Tips For Working With Students
(Part 1 of 6)

As a school counselor, you may notice a pattern of recurring student issues and concerns. After many conversations with my Ottawa students over the years, I've compiled a list of tips and suggestions for working with students on these issues.

Every counselor develops a personal style of working with students over time. I would encourage you to consider how these suggestions match or enhance what already works for you, and do what feels right to you in any given situation, as long as it's respectful, legal, and ethical.

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How do I build rapport with a student I've never met, who's been referred to me about a personal issue?


How do I structure a first meeting with a student?


~ Introduce yourself to the student, and explain what you do as a school counselor. At the middle school or high school level, you might say something like, "I work with students to help them deal with stresses, and anything else that gets in the way of success in school." At the elementary level, it might be, "I talk with kids who are feeling upset or unhappy, and help them find ways to feel better."

~ Tell the student who referred him/her to you (parent, teacher, principal, another student, etc.) and give a brief description of what you know. For example, "Your teacher asked me to talk with you. She said you've been angry in class lately, and have had some conflicts with other students."

~ Tell the student that you'd like to hear about the issue from his/her point of view, and see what you can do to help.

~ Go over your confidentiality guidelines (see the Confidentiality Guidelines Page if you need more specifics), and let the student know that in the counseling office (unlike the principal's office), your questions are optional, and the student can choose whether to answer or not, and how much detail to give.

~ If the student is hesitant to talk, but not refusing outright, start with some low risk questions to build some rapport. You might ask, "How is your school year going overall?" or "What are your easiest and most difficult subjects in school this year?"

~ Asking questions that students can answer by giving a number from 0-10 is a good way to break the ice. For instance, "How high would you say your stress level has been this week, from zero to ten, with zero being no stress, and ten being horrible, unbearable stress?" or "How stressful has this situation been for you (whatever brought them to your office), on a zero to ten scale?"

~ "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Yes, it's a cliche, but a very good one. Listening and validating feelings is your first major task. You don't have to have all the answers or agree with everything the student says. Be present. Even if that’s the only thing you do, you’ll already have been of great value to the student!

~ Seek to empower, not to fix. Ask what the student has already tried, and what options he/she sees in the situation. Help the student brainstorm and talk through pros and cons of each option. Teach skills, tools, steps, and frameworks for understanding.

~ End with encouragement and a plan. Help the student identify one or more next steps to take, and invite him/her to come back and let you know how it went.


How do I work with a student who’s failing most classes and is unmotivated in school?


~ Once you've built some basic rapport, ask what the student believes is behind the failing grades. Students often know what the problem or obstacle is. Offer help and support with the obstacle.

~ Ask about the student’s stress level, and what contributes to that stress. Teach stress management skills.

~ Ask questions to get a sense of possible learning or processing problems. For instance, you might ask, "How easy or hard is it for you to remember what you read in school?" or, "How easy or hard is it for you to spell, or to find the right word when you're writing in class?" Offer help and resources. If your school does testing for learning disabilities, talk to the person in charge and find out how to recommend a student for testing.

~ If the student doesn’t care about school, ask questions to find out what he or she does care about. Often you can find an interest that can act as a doorway toward student success, in or out of school.

~ Let the student know you care about his/her happiness and success, both in school and in life, not just about GPA and credits.

~ If the student has an outside interest, help him/her see connections between current classes (or school in general) and that interest.

~ Ask if the student has plans for after high school. Offer help and support for the student to move in that direction.

~ Ask, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

~ Let the student know he/she is welcome to come back any time with questions or concerns, and that you’ll do what you can to help.

Go to the next page, "Tips For Working With Students -- Part 2."

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