Every once in awhile, Ontario guidance counsellor Mercedes Carli, OCT, looks up from her desk to see a student about to burst into tears. It’s part of the reason she always leaves her door open.

“I really want the kids and teachers to know I’m here to help,” says Carli, a former youth probation officer. Now she divides her time between three middle schools in the Toronto DSB: John G. Althouse, Dixon Grove Junior and Humber Valley Village Junior. In each one, she feels at home and does whatever she can to make sure the students she works with feel the same way.

“Counselling comes naturally to me,” Carli says. Growing up, she was the person her friends came to with problems. “I’ve always had a knack for listening and helping people find solutions.” She has been putting those mentorship skills to work since she became a guidance counsellor in 1998. But today, more than ever, Carli says, students of all ages need guidance.

What’s changed? Children are growing up in an online world where there is 24-hour pressure to be socially engaged. Whereas in the past, social problems with friends would play out at school and home was a safe place to fall, now children go home, turn on the computer and their social life is right there, following them. Plus, there are media-driven pressures to be perfect, Carli says. “Kids are bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and sexuality that lead to drastic measures to achieve this ideal. There’s a rise in eating disorders, drug use/diet pills, steroids and even plastic surgery.”

To add to the stress, children today tend to get still more pressure from parents to achieve in and outside of school, and as a result, their anxiety is often at an all-time high.

sub-banner depicting stressed kids

“Kids feel pressured to do everything right — get involved in many extracurriculars like sports, clubs, volunteer work and jobs because parents see this as important, and colleges and universities are looking for more diverse experiences rather than just good marks. This drive to succeed leads to competition, stress and anxiety, and sometimes to unhealthy coping strategies,” Carli says, pointing out that students can’t function in a vacuum. If they are struggling socially or emotionally, it has an effect in the classroom.

It’s a myth that students don’t need counselling until their teens. they hit puberty younger, so all of that painful social angst comes earlier too. it’s not unusual for counsellors to see students as young as 11 who are almost immobilized by stress.

So she works hard to create a safe space at school — both in and out of her office. Her main goal, she says, whether she is meeting with students one-on-one or giving presentations at assemblies, is to make sure children have a voice. And that takes drawing them out.

“I point out that even though they are kids, they have the right to express themselves so they will come forward with problems and know that they can count on me to listen,” Carli says. “Also, I explain that when you have a voice, you are more powerful. You can affect not only your own life positively, but you can also take an active role in affecting changes in the community.”

Teaching children to speak up is critical to their development, Carli says. “Having a voice is not just putting up your hand to answer a question in history class.” Rather, it’s believing you matter, and not being afraid to share your thoughts. “Having a voice gives kids a sense of belonging, which is the primary determinant of happiness and success.”

Unfortunately, though, not all schools in Ontario have the privilege of a guidance counsellor’s open door. In the 2012–13 academic year, there were only 160 counsellors across 4,000 elementary schools. At the secondary level, that ratio was much higher: 1,910 at 926 schools.

“Students who have access to elementary counsellors are at an advantage because they can make informed decisions about their career path,” Carli points out. “Also, research shows that kids who have a sense of belonging and feel safe at school do better — academically, socially and emotionally — than those who don’t.”

High schoolers appear to benefit most, simply because there are more dollars to put into resources. “There is more funding at the high school level because kids need more help socially and academically at that stage,” says Ministry of Education spokesperson Gary Wheeler.

The good news is that for all schools, the numbers are on the rise, he says. He is happy to report that in 2012–13, the Ministry is providing a projected $409.2 million through the Grants for Student Needs for teacher-librarians and guidance counsellors, an increase of 28 per cent since 2003.

But just having the benefit of a guidance counsellor in school isn’t enough, says Carli. There’s still the challenge of getting kids to come forward to ask for the help they need.

The guidance curriculum, called Choices Into Action, covers three important areas:

While the curriculum is a stand-alone document for guidance, its philosophy has been embedded into Ontario Schools with an assessment component in the learning skills section of each student’s report card.

