'It took a while for the reality of losing Daddy to sink in, then Zoe became angry'

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The Independent Online
Out of a happy, bustling reception class steps a five-year-old girl. She follows a woman she knows well into a small room laid out with toys, books and crayons. The woman says, "Hello - now what are we going to play today?"

The woman in question is a school counsellor, Jane Elfer. The five-year- old girl is Zoe, whose father died in the summer before she was due to start school. At first she found the attention from other people quite exciting, and didn't really understand that her daddy wasn't coming back.

Her mother, Alex, says the timing of her father's death was very hard. The funeral was held the week before she was due to start school for the first time.

"It took a few months for the reality to sink in, and she became quite angry."

For the past term Zoe has been receiving counselling from Jane once a week at her primary school, as part of a special project being run by the Catholic Children's Society. The society is part-funding a counsellor for 10 schools in the Croydon area. Under the project the participating schools pay around pounds 20 per hour for the counsellor, while the society meets all the other costs, such as the counsellor's own supervision, any equipment needed and possible further referrals to social services. The true cost of funding a trained counsellor is between pounds 80 and pounds 100 per hour.

Sandra Reynard is the head at Zoe's primary school, St Francis, in Caterham, Surrey. "We currently have two children being seen by the school counsellor. There are occasions when there are aspects of children's lives that we, as teachers, are unable to handle. A counsellor is trained to listen, and it makes a great difference to all the staff here to have someone else who can relieve them of time otherwise spent with a child."

For Zoe, it has meant she can tell someone quite independent about how she is feeling. What goes on between Zoe and Jane in the counselling sessions is completely confidential. Jane says: "Little children obviously aren't like adults and teenagers, who can walk in and begin talking about what's bothering them. Here, the children set the agenda. They come in, have a look at the toys and start to play with something. All the time I'm watching, and getting clues about what they're worrying about.

"In cases of bereavement, they may not be sad; they may be very angry about what's happened. But they may feel it's wrong to be angry - and so they start to have behavioural difficulties. I can say, 'Perhaps little dolly's angry about the baby dying' - and they'll think, 'She's picked that up, she understands' - and they can begin to talk about how they really feel. When you're in that room with the children, it's extraordinary how they begin to reveal themselves, once you can name how they feel"n

COUNSELLING TECHNIQUES

The techniques of counselling in schools tend to fall into one of four main categories:

1. The Carl Rogers "person-centred" approach. Carl Rogers was an American child psychologist whose teachings have been highly influential in the world of counselling. Techniques informed by Rogers work are perhaps the most popular of all in schools. He believed that everyone should have an "unconditional positive regard", and that the role of the counsellor is to empathise with children and "walk in their shoes". The purpose of counselling, according to Rogers, is to facilitate change.

2. The psycho-dynamic. This is a more analytical approach, with the counsellor attempting to keep out of what's going on and allowing the child to explain themselves without intervention. The counsellor then makes links and consistencies from what's been said, and looks for patterns of behaviour.

3. The cognitive behavioural. Following this theory, the counsellor aims to reward the good and ignore the bad - a technique often used with children with severe behavioural problems. In sessions the counsellor looks at ways of thinking and behaving with the child, and sees how effective those ways might be, and how they could improve relationships.

4. Play therapy. Most counsellors will use play therapy with young children, but may adopt another approach as well, like Carl Rogers's. Play therapy can also be used by teachers or people who aren't formally trained as counsellors. In this approach, children are encouraged to use toys, crayons, and paint to symbolise what they're worrying about.

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