Interview with Laura Filtness

Counseling Blog Author

School Counselor, Author of Pawsitive School Counseling

About Laura: Originally from Coventry, England, Laura Filtness eventually made her way to Tennessee via Florida. Ms. Filtness’ passion for helping others and love of animals has always been a predominant part of her life, but her passion really ignited when she became a school counselor in 2008. During graduate school she worked as an assistant to Sandra Norton, the Academic Advisor for the College of Education, who encouraged her peruse her passion of assisting students. After receiving her M. Ed. from Middle Tennessee State University, she worked as a high school counselor in Williamson County. Next she transferred to the elementary level, first working for Discovery School in Murfreesboro and now working for Knoxville County Schools, where she developed lasting relationships with a remarkable set of teachers and administrators in both counties.

Currently, Ms. Filtness is the Social Media Chairperson for the Tennessee School Counselor Association and Awards Chairperson for the TN Counseling Association. She was honored to be named the 2015-2016 Smoky Mountain Counseling Association (SMCA) Elementary School Counselor Of The Year. Ms. Filtness has presented at several conferences, including the 2016 American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Conference, 2017 SMCA conference, 2015/2016 School Counselor and Administrator Leadership Institute, and the 2014 TCA conference. Additionally, Ms. Filtness has earned her ASCA Bullying Prevention Specialist certification.

In her current position, Ms. Filtness has able to incorporate her love of books through bibliotherapy counseling, working with Scholastic and coworkers to coordinate school wide book swaps, a character education book award and monthly mystery reader book program, and develop a lending library for stakeholders. By forming a School Counseling Advisory Committee and implementing strategies from responsive classroom the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, she was also able to decrease bullying reports by 57%.

Although there has been much success in her data-driven, comprehensive program, she is most proud of implementing a Ruff Reading Dog Therapy program by partnering with University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Human and Animal Bond in Tennessee. The program has grown from one dog to seven dogs in just two years. All students receive dog safety lessons through her guidance curriculum and selected classes receive their own Ruff Reading therapy dog. Each week students are able to meet with their H.A.B.I.T. dog to focus on reading fluency and growth, as well as get much needed emotional support from their furry classmate. After implementing the H.A.B.I.T Reading Paws 47.2% of students self reported they felt their reading had improved or improved a lot. ESL students that met with H.A.B.I.T. dog year long had an overall growth of +114 points on their STAR reading scaled score, and 5th grade classroom with H.A.B.I.T. dogs score 91 points higher on their STAR reading scores than those classrooms that did not. The program is such a success that Ms. Filtness now incorporates the dogs into her rooted in reading small groups, giving students an opportunity to grow socially, emotionally, and academically. Ms. Filtness, also known as the Pawsitive School Counselor, is the proud mother of two pitbulls, Brooklyn and Boss. Boss, a H.A.B.I.T. therapy dog, visits schools, courtrooms, and hospitals providing families and students with support in and out of the school building.

[] When and why did you originally start a blog about school counseling?

[Laura Filtness] In 2012 I was working at Discovery School in Murfreesboro, TN with some of the world’s best teachers. One morning I was having coffee with the incomparable Sarah Svarda and Elizabeth Shepherd (@lizshepherd78) started sharing their ideas and experience with blogging. I had no experience blogging and really no knowledge about blogs. I googled counseling blogs and found a few I really liked and was like, I can do that! I think we spent about an hour sitting in front of blogger trying to decide on a name. Many years and a new name later, Pawsitive School Counseling has become a way for me to remember things. After so many years celebrating National School Counseling Week (NSCW) or doing hundreds of lessons, I really enjoy writing what I’ve done so I can refer to it when planning. That way when someone says “hey have you ever done a lesson on…” or “what book do you use for…,” I can pull up an old post. Not only is it great for my memory but also it’s a super fun way to show off pictures of my dogs.

[] What do you hope to achieve by maintaining Pawsitive School Counseling?

[Laura Filtness] I hope that I encourage new counselors to share their ideas. Some of my best lessons and ideas have been the “begged, borrowed, and stolen” ones. I hope that others become as impassioned about using books as me and finding their own “brand” that they love. I also hope someone reads it and says, “Wow those are two cute dogs!"

[] In the post we highlighted, “It's NSCW 17!” you mention that you planned to host a parent workshop at National School Counseling Week earlier this year. What practical strategies can school counselors employ in order to collaborate more effectively with parents?

[Laura Filtness] I think when planning interventions to encourage parent involvement you should be realistic and proud. If three parents show up, be proud. Those three parents will leave more knowledgeable and hopefully share their experience with three more parents. Word of mouth can go a long way and it’s a great way to advocate for school counselors. I don’t just use parent workshops as a way to share information on topics like bullying; I also share information on our field and education. For example, during NSCW I might do more of an open house and share information on why we are called school counselors and not guidance counselors. I love working with parents because our relationship with them is just as important as the relationship we have with their kiddos. Some tips for increasing parent involvement at your events would be:

  1. Let them leave with something. From a goodie bag to a brochure; the sky’s the limit. Just make sure they leave with something in their hands.
  2. If possible, have something to eat and/or drink. Who doesn’t love food and coffee?
  3. Think about childcare options. If I am doing it during the day I always invite parents to bring their small children and coloring books ready. At night, can you arrange for a volunteer to help watch the kids? Planning ahead for potential attendance roadblocks really helps.
  4. Collaborate with your PTA. I often try to work with our PTA to plan events on nights they are hosting an event. Having a close relationship with your PTA is invaluable.
  5. Make them feel special. Ask parents to RSVP for your event by telling you something about their child and having something specific for them in your goodie bag. Call parents directly and invite them to your event or send them a thank you note afterwards. A little bit of appreciation goes a long way.

