Therapeutic letter writing from school counselors to students, parents, and teachers.
Subject: Letter writing (Educational aspects)
Student counselors (Practice)
Student counselors (Records and correspondence)
Authors: Oliver, Marvarene
Nelson, Kaye W.
Cade, Rochelle
Cueva, Catherine
Pub Date: 06/01/2007
Publication: Name: Professional School Counseling Publisher: American School Counselor Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Family and marriage; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 American School Counselor Association ISSN: 1096-2409
Issue: Date: June, 2007 Source Volume: 10 Source Issue: 5
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 165780648
Full Text: This article discusses therapeutic letter writing by school counselors as a way of enhancing effectiveness of direct services to students. Writing as an effective therapeutic tool has been well-documented, and therapeutic letter writing specifically has been shown to have positive effects. This article provides a brief literature review, along with sample letters that might be used in elementary, middle, and high school levels. Guidelines for constructing letters are included.

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School counselors are expected to spend the majority of their time in direct service to all students. The ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs (American School Counselor Association, 2005) includes guidelines based on the work of Gysbers and Henderson (2000) recommending that 30-40% of an elementary or middle school counselor's time be spent in responsive services, and only slightly less than that (25-35%) for high school counselors. Suggestions for time spent in guidance curriculum activities vary from 15% to 45% and in individual student planning from 5% to 35%, depending on grade level. The remaining 10-20% is suggested for system support.

Responsive services may include individual and group counseling, crisis counseling, consultation, peer facilitation, and referral. Students may seek out or be referred to the school counselor for a variety of concerns, including personal problems. Generally, both time constraints and the role of school counselors prohibit extended individual counseling for students experiencing problems. While referral sources may be used for students with more serious difficulties, school counselors also may enhance the effectiveness of their time with students by writing therapeutic letters to students with whom they work.

BACKGROUND OF THERAPEUTIC LETTER WRITING

The use of writing as a therapeutic tool by counselors utilizing divergent theoretical models and working with varying populations has been explored in clinical practice (Burton, 1965; Epston, 1994; Goldberg, 2000; Lindahl, 1988; Moules, 2003; Pennebaker, 1990; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999; Rombach, 2003; Thomas, 1998; Vidgen & Williams, 2001). Journaling, creating stories, writing letters that will never be sent, sending written directives from a counselor to a client, and engaging in two-way communication via the written word between counselor and client are fairly common in the counseling community. Judicious use of therapeutic writing is often credited with enhancing the efficacy of counseling. In a survey of 40 clients, Nylund and Thomas (1994) found that clients estimated the worth of narrative letters to be, on average, 3.2 face-to-face interviews. The range of worth reported by these clients, all of whom received therapeutic letters as a part of therapy, was from .25 to 10 face-to-face sessions (Nylund & Thomas).

Therapeutic letter writing--that is, letters written by counselors to clients as a part of the counseling experience--has generally been associated with narrative therapy (Moules, 2003). Narrative approaches to counseling and psychotherapy value externalizing the problem, thus allowing individuals to separate themselves from the problem, see themselves and the problem from different perspectives, and create new stories and responses about themselves and the problem. Narrative therapy speaks against problems, but not about problems (White, 1989; White & Epston, 1990). Externalization can reduce the desire to blame self or others, counter a sense of failure, and create the perception of new possibilities for action that will allow an individual to remove the influence of the problem.

In general, the use of school counselor-generated letters has not received as much attention in the literature, although Metcalf (1995) included letters as strategies that may be used effectively in solution-focused school programs. Solution-focused approaches generally are competency based, address solutions rather than problems, and look for exceptions--that is, times when the problem does not occur. Notes and certificates recognizing successes are often used, especially with children. As with the use of externalization in narrative approaches, recognition of success can counteract a sense of failure and can assist clients or students in having a sense of control over the problem.

DESCRIPTIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS

Therapeutic letters are written by the counselor to a student or client as part of the counseling process. Therapeutic letters differ from social letters in context, content, intent, and effect (Moules, 2003). The context is the helping relationship, and the content is directly related to the issue worked with in the counseling session(s). The intent of a therapeutic letter is to be helpful to the recipient in healing or making changes. Like social letters, therapeutic letters also are designed to maintain connection; however, the purpose of therapeutic letters and the possible responses to them set them apart from social letters. For school counselors, therapeutic letters may intend, among other things, to enhance progress, solidify positive change, provide emotional support, and support competencies. In addition, therapeutic letters may intend to convey ideas that underscore the belief that students have a role in what happens to them and that they can take part in making changes that are beneficial to them. Therapeutic letters affirm that change is possible by making change visible and meaningful (Steinberg, 2000; White & Epston, 1990).

