7 Lessons for School Counselors to Help Students Navigate Life’s Ups and Downs

By Barbara Gruener

7 Lessons for School Counselors to Help Students Navigate Life’s Ups and DownsI was roughly 25 years old when friends invited me to join them on a ski trip to Idaho. Without much thought, I accepted their kind invitation. When we arrived, I naively boarded the chairlift and followed them up the mountain to a black diamond slope. The ride up took my breath away, but I didn’t realize what I’d agreed to until it was time to get off that breathtaking ride. Unloading from the lift led to the first of many falls as I attempted to teach myself to ski atop a mountain in Boise. I fell down. I got bruised. I screamed and cried. I felt frustrated, scared, and angry. And I promised myself that if I got down safely that day, I’d never go skiing again.

Fast-forward 30 years. This summer, our sons requested an experience in lieu of a party for their graduations. As we brainstormed, the initial idea of taking a cruise before they cruised into their journeys’ next steps morphed into a trip over the holiday break. Since it would take place in winter, they requested something in the snow, which quickly became a family trip to try downhill skiing. I hoped that time had healed my ski-warrior worries from all those years ago. And though a twinge of anxiety lingered, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give downhill skiing another shot. Mostly for the boys. And a little bit for myself.

This time, we’d start slow to go fast, beginning with ski school to learn the basics before hitting the slopes—I mean the bunny hill. It was during those three hours with Rich, our amazingly patient and kind ski instructor, that I drew the following parallels between the skier’s responsibility code and what school counselors routinely do to help students ski through life.

  1. Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people and objects. Ah, the all-important skill of self-regulation and control—a counselor’s dream come true. Throughout the ski lesson, Rich shared examples galore of the catastrophic chaos that results when people don’t follow this guideline. His thorough review of this rule helped us understand its importance on the slopes, and I couldn’t help but connect it to a few of the life lessons we school counselors want our learners to embrace: Do everything in moderation, achieve a healthy balance that works best for you, and maintain self-control so you don’t recklessly knock people (or things!) over in your passionate pursuit of your wishes, goals, and dreams.
  2. Do your best to prevent runaway equipment: You are responsible for possible damage or injury as a result of runaways. Since falling down is pretty much a given in downhill skiing, Rich cautioned us to keep track of our equipment after a fall. He humorously shared that it was indeed frowned upon to hold a garage sale out there on the snow. Truth be told, stuff can easily snowball out of control and get away from us. School counselors can help students identify and keep track of what’s really important and streamline the rest so it doesn’t create an avalanche. This can be key to going through life organized instead of overwhelmed.
  3. People ahead of you have the right of way. School counselors help students strengthen their character muscles as they learn to be courteous, live responsibly, and always respect others. We teach students that how they treat people matters, regardless of who people are and where they stand. Consider the people ahead of us—adults and older peers—to be agents for our growth. They can help us get better as we learn from their successes and failures.
  4. You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above. Actor Will Rogers put it this way: Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. School counselors know that emotions sometimes get in the way and stop us in our tracks, so we teach our children that it’s okay to get stuck by a big feeling, like fear. Then we give them tools for keeping those feelings from paralyzing them. We encourage them to practice positive self-talk, like I’ve got this!, and to use deep-breathing exercises to stay in the moment. We might even suggest they dedicate that moment to a gritty role model who has made it through a tough time and is now thriving. Counselors coach students to always stay visible and to keep their eyes and ears open as they move forward.
  5. Whenever starting downhill or merging onto a trail, look uphill and yield to others. In skiing, as we head down a hill, it might seem counterintuitive to look up, but watching out for those who are already en route down the hill creates a win-win: it clears the way for others and ensures an open pathway for us. Likewise in life, counselors teach our students that yielding can move us from operating solo in ME-mode to collaborating in WE-mode—being empathetic, helpful, and aware of others’ needs. In a community where WE-mode is prevalent, everyone benefits.
  6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off of closed trails and out of closed areas. Rules aren’t meant to hold us back, but to keep us safe and out of harm’s way. School counselors remind students every day that students have the power to choose to obey rules or not, and we caution them to keep in mind that all choices have consequences, positive and negative, making it critical to choose carefully.
  7. Prior to using any lift, have the knowledge and ability to load, ride, and unload safely. This last guideline creates a kind of conundrum: How can students know how to use the lift safely until they’ve actually done it successfully? School counselors know that it’s important to begin at the beginning, so we start with the cognitive: We encourage our students to always ask questions and to listen intently to the answers. From there, we help move them to the affective as they embrace the process and feel its value. Then it’s time for hands-on practice to sharpen their new skill. Despite tackling all three of those domains on the slopes, I fell down every single time the lift unloaded me. In fact, I’m the passenger they had to stop the lift for so I could gather my garage-sale garb and clear the path for those behind me. This is the perfect time for me as a school counselor to model vulnerability by sharing my story. It will assure students that it’s okay to fall down as long as they get back up. Then I can encourage them to stick with it because persistence will pay off in everything they do.

School counselors get to wear so many hats (and helmets!), the most rewarding of which is helping our students navigate life’s ups and downs—eventually making it up and down those steep slopes successfully without us.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 34th year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.

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