Kathleen Carroll had counseled the Arlington fifth grader before. His father was out of the country and he was feeling sad.

"My mom told me to write him letters," said the youngster, lunching on pizza and chocolate milk in Carroll's office. "All I can write to him is, 'Dear Dad, I love you. Goodbye.' "

Carroll is one of eight elementary school counselors in a new Arlington program designed to help pupils with personal problems that educators believe create barriers to a child's development and academic success.

During the last year, she has heard accounts of sexual and physical abuse, a suicide threat, the death of a classmate, the deaths of two students' mothers, the murder of two students' brother and, most common of all, divorce and separation from parents.

Comprehensive counseling services will become standard in state elementary schools by September 1989, according to guidelines adopted this year by the Virginia Board of Education. Alexandria, the District and Montgomery County already have such services, although not all of their employes are certified counselors, as the new state rule requires. Arlington's $294,000 program was tested last year.

Schools in Arlington and elsewhere in the region already have psychologists and social workers who help students with certain psychological and family-related problems. The guidance counselors in the new program reach out to children during classroom sessions and encourage interested students to visit them privately in their office.

Some schools also gather small groups of students who have a similar problem. Carroll led a divorce support group last year.

"If {children's families} have economic, domestic, emotional problems, whatever, these kids get extremely lonely," said Charles Padgett, a counselor at Randolph Elementary School. "They feel very isolated, {even though} about half the kids in the school feel the same way."

Some schools have even held workshops for parents, who are encouraged to talk with counselors about their children.

"The bottom line is to help {the children} be successful learners," said Libby R. Hoffman, who directs the elementary guidance and counseling department of the Virginia Department of Education. "Children who are concerned about things going on in their lives are not going to be successful."

Schools once trod gingerly into such personal areas, fearing criticism that they were usurping parental authority. Educators and parents say, however, that acceptance of such school-based support programs has grown with the increase in single-parent and working-couple households.

Former Arlington School Board member Margaret Bocek, who opposed adopting the program during her tenure, argued that such wide-ranging counseling was a violation of privacy and a waste of valuable class time. It also was, she said, motivated by educators looking to increase their salaries and their numbers.

"It is an intrusion into the privacy rights of the children and the family," she said. "It addresses attitudes, values and beliefs. That's the role for the family, not the government."

Counselors and school officials say they are careful to involve parents in their work. Although counselors are not required to get the parents' permission to meet with a child or to discuss what some would consider sensitive home life issues, school policy is to inform them as soon as possible.

Many children who visit the counselors need little prompting before recounting their stories in a somewhat free-form, rambling style.

"When my mother says she doesn't love me, she seems like she's not my mother," a second grader told Padgett, who was visiting the girl's class at Randolph Elementary School. " . . . She says, 'I'm going to smack your head' . . . . She shouts and yells at me and tells me to go to my room."

During her visits to classrooms, Carroll frequently uses hand puppets to teach pupils about the pressures and demands that their parents may face. One story is about Sophie the Sea Horse, who had to leave her babies at home to search for food. Another is about how busy parents can be.

"Have you even been at home and really wanted Mom and Dad to pay attention to you?" asked Carroll, after telling them a story about the demands on parents. "Has that ever happened to you?"

When parents are busy, she continued, "sometimes they can't spend all their time with you. Does that mean they don't love you?"

"No," Carroll and the class say in unison.

The program has won accolades from some Arlington parents who are seeking guidance in raising their children.

"Sometimes I don't know what to say to my son . . . . I could never talk to my parents," said Barbara Sexton, a divorced mother whose son attends Randolph and who has visited Padgett a number of times.

"Mr. Padgett has helped me to help him," said Sexton. "Anytime I have something I can't handle, I go to Mr. Padgett. He talks to my son and {then} I talk to him."

She said Padgett helped her son cope with the divorce and that she has seen him help others embroiled in bitter separations. "The parents have so much anger in them when they're going through divorce," she said. "They're bickering and {a child} can go to the school and have someone to talk to."

Padgett and Carroll are popular figures at their schools. Pupils greet them in the halls, stop by their offices unannounced, look forward to their classroom visits and have a seemingly unending desire to tell them about themselves.

Padgett was recently in his office with a parent discussing her son's school fights when a 12-year-old poked his head in the door.

"My parents are getting a divorce," he said with tears in his eyes. He didn't say much more.

A few days later, Padgett called the pupil into his office to make sure he was doing all right.

"They have to separate because they don't get along," the boy said, staring at the wall. "I guess it's the best thing. The house is not happy."

Sometimes teachers send students to see the counselor, as was the case not long ago when a first grade pupil said he thought his mother had slapped his baby sister on the face and she would not stop crying.

Padgett said he became concerned and sent the county's Child Protective Agency, which deals with child abuse, to the home. It turned out the baby was only 2 weeks old and was simply crying incessantly, he said.

Pupils interviewed at the two schools said they appreciated their counselors. The Abingdon Elementary child who misses his father said Carroll was a friend who helped pull him out of his slumps.

"Everyone can depend on her if they don't feel good," he said. "Everyone needs a little encouraging when your're feeling sad . . . and you can't keep your mind on your school."