But many students don’t realize these services are available, Carli explains. And even if they do, it’s scary to knock on a stranger’s door and admit you have a problem — especially in a big high school such as Central Technical School in Toronto, where Kim McFadden, OCT, was one of six guidance counsellors. (she is now an instructional leader of guidance in the Toronto DSB).

In a school of about 2,000 students, McFadden had a caseload of around 320. To help children reach her, she reached out first through regular classroom visits and assemblies.

“People think we are just school therapists, but the biggest role in guidance is working with teachers and administration to establish a safe and caring environment,” Carli says. To do so, she prepares presentations on topics such as time management or The 7 Habits of Successful Teens early in the year. Later, she’ll teach kids about dealing with bullies and researching pathway options.

For Anna Spatafora-Romain, OCT, a French Immersion teacher-librarian at Lester B. Pearson Elementary and Middle School in Toronto, the guidance department is an invaluable resource. “The kids here have so many needs, and we teachers don’t have the time to deal with every individual problem that arises while we are teaching a class,” Spatafora-Romain explains. She will identify issues students are having — such as needing help organizing binders or girls excluding other girls or Grade 8s looking for information about high school — and she will email the guidance office or ask the counsellor to do a presentation on the topic.

For Carli, helping students figure out where their skills lie is the most rewarding part of the job. “Watching young people tap into their talents and passions is amazing,” she days. “Suddenly, they can look to their futures and see the possibilities.”

But children of all ages sometimes need to talk with a mentor. “It’s a myth that kids don’t need counselling until they’re in their teens,” says Carli. In fact, today’s students are starting to exhibitsigns of anxiety early, she explains. Because they are hitting puberty younger, all of that painful social angst comes earlier too. It’s not unusual for Carli to see students as young as 11 who are almost immobilized by stress.

“We don’t always know what personal baggage a child brings every day, but we do know that it interferes with the ability to learn,” Carli says. So there needs to be somewhere at school where they can experience relief and start learning to problem solve with the help of a mentor, she says.

Often, Spatafora-Romain will discuss students’ needs with the guidance counsellor when they are overwhelmed by work and book an appointment. “So many kids have a really hard time organizing their binders and their time,” she says. “They lack the organizational skills needed to know how much time to allot to a single task.” Guidance counsellors are expert at teaching strategies for how to prioritize, she says, and that really brings down their anxiety so they can focus.

“So many kids walk around holding all of their problems inside,” McFadden says, “and the hope is that they will trust you enough to open up.”

All support staff in schools have to work together, particularly guidance counsellors and teachers, Carli says. “It’s our job to have an open door policy — not just to students, but to teachers as well. I let teachers know that I have resources, and if there are issues going on in your class such as bullying or time management, you can call me in to do a unit.”

At her school, Spatafora-Romain works in collaboration with guidance all the time. Sometimes the counsellor creates a presentation that she agrees will benefit students — considerations when choosing a high school for a Grade 8 class, for example. Other times, Spatafora-Romain comes up with an idea based on classroom dynamics. “Two years ago, it came to my attention that there was cyberbullying and the guidance counsellor brought her expertise forward and did a wonderful presentation.”

Presentations depend on what the needs are for the grade at the time, Spatafora-Romain says. “What’s important is that the teacher and guidance department are in constant communication.”

At the same time, all teachers should add a little guidance to their own classroom agendas, she says, whether or not there is a school counsellor. “As a teacher, part of your job is to show kids how accessible you are as a human being,” Carli says. “Remember the teacher who really made a difference in your life? In the end, kids won’t remember you for the math lesson you taught. It will be because you listened, because you heard, because you gave them a voice.”

Guidance AQ

The completion of Guidance and Career Education

Part I (check institutions listed by the College at oct.ca) allows your principal to add guidance periods/responsibilities.

Part II and the Specialist Additional Qualification courses are recommended. They further enhance your understanding of Guidance and Career Education and may qualify you to become a secondary school assistant curriculum or curriculum leader.