I wear a walkie talkie at work. I’m not alone in this as a school counselor. From my understanding many of us school counselors are just moments away from being called from one thing to another. What typically awaits me on the other end of that radio call is usually an upset child who has “shut down” somewhere in the school or a kid who is not wanting to come to or be at school. I drop whatever it is I am doing, and quickly go to the scene. Sometimes you are going to a classroom or the front office when you see your client. The child may be sitting on the floor with their head down or holding on to Mom’s leg for dear life crying. Once I get there the expectation is that I can fix it, no matter what is wrong. After all, I am the counselor right. Now what do I do?
Here I am, the counselor. I can fix this kid right? Sure, let me just get my magic wand out. Oh no, I left it at home!! So what am I going to do now? That depends on the situation. Let’s take the child who is having some separation anxiety. The parent is probably wearing a face that says, help!?!? The parent wants the child to come to school, but hates to see their child this upset. The first thing I have to do is tell the parent, that they are going to have to leave for things to get better. That means that I am going to have to peal the child off the parent’s leg and hold the kid back till they can get out the door. I always warn the parents that this could get ugly. That moment is the worst. The child is screaming, scared to be left at school, upset that Mom or Dad is leaving them, and worried that they may never come back.
Now what? I am standing in the hall or front office with a child screaming in agony for their parent. The next thing on my mind at this point is to get the child to my office. At least there I can close the door and wait it out. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes we stand where we are till they agree to come with me. When we get in my office the real "magic" actually begins. I have had staff members ask me in wonder, “David, what did you do?” It actually is easier than it looks. I think the most important thing is actually my room, it looks more like a play room than an office. Toys, stuffed animals, puppets, a doll house, and of course the trademark couch make for a comfortable and fun place to be. Once the kid sees my room (or have been there before) they tend to feel agreeable about going there.
Most of the time the kid is not up for talking, yet. They may be going for the door or starring out the window crying and watching their parent drive away. So, still the question is, where’s the magic? How do you help this kid feel better. This is where patience and time come in. It might take 10, 20, or 60 minutes for this child to calm down. However long it takes, the child needs to know that they are here at school, and until 3:30 that won’t change, but that school is a safe and fun place to be. After they calm down, then it’s time to play. We play with toys, draw pictures, blow bubbles, talk with puppets, make shapes with play dough, or pull out a cards or a board game. Playing with toys or games with a kid helps them get past the feelings that they were experiencing when they came to school today. During our game play or free play it is a lot easier to figure out why the child was so upset that morning. You also get to form a positive image of school with the student. After a little play, a few rounds of Go Fish, or a game of checkers that I always lose, I am usually walking a happy kid to join their friends and classmates for a great day of learning.
So what is the magic, it’s simple. All it takes is time, patience, and remembering what is was like to be a kid. You need to cope the way a kid would, play. Oh, and it helps to be silly. After all, a smile is contagious.
David McCord is a school counselor for Montgomery County Public Schools. His theoretical interests are in solution focused theory and play therapy