It’s half an hour to first period and Little Rock’s Mount St. Mary Academy is slowly waking up. The halls are quiet, much quieter than they’ll be in a few minutes, but the sisterhood is up full blast on a row of lockers.
“You got this!” screams a yellow flyer, scrawled in the unmistakable font of teenage girls.
“You’re awesome!” pipes another as it flutters to passersby.
Just down the hall from this cacophonous chorus line of well-wishes, Sister Joan Pfauser, RSM, has similar affirmation on tap each day, every day. Starting this year, she’s focusing strictly on personal counseling, having offloaded the college prep portion of her job at the start of the school year. It’s just one sign of many of the increased emphasis her ministry to the emotional development of students has earned here.
“The whole idea of the self is different today,” she said. “In the past, (students) were kind of searching for themselves. They almost don’t have a sense of self. And not that they’re not looking for who they are, but they almost don’t have a clue. The search for the self is just harder for them.”
Part of that challenge is diminished personal connectivity brought about by digital communication.
“Face-to-face has become screen-to-screen. It makes things harder,” she said. “They’re also bombarded by input of who they are from other people. They’re always being judged on social media and when you’re constantly trying to externally or internally defend who you think you are, you really don’t get to who you are.”
Neither Sister Joan nor her cohort Amy Owens said it was particularly challenging to get students to visit the counseling office. The trick, they said, is cutting through to the real issue.
“You have to do some solution-focused brief counseling because we only have them for so many minutes,” Owens said. “Even though we have long class periods, we can’t keep them for an hour and a half. ‘What do we need to get through here before you go back and manage your day?’”
If you think sharing one’s feelings and struggles is strictly a function of an all-girls school, think again. Robert Pugh has been counselor at Subiaco Academy for nearly a decade and can attest to similar conditions within the all-male student body.
“The boys I see place a lot of pressure on themselves” he said. “Our boys love to compete; they compete academically, they compete athletically, and we celebrate those achievements.”
The presence of a full-timer like Pugh isn’t the only sign that counseling is valued around here. Next year, the school will roll out a parallel curriculum that addresses students’ emotional development to go along with subject matter. That, and Pugh’s already-consistent presence, is hoped to further break down social and cultural stigmas that sometimes keep students from seeking help.
“I’ve talked with boys from 16 different countries and in my experience, boys are boys, no matter where they’re from,” he said. “We see kids that are dealing with a lot of the same issues that are in the public schools — ADD, ADHD and a couple of other things.”
“We are constantly evolving and bettering our programs as a result, to really get the kids oriented to who they can reach out to if they are having this issue or that issue.”
One big part of a counselor’s effectiveness is the trust they engender not just to seek personal help but to refer a friend who’s struggling, also. Doing so is a difficult bridge for some students to cross, said Jennifer Roscoe, counselor at Sacred Heart School in Morrilton.
“We all know peer pressure and ‘I don’t want to be a snitch,’ and all those things,” she said. “I do feel like most of our students, if there is a legitimate concern, feel that they can come and talk to me or somebody else. Peer interaction can always be improved, though; I feel like you can never have enough eyes, never have enough ears.”
While not as prevalent as it once was, Roscoe said there’s still a residual attitude that kids in a parochial school are insulated or immune to problems faced by other kids.
“Depression, anxiety, relationship problems, all that, absolutely,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of it just today already.”
“(Students) are not sheltered just because they come here. There are real problems and we’ve got all kinds of kids coming through now, kids with issues we may not have been able to handle before because we weren’t equipped to.”
Being equipped means being tactical. Teri Breeding, high school counselor at St. Joseph School in Conway, said regular classroom time is one way she and her counterpart, elementary/middle school counselor Kristen Piraino, stay engaged with the student body. The duo present various classes, workshops and orientations to impart coping skills and also to build rapport and trust.
“I think the younger students, once they know who to reach out to, are more willing to open up,” Breeding said. “The older kids, it takes a little bit longer to trust you and open up to you.”
Breeding said once a student does work up the nerve to ask for help, it’s important for counselors to engage with them, even when their issue seems overblown. The perspective born of age and experience that helps separate irritation from full-on crisis is often in short supply among students.
“We listen to them and we demonstrate empathy,” she said. “Sometimes we say, ‘OK, I understand that this is really a big deal and this is really worrying you, but this is normal and this is what kids go through. So let’s talk about ways we can handle it together.’”
“They’re growing and experiencing things for the first time. I always try to put myself in their shoes back when I was that age. I’m glad they have resources here that they can go to because back in the day that wasn’t here. It was just, ‘Hey, that’s life. Get over it.’”
Brother Richard Sanker, CFP, has been a counselor at Catholic High School in Little Rock for 36 years. Over that time, he said, the challenges of growing up have become increasingly complicated, challenges which lead students to his door.
“Something that comes to mind is the structure of the home,” he said. “There’s so much more division in the home, so much more divorce in the home these days. Many times, I deal with students who are at their father’s house this week but the mother wants them at her house and there’s that back and forth. That’s definitely increased over the years and that is obviously the source of a lot of pressure.”
Conversely, Brother Richard said there are elements of the job that are exactly the same as when he started. The kids who seemingly have everything going for them are still often the ones hiding the most pain. He still summons students to his office with subtlety to better preserve their privacy. And the very foundation of his counseling ministry is as clear and straightforward as it’s been for these many years.
“The underpinning is love, counseling out of love,” he said. “Each person has dignity; each person is important. That’s the basis for the whole thing.”
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