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Student Sabina Wex is pictured demonstrating her meditation technique in a hallway at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Wex practices meditation and yoga during a 'stress busters' program initiated by the school's guidance department. (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail/Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)
Student Sabina Wex is pictured demonstrating her meditation technique in a hallway at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Wex practices meditation and yoga during a 'stress busters' program initiated by the school's guidance department. (Chris Young/The Globe and Mail/Chris Young/The Globe and Mail)

A new job description for school guidance counsellors Add to ...

Picture lunchtime at a high school. Barely controlled chaos, kids scarfing their meals and scrambling to finish homework in the cafeteria.

Now, picture this: Students meditating and stretching into yoga moves in a peaceful classroom. That’s the scene you’d see if you dropped in on Sabina Wex during Monday lunch hours. Even if she had a test the next period.

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“It’s so relaxing,” says the 16-year-old. “If I have a big presentation or something after lunch, I’m so much more confident.”

It’s not a student spa club; it’s a program called Stress Busters, run by her school’s guidance department. Remember them? The folks that used to administer those dreaded career questionnaires?

While the rocky labour market has made matching kids with specific jobs a mug’s game, school counsellors have rewritten their own job description. While they’ll still help kids aim for postsecondary school or training in certain fields, they’re also increasingly responsible for inculcating so-called soft skills, such as self-control and confidence, that will help students become nimble job seekers.

In this universe, a yoga program that promotes resiliency and relaxation is, indeed, just as important as GPAs and test scores.

After all, any school counsellor will tell you that the majority of jobs their charges will step into don’t even exist yet. Look around any workplace and you’ll see jobs that were never in any of those questionnaires, such as communities editors and chief technology officers.

“It’s not about deciding what job they’re going to work at when they leave,” says the Toronto District School Board’s Lorna McPherson, who oversees the board’s guidance program. “It’s partly about that. … But, really, it’s life-planning, making decisions and goal-setting.”

And while there will always be those who believe the school system should stick to the three-R approach, it’s hard not to conclude that kids – including elementary students – need more, not less, of this kind of counsel.

But in Ontario, for instance, schools are mandated to have only 2.6 counsellors for every 1,000 high-school students and only one counsellor for every 5,000 kids at the elementary level. Since that’s much less than one per school, they are roving counsellors with the unfortunate title of elementary itinerant counsellors, or EICs.

More than a decade ago, most school boards adopted a “whole-school” approach to guidance counselling, rather than a resource-intensive one-on-one model in which students saw a counsellor once a year or when they had some sort of crisis. Instead, counsellors started to oversee school-wide programs around issues such as bullying and mental health, along with credit courses in career studies for all students at the Grade 9 or 10 level to help them ponder their options and get to know themselves.

“Kids are good at something. All of them. And that’s how you keep them engaged in school and that’s part of the role of guidance,” says Ms. McPherson.

When it comes to career planning, they still administer the odd test, but they’re also mandated by provincial ministries of education to bolster general life skills.

That’s where yoga and stress relief comes in, says Michelle de Braux, a counsellor at North Toronto Collegiate Institute and one of the founders of the Stress Busters program.

“Career development is about knowing who you are, what you value, what you love to do, and how you like to work best,” she says. “Not only is it hard to achieve this self-awareness if you can’t balance your life and feel stress or anxiety, but knowing how to deal with stress is a critical life skill for students, and everyone, to learn.”

The idea that it’s now about employability and stability, rather than training for a single job, is one espoused by the big thinkers in the field of career development. “There’s kind of a paradoxical paradigm that’s coming to the front in the career-development area, saying you’ve got to be positive about what you’re going to do but at the same time, remain uncertain,” says Norman Amundson, a professor of counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia. “You have to be planful and make plans, but you also have to be open to opportunity and chance or luck.”

This can be a disquieting notion for parents. Certain their kids should focus on grades to get to university, the focus on soft skills can seem especially, well, soft for them.

Ms. Wex says when she told her father about the wellness program run by her guidance counsellor, he “raised an eyebrow.” But Ms. Wex says her dad now understands that those Monday sessions help calm her stress over whether she’s got what it takes to get into university – from grades to extra-curriculars and volunteer hours.

“That’s what people are stressed out about – you’re not good enough,” she says.

And, as with all promising educational programming in Canada, perhaps the most poignant criticism comes from those whose schools aren’t there yet.

Saskatoon mother Yurdagul Ferhatoglu says she's disappointed in the career guidance her 15-year-old daughter has had thus far. In a class last year in Grade 9, she learned about the basics concerning the minimum wage, safety in the workplace and a few types of work that students might consider directly out of high school

“I think the schools are not doing much, they probably don’t know what to do. The job market is quite limiting right now. I’m realistic. How are they going to get training [for the new jobs out there]”

It doesn’t help matters that there’s a dearth of evidence about the usefulness of guidance counsellors. Experts lament the fact that we’re only just now trying to understand which approaches work for kids and which don’t.

“We don’t ask that question at all. Like, once every 20 years,” says Donnalee Bell, a senior consultant with the Ottawa-based Canadian Career Development Foundation.

In the past 10 years, research she’s gathered has been mixed. In a 2001 study, for instance, only 12 per cent of the junior high-school (Grades 7-9) students and 36 per cent of the senior high-school (Grades 10-12) students listed counsellors in their “top three” list of people they would approach for career help. Then, in 2003, there were contradictory findings, that students “seek guidance counsellors as among the first and most reliable sources of expert information on postsecondary education opportunities, financial support and assistance with decision-making.”

Now, Ms. Bell says school counselling indeed remains “piecemeal” and victim to a lot of great pilot projects that go nowhere. Her group is calling for career education that evolves developmentally from kindergarten to Grade 12, which they believe is “more effective than one course which is often delivered too late to support the transition to high school and too early to support the transition to PSE or to work.” She says this education would be best delivered not by teachers who’ve been handed a curriculum but by someone with a background in career development.

“It seems like youth career development had fallen off the radar from a national point of view. It was really quite strong about eight years ago. Now, there’s nothing happening,” says Ms. Bell, who adds that it’s a natural role for the education system.

“If the education system doesn’t do it, I don’t know who would.”

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