Delivering and Receiving Bad News: What School Counsellors Need to Know

Posted by: Lori Walls on August 18, 2011 2:48 pm

It can sometimes be challenging to come up with topics for the school counselling blog. For this week’s topic I began thinking back on the interactions that I had with school counsellors during my own early school years. One of the interactions that had a significant impact took place during my middle school years and involved the delivery of the news of my grandfather passing. In my own professional career as a counsellor I have often delivered difficult news to a client or a student and I would like to think that, much like the school counsellor who informed me that my grandfather had passed, I was able to effectively communicate the difficult news, convey empathy, and offer support.  However, when thinking about the conscious steps I had taken to prepare and plan for these occasions it became clear that I had never received any direct training or even attempted to seek out any information on how to be effective in these types of situations.

In an article by Frost (2010), it is noted that although the delivery of difficult news or guidance on how to deal with school tragedies typically falls to the school counsellor, training is seldom included in counsellor preparation programs. This is concerning given the increase in tragedies that have taken place in schools in the past decade coupled with the day to day delivery of information to parents and students that is often negatively charged. Research has suggested that the method of delivery of difficult news can influence the recipient’s level of understanding, acceptance, and ultimately the ability to cope and deal with the implications of the situation, as well as having a lasting impact on the relationship between the messenger and receiver of the information. With such important outcomes at stake, school counsellors need to be proactive in developing awareness of how best to deliver difficult news to students.

Frost (2010) highlights the need to develop a plan prior to delivering any news that may carry a negative connotation. This plan should include where the news will be delivered, how it should be delivered, consideration for who should be present when the news is being delivered, and what information needs to be conveyed. Additionally, consideration should be given to how much uninterrupted time ought to be allotted for the individual(s) to process the information if the news triggers an emotional reaction.  Frost also stated that it is important for information to be given in a direct, honest, and empathetic manner with consideration given to finding a balance between leaving the individual with a sense of realistic hope in respect to outcomes or prognosis, and creating a sense of false hope.  It is also recommended that careful consideration is paid to cultural factors that may impact the delivery or receipt of difficult information.

For more suggestions on how to deliver difficult information to students the National Association of School Psychologists has published a resource titled, “A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope” (2002).

Frost, M. (2010). Delivering and Receiving Bad News: What School Psychologists Need to Know. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26, 198-211.




*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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