At School, More Stressed Kids, Fewer Counsellors

Widening ratio of students to counsellors 'outrageous,' says UBC professor.

By Carrie Swiggum 8 Sep 2011 |

Carrie Swiggum is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Now some pressures at school arrive over cell phones.

Remember the first time you heard the term "cyber-bullying"? A fast changing culture is adding new sources of stress for this generation of kids in B.C.'s schools.

Yet school counsellors -- the professionals trained to offer solace and guidance to students -- are quickly losing the ability to help with new demands, said Dr. Lynn Miller, professor of counselling psychology at UBC. It's because the ratio of counsellors to students is so wide, said Miller. She calls that growing gap "outrageous."

Before 2002, the maximum number of students per counsellor was set at 360 by the B.C. government. Since then, the number can be as high as 1,200 to one. And that not only makes it impossible to do their jobs adequately, it cheats students of their best chance to do well in school, she said.

Before the 1990s, counsellors were largely helping students with appropriate academic selection and placing them in the right classroom, said Miller, a former elementary and secondary school counsellor who now trains school counsellors.

These days counsellors are the go-to people when a problem erupts in the school. "A very significant part of your day is reacting to whatever the big problem is -- that day, that week, in that child's life -- rather than being proactive and preventive," Miller said.

"We're trained to be thinking about preventive activities. So teaching kids skills of emotion regulation, making good decisions, friendship development, conflict resolution. These are very hard to plan when you're reacting to a death, a crisis, a divorce, a fight or suicide threats."

Miller said cutting counsellors to meet tight school budgets carries a big risk.

Counsellors, she said, "are more necessary than probably nearly anybody else in the school because they are responsible for helping children with social and emotional aspects of their life. School counsellors' basic contention is, you can't learn unless you are feeling safe and secure at school, and how do you feel safe and secure? Well, only if your social and emotional needs are met."

In B.C., counsellors must have a B.C. teaching licence and a master's degree in counselling psychology or related field. They also require at least two years of in-class teaching time. Like teachers, they belong to the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF).

Doing more with less

The number of school counsellors working in the province went from 991 in 2001-2002 to 879 in 2010-2011, according to the Ministry of Education, a decrease of 11.2 per cent.

Full-time public school students are counted at 540,696 for this coming school year in B.C., a 10.5 per cent decline since 2000-2001, according to the Ministry of Education.

And since 2002, 190 schools have been closed in B.C., according to the BCTF.

Although there has been a decrease in students, the impact of school closures means that more kids are crammed into fewer schools and that counsellors are taking on more kids every year.

In 2002, Bills 27 and 28 stripped teacher-student staffing ratios out of contract, which included school counsellor staffing ratios.

"Certainly, our ratio increased since then," said Connie Easton, a high school counsellor in Richmond since 1994 and past president of the B.C. School Counsellors Association.

Easton said prior to that year, one counsellor was capped at 360 students. Now she handles about 420 at her school, she said.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but 50 extra kids is a lot of time. Especially if out of those 50 kids, five or six or seven are high-needs cases."

In April of this year, Bills 27 and 28 were found to be unconstitutional by the B.C. Supreme Court because they violate teacher's rights to freedom of association. The current status of reinstating staffing ratios into contract is in limbo, Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, said. "In our view, government's position is that nothing has changed following that court decision."

"Since 2002, we've seen dramatic losses: about 200 schools closed, a terrible loss to communities; tens of thousands of overcrowded classes, where learning conditions have been damaged; 3,700 fewer teaching positions, a far more significant decline than can be accounted for than by lower enrollment," Lambert said in June when referring to the possibility of a looming teacher's strike.

When the teachers' begin classes on Sept. 6, they'll be working according to a "teach only" mandate under the BCTF strike provisions.

Lambert said although counsellors are technically teachers, they won't really be affected by the strike.

Sending kids in crisis to computers

School counsellors are trained in counselling psychology, but they often refer students out to services within the community. When those services are cut, however, they have little recourse.

"They've tried really hard in the ministry and the government at large has tried to fill in those gaps with online resources, thinking kids are tech savvy and they'll go online to get those resources," Connie Easton said.

"A lot of times kids are in crisis and they can't think beyond the end of their nose. They really need a caring adult to connect with and to work through their issues. If we're not available to do that, it falls somewhere else," she said.

That somewhere else tends to be friends or their teachers, if they can't resolve problems at home.

Vic Gladish is a counsellor at Sardis Secondary School in Chilliwack and current president of the B.C. School Counsellors Association. When he started counselling 11 years ago, he had a caseload of 350 kids -- this year it will be 480, he said. He thinks kids are getting short changed compared to when he started, in part because of cuts in community resources.

"In the first half of my tenure here I would refer a lot of kids out to Child Youth Mental Health and other community agencies, but there's such long waiting lists for those services, if they exist. Students get frustrated or they come back saying they didn't get what they needed," he said.

"Over that time there has been an erosion of services community wide, which means that here at school we're being expected to fill in a little more."

'They're facing more issues'

Easton said she's not surprised that a lot of kids are dealing with emotional challenges, explaining that schools are a microcosm of society. If there's an upward trend of depression and anxiety in the world outside school, kids will likely carry that with them.

"We are seeing anxiety at younger ages as well," she said. "Kids coming into high school are often flagged earlier and we have to transition them into high school because that's a big change for most kids."

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