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School-Based Family Counseling

School-Based Family Counseling is an approach to helping children succeed at school and overcome personal and interpersonal problems.

Brian Gerrard, Ph.D.
Center for Child and Family Development Department of Counseling
University of San Francisco

School-Based Family Counseling (SBFC) is an integrated approach which combines school counseling with family counseling in a broad systems approach. In its classic form, SBFC is conducted on site at the school and the School-Based Family Counselor is identified as a member of the school staff.

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for September 2013

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For additional information contact:
Judy Giampaoli, MFT, Director
School Outreach Program
jgiampaoli@yahoo.com

This is in contrast to the traditional school counseling model, in which the counselor is not trained in family counseling, and the traditional family therapy model, in which the counselor is not trained to work in school systems. The School-Based Family Counselor is trained to work with children in the context of family, school, peer and community systems and using a family systems theoretical orientation.

The need for School-Based Family Counseling comes from the inadequacy of traditional school counseling and family counseling (agency based) models in dealing with children who are failing at school because of family problems. A survey of the student clients of School-Based Family Counselors in San Francisco (Gerrard, 1990) showed that over 85% of the children referred by teachers, parents, or self-referred had significant problems at home.

The family problems included: marital discord, parents divorcing, custody problems with children, substance abuse, older siblings involved in gangs, sexual and physical abuse, parental neglect, single parents overwhelmed by economic and emotional problems, spouse abuse, and chaotic families with little parental control. School counselors, who typically have no training (or only one course) in family counseling, are not equipped to intervene effectively in these family problems.

Family counseling is one of the more difficult forms of counseling and learning to do it well requires extensive training and supervision.

When school personnel determine that there is a family problem affecting a student, they often refer the family to a community mental health agency for family counseling. Most school principals are familiar with the phenomenon of families that are referred for family counseling, but do not go. Many of these "resistant" families are involved in a power struggle with school personnel and the families resent being sent for therapy because of the implicit message that the family (i.e. the parent) is sick or irresponsible.

While seeing a therapist may be a sign of social status or trendiness with some people, with many, especially with minority families, therapy holds a stigma and "seeing a therapist" is viewed within these families' communities as a sign one is "crazy." Family therapists, who are themselves very familiar with the concept of triangulation (in which two family members form a coalition against a third family member who is often the family scapegoat or "identified patient"), are often perceived by parents as involved in a triangulation in which the school and the family therapist are in a coalition and "ganging up" on the parents.

Because the School-Based Family Counselor is the school counselor, she/he is viewed as an advocate for the school and the child.

School-Based Family Counseling minimizes this triangulation because the School-Based Family Counselor is not seen as a "third party" but, rather, is viewed as part of the school system. Because the School-Based Family Counselor is the school counselor, she/he is viewed as an advocate for the school and the child. The focus of the counseling is on working with parents and families to help their children succeed in school. Going to a school to consult with the school counselor on how to help one's child succeed in school is something that many parents are willing to accept (especially if the counselor emphasizes that she/he needs the parents' help).

This normalizes the counseling and reframes it in a way that destigmatizes coming for counseling. As the School-Based Family Counselor works with the parents and family to help the child, trust is built which permits the counselor to eventually work on other family issues affecting the child. School-Based Family Counseling is a multiculturally sensitive approach because it engages parents and families as partners with the School-Based Family Counselor in working to promote the success of the child at school.

In summary, School-Based Family Counseling has two key components: first, there is an integration of school counseling and family counseling models within a broad based systems meta-model that is used to conceptualize the child's problems in the context of all his/her interpersonal networks: family, peer group, classroom, school (teacher, principal, other students), and community. When a child is referred to the School-Based Family Counselor, the child's problem may involve one or all of these interpersonal networks. However, irrespective of the level of interpersonal network affected, the School-Based Family Counselor will relate positively with the child's family in order to reinforce positive change with the child.