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2023 School Counselor of the Year Talks Student Health and Success

 Meredith Draughn

In celebration of National School Counseling Week, Feb. 6-10, we asked 2023 School Counselor of the Year Meredith Draughn for her insights on setting up young students for long-term success, supporting their mental health to build resiliency, and the school counselor’s role in promoting academic recovery from the pandemic. ACT thanks Ms. Draughn and all school counselors for everything they do to help each student discover and fulfill their potential!

As counselor to students in grades K-5, have you identified any pillars for success that counselors can instill at the elementary level to help propel students through middle and high school and into college?

Moving down to the elementary level from the high school level, I was surprised to see the amount of foundational learning that is done from the ages of five to 11. In reflecting on my years in the upper grades, I would say there are three main pillars of success that can set students up well for middle and high school, and ultimately a stance of lifelong learning.
  • Instilling independence: Watching kindergarten teachers always amazes me, because as a “fixer” I just want to cut or glue the material for students who are struggling with it. However, there is beauty in the struggle, and patience is key. Students will never learn a new skill if you do it for them for the sake of ease, so I had to adapt to the “I do, we do, you do” model and study the 10 Steps to Teaching and Learning Independence to help students become self-sufficient in the classroom and in life.
  • Building resiliency in students by teaching coping skills: Life is going to come at kids quickly, so giving them the tools and opportunities to practice those skills with small problems will help them create a kind of muscle memory for strategies that can help them with the big problems. The brain-and-body connection is something I learned about way too late in life, and I love seeing kids make connections and discoveries about how they can gain control of their body’s stress responses. I believe this also helps kids become their own problem solvers, as kids who are overwhelmed by the sheer fact that there is a problem at all will naturally be less successful at solving it in a timely manner.
  • Teaching kids about perspectives: This is difficult at a young age because half of my students are still in the preoperational stage. But as they move into the concrete operational stage, you can really begin the magic of teaching them that while their lens of the world is their own, everyone sees things differently. Teaching kids the freedom of being curious about someone else’s point of view leads to learning formative skills, like how to disagree respectfully or examine an issue again after you have more information.
The best part about these pillars is that at the elementary level they are often taught through fun and engaging activities, like number talks or puppet shows, but the lessons that lie within them are extremely valuable throughout a student’s life.

You are also a mental health specialist and an anxiety and stress management specialist. We know from student-focused surveys and research by ACT and others that even before the pandemic, high school students felt their schools’ mental health services were lacking. How do supports for mental health, anxiety and stress management that students receive at an earlier age affect their ability to be resilient as teenagers?

I think the first level of support for students’ mental health, anxiety, and stress management is teaching them that mental health is health, and how to recognize problems early, just as we would with physical health. Teaching kids about their brain and body connection at a young age gives them the knowledge and planning to deal with stressors as they get older. Anxiety is a normal response that helps our body react appropriately to different stressors, like taking an exam or public speaking, but it becomes an issue when it is all-consuming and interferes with their ability to engage in daily tasks.
Teaching simple strategies and learning how to implement breaks is definitely a mental health support that can be taught to students to build resiliency, but teaching assertiveness and how to speak up for their needs when their anxiety becomes intrusive is also critical. Even before the pandemic, our students have been placed in prolonged stressful situations with little to no preparation in how to cope with them. As a school counselor, helping a high school student understand that taking a rigorous academic course load while neglecting their overall wellness may not be in their best interest.
Then, supporting students as they have tough conversations with caregivers and college coaches about the potential challenges that some expectations may pose to their mental health is likely just as important as teaching them progressive muscle relaxation techniques. This is why hiring additional student support personnel in schools is crucial, as it would allow for more time to get to know students and their capacity for the stressors that are placed on them, along with giving counselors more time to truly educate on mental health matters and prepare students to better handle issues that may arise.

