Grand Forks school counselor Denise Loftus recently told elementary students what happens when you wear the "give up" hat.

To illustrate the idea, she donned a knitted black hat. "I can't even write my name in second grade," she woefully proclaimed.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

She took off the hat. "We learn that brain paths don't get made when you put on the give up hat," she said.

That day, Loftus taught Winship Elementary students about the importance of a willing attitude. Teaching character education isn't unusual for Loftus or other counselors today, who, in addition to reviewing student academic data and meeting with parents, generally perform work that goes beyond the stereotype often associated with counselors-one who helps students during a crisis or discusses academic work.

"We're part of the fabric of the school," Loftus said.

School counselors do not sit in their office waiting to counsel students. On average, 80 percent of their day is spent interacting with students, which can be anything from one-on-one sessions to greeting them at the door, she said. Counselors also take a more proactive approach, such as promoting antibullying measures, to prevent future problems instead of reacting to them, she said.

More students struggle with mental health issues and a lack of basic resources at home, and that presents school counselors with a heavier workload than before, said KatySue Tillman, director of the school counseling program at UND.

"Schools are now expected to deal with a lot more," she said. "That's been the pattern for a long time, but students are expected to do a lot more, counselors are expected to do a lot more. Everyone wants the school to fix things."

Loftus describes her job as part-teacher and part-student advocate. She also sets aside time outside of school to take English language learner students to hockey games or other events because language "develops quickly and well" with life experiences, she said.

She's quick to say her approach doesn't represent all counselors, whose duties can vary widely, but it's one she enjoys.

"(Counseling) is very tough work, but that's what commitment to the profession is," she said.

Old and new roles

Counselors still provide academic and counseling support, but what parents might not realize is they're a lot like kindergarten teachers, too, said Tillman.

"They're trying to figure out what kids are bothered by because they don't know how to articulate it," she said.

Loftus, full of bright energy, kept students engaged. She taught her class with excitement, using animated facial expressions and hand gestures reminiscent of a drama teacher. She ended the class by having students recite positive affirmations: "I am important! I can work hard!"

Beneath the playful tone of the class, students learned some big lessons: The importance of challenging themselves, the value of being flexible in their approach to problems and to always try hard.

Kevin Ohnstad, Phoenix Elementary principal, said Loftus has a "very nice ability to create a comfort level with children." She also provides a variety of services people might not realize, such as connecting families to community agencies, but she also goes out of her way to help parents out, he said.

"She'll offer to pick them up if they don't have a car or if they don't have the ability to ride a bus or the financial means," he said. "It wouldn't bother her to go out of her way to help somebody get here or get to a meeting."

Individual counseling sessions-more than 1,000 a year-and classroom lessons consume the biggest chunks of her time. After school, she often meets with parents or guardians who can't visit during the working day to help make plans for their children. She helps define their academic goals as well as helps with their social or emotional problems.

"We help kids work on a growth mindset, so they can be willing to make mistakes and tackle new things," she said.

But for students to reach a mental place where that can be possible, basic needs must be met, she said. Then "some of the other stuff-the need for connection, the need for belonging, for mastery" can follow, she said. In elementary school, students want to get rid of their sense of inferiority, a symptom of many things, including living in impoverished conditions.

Loftus, who is a counselor for Winship and Phoenix elementary schools, said she's seen an increase in the number of poor students in the area.

"Economics are very stressful for children," she said. "Even if they're not talked to about it, they can see that."

Some might be surprised to know young children have social emotional needs that pervade their lives in the same way as adults, she said. A student who doubts his ability to succeed might begin to feel really inferior to classmates and feel stuck as a result, she said.

"We can call up a friend and say, 'How did you get through that time?' but kids don't have that," she said. "They end up co-ruminating and end up getting more stuck. We have to help them through."

Most of Loftus' job involves empowering children, she said. At UND, where she teaches part time, she tells her students they always have to give students a voice.

"They're not just short people, they're people," she said. "And their voice matters."