There are some broad guidelines about written communication to students that should be considered before writing such letters. First, school counselors should pay attention to the tone of the letter. The tone should be authentic to the counselor and also authentic to the relationship between counselor and student. Letters that are out of tune with such authenticity will be missing a big part of what gives a therapeutic letter meaning (Moules, 2003). If therapeutic letters are to be effective, they must, like all counseling, be centered in the relationship between counselor and student. Second, school counselors should understand that written communication may be kept for many years and may have impact long beyond that of a conversation or even a counseling session (Epston, 1994). Clients who receive letters from their counselors often reread those letters many times and commit at least portions of them to memory.

Third, school counselors should be certain that what they are attempting to communicate is as clear as possible. This is particularly important because written communication does not allow for immediate feedback that lets the writer know that the intended message has not been understood. Misunderstandings cannot be immediately corrected, and in fact, the counselor may not know that a misunderstanding has occurred unless the counselor checks back with the student following receipt of the letter by the student. There is no way to know the mood of the student or the circumstances at the time the letter will be read, and each of these can impact the student's understanding of and reaction to the letter (Steinberg, 2000). Thus, counselors should be thoughtful about the words they use and what those words may support or reinforce. Fourth, the student must have the ability to benefit from the letter. The student needs to be old enough to understand the ideas in the letter and should not have a cognitive impairment that would prohibit such understanding. Matching letters to the developmental level of the students is the key consideration here.

Other guidelines for creating successful therapeutic letters include (a) using specific and concrete examples when commenting on behaviors or changes that the school counselor or others have witnessed, (b) simply and clearly connecting behaviors with outcomes to facilitate the student's understanding of the impact that one has on the other, (c) explicitly emphasizing the student's role and contribution to the situation to reinforce the notion that he or she is responsible for any change, (d) genuinely acknowledging the student's positive characteristics to facilitate the development of a positive view of self, and (e) simply and clearly identifying how this behavior change will be helpful both in the current situation and in the future.

As an adjunct to therapeutic letters, letters to parents and teachers can be an effective way for school counselors to support the efforts of parents and teachers as they, in turn, support the efforts of the students. Previous research indicates that family involvement is critical to student success (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004). Elementary school students particularly need the support and encouragement of other significant adults in order to make and maintain changes and to understand the value of such changes. The ASCA National Model[R] (2005) cites collaboration with parents and teachers as a necessary component for school counselors to integrate to facilitate successful student functioning. Prior to using support letters, school counselors should consult with students to obtain consent in order to avoid even the perception of confidentiality violation. One effective way to do this is to show proposed letters to students, discuss the content, and use the discussion to underscore student engagement in the process of change.

When utilized appropriately, these collaborative efforts provide opportunities for parents to share their expertise with school officials. This perspective promotes ownership among all parties involved and opens the door to new and viable resources. Parent and teacher letters might restate the agreed-upon course of action undertaken on behalf of the student or may request or suggest action that is anticipated to be helpful to the student. Again, genuine acknowledgement of the efforts and strengths of parents and teachers is appropriate.

Sample letters are provided in Appendix A to demonstrate ways in which these guidelines may be used in both therapeutic letters and letters of support. The therapeutic letters provide emotional support but also point out specific positive changes the students have made and reinforce the notion that students have an impact on what happens in their lives. Both therapeutic letters and support letters express sincere appreciation.

CAUTIONS AND CONTRAINDICATIONS

There are at least two circumstances in which the use of therapeutic letters may be contraindicated. The first of those involves students in abusive environments. In such cases, a letter from the school counselor, if seen by offending parties in the home, could put a student at increased risk. A second circumstance in which therapeutic letters may be contraindicated is recent serious trauma, such as loss of a parent to death (Marner, 2000). In this circumstance, focus on change may be inappropriate.

