ERIC Identifier: ED328825
Publication Date: 1991-01-31
Author: Gerler, Edwin R., Jr.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services
Ann Arbor MI.
The Challenge of Counseling in Middle Schools. ERIC
Counselors in middle schools work with young people whose lives are
in constant flux. Early adolescence is a time of physical, intellectual,
emotional, and social development, during which young people confront the
question, "Who am I?" The young adolescent's search for identity involves
many challenges (Gerler, Hogan, & O'Rourke, 1990).
This digest deals with how counselors in middle schools can help youngsters
face the various challenges of early adolescence. Counselors are called
upon to plan programs that make middle schools inviting places for young
people to learn and grow.
There are major differences between middle schools and high schools,
differences that cause some students to get lost emotionally and to fail
academically. Middle school counseling programs need to focus on preparing
youngsters for the increased independence of life in high school that is
typically accompanied by more social pressures and by increased stress.
THE CHALLENGE OF UNDERSTANDING SELF
Early adolescence is difficult for most youngsters, a time for challenging
one's self and the ideas brought from childhood. It is the beginning of
physical, emotional, social, and intellectual growth which brings excitement,
delight, anxiety, and misunderstanding. The child, who in elementary school
was obedient and academically motivated, may seem disrespectful and lazy
in middle school. Early adolescence begins the transition from acceptance
of adult direction to challenging authority and moving toward self direction.
The goal of middle school counselors is to provide a blend of challenge
and support that will promote identity development in early adolescence.
Middle school students need the guidance and direction of effective
counselors to begin the major developmental task of adolescence which is
to achieve a clear sense of self (Marcia, 1980). The confusion that reigns
in early adolescence creates a challenging climate for the young person
and for those trying to help the youngster manage the difficulties associated
with leaving childhood for a new stage of life. Counselors implement various
practical strategies to help middle school students move toward self understanding.
These strategies include such activities as maintaining daily journals,
group counseling, and developmental classroom programs that offer young
people opportunities for self exploration.
THE CHALLENGES OF FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
As young people begin to seek their own identities, they face the challenge
of leaving behind much of their early dependence on home and family. Parents
and family members, however, should continue to provide structure and support
during the difficult moments adolescents face in growing away from complete
dependence on home. The so-called traditional family, however, has virtually
disappeared in America. Divorce, single-parent homes, and step-families
are a fact of life confronting youngsters. In the climate of changing families,
middle school counselors need to be prepared to help youngsters and their
parents understand one another and to work together in making the difficult
choices that occur during adolescence. Middle school counselors need to
be especially aware of dysfunctional aspects of students' families in order
to develop counseling strategies and guidance programs that help young
adolescents find themselves (Wegscheider, 1981). Finally, and perhaps most
importantly, counselors need to be aware of cultural differences that students
bring from their homes into middle school life and into the search for
THE CHALLENGES OF PEER PRESSURE AND DRUG ABUSE
Early adolescence is a time of experimentation with new behaviors and
of reliance on peers for guidance and direction. This combination can have
devastating effects on young people's lives if it results in experimentation
with alcohol and other drugs. Young people who begin to use alcohol and
other mind altering substances during their middle school years may be
especially prone to the problem of addiction later in adolescence and into
adulthood (Welte & Barnes, 1985).
Most middle schools are not prepared to offer adequate prevention programs
to help youngsters challenge the social pressure to experiment with drugs.
In fact, the current status of drug education in schools throughout the
United States is ambiguous at best. Theory-based prevention programs that
have been tested offer hope that drug abuse prevention programs will improve.
Assertiveness training programs, for example, that are designed to help
adolescents resist peer pressure, seem to offer middle school counselors
intriguing ideas for program development. In addition, cognitive-development
programs that are intended to raise the psychological maturity of youngsters
and improve their decision-making offer considerable hope for middle school
Middle school counselors must understand the relationship between peer
pressure and substance abuse and develop counseling strategies that are
designed to help young adolescents deal with the pressures to use drugs.
THE CHALLENGES OF STRESSFUL LIVES
Students in middle schools frequently complain about the stress they
experience in their everyday lives (Elkind, 1990). Typical adolescent complaints
include "Everyone is watching for me to make mistakes" and "I never have
any time for myself." Adults sometimes have a tendency to discount what
adolescents say, believing that most of the stress youngsters experience
will pass as maturation occurs. This lack of empathy on the part of adults
may leave adolescents feeling misunderstood and alienated.
Middle school counselors must implement programs that help young adolescents
deal with many stressful circumstances. Desensitization programs that help
in overcoming undue fears and relaxation programs that attempt to relieve
stress may help young adolescents develop confidence and hope for the future.