[] One of the distinguishing features of your blog is the multicolor pawprint background! Have you ever involved your dogs in your school counseling work? If so, how?

[Laura Filtness] Dogs are huge part of my program. First, they are my theme! A lot of my lessons start with a dog inspired book, like Dog Gone School, my monthly newsletter is called “Brooklyn Barks” after my dog, and there are paw prints on most of the bulletin boards I made. I’ve blogged about having a brand and how I incorporate the dog theme into my program often, because it’s a subtle yet powerful way to have a presence in your building. I would encourage every counselor wanting to learn more to check out I heard Jeff Reem speak at the ASCA conference in Orlando and he is exceptional at branding. I am also thrilled that we partner with UTK’s Human and Animal Bond in Tennesee (H.A.B.I.T.) program. We currently have about 6 reading paw therapy dogs that come to school and work with classes. It’s a program that is near and dear to my heart. Not only do the kids love it, but also the teachers love seeing the improved reading scores. This program also inspired my best friend, Sarah Svarda, to bring therapy dogs to her middle/high school library during testing season as way to beat the test stress. It was incredible to see her pictures of kids relaxing before exams with sweet furry babies. Pups have also been part of my lessons and workshops in other ways.

For example, I collaborated with a parent to do a lesson for students on diabetes education and awareness. We teamed up with a local trainer that trained alert dogs. These dogs alert when their owner is going into a shock or when their glucose levels were off. It was one of my most memorable lessons. I also worked with an amazing pitbull, Stouie, to come into my previous school for special events. He came in for reading on school days and did a workshop with students and parents on dog safety. He became so beloved that the kids started a Flat Stouie (like Flat Stanley) project after him. He has his own blog, hashtag, and Facebook page. Lastly, I feel that every school should include a dog safety component to their safety curriculum. I work with local organizations, such as UTK’s H.A.B.I.T. program, to bring in dogs so my students get a hands-on experience learning about how to stay safe around dogs. All of our kids will interact with a dog at some point—from a friend’s dog to the stray that runs on the playground—so I think dog safety is crucial lesson.

[] Each of the eleven tabs on your site apart from your homepage focuses on books for various subjects. What is the unique value of using books to further children’s development?

[Laura Filtness] I think bibliotherapy is incredible and I’ve presented on it often. There is so much research on the benefits of reading and the power of books that I could go on and on. I think using books allows students to make connections in safe ways. I had a very closed off student this year who would not talk about his parents’ divorce. If we ever got personal he shut down, so I started reading stories with him. Eventually he would make comments like “I feel that way” or “I do that.” It was the “in” I needed and eventually he was so willing to talk he joined a small group.

[] What do you look for when you gather new books for your various libraries, both online and in the classroom?

[Laura Filtness] I have always loved books, but that love was fueled by two best friends who are librarians. They are constantly sending me pictures of new books to buy. I have over 400 books in my office right now and I use them in every lesson. I recently blogged about how to choose the right book and what to look for. First, look at your needs. Look at your school needs and your personal collection needs. This helps me really narrow down my focus. For example, I have a ton of books on friendship, but I need more on stress and anxiety. I would also encourage counselors to figure out a good way to catalog their books. I use Goodreads to catalog the books I own and what’s been recommended by friends, other counselors, or in groups such as the Elementary School Counselor Exchange on Facebook. This way when I am shopping or our librarian asks for suggestions I can quickly look up titles I have and need. I think a good book for classroom lessons and individual counseling is a short and attention-grabbing picture book. School counselors have to do brief counseling that is often solution-focused in theory, so I look for books to support that. What is a quick and fun read? What engages my students? I also have plenty of chapter books I use for small groups. These have come from other counselor recommendations and my personal picks, I often spend my summer reading good YA books.

[] What in your opinion is one of the biggest gaps or challenges in elementary counseling right now, and how do you think school counselors can address that issue?

[Laura Filtness] For me personally the biggest challenges have been time and understanding. So often my things to do list seems to get longer rather than shorter. As the counselor of over 900 students, time is valuable and there often doesn’t feel like there is enough of it. Teachers and administration often feel the same way and this can lead to challenges finding time to collaborate and resistance from teachers when you try and pull a student. This leads me into the second challenge: understanding. I think there are still a lot of misconceptions about our role and skill set. We are in the unique position of being able to look at the entire child—academically, socially, emotionally, behaviorally. I have been told that I’m just there to help with “social and emotional stuff,” and that is separate from behavior. As we know academics, behavior, and social/emotional concerns are all connected and intertwined. So, while you’re short on time you have to find a way to consistently advocate for our roles and educate school staff on our jobs.

Thank you, Laura! Learn more about Pawsitive School Counseling on our Top Counseling Blogs list.