Even the best counselor prep programs don’t always include training for how to actually counsel children – it’s often times something that we figure out once we’re already working. Talking to mentor counselors, reading books, googling…and just plain old trial and error. I was lucky that my first position was actually as a school-based therapist and so I had a little bit more experience with actual one on one counseling before starting as a school counselor (though I still have a bit of trial and error!). One of the things I’ve gotten fairly established at this point is my first session or two with students that are going to be semi-ongoing.
Here are some activities that are my “go-tos” in my first sessions with kiddos, especially ones I haven’t already established rapport with:
You usually already know which social grouping is most pertinent to your work with the student; family or class. Whichever it is, ask your student “Who are all the important people in your life at school? Pick out a figurine for each one.” If they pick non-people figurines, I sometimes prompt “I noticed you picked a t-rex for your friend Ben, I wonder why.” I use a rice tray and have students put the figurines in that, but you can also just ask them to put the figures on paper. This alone gives you info about the important players in their life (and sometimes their thoughts on then). You can also add additional prompts like “Which of these figures get along the best?”, “Which of these figures argue a lot?”, etc.
Get to Know You Game
Kids love games and games are an easy peasy way to get to know them better. For my older students (3rd+), I love to use JENGA with these questions (TPT) written on all of them. For my younger students, I give them an option between 2-3 of my color/number coded games (Don’t Break the Ice, Let’s Go Fishing, CandyLand, etc.) and use the “Get to Know You” prompts this question set (TPT). When I start the game, I don’t assume that they want me to answer the questions, too. I usually just pause at my turn to see if they say something. I’ve found that about half of the time, the student has no interest at all in my answers, and that’s ok. Sometimes simply playing a game and chatting (even without prompts) can provide you with a wealth of information! Word to the wise: unless you plan on playing a game in every session with the student, I think it’s helpful to provide a quick disclaimer like “Sometimes when we’re together, we’ll play games. Sometimes we will do other activities and won’t play games.”
Feelings Book (and Game or Coloring Sheet)
It’s crucial to me that my students can identify and express their emotions – and as it turns out, a lot of them can’t (yet). I often spend one of my first sessions with a student reading a feelings book and then processing it together. We might play a game where we share our feelings depending on the color/number we land on, or do a “color your world” type coloring sheet. These are some of my fave feelings books – I pick which one to use based off of the student’s developmental level (intellectually and emotionally).
I think routines/rituals can be really powerful in counseling. They provide a sense of stability and safety. With lots of my students, I use this lapbook (TPT) to start and end sessions and introduce it during our first session together. They start by identifying how they’re feeling today, how they’ve felt lately, how they’re feeling about school/home/friends, and what they want to talk about. We end sessions with them sharing if they’re feeling better/worse/same, selecting a self-affirmation, and how they want to say good-bye.