By Mary Pat McCartney of the American School Counseling Asociation 
    for GuidanceChannel.com 



    One of the responsibilities of being a school counselor is to help parents help their children. Although most of our time is spent as a resource for students and staff at school, we also deal with concerns from parents about a child’s behavior at home. How do school counselors effectively handle a parent’s request for help? What are some guidelines that could be followed when school counselors respond to parental calls for behavioral advice and/or support? This article will delineate some general “how-to’s” that can serve as a quick reference for school counselors to use when helping parents improve a child’s behavior.


    It is impossible to predict the various types of phone calls and emails counselors might receive from parents concerning their child’s actions at home. The problems can cover a wide range of topics. The following comments represent typical concerns:

    • “My child won’t do his homework. What can I do?”
    • “How do I get her to stop being so rough with kids in the neighborhood? No one will play with her.”
    • “His teacher says he is choosing to not follow directions and I’m having the same problem at home.”
    • “Recently my daughter doesn’t seem to care about the poor grades she is bringing home. When I ask her about it she just says, ‘Leave me alone’.”

    School counselors can approach behavior concerns presented by parents in much the same way that we approach a teacher’s request for assistance with behavior concerns in class. Our work sometimes involves developing intervention plans to assist with improving student work habits and conduct. Traditionally, we use various counseling techniques (individually and in small groups) to motivate a student to change his or her behavior. Checklists, charts, teacher cues, self-monitoring devices, desktop reminders, incentives, and weekly check-ins are all strategies that a school counselor might use when responding to a teacher’s request to help with a student behavior problem at school. Strategies for home can also parallel strategies used at school. Parents, with the help of the counselor, can successfully implement some of the same types of plans.


    There is a basic approach to handling a parent question about their child's home behavior. Generally speaking, the following steps can serve as a guide for counselors:


    • Listen to all of the details and make sure the whole problem is explained.
    • Understand the parent's concern and acknowledge their challenge.
    • If the problem seems too overwhelming to the parent, help them narrow it down and pinpoint one specific behavior.
    • Ask questions to uncover the variables that might be involved, such as: "Is this a relatively new behavior? When did it start? What changes have taken place at home?"
    • Have the parent share what they have already tried to do and compliment them on their efforts.
    • Act as a liaison in the problem solving process. "Let's brainstorm some ideas together..."
    • Suggest one or two things to try (a behavior contract, etc.).
    • Encourage parents to assert themselves as they implement their plan.


    Effective parenting is not synonymous with perfect parenting. No parent can be expected to raise a responsible child without ever having to deal with a problem. Remind the parent that parenting can be challenging. It is important to use the resources available to help with solving problems. Most concerns might be categorized into three main issues: lack of motivation and/or low self-esteem, poor peer interactions, and non-compliance with authority. Whatever the problem, however, it’s helpful to keep in mind some basic parenting principles. The list below represents some key points to review with a parent who calls for advice.


    Clearly state the behavior you expect.

          Move close, look your child in the eye and tell your child in a calm voice what you want him/her to do. Be specific and avoid using negatives such as no, stop, don’t. For example:

    • Instead of “stop running,” try “walk.”
    • Instead of “no grabbing,” try “ask for a turn.”
    • Instead of “stop yelling,” try “speak softly.”

    Catch them being “good.”

          Look for appropriate behavior and praise it. For example, say:

    • "Nice work setting the table!"
    • "Excellent, you got right to work on your report!"
    • "Wonderful -- you let your friend decide on a game."

    Let them know you understand their feelings.

         Actively listen by giving full attention, describing the situation, and naming the child’s feeling. Remember, behavior is what we do with our feelings. Children must be taught appropriate ways of expressing their feelings.


    Set appropriate limits.

         State clear, simple rules and post them on the refrigerator. Follow through quickly and consistently. Develop consequences (such as lose a privilege, go to Time-Out, etc.)


    Teach children appropriate behaviors.

         This can be done by:

    • modeling and providing a short, verbal explanation (children tend to copy you);
    • helping your child to go back and do it right; and
    • dividing the skill into small steps and giving simple instructions for each step.

    School counselors should also emphasize with parents the importance of communication. Parents are busy with work and household responsibilities. Children are busy with homework assignments and outside activities (soccer, scouts, karate, piano lessons, etc.) Face-to-face opportunities for parents and children to talk and listen to each other may be scarce. Encourage parents to schedule a daily, or at least weekly, time for communicating with each child in the family. For some families, the bedtime routine provides the perfect time for the parent and child to listen to each other.


    The Family Meeting is a powerful communication tool. It’s a means of strengthening family relationships and cooperation. Family meetings help families feel like a “team” where people help each other. Making time for regular meetings requires an examination of every family member’s schedule and finding the times when everyone is free. It’s important to meet regularly -- not just in response to a crisis or argument. In that way, the family might be able to prevent small problems from getting bigger. They can also defer the discussion of certain problems by adding them to an agenda between meetings. The family meeting can teach children about respect and problem solving. It can create a climate in which members will work and grow together.


    Listed below are some guidelines for conducting family meetings.


    • Maintain rules for the meeting. (i.e., take turns speaking, use manners, everyone must be present, etc.)
    • Start with sharing good news and compliments.
    • Read notes from the previous meeting.
    • Talk about “old business” and find out how it’s going.
    • Talk about “new business” – things on the agenda.
    • Plan something fun to do together as a family (game night).
    • Summarize (and record) what people have agreed to do.
    • Post an agenda for the next meeting in a convenient location.


    Our main focus as school counselors is on student performance in school. As school counselors, however, we all know how improving the student’s behavior at home can have positive implications for school success. That is why we conduct parenting workshops and list parent tips in our newsletters and web pages. Supporting parents in the important work of child development has benefits for all.