PS - September 2013

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a world of guidance A look at a member of staff who offers emotional, academic and professional support — for students and teachers. by Randi Chapnik Myers Illustration: Katy Lemay E very once in awhile, Ontario guidance counsellor Mercedes Carli, OCT, looks up from her desk to see a student about to burst into tears. It's part of the reason she always leaves her door open. "I really want the kids and teachers to know I'm here to help," says Carli, a former youth probation officer. Now she divides her time between three middle schools in the Toronto DSB: John G. Althouse, Dixon Grove Junior and Humber Valley Village Junior. In each one, she feels at home and does whatever she can to make sure the students she works with feel the same way. "Counselling comes naturally to me," Carli says. Growing up, she was the person her friends came to with problems. "I've always had a knack for listening and helping people find solutions." She has been putting those mentorship skills to work since she became a guidance counsellor in 1998. But today, more than ever, Carli says, students of all ages need guidance. What's changed? Children are growing up in an online world where there is 24-hour pressure to be socially engaged. Whereas in the past, social problems with friends would play out at school and home was a safe place to fall, now children go home, turn on the computer and their social life is right there, following them. Plus, there are media-driven pressures to be perfect, Carli says. "Kids are bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and sexuality that lead to drastic measures to achieve this ideal. There's a rise in eating disorders, drug use/ diet pills, steroids and even plastic surgery." To add to the stress, children today tend to get still more pressure from parents to achieve in and outside of school, and as a result, their anxiety is often at an all-time high. "Kids feel pressured to do everything right — get involved in many extracurriculars like sports, clubs, volunteer work and jobs because parents see this as important, and colleges and universities are looking for more diverse experiences rather than just good marks. This drive to succeed leads to competition, stress and anxiety, and sometimes to unhealthy coping strategies," Carli says, pointing out that students can't function in a vacuum. If they are struggling socially or emotionally, it has an effect in the classroom. So she works hard to create a safe space at school — both in and out of her office. Her main goal, she says, whether she is meeting with students one-on-one or giving presentations at assemblies, is to make sure children have a voice. And that takes drawing them out. "I point out that even though they are kids, they have the right to express themselves so they will come forward with problems and know that they can count on me to listen," Carli says. "Also, I explain that when you have a voice, you are more powerful. You can affect not only your own life positively, but you can also take an active role in affecting changes in the community." Teaching children to speak up is critical to their development, Carli says. "Having a voice is not just putting up your hand to answer a question in history class." Rather, it's believing you matter, and not being afraid to share your thoughts. "Having a voice gives kids a sense of belonging, which is the primary determinant of happiness and success." September 2013 | Professionally Speaking 49

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