Since you were young, you have seen the tremendous impact that counselors have on school communities – when you became a school counselor, you were following in your mother’s footsteps. How can trusted adults inspire students to set education and career goals, even from a young age?
There are so many different pathways that go in the direction of the same dream. My mom and I may have landed in the same place, but our journeys here shared few similarities. I think the best way to inspire students to set education and career goals is to enlighten them on the vast array of options. I have spoken with helping adults who are concerned that all students want to be vloggers or gamers or professional athletes, but if you think about it, those are the options that they are most exposed to and most intrigued by. Adolescents are now spending their free time on apps or watching sports stars, so of course that is who they will likely want to be when they grow up. It’s the same reason I wanted to be the next Brianna Scurry while playing recreation soccer or a crime scene investigator despite my weak stomach.
I think trusted adults can best inspire students to set their own education and career goals by not discounting their current aspirations, but exposing them to the multitude of options, especially through hands-on experiences, if possible. Helping students find and explore different careers that may fit their interests and skills is a great starting point. Then, setting education and career goals that match with where they want to go is an easier conversation.

When ASCA named you national School Counselor of the Year, you spoke about the varying effects that the pandemic had on your students. How did you respond to their diverse needs and ensure they had the support they needed to stay on track in school?

The word unprecedented has been thrown around a lot, but the recent pandemic truly was just that. All of the people I sought guidance from in my daily career were just as new to this as I was, and we were all just doing the best we could for a while.
Reflecting back on it, I think the first step of my response was just listening to what exactly the diverse needs were, especially in a rural setting, and keeping “Maslow before Bloom” at the forefront of my mind. We had so many well-intentioned interventions being put into place in record time in 2020 but some of them did not always pan out in keeping people connected. For example, when you don’t have the systemic structure for internet connection in your area, a hotspot to connect does not necessarily help you. Advocating for the actual needs was crucial, and my district and county did a great job at stepping back and looking at the issues from a systemic standpoint and then adjusting quickly.
The second step is showing up where you can. I made a personal decision that I was willing to go to students while still putting measures in place to ensure our safety during the pandemic. The porch hangouts or door-to-door check ins helped to continue and deepen the connections I had made over the years with our school community, as well as allowed me to meet any immediate needs that may be barriers to my students connecting to school and learning.
The final step is trying to connect students and their families with more sustainable resources to reduce those barriers. I cannot provide food and clothing or childcare for every student in my caseload with the donations given to our school, but our local food banks, clothing closets, and community programs certainly can. Educating myself on the resources that are already in place and then sharing that out gave me more capacity to serve more immediate needs and step back into reducing barriers to learning in the classroom setting.
All of these response efforts have benefitted me in our return to learning. I forged invaluable relationships with our community and parents and know which students may need to be connected with tutoring services or need lessons on self-efficacy because they struggled to stay plugged in during virtual learning. It allowed me to get a jump on useful data points to serve students' needs more efficiently.

More and more data are showing that learning disruptions caused students across grade levels to fall behind, and there is an urgent academic recovery that needs to take place. What do you see as the role of school counselors in that recovery?

The school counselor role is incredibly unique, as we often have to know a little bit about all of the components of a school, along with knowing a lot about how to support the whole student and not just their academic endeavors. In my opinion, the role of a school counselor remains steady when dealing with learning loss: We are, as we always were, meant to reduce barriers to learning, whatever those may be.
If the learning loss is based on the lack of time spent with the content, then connecting students to additional tutoring services, or even creating those programmatic structures, may be the best course of action. Controlling variables that could be barriers is still crucial in those actions. For example, speaking with a teacher from each subject and working to coordinate a day to stay after school in exchange for an additional stipend could be a great plan, but you may also need to advocate for a late bus ride for students who may not have transportation, and probably a snack option, as growing bodies can rarely focus when they are hungry!
I also believe that we must remember that there are still barriers to academic success outside of the school building that were exacerbated by the pandemic, whether it be mental health matters, familial issues, food and housing insecurity, or a plethora of other issues that our students may be dealing with. Again, academic recovery and growth can only occur when Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been fulfilled, so walking with students to help ensure their basic needs are met remains a critical part of the school counselor's role and can support the long process of learning recovery moving forward. I always tell my students that they are going to have to do hard things, but they will not have to do them alone!

Draughn is the school counselor at B. Everett Jordan Elementary School in Graham, N.C. A school counselor since 2014, Draughn is a National Board Certified School Counselor and the first national School Counselor of the Year from North Carolina.