Last week I had the honor and privilege to spend a day with a group of about 340 mostly school psychologists in Columbus, Ohio. Talk about amazing. Were they nicer than last month’s group in Rock Hill, South Carolina? I don’t know. Both groups were awesome. I’ll keep the details secret just so everyone will wonder why gatherings in Rock Hill and Columbus are or will be inevitably fantastic.
I received a few emails in follow-up to the so-called “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” workshop in Columbus. I’ll be framing one of the emails for my wall, but there was another one that asked for my feedback on a particularly challenging therapeutic conundrum. That email reminded me of a technique that Rita and I first wrote about in 1995, but hasn’t been posted here. So I dug up an excerpt of it from the second edition of our “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” book and am inserting it below. Here’s a link to that book on Amazon, but you can get it other places too: https://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494088480&sr=1-1&keywords=tough+kids+cool+counseling
The excerpt follows . . . and it’s followed by a link to an “Extra SCASP Handout” with more detailed info about the SCASP and Columbus Workshop techniques.
Passing Personal Notes
A simple method for re-engaging an angry or “checked out” child/adolescent in counseling is the note-passing technique (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 1995). This technique is used when a young client suddenly appears sullen, angry, or quiet and nonresponsive. In some cases, counselors may have clues as to why the client has become quiet. However, in other cases the young client’s silence may be a complete mystery. Whatever the case, note passing is used to communicate to clients through an alternative format, to reduce pressure on young clients to be verbally productive, to express empathy for an emotional state, and to surprise the client (and thereby modify affect) by being supportive and affectionate rather than critical in response to the client’s silence. When counselors have a positive response to client silence it can be conceptualized as a corrective emotional experience (Alexander & French, 1946).
Children, teenagers, and even some college students are notorious for passing notes in class. Most often the notes are brief and focus on gossip or on whatever is bothering the note writer at the moment. Generally speaking, among teenagers, passing notes is cool.
To utilize this technique all you need is a notebook and pencil or pen. When your client is quiet and perhaps angry or sullen and efforts to interact verbally result in continued withdrawal and silence, simply pick up the notebook and begin writing. This activity may attract the youth’s attention. Your client may assume you’re writing something negative about them. One 12-year-old boy immediately questioned: “Are you writing a note to the group home?” as he expected he would be reprimanded for becoming silent in therapy. I (John) responded: “Nope, I’m just writing a note to you.”
When using this technique, hold the notebook so your client cannot see the content of your note; part of the effect of this technique rests on your client’s surprise at receiving a personal note and on surprise at the content of the note. Of course, the note should be individualized and personal (see Box 4.1 for a sample note).
What’s up? Seems like you might be kind of upset today, but I might be wrong. I hope I didn’t do something to bug you or make you mad. If I did, be sure to let me know when you feel like it, okay? I know that counseling can be kind of dumb or seem like a waste of time or even make people mad sometimes. I hope we can find ways to make this be a good thing for you. Thanks for coming—even when you might not feel like it. So, how are you feeling, anyway? Do you think it is a little too warm in this office? That’s a cool sweater you’re wearing.
Your Very Own Counselor,
P.S. Write back if you want to.
[End of Box 4.1]
We recommend writing the personal note with a person-centered flavor (Rogers, 1961). Additionally, it’s useful to include a humorous or light closing and an interest in hearing back from your client. Finally, write only what your clients will feel comfortable taking home (e.g., critical comments about teachers or family members, even if such comments are in the service of empathy and emotional validation, may have negative repercussions).
Most of our young clients respond positively to this procedure. Often they act surprised when told: “I wrote you a note.” One client asked to take it into the bathroom to read. Other clients have asked: “Can I keep it?” Our response to these requests is usually something like, “Of course. I wrote it to you.” Another client refused the note during the session, but accepted it later from her mother (i.e., it was sealed and given to the mother to deliver at home). Sometimes young clients have initiated a note-writing exchange after receiving a note from one of us. On the other hand, we’ve had some young clients rip the note to shreds or toss it in the trash which is perfectly acceptable from our perspective because we view these more aggressive responses as a non-violent and perhaps useful anger expression.
Personal notes can reopen communication, possibly because the activity moves young people out of a negative mood state; it’s hard for clients to maintain a negative mood state when they’re also experiencing surprise or pleasure (Mosak, 1985). Research suggests that it’s common for young people who behave aggressively to anticipate hostility or overt coercion from others during times of stress or threat (Dodge, Lochman, Harnish, Bates, & Pettit, 1997; Dodge & Somberg, 1987). This anticipatory tendency has been labeled the misattribution of hostility. For youth who anticipate hostility, a nonjudgmental, funny, or caring note can be quite a surprise. Also, many young people we see in therapy have never received a personal handwritten note from an adult (especially from an adult male). Overall, a sincere and nonthreatening effort by a counselor to enhance emotional intimacy and establish a personal connection usually does not go unnoticed.
4 thoughts on “Passing Personal Notes to Ohio School Psychologists”
After 20+ years, I continue to be in awe of your work and that of your precious colleague, Rita.
Nadine M. Wisniewski, PhD Clinical Psychology Sent from my iPhone
Thanks Nadine. This is an extremely nice comment. I hope you and your life are great. John
Your musings always give me something new to consider. I appreciate the reference to that specific safety plan. And reading the safety plan made me wonder what would have happened if Hannah Baker had had a therapist, a school counselor or school psychologist who helped her make sense of her feelings.
Have you watched 13 reasons? I would be interested in hearing your reactions to it.
I haven’t yet watched 13 Reasons, but I’ve heard quite a bit about it. My guess is that having an empathic and supportive listener can be helpful, but it can’t ALWAYS prevent suicide. Thanks for your comment. I need to check out 13 Reasons, but anticipate it will be distressing to watch. Best, John