A day in the life

School Counsellors

A new series in which we talk to IEU members about the diverse roles in education.

Rita Maher

School Counsellor, Senior Practitioner, Catholic Diocese of Wollongong, NSW

Rita has been a counsellor for five years. Before she took her counselling degree, she worked as a school support officer.

“Children needed someone to advocate for them. I noticed kids were being labelled ‘naughty’ or ‘kids who don’t follow instructions’. I felt like we needed to be curious about these kids and understand them,” Rita said.

She always gets to work one hour before school starts so teachers cantalk to her about any students they have concerns about, or in case she needs to debrief a teacher about a child.

There are set appointments throughout the day with children who have been referred by a parent and/or teacher. As Rita works in a primary school, parents must give permission for a child to see a counsellor.

“The day can vary dramatically”, she says. “You have to be ready to go with the flow. If a child is emotionally distressed, you have to deal with that immediately.”

Things have changed a lot over the years. It used to be a more structured day, but now we have to switch it up more, and that’s a direct result of COVID.

Rita runs in-class sessions for the children as well as one-on-one sessions.

“Things have changed a lot over the years. It used to be a more structured day, but now we have to switch it up more, and that’s a direct resultof COVID.”

Rita said the two years of lockdowns and COVID disruption have had a profound effect on some children.

“Children have struggled with being back in the classroom after long periods away.

“For some children it’s the first time in two years they’re back in class. They are tired. They can’t emotionally regulate.

“They are used to more movement, more brain breaks. They don’t have the ability to focus 9-3. They’ve missed that solid grounding.”

Anxiety presentations are on the rise, again a symptom of COVID, she said.

“We’ve been doing group programs to build up resilience and connection. We can’t see every child individually so we’re providing whole-day programs that build emotional literacy.

“We’re teaching them ‘it’s okay to ask for help’. This is a crucial message for the children to take with them throughout their lives.”

Rita is undertaking a Master’s degree in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and would love to get involved with initial teacher training.

“I want to educate teachers about how to work with children who present with challenges. Teachers and counsellors can work collaboratively to help children with different learning needs.

“Teaching degrees teach teachers how to teach, but you can’t teach a dysregulated child. We need to support teachers and give them the tools to enable all children to thrive.

“We need more counsellors in the primary system. It’s a proactive investment that is really going to strengthen children as they go into high school.

‘It’s more productive to support them emotionally before they hit the teenage years than after.

“Normalising counselling in people’s lives and building emotional literacy, that’s what I really cherish.”

As Rita is an advocate for children, the IEU advocates for her.

“If I want to be a voice for change, the union is a voice for change for me. It’s important our work is sustainable. There is burnout among counsellors. Being in the IEU gives us a united voice to advocate for ourselves.”

Sue Osborne Journalist

Jeanne Appleton

Wellbeing Counsellor, Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, NSW

Jeanne has been a counsellor in Catholic primary schools for 18 years. Previously, she was a social worker finding foster families for children. Working with children and families has been a lifelong passion. Even when she wasn’t working, she was organising mothers’ groups.

Her typical day starts half an hour before the official school day begins, connecting with teachers and other staff to check on students and ask about significant events. She always makes sure it’s a good time to take children out of class for a session, so as not to impact on their assessments, art and music classes or other special times.

Jeanne sees roughly six students a day, speaks with parents and checks in with teachers to see how things are going. Sometimes she has before or after-school meetings with parents, groups of teachers or external psychologists to collaborate on behaviour plans for children.

She sometimes runs a group for children to develop their social skills or talk about friendship groups and has done class presentations on mental health topics. Other work includes observations of children in the playground to see how they interact with other students, or in class to see how on or off task they might be.

“As a mandatory reporter, it’s also my job to liaise with statutory bodies like the Department of Community Justice. As counsellors we need to keep updated with training on safeguarding children and the risk of significant harm,” Jeanne said.

It’s the best job as I get to know children and work with them and their families, and with the very committed school staff.

“The role has evolved since I began. There weren’t as many counsellors in the diocese. I had to look after five schools rather than two. Now the role of counsellor is more embedded. Every primary school has a counsellor at least two days a week.

“We have more time in a school, we can spend more time with a child who has serious issues.

“Now there’s a range of support services. There’s a behavioural team that can come in if a class is really struggling. There are family clinics and there’s support for counsellors too.

“Lead counsellors come and supervise us so we can better manage our work. An attendance team helps with attendance issues.”

Staff shortages and long wait times to see a psychologist have increased the burden on school counsellors. Since COVID, Jeanne said she is seeing more students with anxiety.

“School was always a safe place, but for the last two years it hasn’t been. Friends are what gels kids and when they couldn’t see their friends, they would start to wonder, ‘will they still like me?’

“The war in Ukraine is in our loungerooms every night. Our caseloads are getting heavier. I’m seeing a lot of stress in teachers too.”

Jeanne said being a school counsellor is a privilege. “It’s the best job as I get to know children and work with them and their families, and with the very committed school staff.

“I help kids learn to regulate their emotions. If kids feel right, they can flourish, so our role is crucial.”

Jeanne said her IEU membership was important as the union successfully negotiated the first ever enterprise agreement for counsellors in 2017 and a second one in 2021 that secured better pay and conditions.

Sue Osborne Journalist