Do you remember those conversations during training about how to “make up our therapy room” to be as inviting and relaxing as possible? Remove barriers that block the interaction with the client, don’t sit directly opposite, have a glass of water on offer. How do these fit with our adapted COVID-19 world?

In my role as a school counsellor covering a cluster of schools in rural Scotland, I’ve been reflecting on how the pandemic has affected my practice and I hope that this account of my reflections on the past six months is of interest to others.

I work mostly with secondary pupils. This is my fifth year here and I love it. There is just something about being trusted by young people and being with them as they work out who or what they want to be. But it isn’t for the faint hearted as we need to allow them their autonomy. Like adult clients, we are not there to fix them.

Lockdown suddenly saw me out of school, my client numbers reduce from 13 to one and no-one wanted to meet online. Think of how phones or tablets are used? Text, WhatsApp, group chats – very seldom do young people talk to each other. Offering support, I had to be flexible about how I could engage with them.

Now I am back in school; face to face. It wasn’t a simple case of turning up this year and beginning. I knew my room layout would have to change for this COVID era.

Before I go into how I made my room ready, I’d like to make one thing clear. I was ready to see pupils face to face. If that is not where you are, I hope you don’t need me to say that is your right. I also hope you are not feeling pressured by others to return to the school location.

Making the therapy room safe

One of my first considerations was making the therapy room safe and fully compliant with COVID regulations. I could make the room as I wanted, provided I used the same hygiene products as the school and adhered to the council’s COVID restrictions.

Picture of Alison's room showing table with wipes and hand sanitiser

Like nearly every school, ours has very few unused rooms. Hands up how many of us who have seen pupils in staff rooms, first aid rooms, glorified cupboards? I am lucky I now have a shared room in the library. I had a cosy corner furthest away from the door with throws and pens and colouring books and toys and fidget toys and other bits and pieces I used with the young people.

My client’s chair is now the first thing in the room by the door. The door is open for their arrival and, as there is not enough room for us to be socially distant, I ask the pupil to close it as they come through. I stand in the middle of the room to greet them. Our chairs are two metres apart, yet between us I have a desk and on it a perspex screen. This is my barrier in lieu of a mask. My thinking for this is, it allows the flow of therapy without pausing to put masks on. If clients are upset or finding talking difficult, both of us can move together, lean forward, hopefully evoke an intimacy lost temporarily in this strange time.

Picture of Alison's room showing a chair by the door and a screen on the table

Then, when we’ve finished, the client leaves as normal after a skoosh of hand sanitiser. Unlike school where the pupils are being told to wipe their chairs and desks before they leave, I am taking the responsibility of ensuring hygiene. I have wipes, sprays for the fabric and hand gel with masks, gloves and visors that I offer and give the option to clients of either of us using them.

I know I could bring in the necessary safety precautions allowing throws and cushions, but I am not doing this. I have made up small zip-lock bags for pens and pencils and taken pages out of colouring in books, limiting my cleaning. As for my box of toys, everything in my room now needs to be able to withstand sterilising fluid.

Picture of Alison's room showing screen on table between chairs

My room looks very different. But so far, so good. Even the perspex screen fades away as we both take our seats and the session begins – the connection between counsellor and client, the very core of therapy.

Except for one client who told me the screen looked like the ones they have when you talk to someone in prison!