Counseling out is an unfortunate reality of private schooling. By design, private schools allow families to choose a particular school environment that adheres to certain standards or values and provides certain services, facilities, and curricula. The school community is carefully constructed and there are procedures in place to make swifter changes if the school feels a particular student or faculty member is no longer a good fit. That counseling out happens shouldn’t really be a surprise, yet families who find themselves in this situation are often completely shocked. If a family started at a particular school in kindergarten with the intention of staying through its entire program (however many grades that particular school may have), and then is asked to leave mid-program, it’s often devastating news. Generations of family members may have graduated from that school. A family’s entire social network may be connected to that school. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and often it’s not. Schools have so many tools and resources available to them for managing these situations and, if necessary, counseling out with compassion.
Students who are having learning difficulties don’t just suddenly start to have these challenges. Therefore, it’s critical to have clear grade-level standards for benchmarking a student’s skills and a system for communicating this information to parents. Many private schools prefer not to communicate reading levels, for example, because they fear parents will misuse the information. That could be true, but for struggling students, especially, it’s really important to be able to share with a parent what’s expected at a certain point in the school year relative to current levels of performance. If a child is working below grade level expectations, a clear intervention plan should be developed and documented for all stakeholders. Data comes in lots of forms so teachers should keep a portfolio of work samples, observational notes, standardized test scores, and informal assessments (i.e. running records, exit cards). This data becomes incredibly valuable in mitigating a family’s surprise if/when the school situation is no longer sustainable.
In a public school setting, there are certain expectations about designing and documenting systematic, evidence-based interventions, adhering to a transparent due process with parents, and providing the necessary resources for differentiated instruction. Private schools may take similar approaches, but they aren’t legally bound to them in most cases. Each private school establishes its own protocols for benchmarking, communicating data to parents, managing a response to intervention (RTI) process, and formally meeting with parents and outside professionals. Private schools can insist that a family provide certain supplemental resources in order for their child to continue in the program. Private schools can also terminate a student’s enrollment mid-year or not renew a student’s contract for the following year if they feel a child’s behavior or emotionality is too disruptive or the learning needs are beyond what they feel they have the resources to manage well.
Having a clear protocol in place for meeting with families and any private professionals involved in supporting the family is imperative. Educational problem solving is best done as a multidisciplinary team, so psychologists, psychiatrists, educational consultants, OTs, Speech and Language Therapists, and special education attorneys, among other professionals, are important allies. If everyone maintains a laser focus on helping the child to succeed, then a successful partnership can be easily established, and there may well be room for many manageable interventions. If the team is working collaboratively and clearly communicating with one another and the parents, then escalated problem solving can be handled compassionately and effectively. We’ve certainly had experiences where the entire team, parents included, agree that a placement is no longer in the child’s best interest and we work together to plan for a transition.
Unfortunately, there are just as many situations that do not unfold with this level of partnership, and for those families it’s a traumatic experience. These parents often experience all five stages of grief in a compressed time frame: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These situations can be messier yet if the relationship between the family and school has become combative, but there are best practices for managing this counseling out with compassion, too. First, schools should embrace outside professionals as allies in helping to successfully transition the student. Angry and defensive parents can often better hear the recommendations of private professionals. Second, schools should designate a point person for facilitating communication and admissions documentation. In some instances, having all communication facilitated by an educational consultant to avoid negative interactions between the parents and the school is most effective and pleasant for everyone. Third, schools should avoid micromanaging the next placement. If a family is being asked to leave, then a school should really facilitate rather than impose more control over the family’s situation, otherwise, families only become more distressed. Finally, schools should remain focused on the child’s needs, and advocate with efficacy.
Counseling out with compassion can be achieved if we start by planning for success. Educators and parents want to see their students succeeding, and they generally want to work in partnership. If something doesn’t seem quite right, it’s important that teachers, administrators and parents have courageous conversations in a timely manner. Interventions should be developed with transparency and an open mind so that we bolster a child’s success. If interventions aren’t working, we should learn from these experiences, and make appropriate adjustments. If too many adjustments are regularly needed, and it’s become clear that the environment is no longer the best fit, then a conversation about exploring other school environments is appropriate. While counseling out can be difficult topic to broach, it can also be an incredible turning point in a student’s school career.
On March 8, 2017, Brad Hoffman participated in a professional panel discussion with Dr. Evan Flamenbaum, Dr. Larry Hess, and Bonnie Spiro Schinagle, Esq. about educational, clinical, and legal considerations regarding counseling out. The event was designed for school professionals, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians and took place at the West End Collegiate Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.