In the mailbox on her office door, elementary school counselor Lois Martin recently found a note from a fifth-grade boy, printed in messy pencil on paper torn from a loose-leaf binder: "Dear Mrs. Martin, I won't be coming anymore because I have too many problems . . . . I just feel like the world is falling on top of me. Thank you for all the help you gave me."
Martin, a counselor at Templeton Elementary School in Prince George's County, interpreted the note as a suicide threat, tracked down the boy, and urged his mother to get him into outside counseling.
"My first reaction was, suppose it's too late," said Martin, who believes the boy was upset because his parents had been fighting. "That was scary."
Martin is one of the nation's growing ranks of elementary school guidance counselors, a role that has become increasingly in demand, educators say, as children are faced with more complex problems at earlier ages.
"People say to me, 'Why do elementary children need counselors? They don't have any problems.' But they do," said Sherry Shear, a counselor at Beverly Farms and Potomac elementary schools in Montgomery County. "They deal with death. They deal with divorce. They deal with failure. Those are adult problems."
While high school counselors -- who have been on the scene for decades -- traditionally have been kept busy juggling course schedules and administering advice about college, their counterparts at the elementary level are able to spend nearly all their time dealing with the more personal problems of their pupils.
And while the number of secondary counselors across the country has remained constant during the past decade, "the number of elementary counselors has grown dramatically" during the same period, said Frank Burtnett, assistant executive director of the American Association for Counseling and Development.
In Maryland, for example, 10 of the state's 24 school districts have initiated elementary guidance since 1979, bringing to 15 the number of districts with such programs in place.
These counselors have the delicate mission of tempering the big crises of little children. They take on troubles as diverse as missing homework, family squabbles and the death of a pet parakeet. They cool down playground fights, and they see images of children's deepest fears, drawn with crayon on Big Chief tablets.
In just the first few weeks of school, Prince George's elementary counselors discovered seven cases of child abuse, according to county guidance supervisor Dorothy Harvey.
Educators point to developments in society, including single parents, increased divorce rates, high mobility and the decline of institutions such as church and community groups as contributors to the demand for counseling at an earlier age.
In the Washington area and across the country, funds for elementary counseling programs have been added in response to the lobbying of parent groups, teachers and principals. Recent legislative studies in Maryland and Virginia have recommended that school districts in their states adopt such programs.
The number of elementary counseling positions in Montgomery County has grown from five a decade ago to more than 40, and there are plans to add 10 next year. In Fairfax County, there were no such counselors 10 years ago; this year there are 32. In Prince George's, the number has increased tenfold to 40 since 1968.
The growth has been so fast that some areas are having difficulty filling the new positions because many graduate programs are geared toward only secondary guidance programs, according to George Malless, guidance specialist for the Maryland Department of Education.
The new demand has been fueled by the belief that earlier counseling can prevent later, more serious problems.
"Rather than try to put out fires after they start, the education system can be more effective in keeping the fires from getting started," said Malless.
Despite the increasing numbers of elementary counselors, many schools are still without such programs, and many counselors, such as Martin, divide their time between two schools.
Martin's office at Templeton is tucked away in a quiet corner of the building, furnished with rugs, a rocking chair, stuffed toys and books with titles such as "Sometimes I'm Afraid" and "Things I Hate."
She sees pupils who are referred by parents or teachers, but many children ask to see her, leaving sometimes heart-rending notes in the mailbox on her door.
"I don't know what I'm scared about this time, but I need to see you," wrote a fifth-grader.
Another pupil wrote: "Dear Mrs. Martin, I have two problems, one is about school and the other is about my house. I would like an appointment with you as soon as I can because it is getting worse and I'm worried."
Marsha Hadeed, whose 8-year-old son, Akie, attends Cherokee Lane Elementary in Adelphi, requested the help of counselor Pam Johnson three weeks ago because her son was feigning illness to stay home from school.
"He hates going to school," Hadeed said. "He stays up all night thinking of reasons not to go."
But in five sessions with Johnson, the boy has "really opened up to her," the mother said. "The first day he saw her, when I picked him up from school, he said, 'I don't know how she did it, but she made me want to go school.' It was like he handed me a million dollars."
By the end of the school year, Martin will have had some contact with every pupil in the school, either individually, in a small group or by visiting classrooms. In one day alone, 40 children may stop by her office.
"If you can just provide an oasis for some of them," said Martin. "Some you don't get too far with, some you do. The fact that you're there and keep working with them is most important."
Among the small groups she hosts is one made up of four children, each of whom has a parent very ill or near death. The kids, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, gather every Tuesday morning and sit in a circle with Martin, swinging their feet and chewing their fingers.
"My mom's face puffed up again this morning," said one 9-year-old girl whose mother has a serious heart condition. "I told her to call the doctor, but I'm afraid she didn't."
"What can we do to make it better?" Martin asked the children.
"Sometimes my sister-in-law talks to me about my mother," the 9-year-old girl offered as something that makes her feel less afraid.
The group strategy is common and, counselors say, successful.
"The groups have the advantage of children seeing they're not the only one," said Shear.
The children who come to see Martin and other counselors provide a revealing look at the sometimes fragile world of small children.
Sixth-graders, for example, have reported fears of getting stuck in a locker when they move on to middle school. This, said counseling supervisors, is among a host of anxieties that appear when pupils are nervous about moving from the safe world of their elementary school.
Kathy McGuire, a counselor at Highland Elementary in Montgomery County, worked with a girl this year who was afraid to go to the bathroom at school after a rash of sexual assaults in the Washington area.
Martin's experience of dealing with a suicidal child was not isolated. The parent of a first-grade girl called McGuire to say the child had talked about suicide. Miffi Bedrick, a Prince George's County counselor, was warned of a suicidal boy after he drew a picture of himself hanging.
A child at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary told her he was afraid of being shot by drug dealers in his neighborhood. His anxiety began when a schoolmate, 10-year-old Mongo Fitzhugh, was killed last summer in a shoot-out between police and drug suspects, according to Bedrick.
Counselors, however, do not deal only with crises. The "developmental" aspects of their job are aimed at achieving academic goals, encouraging responsibility for school work, for example. Also, they try to build such personal skills as finding a healthy outlet for anger.
Many of the pupils who are referred to counselors are simply having trouble getting their schoolwork done, or they are disruptive or cannot concentrate. These, say the counselors, are common symptoms of a child's turmoil about problems outside school, often a divorce.
"I can't change that," McGuire said. "I can't make the world a better place for them. I do a lot of listening . . . . The kids are going through their own minidivorce."
Bedrick, who keeps a punching bag in her office for students who want to work out their anger, was called on last month to help a group of children deal with the death of their friend, 8-year-old Brandon Cunningham, who was hit by a car. Several of the children at Langley Park-McCormick had seen the accident as they were walking to school with the boy that morning.
"Some were crying, some were in shock," said Bedrick. "They were just very, very sad."
She said she talked to the children about death and asked them to draw pictures of Brandon. Many showed him in the crosswalk, a car approaching.
"I encouraged them to get their feelings out," she said.
While their success often depends on gaining the trust of the child, counselors tread a fine line in some cases. A pupil may ask that the counselor keep a secret -- about sexual abuse, for example -- but "there are times when you simply must tell," Martin said.
Counselors are often called upon to provide help to parents. Principals tell of their counselors holding workshops for parents after school, delivering food when a welfare check has not arrived or intervening when families are threatened with eviction.
Such "social" work unofficially falls in the purview of the school, said Templeton principal Milton A. Jews, because "it will eventually come back to us if the child knows they may not have any food when they get home that night.