Counsellors in NZ primary schools: What’s happening in Years 1-8?

Dr Paul Flanagan, University of Waikato

Poipoia te kakano kia puawai – Nurture the seed and it will blossom

Children are regularly called our taonga, precious treasures that require nurturing. And yet, frequently, we hear about the need for their care and protection, and the increasing concerns about their mental health and wellbeing.

Counselling in New Zealand schools for primary-aged children in Years 1-8 is not common. Calls for greater support for younger children have seen a range of government responses.  In July 2020, the Government announced funding for counselling in “around 210” schools[i] across Years 1-13. Targeted funding for counselling is therefore available only to a small number of schools across the country where the greatest need is identified.

Counselling in schools is shown to be effective in supporting young people’s learning and wellbeing. There is, however, a growing number of primary and intermediate schools across NZ innovatively and organically developing their own support systems, including counselling. Some schools employ counsellors; others contract counsellors from local agencies. How this happens, and is funded, varies. In every case, the schools identify that there are students in need of particular support, and that there should be better funding support from the Government and through the Ministry of Education.

This article reports on a small study that scopes counselling in New Zealand schools with children in Years 1-8. In addition, it hopes to develop an argument for counselling services to be available for children prior to their progression through to secondary school, where counselling has been available as part of schools’ entitled staff funding since the early 1970s.

My recent research

I have been conducting a small study to scope the experience of counselling for children in Years 1-8 across all school types in Aotearoa New Zealand. As a teacher in counsellor education at the University of Waikato, and having practiced as a child and family counsellor (at times linking with teachers in schools), I was interested in documenting the experience of NZ schools where counselling is offered in Years 1-8. I have completed a number of consultations and 13 interviews so far with senior leaders in schools, counsellors and community organisations. This article now shares some of the story of counselling for young children in schools, told through the voices of participants.

We should have counsellors in primary schools now, because these young people are experiencing things that cannot wait until they get to high school [to talk to a counsellor about].”

Daniel[ii] , Counsellor, decile 1 primary school

What are children experiencing?

Primary-aged children in Aotearoa New Zealand appear to be experiencing a range of challenging circumstances that highlight the need for the kind of support that counselling can offer. For example, I asked James, who was counselling Year 7-8 children at an intermediate school, what he defines as the key issues that young people in this age range come to consult him about:

“… students cutting, self-harm, anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, suicidal thoughts, suicide plans. Eating difficulties. Living with disabilities, an illness. So quite a wide range [of issues] … anxiety and depression have been really prevalent. So has cutting. Cutting’s been quite a big one – or self-harm … cutting, and suicidal thoughts. That’s … a lot more than I initially thought.”

James, Volunteer MCouns student counsellor, decile 5 intermediate school

Self-harm was also reported in other schools, across the socio-economic range:

… self-harm is definitely on the increase … we’re noticing it more in primary. Lots of talk about it, there’s definitely an increase in the talk about self-harm, and the attempts of self-harm … hitting their head against the wall, girls tend to do more cutting, threatening to get a knife and cut their wrists.”

Hayley, Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and Learning Support Coordinator (LSC), decile 10 primary school

School leaders frustrated at lack of resourcing

Melissa, an intermediate school principal, described some frustration at not being able to access adequate support services for “our emerging adolescents.” She stated:

We’ve been lobbying the Ministry [of Education] for a long time … When I say ‘we’, I mean collectively intermediate school principals, but also primary school principals in terms [of] mental health [needs]. It just seems to get bigger and bigger. And the onus on teachers to respond to mental health issues just seems to get increasingly consuming …

Melissa, intermediate school principal

Currently, counselling in primary schools is funded through special projects (e.g., family violence prevention, response to traumatic events, and more recently, the Ministry of Education’s Urgent Response Fund) or where the school principal and Board of Trustees discern that the need justifies self-funding. Hayley, the Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and Learning Support Coordinator (LSC) in a decile 10 primary school, spoke about the Board funding a local social service agency for up to 10 counselling sessions per week. She commented:

“In the ideal world, in a school this size … you’d need somebody full time … what we’re doing at the minute is making do, but, is it satisfactory? No. Not really. Is it meeting the needs of all our learners? No, it’s not.”

