Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON, By Tamoy Ashman – GUIDANCE counsellors in some schools are said to be spending more time teaching in classrooms than engaging students in crucial one-on-one sessions.

The duty shift, according to Jamaica Association of Guidance Counsellors in Education President Rochina Anderson, is limiting their efforts to reach troubled youth and provide them with adequate support.

“You find that some schools are doing more teaching sessions than they are actually having time to interact in terms of counselling with the children, so the administrative part of the position is really heavy,” Anderson told the
Jamaica Observer last Wednesday.

“In some schools you have counsellors having class sessions from first form to fifth form. In other schools you have maybe a particular grade level that they may focus on — some focus on lower school only and some focus on upper school, depending on how many counsellors they have. I know counsellors who would have like, even 10 or 12 class sessions; some may have more per week,” she said, adding that the counsellors are also expected to create lesson plans and evaluate their effectiveness.

“There are some schools too where counsellors are challenged with sitting in, so [when] teachers are not at school they have to go on the substitution list and have to go sit in a class,” she added.

Anderson was speaking with the Sunday Observer at just about the same time Education and Youth Minister Fayval Williams was addressing the long-standing issue of violence in schools during her presentation to the sectoral debate in Parliament.

Describing the increasing incidents of violence among students as “madness”, Williams urged Jamaicans to play their part in ending the problem.

In recent weeks there have been numerous violent confrontations between students, some of which have been captured on video and circulated on social media.

Last month a video that went viral showed a Meadowbrook High School female student viciously beating a schoolmate, including stomping on her and kicking her in the face after she fell to the ground.

Police opened an investigation into the incident — which occurred on Friday, April 19 on Havendale Drive, metres from the school — and said the student who was seen inflicting the beating could be slapped with criminal charges.

On April 18, 15-year-old Raneil Plummer, a student at Irwin High School in St James, died after being stabbed in the chest by a schoolmate outside the school gate, just after classes were dismissed for the day.

Another incident, which escalated around that time, saw students from several prominent Corporate Area high schools involved in a street brawl which left some of them injured. It resulted in the closure of one school for two days.

On April 25 two students of Grange Hill High School in Westmoreland were shot, one fatally, in a gun attack shortly after they left the annual sports day at the school.

Anderson said that with the flare-up of violence in schools more cases are being referred to counsellors, who are under pressure from the heavy workload.

“Currently, as stressed as we are, you have a lot of backlog. The cases are occurring so frequently that you hardly can keep up with a child. You do a first session and so many other sessions come in-between and you are to do a second session, meet with the parents, do a home visit, compile that, work through that case to see if you now need to refer that child externally, and much more,” she said.

“You find that a form teacher might be saying, ‘I referred this child and nothing has yet been done,’ but the counsellor has not yet been able to attend to that because of other cases and parents calling,” Anderson explained.

“While we are having sessions with the children we are doing parenting consultations as well, and if the client’s situation seems a little off and we need more information then we have to find the home to see what the background is like and what other factors may be affecting the child,” she added.

Anderson, who has been engaged in counselling for almost a decade, noted that in many schools the course outline for health and family life education and guidance classes overlap because they have a similar purpose, and thus both classes are not needed.

“Taking away [classroom sessions] will really give us more time to zone in [on] the clinical aspect of our job and to be able to treat right with the cases of the children,” she stressed, pointing out that the national policy for guidance counsellors states that 80 per cent of their time should be spent in counselling while 20 per cent should be spent having contact sessions with students.

Anderson made it clear, though, that she was not asking for counsellors to be removed from the classrooms entirely, because classroom sessions are vital for forming a relationship with students. However, what they want is more time spent on individual counselling.

She advocated the placing of more guidance counsellors in schools.

“Currently we have a 500-to-1 ratio and we’re willing to go down to a 200 to 1, but it can even be lesser than that because, the truth is, based on the increase in what we are seeing in the changes in behaviours, it is quite a lot,” she said.

The education minister has acknowledged that more guidance counsellors are needed in schools. Last year, during a sitting of Parliament’s Standing Finance Committee examining the 2023/24 budget, she had said the Government was looking to add close to 300 counsellors to the system.

“We would love to get to 1 to 400… but we supplement that with clinical support from professionals that are accessible to our students and teachers,” she said.

“We also just announced that we are increasing the number of deans of discipline in our schools as well,” Williams added.

Anderson, however, noted that the onus is not just on guidance counsellors to reach students and reduce violent behaviour in schools.

She said that parents, in particular, play a big role in creating the behavioural patterns of their children and need to be more hands-on. She shared that in some of her interactions with parents there have been some who — due to pride and their social status — refuse to accept that their children need help. That, she insisted, needs to be addressed.

“The media have been zoning into us, and we appreciate that, but we need for the people to understand that its bigger than us because it’s a societal problem, and what the children are being exposed to plays a great part of what is happening,” said Anderson.

“We are calling on the Broadcasting Commission, we are calling on our politicians [because of] their behaviours that they display too in the public, we’re calling on everybody because we have to understand that we all play a role in this. The guidance counsellor coulda work ‘til she tired… but it’s learnt behaviour,” Anderson argued.