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It's a Virtual World
7/1/2018
 Tracey Steele, Ph.D., and Greg Nuckols, Ph.D.
Sunday July 01, 2018
by:  Tracey Steele, Ph.D., and Greg Nuckols, Ph.D.

Section: Inside Insight


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From behind his laptop, Bryan sits patiently in his bedroom watching the little clock on the bottom of his screen finally turn to 4 p.m. He clicks over to Skype and opens the dialog box. “Ready to meet?” he types. Almost as quickly as he finishes typing, the reply comes back, “Absolutely.” Before he can look up, the familiar Skype ring begins – a once-jarring yet also comforting tone comes through his computer – synched with the picture of his high school counselor on the other side. Bryan accepts the calls and straightens his baseball cap sitting snugly on his head as he readies himself for the video chat. His school counselor appears, her familiar background of books and family pictures feels as if he might actually be sitting in her office. The school counselor’s warm smile helps him feel a little more secure in the chaotic and overwhelming sea of troubles he has recently found himself, struggling to keep afloat.
 
Why Go Virtual?
Some students relish the increased flexibility online schools afford them so they can pursue activities such as competitive sports, dance, acting or music. Others live in rural or more remote areas of the United States and attend online classes or schools to increase the range of curricula available to them. For other students, going online is a way to help them earn the recovery credits for failed classes. These are only a few of the many reasons students are increasingly seeking online educational opportunities for either some or all of their pre-college educational careers.

A decade ago, many wondered if virtual school counselors could develop meaningful relationships with students, families and staff to provide a comprehensive school counseling program. These days, we know the answer is, yes, school counseling can be delivered effectively in a virtual environment.  Counseling sessions held via online videoconferencing can be as supportive and effective as an in-person meeting – if the student is willing to engage, the school counselor has the necessary skills and the technology is working. According to the ASCA position statement on The School Counselor and Virtual School Counseling, “Virtual school counseling is a way to reach a diverse student set, to help students meet their potential and have an impact on their learning in a way they may not receive in a traditional face-to-face school environment.”

However, legal and ethical issues arise in the virtual educational setting in sometimes new or novel ways and must be identified and addressed to best meet and support students’ needs and to comply with school counselors’ duties and obligations. Boundary issues, self-harm, confidentiality and reluctant students are just a few common issues for all school counselors but have unique aspects for the virtual school counselor.

Boundaries
In counseling students via e-mail, text or video conferencing platforms, how do you deal with students who may seek your assistance at any hour of the day or night?

In traditional brick-and-mortar schools, school counselors can go home to rest, recoup and tend to their personal lives at the end of the workday. For virtual school counselors, many of whom work from home, closing the virtual office door is necessary not only for sustainability in the role but also because virtual school counselors often aren’t prepared to deal with student issues, particularly student crises, when they are immersed in the responsibilities and activities of their own lives. For these reasons, it’s essential to set clear boundaries with students and families and provide online resources, such as hotlines and referral services, for students and families to turn to when you aren’t available.

Keys to setting and maintaining boundaries in a virtual setting include setting up different work and personal accounts for e-mail, video conferencing and texting. Best practices include closing down your online platforms and applications so it doesn’t appear to students you’re online and available when you aren’t actually. To do that, many applications have easy on/off or do-not-disturb buttons you can activate. By having personal e-mail separate from work e-mail, it prevents the blurring of lines if a concerning e-mail arrives during non-working hours.

Ensuring all students, parents and school staff can access emergency resources allows them to contact trained professionals who are in a position to respond to a crisis at that time. Posting these resources on the school’s external-facing websites available to all students, staff and parents 24/7 can address this issue. You may also want to set up automatic out-of-office messages in your e-mail responses when you’re offline. These automated messages can ping back messages to the sender with information regarding after-hours resources. Consistently remind students, staff and families about these resources, and be sure to keep the resources up to date. This can help reduce the number of messages you might receive during off hours. It also ensures students and families have available resources to go to if faced with an urgent issue during your nonworking hours.

Emergency Protocols
What do you do when you receive a worried call from a student’s friend about a student who may be suicidal or when a student has disclosed suicide ideation to you?

As a virtual school counselor, you adhere to the same legal and ethical guidelines as school counselors working face-to-face with students. Unlike school counselors working in a brick-and-mortar school, who have the ability to bring a potentially suicidal student into their office for safety until the parents or other help arrives, you may be located miles or states away from the student in crisis. Therefore, you need to have emergency protocols in place to deal with students who may be in serious and foreseeable harm to themselves or others. These protocols may differ according to school and context, but they should always involve informing parents as soon as possible, unless abuse or neglect is suspected, in which case contact child protective services. If you can’t reach the student or parent by phone, text or e-mail, you can contact the local law enforcement to request a welfare check. Often, authorities can bring in social workers to check on the student.