Hayley, SENCO/LSC, decile 10 primary school

The resourcing situation is different at Years 7-13 schools and area schools, where Guidance Counsellors are funded under the guidance staffing entitlement for students in Years 9-13. However, counsellors working in these settings commented on the demands of covering the whole student group (Year 7 upwards) although the staffing received only covers the secondary year students (Year 9 upwards). Leaders at intermediate and primary schools also reflected on the absence of guidance support in their schools:

‘I’ve been in education for 25 years and kids are becoming more and more and more complex in terms of their needs. And to think that the Ministry doesn’t fund us to support kids in that way [counselling] … It’s mindboggling actually and hugely disappointing.

And it’s hugely stressful for us as school leaders to think about… You know, we’re here primarily to teach kids and to deliver the curriculum. But you know, kids have to be happy and healthy in order to be on board with those things.

So, it is a really critical area of need. And you know, I just implore the Ministry to find some way of being able to fund that sort of support for schools, particularly at our age group.’

Melissa, intermediate school principal

Growing complexities for young people

Along with the developing complexity in young people’s lives – such as experiences of easy access to social communication technology and online sites where bullying, social influencers and pornography are simply a touch away on their mobile devices – there are also the additional complications for children within this COVID-era. Wil, an associate principal in an Area school, reflected on “the increase in self-harm in Years Six to Eight … cutting of the legs”. Wil said that more females were coming forward with concerns or seeking support, “some [still] from the earthquakes [but there has been] a spike with COVID”. The effects of COVID contribute incrementally to what else is happening in children’s lives, including reports of increasing rates of depression and anxiety.

Paul, principal of a decile 1 primary school, recognised poor and falling attendance as a particular issue following COVID. He also identified that he would advise primary school principals to invest in professional learning for all staff about trauma. He considered that a trauma-informed understanding was important for all school staff to be aware of what children might be experiencing. Daniel, the counsellor at that same school, also noted:

Trauma. Yeah, that’s it, our social housing communities … are immersed in trauma. And that these children are experiencing injustice – every day. They’re experiencing unfairness. Not enough kindness. And that … I’ve become hyper-aware that … the role of, well any staff member, but especially the counsellor, is to be an empathetic witness to that trauma. And to be able to tell somebody that what they’re experiencing is not fair.

Daniel, Counsellor, decile 1 primary school

Where to from here?

This research project is growing as I work with each school, and each participant. The stories grow in significance and seriousness; for example, stories are told of suicide by young people before they reach secondary school. This is important work, and recommendations from my study are likely to include:

  • that counsellors in schools working with Years 1-8 have a regional/national support group
  • that further research is required to examine the concerns children speak about in counselling
  • that the Ministry urgently promote to the Government the need for provision of counselling services in all schools, through the guidance staffing entitlement

The last words are left to Daniel:

“We’ve got to shift from speaking about getting counsellors into primary schools as a good idea. We’ve got to get away from that passive language. We’ve got to become quite determined and assertive in saying it where people need to listen to us. This is imperative. This is really, really important.

Daniel, Counsellor, decile 1 primary school

[i] This figure is now 138 schools. The schools are determined by a new equity index (Personal communication, Ministry of Education, 3 Sept 2021).

[ii] Names of participants are a mix of pseudonyms and real first names, depending on each participant’s preference and in accordance with ethical approval obtained for the research.


Dr Paul Flanagan teaches in the post-graduate counsellor education programmes at the University of Waikato. He has a professional background in counselling and supervision, including in statutory and non-governmental agencies; working with children, young people and families; and supporting children and young people around abuse and sexuality issues. His research draws on social constructionist and discourse theories and considers how these can be applied in counselling, supervision, child development, sexuality and ethics.

2 comments

  1. Oh wow! I’m in ECE and have noticed a real change in children over recent years. We work really hard to give children the environment needed to engage in uninterrupted play open ended resources. They develop resilience, grit, determination, empathy, compassion, growth mindset, confidence and all the while having fun. Sadly, the pace of life, attachment issues, parenting styles, diet and activity all work against this…
    Well done for pushing this issue to the attention of everyone. Its shocking, but needs resources if these children are to thrive, let alone survive.

    Like

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