Confidentiality is also an issue. School counselors should keep in mind that any written communication may be read by others--by parents, friends, teachers, or anyone else with whom the student shares the letter. Letters sent to a student's home and noticed by other household members might invite questions and attention the student does not want. As in the use of support letters, the school counselor might discuss his or her plan to write a letter with the student prior to sending the letter. At that time, the counselor can deal with confidentiality concerns or may decide jointly with the student that a letter will be hand delivered at school. Letters, whether mailed or hand delivered, should be marked as confidential. Of course, counselors should be aware of their state and district policies concerning what does and not become part of students' permanent records, because letters, if placed in those records, will be available to a wider audience than the counselor might intend.

In addition, such letters may be available to parents under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act because these letters may not meet the requirements for exemption of sole possession records. Sole possession records, among other things, must be personal memory aids and must record personal observation and conclusions about student behavior, rather than contain the substance of conversations held (Stone & Dahir, 2006).

Finally, e-mail is an attractive option both because of student level of comfort with that medium and because of the ease of use for the school counselor. However, the potential for confidentiality violations remains high. In addition, by using e-mail, the school counselor might unwittingly engage the student in the establishment of an ongoing and unintended e-mail discussion. Thus, the school counselor should carefully consider the ramifications with particular students before using e-mail for this purpose.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Therapeutic letters can be a useful tool for enhancing the effectiveness of a school counselor's efforts to promote and maintain positive change in students. However, in order to be effective, school counselors must take time to consider the impact that therapeutic letters can have on students. Specifically, careful consideration needs to be given to the tone of the letter, its permanent nature, the clarity of the message, the time and context in which the letter will be read, contraindications, issues related to confidentiality, state and district policies regarding students' permanent records, and students' developmental levels. Attention to these issues will contribute to the effectiveness that therapeutic letters can have on the counseling relationship as well as allow the counselor to avoid potential pitfalls. In addition, well-planned therapeutic letters can reduce the number of sessions needed to produce meaningful change.

The use of support letters to parents and teachers also can serve as an effective tool in school counselors' efforts to collaborate and develop successful partnerships. As accountability pressures in schools continue to increase, so does the need for all stakeholders to work together and help students achieve success. Both school counselors and counselor educators can continue to identify and implement effective strategies and techniques that foster this process. While therapeutic letter writing has been found to enhance the counseling process, research is needed regarding the efficacy of this approach in working with school students. Specific information regarding its usefulness across different populations and across a variety of concerns is important to evaluating the use of this tool in schools. Ethical and legal issues involved also should be extensively explored.

APPENDIX A

Sample Letters

Elementary School

Dear Sally,

I just wanted to let you know that I am proud of how hard you have been working to change your behavior in the classroom. You have gone from getting your name on the board three times a week to less than once a week. That means you have been able to participate in activities you enjoy. Wow! It must feel good to know that you can set a goal for yourself and accomplish it.

I know from talking to you during our sessions that there have been times when you have had to ignore your friends to avoid getting your name on the board and how worried you were about how your friends would react. It takes a lot of courage to make the right choice sometimes. It appears that when faced with a challenging situation, you have been able to (a) stay in control, (b) consider the consequences of your actions, and (c) make smart choices for yourself. Remember, I am available if you think that talking with me will help you through a difficult situation.

Your Counselor

Dear (Parent or Teacher),

I just wanted to take this time to thank you for your support and willingness to work together to maximize Sally's functioning in school. I believe that our partnership has been successful, as evidenced by Sally's behavioral changes. Sally has gone from getting her name on the board three times a week to less than once a week. What an improvement!

As we continue to work together to maintain Sally's progress, it is important that we all continue to--

1. Offer verbal and nonverbal praise and reinforcement when we catch Sally staying in control (e.g., saying, "Great job staying in control," or giving a thumbs-up sign or a pat on the back).

2. Give Sally specific feedback as to what she is doing well (e.g., "I noticed that when you started to get frustrated during group, you asked if you could get a drink of water and take a break. That really seemed to help you calm down and stay in control.").

3. Be aware of times when Sally is having difficulty staying in control and provide cues to facilitate her staying in control (e.g., hand gesture signaling to stop and take a break or modeling taking a deep breath).

