How School Counselors Can Help Students Overcome Emotional Barriers

A guest post by Frankie Wallace


While many physical barriers to learning are often obvious, the emotional and social issues students face often go unseen and can be equally disruptive in a student’s education. These invisible issues may manifest in a number of ways, including low grades, poor attendance, behavioral issues, and other misleading displays. With so many students to instruct and interact with, teachers may not be able to cater specifically to students’ emotional states.

Fortunately, school counselors have the training and passion to help acknowledge and face these challenges. Here are two major ways school counselors can help students overcome emotional barriers involved with getting an education.

Boosting Self-Confidence

When students struggle to understand the materials covered in class, it can be easy to develop destructive thought patterns. Being surrounded by classmates who seem to be doing just fine in the classroom can encourage some students to believe they are inherently deficient and incapable of learning about various subjects.

This can affect the student’s grades, their behavior, their personal relationships, and can have lifelong impacts on the ways they interact with the world. For example, a student who struggles with reading and comprehension skills may avoid opportunities to build these skills. Unfortunately, low literacy rates make it more difficult for people to find quality employment and may contribute to ongoing self-esteem issues. Furthermore, students with negative mentalities about their learning abilities may pass these same mindsets on to future generations.

Educators may have trouble picking up on the specific causes of a student’s performance in the classroom. There are many factors that can contribute to a poor understanding of the material, and when students feel vulnerable, they may be more likely to lash out rather than ask for help. It’s important to acknowledge that teachers aren’t immune to intense emotions, whether or not these are intentionally expressed. In some cases, teachers may seem intimidating or outright antagonistic from a student’s point of view.

In contrast, school counselors aren’t responsible for giving homework and exams or assigning grades, which may draw fear and frustration from students. Because of this, school counselors are well-positioned to speak with students about their struggles, identifying thought patterns and circumstances that are interfering with their ability to learn. Afterward, counselors can work with the students to create plans for new ways of thinking.

A student’s confidence may not be tied directly to school itself. Outside circumstances such as family and financial issues may contribute heavily to a student’s lack of belief in themselves. To help begin rebuilding a sense of self-worth, a counselor may suggest simple exercises like creating a list of the student’s positive qualities and activities they enjoy. Items on the list might not relate directly to school, but they can help bridge the gap between the student’s sense of self when doing something they love versus their diminished confidence in the classroom.

Positive change in a student’s self-confidence won’t come all at once, even if the student is open to a counselor’s suggestions. However, without some sort of healthy intervention, low confidence will only increase the chance a student will continue to struggle and retreat from educational challenges and opportunities.

Responding to Violence and Trauma

With the national spotlight on school shootings, bomb threats, and other acts of violence, it can be difficult for students to feel safe in school. Although school shootings are still relatively rare, the attention these tragic events receive can easily encourage a lasting state of paranoia.

Even efforts to create safety measures can disrupt the psychological well-being of students. For example, when schools conduct active-shooter drills, students of all ages are asked to hide from imaginary gunmen. While these practices can help protect students against future tragedies, they can also create lingering fears.

When responding to these fears, school counselors can help students to focus on the predictability of their routines and encourage them to limit their exposure to the news. It’s important not to encourage outright denial of these events when they happen, but obsessing over them can create unhealthy thought patterns.

Students who bottle up their emotions may be distracted, causing them to lose focus on everyday tasks, including school work. They may also act out with anger in response to their fear as a way of coping or protecting themselves. Because of this, perhaps the most important thing counselors can do is listen to students’ fears and concerns and work to identify healthy coping strategies.

Violence in schools doesn’t have to involve a major crisis. Some of the greatest harm goes unseen in various forms of bullying, including physical abuse, verbal abuse, social exclusion, or damage to property. Physical hitting, spreading rumors, sexual comments, threatening, and stealing belongings are some of the most common forms of harassment in schools. Students who are victims of bullying face an increased risk for poor social adjustment, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and depression. This affects their grades as well as their ability to grow into well-balanced adults.

One of the first steps school counselors can take is to encourage students to report bullying. This can be extremely challenging for students currently facing abuse as they are already living in fear. If they tell someone about what is happening, they may fear the bully will learn who told on them, after which, things will only get worse. While counselors can’t force students to come forward, creating a clear pathway and encouraging students to speak up is one of the only ways to break the cycle of abuse.

Rather than directly punishing a bully, which could spur a violent reaction, school counselors may work with large groups to teach empathy for their fellow classmates and seek out peaceful methods for dealing with conflict. Over time, this can create more understanding student populations and help bullies to find healthy ways to deal with their own emotions.

On an individual level, school counselors can work with abused students to find healthier ways of processing their emotions related to harassment. Often students who are bullied come to believe they deserve physical abuse and change their self-image based on the insults they hear. With effective counseling, students can learn to challenge the lies bullies tell them, regaining belief in themselves and moving forward despite past abuse.

As with self-confidence issues, trauma can easily extend from circumstances outside of a student’s education. These situations and events may be beyond the school system’s control, yet the psychological effects on students can still have a major impact on their success.

In a perfect world, student success would depend solely on their willingness to take part in their education. Unfortunately, there are many factors that can disrupt a student’s progress, creating extreme emotional challenges. However, school counselors are trained to assess and work through a vast number of difficulties a student might experience. When students can realize and take advantage of this amazing resource, they stand to perform better academically and develop social skills and coping mechanisms that will serve them for the rest of their lives.



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