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Dealing With Five Common Student Challenges: Strategies for Guidance Counsellors

Peer Pressure

When a student comes to see their guidance counsellor with concerns about peer pressure, they are raising a flag that says they feel like they are being asked to do something they don’t want to do, either because it makes them uncomfortable or because it might get them into trouble. They are also concerned about the social cost of not participating, with exclusion or rejection being a major worry. Here are some ideas guidance counsellors can share with their students: 

Students are encouraged to: 

  • Say NO in a clear and confident way.
  • Withdraw from the situation. 
  • Politely reject the request. 
  • Explain why they are not going to participate.
  • Come up with an excuse
  • Suggest an alternative activity
  • Find an ally that also does not want to participate in the activity.
  • Use humour to change the topic and draw attention away from what is being asked of them.
  • Ignore what is being asked of them and change the topic. 
  • Repeat their position if they’re being pestered. Be very clear that they are not going to do what is being asked of them. 

Employing one or a few of these strategies can be helpful for students trying to resist the pull of negative peer pressure. 

Body Image

Body image is an issue for many students. Here are a few strategies to help combat negative self-perception when it comes to a person’s sense of appearance: 

  • Practice self-reflection. Ask students to consider their concept of the ideal body type. Do their ideas come from family, friends, media, and/or social media? Reflecting on how these influences have shaped the way they think will help them deal with the idea of body image. 
  • Be conscious of bias. Does the young person harbour pro-thinness and anti-fatness bias? Do they equate ‘thin’ with success and ‘fat’ with failure? Being aware of bias—showing a prejudice for or against something or someone—will help the student deal with the body image dilemma. 
  • Shift the focus. Encourage young people to be active and to eat nutritious foods. Speak openly about self-worth not being dependent on body shape or size. In other words, shift the focus away from appearance toward the importance of skills, talents, and interests.

Counsellors can also tap into the many resources that are out there. A simple web search will provide a mountain of information. 

Bullying

In addition to quickly responding to the appeals of victims of bullying, guidance counsellors can show their community that they are supportive of anti-bullying initiatives by being part of the organization of Pink Shirt Day (the last Wednesday of February every year) and promoting bullying awareness campaigns throughout the school year. This shows students that their counsellors are willing to lead in the battle against bullying. Anti-bullying education is said to have reduced incidents of school-related bullying by 20% nationwide. 

On a personal level, guidance counsellors can help victims by combatting the myths associated with bullying (e.g., bullies will stop if a person simply defends themselves, fights back, ignores them, etc.). By the time a student arrives at the counsellor’s office with a concern about bullying, they have tried to take care of things themselves. They have tried to ‘stick up for themselves,’ ‘fight back,’ and/or ‘brush it off.’ They might have even convinced themselves that enduring the bullying has been a ‘character building’ exercise. Counsellors should be mindful not to slip into the bullying mythology (which tends to put the responsibility on the victim), and consciously and compassionately take action to help the victim. 

Substance Use/Abuse

When it comes to substance use and abuse, guidance counsellors would do well to be on the lookout for the warning signs: 

  • a rise is absences from school. 
  • a shift in the student’s commitment to their studies.
  • increased moodiness.
  • appearing tired or detached in the classroom.
  • associating with a new peer group. 

These warning signs are often reported to guidance counsellors by parents and teachers which, in turn, leads to an appointment with the student. If substance use is the culprit in the change in behaviour, counsellors can employ a calm and reasoned (not preachy!) explanation of the pitfalls of drug and alcohol use. Beyond having a thoughtful discussion with the student, the harm reduction approach can be introduced. For more information on harm reduction, see the CMHA’s website (https://ontario.cmha.ca/harm-reduction/). Also, if a counsellor is feeling out of their depth when it comes to this or any other issue, consulting with the broader school team is recommended and encouraged.  

Angst and Depression

In cases of angst or mild depression, guidance counsellors can help considerably by listening intently to the students worries and concerns. Listening is a wondrous healer and can certainly help a student begin to navigate the challenges in front of them. They can also recommend the following, proven strategies that help alleviate low mood: 

  • regular exercise.
  • healthy nutrition.
  • consistent sleep. 
  • connecting with friends. 

These suggestions sound reasonable on paper, but it is often difficult to convince someone in a depressive state to embrace any of these strategies. This is where the skills of the counsellor will be tested. If a counsellor can help a student pursue even one of these strategies, the road out of angst or mild depression can begin. 

If the student is suffering from more severe depression, consultation with parents and caregivers, the school team (SW, CYW and administration), and/or outside professionals is a must. The goal is to provide the student with the best care possible and, in more intense situations, a collective approach will likely be necessary. 

By: Sean Dolan