I'm serious. For three years, I sent every student in my K-5 elementary school a group counseling permission slip. Hold your hats. I (and the school counselor) saw almost every student who returned a permission slip.
How did we do this? You may be asking why we did this. You might be saying there is no way I could do this. Let me give you some reasons why sending permission slips to everyone worked for us and how we did it. I'd love to hear what you do in the comments.
Tiered Counseling Services
Sending group counseling permission slips to everyone let us create a connection between all the tiers. Students could gradually receive more services, and fewer students were overlooked.
Our school had a strong SEL curriculum that was implemented school-wide. Teachers taught lessons each week, and the curriculum language was used by everyone from the principal to the playground supervisors.
Our groups were part of Tier I, the instruction that all students got. The main intention was not to reteach concepts to students who didn't get a skill. They were designed to reinforce the skills taught by the classroom teachers.
One of the reasons it is recommended that SEL curriculums be part of the school culture and not just solitary lessons is that students need lots of practice with these social-emotional skills. These groups gave them a smaller environment to do that in.
Now, some of our students did need tier 2 intervention, where they were retaught concepts in small groups. When everyone had permission, it became so simple to create a group that I could start within the week.
I had one or two students struggling with social-emotional skills and two or three more students with permission who could serve as model peers. The "model peers" then had additional opportunities to practice and teach their classmates coping skills or conflict resolution. This only strengthened their skills and confidence.
For tier 2 interventions that were specific, such as self-esteem issues or anger management, I would move beyond these more general groups and provide targeted interventions. The bonus of reinforcing tier 1 instruction is you often need fewer tier 2 interventions.
As a newer school psychologist, I wanted to ensure students knew who I was and how I could help them. Tier I groups were a way to do that.
When they participated in groups or saw other students headed there, I went from unknown to familiar. I was Ms. Driscoll and not Who's that? When a student went with me, it didn't mean something was wrong. It was just what everyone did.
Within groups, we focused on problem-solving, resolved everyday conflicts, and learned skills they could use that day. I went from who is that to getting flagged down across the field at recess.
Some parents may be resistant to their child seeing a school counselor or school psychologist. They think something must be wrong, they don't want them missing academics, or it's simply an unknown.
The counseling permission slips let them know that these groups were a part of the regular curriculum. Like their children, I wanted them to know me and see me as a resource. Once students started coming home talking about groups or mentioning me, I had parents regularly stopping by. Many of them spoke to other parents positively about the groups.
Consider sending home a short note when students participate in groups and some simple resources, like SEL-focused children's books or websites. When a student did need more targeted support, I was more likely to have a parent on board if their child had been in groups. I was familiar and not scary. Having their child see me for a short time was not a risky thing to do.
Now, you do get permission slips back with a resounding no. You have to respect that. Some parents don't want their child pulled, even during a non-academic time. Some have a bias against mental health support. Try, if you can, to find other ways to build relationships with these parents and try again.
How To Do It
Hopefully, by this point, I have convinced you to try this or something like it that fits your school. Here are some tips to get you started.
Start with one grade. The younger grades usually return the most permission slips.
Phrase your counseling permission slip broadly and focus on reinforcing the SEL or counseling curriculum. You can add some language about more specific services being available, but that is optional.
Use parent-friendly language. "The groups are ways to connect with classmates, practice solving everyday problems, and learn strategies they can use in class."
Use a different color for each grade to make it simple to sort as they return. Most slips will come from K-3. You may have to sell it more to fourth and fifth grade.
Create a spreadsheet with all the students' names organized by grade and class. Have columns where you can note if they have permission, when they participate, and if they are a priority.
Plan 4 to 6 sessions that reinforce your school's SEL curriculum. You can follow along with the curriculum, or you can plan sessions that give more time to trickier skills (i.e., conflict resolution) or skills that benefit from small group practice (i.e., coping skills). Look at your needs assessments and see where Tier I might not live up to its potential.
Pull struggling students more than once throughout the year. Some students without a specific concern but ongoing needs may stay in small groups for the entire year. The group and the material would change around them, and they would receive regular support. Often, these students did move into a more targeted Tier 2 service, but only sometimes.
Finally, think about how you can use this along a continuum of support. Students might have been in these groups and seen me for individual counseling. Students don't need to be in one service or another. Tiered systems aren't a specific intervention but rather intensifying support.
Tier 1 small groups are a great way to reinforce your SEL curriculum, build relationships, and integrate social, emotional, and behavioral services into the fabric of the school. I loved having connections with so many different students.
Do you have tiered services in your school? When do you put students in small groups?