Working together as a team will provide Sally with consistent reminders and support that will help maintain these positive behavior changes. It also will help Sally carry over strategies that have helped her stay in control of her behavior at school to other settings, such as home or soccer practice. Our goal is to maximize Sally's functioning and give her tools that will prepare her for a successful future. As always, we will continue to stay in touch as we work together to achieve this important goal.

Sincerely,

School Counselor

Middle School

Dear Carlos,

It was good to talk with you yesterday and to learn that you have decided to do class work and turn in homework. I know it was hard for you when some of your class mates were teasing you because of your good grades. It isn't always easy to do something that is unpopular.

In spite of this, you decided to do something that will allow you to work toward a goal that is important to you--going to college someday. Your ability to be in charge and do what is important to you despite being teased says a lot about your maturity and determination. These are two powerful qualities that will be useful to you now and in the future.

Your Counselor

Dear Mrs. Perez,

Carlos has told me that he decided to turn in his work. It is a big step for a middle school student to take action that is different from what many of his peers are doing. Both his math and English teachers tell me that Carlos is once again participating fully in his class.

I know you've been concerned, and I think your idea to enroll Carlos in the chess club is an excellent one. It will allow him to make new friends who will reinforce and share his academic interests. It also will allow him to use some of those wonderful problem-solving skills he has.

Let's continue to work together to encourage Carlos' academic success.

Sincerely,

School Counselor

High School

Dear Fred,

I have enjoyed seeing you work so hard to take charge of your learning. You have learned to ask questions in class when you need clarification or information. You have begun to talk individually to Ms. Smith when you need additional help in geometry. When you came by to show me your report card last week, I was as excited as you were to see that you brought your grade up from a D to a C. You have worked very hard to achieve this.

You have shown that you have the ability to take control and make positive changes for yourself. I suspect that learning to speak up and ask questions will be helpful to you in the future. Congratulations!

Your Counselor

Dear Ms. Smith,

Thank you for collaborating with Fred and me as he worked toward becoming an active learner in geometry. As you know, he initially had difficulty in asking questions and participating in class discussions. As his report card shows, his efforts have been rewarded.

I know you are extremely busy and I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate the extra time and effort you put into helping Fred. Your effort paid off! I look forward to continuing to partner with you in working with this student and others.

Sincerely,

School Counselor

References

Amatea, E. S., Daniels, H., Bringman, N., & Vandiver, F. M. (2004). Strengthening counselor-teacher-family connections: The family-school collaborative consultation project. Professional School Counseling, 8, 47-55.

American School Counselor Association. (2005). The ASCA national model: A framework for school counseling programs (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.

Burton, A. (1965). The use of written productions in psychotherapy. In L. Pearson (Ed.), Written communications in psychotherapy (pp. 3-22). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Epston, D. (1994). Extending the conversation. The Family Therapy Networker, 18(6), 31-63.

Goldberg, D. (2000). "Emplotment": Letter writing with troubled adolescents and their families. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 5(1), 63-76.

Gysbers, N. C., & Henderson, P. (2000). Developing and managing your school guidance program (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

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Marner, T. (2000). Letters to children in family therapy: A narrative approach. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Metcalf, L. (1995). Counseling toward solutions: A practical solution-focused program for working with students, teachers, and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Rombach, M. (2003). An invitation to therapeutic letter writing. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 22(1), 15-32.

Steinberg, D. (2000). Letters from the clinic: Letter writing in clinical practice for mental health professionals. London: Rutledge.

Stone, C. D., & Dahir, C. A. (2006). The transformed school counselor. Boston: Lahaska Press.

Thomas, P. (1998). Writing letters to patients. Psychiatric Bulletin, 22(9), 542-545.

Vidgen, A., & Williams, R. (2001). Letter-writing practices in child and family service. Journal of Family Therapy, 2, 317-326.

White, M. (1989). The externalizing of the problem and the re-authoring of lives and relationships. In M. White, Selected papers (pp. 5-28). Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Marvarene Oliver is an assistant professor and Kaye W. Nelson is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University--Corpus Christi. Rochelle Cade completed her doctoral internship at Gregory-Portland High School in Portland, TX, and is a doctoral student at Texas A & M University. Catherine Cueva is a guest lecturer at the University of North Texas, Dallas Campus. E-mail: Marvarene.Oliver@mail.tamucc.edu
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