THE CHALLENGE OF SEXUAL MATURATION
Physical maturation, and particularly sexual maturation, has significant
effects on self-concept and social relationships during the middle school
years. Most young adolescents dwell on how to make themselves more attractive
and acceptable to their peers. One of the many difficult challenges for
middle school counselors is to attend to the concerns of adolescents about
physical maturation and sexuality.
Much has been written about adolescent sexuality, in particular, about
topics such as friendship, sexual identity, and adolescent pregnancy. Middle
school counselors must implement programs that take into account the impact
of physical and sexual maturation on students' lives. Counselors should
especially work to prepare adolescents to meet the challenging issues surrounding
contraception and teen pregnancy (Smith, Nenney, & McGill, 1986).
THE CHALLENGE OF ACADEMICS
Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the need for schools to
promote academic excellence. Individuals in the business community and
elsewhere complain that young people do not have the basic academic skills
necessary for economic success in a competitive world. Governmental and
private commissions have noted the high dropout rate in America's schools
and the generally poor record of public schools in promoting academic excellence.
Educators in the United States must account for the failure of schools
to motivate young people to stay in school and to strive for high levels
of academic achievement.
Middle school counselors can contribute to schools' efforts at improving
academic achievement among young teenagers (Gerler, Drew, & Mohr, 1990).
These days middle schoolers often have considerable freedom. Many are latchkey
children who may choose what to do when they arrive home from a day at
school. More often than not they choose leisure, neglecting their academic
responsibilities. Middle school counselors should collaborate with teachers
to implement programs that help youngsters develop a reasonable "work ethic."
Middle school counselors can play an important role in helping young
people see themselves as capable students who have the potential to realize
academic success. Counselors should take the lead in transforming low achieving
and disruptive adolescents into model students.
THE CHALLENGE OF CAREER EXPLORATION
In the search for identity, young adolescents struggle not only with
the question of "Who am I?" but also with the question "Who will I become?"
The latter question is often answered in terms of future occupation. Adolescents
face an ever-changing world of work, a fact that is often neglected by
overburdened middle school counselors. The economic, political, and social
changes that have brought women and minorities into the work force in large
numbers have altered how youngsters must be prepared to enter the world
of work (Hoyt & Shylo, 1987). Middle school counselors have many opportunities
to promote career development and career exploration among young people.
It is especially important for young adolescents to learn the skills
that will eventually help them achieve gainful employment. These skills
include how to write a resume, how to fill out a job application, and how
to interview effectively for a job. Middle school counselors must be especially
attentive to the special needs of exceptional students in the area of career
THE CHALLENGE OF ORGANIZING A COUNSELING PROGRAM IN MIDDLE SCHOOLS
The challenge for middle school counselors is to develop focused programs
that meet specific developmental needs of young adolescents. Much like
the students they serve, middle school counselors must develop their own
professional identities which are expressed in well defined and accountable
school guidance programs. Middle school counselors cannot do everything.
They are faced with issues such as dysfunctional families, substance abuse,
teen pregnancy, teen suicide, sexual abuse, school dropouts, and numerous
other difficult matters. Counselors, therefore, must set priorities and
develop programs to meet those priorities. Preventive and developmental
programs seem to be the most promising and cost-effective approaches to
counseling with young adolescents in middle schools. Such programs are
likely to help young adolescents satisfactorily address the question, "Who
Gerler, E. R., Drew, N. S., & Mohr, P. (1990). Succeeding in middle
school: A multimodal approach. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling,
Gerler, E. R., Hogan, C. C., & O'Rourke, K. (1990). The challenge
of counseling in middle schools. Ann Arbor, Michigan: ERIC/CAPS and The
American School Counselor Association.
Elkind, D. (1990). Stress and the middle grader. In E. R. Gerler, C.
C. Hogan, & K. O'Rourke (Eds.), The challenge of counseling in middle
schools (pp. 149-163). Ann Arbor, Michigan: ERIC/CAPS and The American
School Counselor Association.
Hoyt, K. B., & Shylo, K. R. (1987). Career education in transition:
Trends and implications for the future. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The Ohio State University.
Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.),
Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp. 159-181). New York: Wiley.
Smith, P. B., Nenny, S. W., & McGill, L. (1986). Health problems
and sexual activity of selected inner city, middle school students. Journal
of School Health, 56, 263-266.
Wegscheider, S. (1981). Another chance: Hope and health for the alcoholic
family. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books.
Welte, J. W., & Barnes, G. M. (1985). Alcohol: The gateway to other
drug use among secondary-school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,