PROFILES in EDUCATION
Name: Dana Donati
School: Hun School
Subject: Personal Counseling
Years Counseling: 20 years, four years at Hun School
Education: Princeton Day School; B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, and Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.; masters in psychology from Temple University
Most Memorable Book: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Person You Admire: "My mother; she taught me to be creative and she taught me kindness, which comes in very handy in my work. As a teacher herself, she taught me, without realizing it, how to talk to children and respect them for who they are."
Teaching isn't always about books and homework; sometimes it means just being a friend.
That's what Dana Donati is for all the students who attend The Hun School in Princeton. Ms. Donati has been a personal counselor at the school for four years, and a practicing psychologist for more than 20 years.
According to Ms. Donati, who also owns her own practice on Nassau Street, most private schools don't have counselors for their students.
"They're lucky here, and so am I," she said.
Ms. Donati believes the school came to the decision to hire a counselor because the world has changed over the last 10 to 20 years, and the demands faced by students trying to decide their futures are much more severe than when she was growing up.
"Students here are all normal, healthy students," she said. "But all students at this age benefit from some kind of intervention from someone with a clinical background...I don't tell students what to do...I tell them what their options are."
Working With Teens
A Princeton resident, Ms. Donati is a certified school psychologist and addiction specialist. She has spent much of her life devoting her time to counseling adolescents.
"Everything I've done has really been with junior high through high school students," she said.
After graduating from Temple University with a master's degree in psychology, Ms. Donati worked at the Vanguard School in Paoli, Pa., a school for emotionally disturbed children. She then worked as a school psychologist at Princeton High School for seven years.
Ms. Donati also worked on and off for the Carrier Clinic for four years, where she was a consultant in the outpatient program for teens. She then decided to open her own practice in Princeton, which she has now been operating for 13 years.
The counselor said she has always felt drawn to help adolescents, because at this critical age so many different things are going on in their lives: "I'm a pretty curious person, and I think I like to figure things out and figure out why people act the way they do. And I think I remember my own adolescence well and I'm able to relate to this age group pretty well."
Having two teenage children also helps Ms. Donati relate to teens at Hun. Her daughter, Emily, 18, recently graduated from Hun, and now attends Bryn Mawr College. Her son, Ben, 16, is currently a junior at Hun.
But while the counselor has two children of her own, she also has 575 others at Hun. Ms. Donati is available to counsel any students from sixth through twelfth grade; she also must be available on a 24-hour basis for boarding students at the high school level.
Some of the largest issues that Ms. Donati finds herself counseling students on are homesickness, poor relationships between two students or between a parent, or problems in the classroom.
The key, said Ms. Donati, is letting the students know that anything they speak to her about is confidential: "Nothing goes on record. I don't go back and tell the student's parent or teacher anything unless I get permission."
She said that she often encourages students to talk to the person that they are having the problem with; the only time she has to violate confidentiality is when students threaten to harm themselves or someone else.
Much of Ms. Donati's free time is spent counseling at her private clinic, where she mainly sees adolescents. She also counsels small children, mostly on such things as fear of darkness, or fear of starting school. Many of her clients come to her through word of mouth, as she has been a part of the Princeton community for many years.
Ms. Donati also holds "Tea and Talk" events each month with Hun School parents, discussing common problems among parents and their teenage children. Topics include how to communicate with a child, how to hold a safe party, and how to reduce stress at home.
The counselor also enjoys writing, and provides columns on a regular basis for the Hun Parent Newsletter, the student newspaper, and the faculty webpage. She often explores questions anonymously submitted regarding issues of concern to many parents, students, or faculty at the school. Most recently she wrote a column for the parent newsletter addressing children who are very intelligent, but very introverted, and often have trouble with simple tasks such as making a phone call, or being able to raise their hands and participate in a classroom exercise.
After counseling teenagers for 20 years, Ms. Donati believes that students haven't changed, but the environment they are living in has changed dramatically.
"Basically kids are the same, but I think they have to deal with so many more complicated issues that were not a part of [the world] 10 years ago...I think the college adventure is much more demanding and stressful. The world itself has changed."
Pressure to make decisions on the future seems to be the biggest issue her high school students face, she said. Students start to feel a need to find themselves and a talent that they excel at when they are in their senior year.
"I say to kids, 'If you can get through adolescence, you're in good shape,' because its tough," said Ms. Donati. "Being an adult is easier because you have so much more control over your decisions."
Unlike teachers, who often see a child suddenly grasp a concept or lesson in the classroom, Ms. Donati says her work continues throughout the student's young adult life.
"There's not a time when you get a sudden breakthrough," she said. "It's more about just helping them over the years and hoping that you've made a difference."