Counseling During COVID: Tips for School Counselors

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COVID-19 has brought challenges for many industries, and counseling is no exception. Teletherapy sessions are different from in-person sessions. School counselors may be struggling to build rapport and keep clients engaged. Here are some effective strategies to use when counseling students virtually during COVID.

Meet Students Where They Are At

Start by recognizing that your students are facing new challenges during the pandemic. They are probably feeling less focused at home, so you may not be able to stay as focused in counseling sessions. Accept that and don’t try to push to get too much done. Instead, keep sessions light and find ways to connect to your clients. Try sharing your own struggles during the pandemic. You can also identify new goals for virtual sessions if needed. When identifying new goals, be sure to set realistic timelines to meet them, and check in regularly.

Take Extra Care to Ensure Confidentiality

One of the greatest challenges of virtual sessions is ensuring confidentiality for the student. It’s harder to make sure they’re in a private space while at home. Begin each virtual session with a review of what confidentiality is. Ask clients and their parents/guardians how they can ensure confidentiality; directly ask if they are in a private space. It’s also a good idea to develop a memo that defines confidentiality and review it with parents and students.

Effectively Conduct Risk Assessments

It can be harder to assess risk for homicidal or suicidal actions when working with clients virtually. Parents need to be involved in this process since they are able to monitor children at home. Here are some tips for risk assessment:

  • Ask the right questions. Directly ask students if they intend to hurt themselves or others. Use suicidal and/or homicidal risk assessment quizzes as needed.
  • Familiarize yourself with the client’s history. Do they have past suicide attempts or disciplinary actions from the school? How long have they had homicidal or suicidal ideation? How severe is the ideation?
  • Utilize feedback from others – parents, teachers, and staff.
  • Lay out interventions from the beginning and develop comprehensive safety plans. Make sure students and parents understand what actions you must take to mitigate risks.

Manage Expectations

Virtual counseling is not going to be the same as in-person sessions. Make sure you set realistic expectations from the beginning. Whenever possible, have the client provide input on expectations. Be mindful of the limits of virtual sessions and the differences between virtual and in-person sessions.

Individual Counseling:

Virtual individual counseling can be very similar to one-on-one in-person sessions. The student’s response may vary from being engaged and focused on the treatment goals, to quiet and withdrawn. It can be harder for students to focus and engage over a screen.

Group Counseling:

Virtual group counseling also can be similar to in-person, but with some added obstacles. Groups run better with more than one facilitator. It’s helpful to have another clinician present to monitor client activity and disable video, microphone, or chat features as needed. Set clear rules to help manage groups on a virtual platform.

Watch for Burnout

Burnout is a state of chronic exhaustion and lack of motivation brought on by prolonged stress. Clinicians and clients are equally at risk of burnout.  It is important to learn the warning signs and actively manage stress.

Warning signs of burnout include:

  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Negative outlook/cynicism
  • Lack of compassion or empathy (especially in helping professions like healthcare)
  • Dreading going to work
  • Anger/irritability
  • Feeling like you can’t do your job well/effectively

Managing Burnout

If you feel like you are experiencing burnout, or just want to prevent it, here are some healthy strategies to use.

Set boundaries at work.

Take regular breaks, don’t work overtime, say no to tasks you cannot do.

Find balance between work and life.

Don’t work outside normal working hours unless it’s absolutely necessary and avoid making this a habit.

Restructure your environment to help you be more effective at work.

When working from home, create a separate space so you can have clear boundaries between work life and home life.

Practice self-care every day.

Take care of your spiritual, physical, emotional, personal, professional, and psychological needs through regular self-care practices.

Identify and utilize supports inside and outside of work.

For example, you might ask a colleague for assistance or ask your roommate to do a chore you won’t have time to complete.

Access resources available to you.

Identify resources provided by your employer or community and access them as needed. For example, if your employer offers counseling through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), take advantage of it.

Develop an awareness of self.

Constantly assess your stress levels and sense of well-being to make sure you catch burnout before it gets worse.

Know When to Make Referrals

As a counselor, you want to do everything you can to help your clients. Sometimes that means referring them to a higher level of care. Here’s how to tell if a referral may be necessary.

The student is in crisis.

When a student is actively suicidal or homicidal, this is a crisis situation and requires emergency help. If your client intends to commit suicide or homicide and/or has a plan to do so, contact the client’s local emergency department or law enforcement.

The student isn’t making progress or is getting worse.

Assess the client’s symptoms and their progress towards treatment goals at every session. If they are not making progress after several sessions, or if their symptoms are worsening, this could indicate that a higher level of care is needed. Consider a referral to an intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or inpatient program. Clients will benefit from the increased structure of these programs. After they have made sufficient progress, they can resume outpatient sessions.

High Focus Centers provides intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization programs for children and teens ages 10-18. We treat a range of mental health disorders and substance use disorders. If you’d like to make a referral, please email us at [email protected] or call (800) 877-3628 . Our intake fax number is (973) 909-4049.