stops in or we see each other in the hall, I can ask specific questions about their online coursework. And if they bring me something they’re struggling with, I can easily tie it back to the skills and concepts they’ve been learning.
It’s amazing what technology can do to bridge gaps and create better support for students. Students’ lives are lived on their devices, and programs such as EmpowerU enhance our work as counselors by connecting us to the most valuable insights about our students.
Offering an online platform to our students is creating true wraparound support through caring relationships. This is how we best help our students live up to their amazing full potential.
Carolle Huttemier has been a school counselor for 24 years, 22 of which have been at South Washington County Schools in Minnesota, where she uses the EmpowerU online SEL platform. She has been a district counseling lead, department lead, instructional lead and AVID Site Team member. She can be reached at CHuttemi@SoWashCo.org.
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