Given the fact that one in five children ages 13–18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness, all school counselors, including virtual ones, need to recognize and prepare to deal with student mental health crises. Although not all student crisis cases will be the same, having a protocol in place helps you move through crises in a more objective and directed manner – leading to better and more effective outcomes.

Privacy
How do you deal with privacy and confidentiality issues while working in an online environment and providing counseling services virtually?

Some aspects of student privacy apply to any school using electronic records and communication, while other aspects are unique to virtual schools. In both virtual and brick-and-mortar schools, you can protect student privacy by following best practices, such as restricting school-counseling-related work to school-issued computers and other devices, taking proper care regarding access permissions for shared documents and database records and avoiding using student names or other identifiable information in e-mail communication with colleagues. However, further considerations arise in virtual school counseling.

In your work as a virtual school counselor, you need to make students aware that texting, e-mail and videoconferencing aren’t fully secure modes of communication. These steps could include information on the school website or in orientation materials for new students, as well as a discussion of confidentiality and information security all school counselors would initiate in their first contact with students. Having such information allows students to make informed choices about how they wish to interact with you. You may also want to direct students to certain modes of communication for certain issues. For example, a discussion of a highly sensitive topic might be best reserved for real-time videoconferencing or phone calls, rather than e-mail or texting.

Virtual school counseling by videoconferencing also requires care to ensure students are situated in a manner conducive to the counseling process. Whereas a brick-and-mortar counseling office can be set up once, perhaps at the beginning of the school year, your virtual school counseling “office” must be created anew with each student and, to some degree, each session. To engage fully, the student needs to be in a private, relatively quiet location. You may need to guide students initially to turn off or set aside potential distractions such as smart phone notifications or instant messaging apps during counseling sessions.

Virtual school counseling also has some potential advantages regarding privacy. School counselor availability in a virtual school is normally such that students don’t need to miss class to work with you. Furthermore, connecting online to a school counselor doesn’t require students to be seen by others walking to or entering the school counseling office, as would be the case in a brick-and-mortar school, thus providing greater privacy around the entire counseling process.

Evasive Students and Attrition in Counseling
If some students are reluctant to engage with you or if students are ambivalent about the counseling process, how can you respond effectively?

Students who need or are referred for counseling support may be reluctant to work with a school counselor, or they may attend a few sessions and then drop out. This issue could arise in any school setting, but a virtual school provides greater opportunities for students to ignore e-mails, to not respond to text messages or to decline videoconferencing sessions. Without the option to seek out students in person, you’ll need to find other ways to engage reluctant students.

As with other aspects of an online school, parent collaboration may help. Instructors who teach online classes may ask parents to ensure students have a quiet, private location from which to attend class and might also enlist parent assistance in reminding students to have certain books or other materials ready for class activities. Parents could support the school counseling process in similar ways and can also help you by reminding students to attend scheduled counseling sessions. All these considerations require constant vigilance to protect the trusting relationship between school counselor and student.

You can also engage reluctant students by being flexible and creative regarding how you connect and communicate with them. Some students may be more comfortable interacting online than in person. Some may prefer, at least at times, to communicate with you via text message or e-mail rather than in real time. For some students, having a conversation with a school counselor using audio without video, either in a web-based interface or by phone, allows them to explore their feelings more easily. The flexibility of many videoconferencing applications allows a conversation to, say, begin via text messaging, then move to audio, later include video as well and perhaps then return to audio only if the student wishes to do so and this best serves the counseling process.

Statistics from a 2015 Pew Research Center study indicate 92 percent of students go online daily. Often, school counselors are able to find and interact with students more easily in this virtual environment than in a brick-and-mortar school. For students like Bryan, having access to a virtual school counselor lowers barriers to seeking help and allows him to easily tap into a vital source of support. At the same time, you must be aware of the ethical and legal issues that may arise while working virtually. Like many such issues, few black-and-white answers exist, and limited legal precedence due to the rapid advances of such technologies can often make these questions even more challenging to address. However, these challenges need not prevent you from carrying out the school counselor’s professional mandate to meet and help students where there are – and increasingly this happens to be online.
 
Tracy Steele, Ph.D., is director of student support for Stanford Online High School and can be reached at tmsteele@stanford.edu. Greg Nuckols, Ph.D., is director of counseling for Stanford Online High School.