Caring ear for the children

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Aberdeen has appointed the first full-time pupil counsellor for a cluster of secondary and primary schools. Raymond Ross reports on how early intervention is cutting crisis intervention

In August, Aberdeen appointed the first full-time pupil counsellor in Scotland, and next Friday, to coincide with Scottish Mental Health Awareness Week, the city will host a one-day national conference on counselling in schools to raise awareness of mental health needs of children and to evaluate the student counselling service in Aberdeen.

The Take Time counselling service was launched three years ago as a pilot for the Northfield Associated School Group, covering Northfield Academy and Quarryhill and Middlefield primaries.

The counsellor, Sandra Mojsiewicz, is a former principal teacher of guidance who took a four-year postgraduate course in psychotherapy training at the Edinburgh Institute for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

She has seen more than 400 secondary and primary pupils since Take Time began. In the first year (2000-01), she saw 169 pupils, the following year 277, and the numbers continue to rise. The split between girls and boys is almost even at 51 per cent and 49 per cent.

Students generally attend between one and five counselling sessions of around 40 minutes (a class period). The most common problems are associated with family and relationships.

An evaluation of the project up to 2003 was "extremely positive", says Mrs Mojsiewicz. Most students rated the counselling sessions as "very helpful" and felt that they were listened to, understood better, able to work out their problems and sort out their feelings. Students also indicated that there was nothing they disliked about the service and very few improvements were suggested.

Aberdeen is looking to expand the service to other school groups serving areas of significant social deprivation within the city, working in partnership with the NHS Grampian, Voluntary Service Aberdeen and other agencies.

Mrs Mojsiewicz attends Northfield Academy four days a week, and each of the two primaries half a day a week. She operates an open door policy and students are free to see at her at breakfast time (8.15am), lunchtimes and at the end of the school day to arrange to spend some time with her.

She has her own dedicated spaces at Northfield Academy and the two associated primaries to hold sessions with pupils.

Mrs Mojsiewicz can be contacted on her mobile phone, even during the holidays. For pupils under 12, parental permission for a meeting is always sought.

With younger children, she often uses puppets, modelling clay, games and cuddly toys.

"Self-referral and confidentiality are two of the key elements," says Mrs Mojsiewicz. "Counselling is usually one-to-one or one-to-two if the pupil wants a pal present or the issue concerns two of them.

"It's clear to the young people that I'm in the school but not of it, and that confidentiality will be kept except in circumstances where I feel the person's well-being is at risk. This is made clear in advance of any serious disclosure. But in general, the independence of the young person is very important," she says.

Members of staff can suggest a pupil sees her, but the principal remains that of self-referral. "The pupils must retain the choice and the power.

They know the door is always open. They can - and do - come back after a period of time. It may be with a different aspect of the same problem.

"There is no stigma attached and never has been. In fact, the opposite might be true. Comments like 'Have you not been to see Sandra yet? I have!'

are not uncommon. For boys especially, that's a great step forward," she says.

Given that the telephone counselling service ChildLine receives four times as many calls from girls than from boys (ChildLine 1996), Take Time regards the high percentage of boys attending Mrs Mojsiewicz's sessions as an indicator of significant success.

Northfield Academy's depute headteacher, Susan Alley, says: "Getting boys to see that asking for help is OK has been the challenge. We're getting some success with older boys and we hope to see this grow as we are now on our third set of S1 intakes who know that Sandra is here for them."

The school has seen other benefits from having a counsellor on site. "In general, having a counsellor promotes openness and affects ethos positively," says Mrs Alley.

"Pupils do feel there is someone here for them. Pupils usually think teachers side with teachers, but they feel Sandra is theirs.

"It's their time without interruption and what is discussed won't travel to others - teachers or pupils. It helps their confidence."

Mrs Alley also says the number of crisis referrals to other agencies has dropped.

"We often reached crisis point before Take Time began, with pupils and families unwilling to go for help to someone they didn't know. Now we have someone they do know.

"Crisis referrals to adolescent psychiatry, for example, have dropped. As time has gone on, we have moved from crisis intervention to early intervention.

"Having Sandra also helps us as teachers to think about the whole child and not to think simply as subject teachers," she says.

Mrs Mojsiewicz's role has developed in terms of partnership working. Take Time has attracted some Health Improvement Fund money to allow joint working with a clinical nurse specialist, and together they have provided in-house training for school nurses on mental health issues.

Mrs Mojsiewicz is also involved in a "Fit for School" week, run by youth worker Donna Cuthill and held in the first week of the summer holidays for the new S1 intake who have only spent two days in Northfield Academy prior to the new session.

As the pupils undertake fun sessions in anything from chess to outdoor activities, she goes around the groups getting to know them informally or cementing relationships with those she already knows from primary school sessions.

The job is clearly demanding and the counsellor herself undergoes fortnightly clinical supervision sessions. "My line manager is the principal educational psychologist and the clinical supervision sessions involve discussing issues arising from my work, how my work with clients is going, what my dilemmas are and so on.

"The sessions are necessary because of the volume of work and its in-depth nature. They form part of the protection of the children I deal with. They keep you grounded and thinking and are vital because you are working on your own so much," she says.

"Dilemmas can be things like the young person says one thing but my sense is they are really meaning something else.

"It's not an easy process to describe. It's a process of holding the client work, the issues or problems the young person brings. Having the supervision helps you to do that holding.

"Counselling is about a relationship and how you maintain yourself in that relationship without being overwhelmed," she says.

"I am interested in what the issues are for the young person and whether they want to just vent feelings or make changes. In general, they do want to change what goes on."

Being in the school but not of it might cause management or staff problems, though this has not proved the case at Northfield Academy or its two associated primaries, says Mrs Mojsiewicz.

"It can be a challenge to have a person not directly managed by the school, but it's a matter of developing different communications models," she says.

"Problems with teachers are infrequent and I approach them the same way as I do with pupils."

Mrs Alley adds: "Sandra is very important to the ethos and well-being of the whole school. We all value the insights she can give and it relieves pressure on both teaching and guidance staff too."

Take Time conference, Counselling in Schools: What Works, Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Oct 3The conference, highlighting mental health issues and in-school counselling, is aimed at all professionals working with young people, as well as parents and young people.Enquiries to Lorna Anderson, tel 01224 346070, e-mail

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