Turning Teachers into Counselors Makes No Sense

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I am a public elementary school teacher. At a recent in-service day an expert speaker was brought in to talk to the elementary school staff about behavior intervention.

The speakers’ main thesis was that teachers need to be counselors and that 70-80 percent of their job is developing personal relationships with their students. He advocated using techniques such a ‘positive re-framing’ and the ‘refueling technique’ (complimenting a misbehaving student for 30 seconds, 3-4 times a school day). He also encouraged teachers to use the collaborative problem solving techniques of Ross Green.

Am I a counselor? Is this my job? Does this mean that these students are my patients?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

I see two major issues here. One, you’re an educator—not a psychotherapist. But you already know that.

Two, the kind of psychotherapy you’re being encouraged to practice—in an inappropriate context—is not good therapy.

It’s not good therapy because it’s an individual approach, which rarely if ever does any good with children—and may even do harm. When you counsel a child outside the context of his or her familial environment, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, what he or she might or might not need, and why.

I’ll quote directly from my book ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference’:

The unmotivated child or adolescent is not a good candidate for exclusively one-on-one psychotherapy.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, if the child or teen has not been listening to or talking with his parents, he is unlikely to listen to or talk with a therapist hired by his parents. And even if the child does open up honestly and develops a good relationship with the therapist (as some parents fantasize), it still does little of lasting consequence to repair the tensions that drove the parents to seek help in the first place. At best, it may serve as a prelude to family therapy, in which the grievances of each family member become the focus of attention.

In some cases, particularly with angry or obnoxious adolescents, one-on-one therapy can actually create brand new problems. The manipulative child or adolescent will seize any opportunity to ‘con’ a naive therapist into accepting his point of view while cleverly leaving out important details that might lead the therapist to a different conclusion.

Providing strictly individual therapy for the child is at best a neutral form of mental health treatment, and at its worst can damage a child’s self-esteem and sense of justice. In my practice  I have discovered that many parents just want a baby-sitting service. Without even admitting this to themselves, they hire therapists to do the job of parenting for them. Indeed,  the therapists’ fees can be used as a rationalization to assuage the guilt such parents feel for what they are doing. ‘If the therapy costs this much, I must be doing something good for my child.’

Individual child therapy enables parents to become less engaged with their children than they should be. In such cases therapy becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Therapy is not a baby-sitting service, and a good therapist will never allow it to be treated as such. Parents who are genuinely concerned about their child’s emotional or behavioral symptoms need to cooperate with and participate in their child’s mental health treatment. When a parent feels helpless, the last thing he or she needs is a therapist to take over, however tempting this may seem.

Another difficulty with one-on-one therapy involves its encouragement of the sometimes mistaken idea that the child is at fault for all of the family’s problems. While problem children sometimes can be the cause of the family’s predicament, a good therapist must also consider other factors. Is the parents’ marriage troubled? If so, children will often misbehave as a method of distracting attention away from the problems in the marriage. Do the parents have inaccurate thinking habits that have rubbed off on the child? Sometimes parents are, in fact, irrational or manipulative. Viewed in the larger context of the family environment, the child’s psychological symptoms make sense. Perhaps the family members simply do not know how to communicate with one another. Many families resort to shouting and even physical violence as a means of venting frustrations.

I have interviewed many adults who still express hurt and bitterness over having been dragged into therapy as a child with no explanation from parent or therapist as to why they were there. Such action sends the message that forces other than justice and reason are governing the child’s life, causing the child to grow up with an irrational mistrust of mental health professionals and other authorities. No good therapist, in my opinion, would ever want to see a child individually without (a) providing a logical reason for doing so and, (b) at least meeting or speaking with other household members in order to understand the context in which the child’s behavioral or emotional problems are occurring.

It makes no more sense to tell a teacher that 70-80 percent of his job is to bond with a child than it makes sense to tell a psychotherapist this. Even if you were the child’s therapist, and if individual therapy with the child were somehow tenable, your job would be to coach, guide and counsel the child—not be a parent, family member or friend.

Public schools are run by the state and federal government. It’s hard to imagine any institution less intellectually and morally qualified to provide psychological guidance to a person than the government. It makes about as much sense as expecting the Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Transportation to innovate and manufacture automobiles; or the Department of Health and Human Services to profitably and efficiently innovate and manufacture medical devices. It’s never going to happen.

The best thing you can do for your students’ self-esteem is to help them discover and utilize the power of rational thinking. Your job—and your passion, if you love teaching—is to enable and foster the development of thought. Even the various subjects—reading, mathematics, history—are merely a means to that end. A successful teacher and school is one who has taught a child to think. A child who grows into an adult confident of his mind will have a huge leg up in the psychological health and self-esteem department. Telling him he’s good for 30 seconds, whether he has exhibited competence or not, is ridiculous and dishonest, and the child will know it. Only in a government-funded school system lacking any real accountability or requirement to innovate could such a stupid idea have stuck around so long, repackaged as something “new.” Good grief, the 1960s ended nearly five decades ago!

These seminars for teachers are nothing more than distractions from the failings that no doubt permeate our command-and-control, communistic, federalized behemoth of a ‘school system’ run by a combination of corrupt politicians and out-of-touch academics in doctoral programs for education and politically-connected universities. They have nothing whatsoever to do with teaching or, for that matter, the development of self-esteem in any young individuals.

If I were you, I’d concentrate on being the best teacher I can be in a system that (sadly) creates too many roadblocks and detours around that goal.


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