This Indianapolis counselor shows students how to tame stress and mediate conflicts

Aaron Munson is determined to help students catch up on social skills.

A teacher wearing a mask stands at the front of the classroom, swinging his arms in the air to demonstrate a calming strategy. Students scattered throughout the classroom wave their arms, too.
IPS counselor Aaron Munson shows students how to calm themselves down. He’s seeing a high need for social-emotional learning after students missed two years of social interaction during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Emily Wilkerson)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

What are the triggers that make you feel stressed, frustrated, anxious, or angry?

Indianapolis Public Schools counselor Aaron Munson tells his students: “If you can name it, you can tame it!”

He helps elementary and middle school students at IPS Butler Lab School 55 identify what’s bothering them and use healthy coping strategies to calm down.

Munson, recently named Indiana Elementary School Counselor of the Year, said he has seen students’ social-emotional needs grow significantly as they work through the third school year disrupted by COVID.

He keeps a busy schedule trying to give students the same love and encouragement that he felt from his teachers growing up: “I hope that when they leave this building, my students will know that Mr. Munson cared about them.”

Munson spoke to Chalkbeat about what he learned while making home visits early in the pandemic, how he trains students to de-escalate conflicts, and why he’s going back to the basics this year.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What led you to become a school counselor?

Within 18 months of graduating from Butler University in 2005 with a degree in music education, I knew I needed a master’s degree so that I could increase my pay. Starting a family on my original salary — around $34,000 — felt impossible. 

I knew that I didn’t want to be a principal, so I began researching other options. The 21st-century school counselor is focused on college, career, future success, and social-emotional learning. Helping children be the best version of themselves is the reason that I became an educator in the first place, and the school counseling path seemed to fit that vision more for me than being a teacher.

What does a typical day look like for you now?

Busy! The counselor’s office should really be the busiest room in the building. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I run small-group counseling during the lunch periods. These have affectionately become known as “Mr. Munson’s Lunch Bunches.” Currently, nearly one-third of our student population participates in lunch bunch at least once a year.

I visit every classroom at least once monthly to do social-emotional learning lessons, so I have at least one of those to do almost every day. I also have daily hall duties in the morning during arrival and car rider duty every afternoon. 

When I’m not responding to a crisis situation, I meet with students individually, investigate bullying reports and Title IX incident reports, work on 504 plans and meetings, make parent phone calls, address attendance issues, and coordinate programming like holiday assistance, Operation School Bell, and mobile dentist.

I also have weekly meetings for the school’s leadership team, team meetings for students who aren’t on grade level, student support team meetings, middle school advisory, and more. So much more. 

What issues do you see emerging amid months of remote learning, social distancing, and social isolation?

This year, we have to go back to the basics with social skills. As is the case in almost every school, our youngest students are missing two years of appropriate social interaction, including sharing, inclusion, and taking turns. 

For our middle grade students, there are signs of anxiety and depression at an alarming rate. In the past calendar year, I’ve seen a record number of middle school students express suicidal ideation or engage in self-harm. Honestly, it is overwhelming. I have to keep telling myself that I will do all I can, and my best will have to be enough. But the need is so great, it feels like trying to put out a burning building with a cup of water. 

When schools switched to remote learning at the start of the pandemic, you made a lot of home visits. What did you learn from those visits?

I did 96 home visits. Home visits during the shutdown started with attendance issues. For many students, I needed to do a lot of education about the various platforms to access learning and connect with the teacher. After the first two weeks, I made home visits for many reasons: food delivery, emotional regulation, connecting families to other resources, supporting the families with structures to try at home for everyone to be able to thrive while cooped up, and more.

I have done many home visits before because that’s just part of the job, but what I learned most is that making connections face-to-face with families is the single best way to address systemic issues. My relationship with students, which I think was already good, became stronger because my students saw me in their element. They recognized that I was there to help and support their entire being, not just their academic abilities. The connections I made with parents helped, too, because when we can support the entire family unit, we are strengthening children’s resilience and ability to overcome challenging situations. 

Tell us about your peer mediation program and how students have responded to it.

The belief behind the peer mediation program is that I believe students are absolutely capable — of success, of solving problems, of supporting others. The peer mediators sign a peaceful commitment at the training, saying that they are committed to helping others solve problems in a peaceful way and will also be examples of what that looks like. 

We currently have 65 trained peer mediators in our building of 405 students. Peer mediators can be trained starting in third grade and continuing through eighth grade. When two students are in conflict, their homeroom teachers can choose two of their classroom peer mediators to work with the students in conflict to solve the problem. 

Peer mediators have a script they follow, and the script includes showing students how to use “I” statements to express how they felt about the situation (I feel__ when __ because __. I need __.) and how to listen to the other person. Each student in conflict has to agree on the peer mediation ground rules and commit to listening when it’s not their turn to speak. 

We’ve seen an 86% reduction in office referrals since we instituted this peer mediation program. 

You started a Gay-Straight Alliance Club, or GSA, and provided LGBT resources to fellow counselors. What does it mean to be a good ally today?

I asked my students this question. Here is what they said: 

  • “It doesn’t matter [your orientation]. Every voice deserves to be heard — whether you’re LGBTQ+ or an ally.”
  • “People in AND out of GSA need to be supportive of others and whether or not they are out.” 
  • “Everybody should be recognized no matter their orientation.”
  • “If you’re in the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, all people deserve respect.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself. 

You spend your days trying to help students and staff. How do you wind down after a stressful day — especially now?

Complete transparency: This has always been the biggest struggle for me. This job is stressful because there is so much to it! I have a hard time completely disengaging because if I don’t get it done, who will? No one! 

Having said that, there are things that I have started doing because I need to grow in this area. I started running this past March — something I swore I’d never do — and have really enjoyed the benefits. On the days I don’t run, I’ve started to do strength training on the Peloton app. Connecting with my body is important because of all the stress and anxiety I carry around.

I also have two children and a spouse, so we are intentional about time together. We have a “Funson To-Do List” every season with things that we want to do around the city, food we want to eat, and movies we want to see. 

I get together weekly with some of my best friends, which I’ve been doing for years, and that is such a sacred time. It’s really good for my soul to be with my family and friends who provide such a safe space. I also love to read, especially fiction books. And I have some special beverages I enjoy to wind down on occasion.

What’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?

It isn’t exactly advice, but my best friend once said that I “push others to be the best version of themselves.” That statement felt like a mantra for my life, and that is what I try to do in my role as a counselor. Every human longs to be fully known and fully loved. I want my students to feel that my office is a place where they can be fully known, fully accepted, and fully loved.

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