How school counselors make a world of difference

Long considered an integral part of a school’s support system, school counselors bring a wealth of insight and resources to a variety of student-centered issues. As part of a team of mental health experts, school counselors work with students individually and collectively to create a school climate that leads to healthy learning, living, and growth. 

The specific roles that a school counselor takes on vary, depending to some extent on needs within the school and the presence of other professionals with overlapping roles and areas of expertise, such as psychologists and social workers. But, in general, as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA, 2014) explains, counselors’ work today falls into three domains: 

  • Career and college development. Historically, school counselors’ primary responsibility has been to help students prepare for the transition to college and/or careers, and this continues to be a central part of their mission. In fact, given the expanding array of learning options available after high school and the fast-changing demands of the workforce, students are coming to rely on counselors more than ever before to provide accurate, comprehensive, and personalized guidance for postsecondary planning.
  • Academic development. By working alone with students or teaming with classroom teachers and other education professionals, school counselors help students build the curiosity and academic skills needed to be the best learners possible. For example, counselors are often responsible for overseeing individual student planning. A growing interest in personalization has made this role especially important in recent years, with school counselors working closely with students to explore potential avenues of study and create individual goals for deepening their knowledge in areas of interest.
  • Social and emotional development. As an integral part of their schools’ student support system, counselors tend to work hand in hand with psychologists, social workers, and nurses to create a school climate that promotes healthy learning, living, and personal growth. And shouldthe need arise, they respond to students who are facing personal challenges and steer them toward appropriate services at school or in the community.   

The amount of time school counselors devote to each of these domains largely depends on the individual needs of the students they serve and the availability of other mental health professionals to offer direct services to students. Ideally, the school counselor is part of a building-wide team that includes a school psychologist and social worker. Typically, school psychologists administer psychological evaluations for individual students and oversee the creation of individualized learning plans for students with special needs, while social workers tend to focus on student needs outside school. Under this arrangement, the school counselor would then focus on student services within the building, devoting not less than 80% of their time to offering direct student services in the three domains combined.

In the 2014-15 school year, 104,306 school counselors served more than 50 million U.S. students, with an average student-to-counselor ratio of 482 (ASCA, n.d.-d). They are required to have at least a master’s degree in school counseling and to meet the certification and licensure standards for their state. To meet students’ needs across the three domains, these counselors oversee the school counseling curriculum, which, like the academic curriculum, tends to be arranged by grade level. Unlike an academic curriculum, school counseling activities aren’t always delivered in classroom settings. While classroom instruction is a part of a counselor’s work, other services are best delivered with small groups of students and in one-on-one meetings. And since this curriculum touches on a broad range of skills and content — including activities related to study skills, conflict resolution, and college and career exploration — counselors often reach out to and collaborate with people who have expertise in these areas, such as local college faculty, healthcare professionals, and employers. 

The difference school counselors make 

Research suggests that school counselors can and often do have positive influences in all three domains of their work. For example, a study of counseling practices in six states shows that effective counseling strategies tend to have positive effects on classroom attendance, discipline, and overall achievement (Carey & Dimmitt, 2012). Likewise, counseling interventions have been shown to help close the achievement gap between student groups, as found in a program in which counselors delivered lessons specifically designed to support Latina and Latino students in math and science (León et al., 2011). These studies suggest that school counseling programs are most successful when counseling services include more than a response to a situation that already exists. By building in proactive strategies, including small-group counseling activities and discussions, as well as classroom presentations on topics that promote academic and social-emotional growth, counselors provide positive examples of behavior students can incorporate in their lives, leading to healthier decisions and more positive actions.  

Further, a wealth of anecdotal evidence shows how counselors have helped teachers and other school leaders support student learning. For instance, a counselor-led initiative at a Sunnyside, Washington, high school boosted graduation rates by nearly 30 percent (Salina et al., 2013). Similarly, the 2018 Counselor of the Year, Kirsten Perry of Lawndale Community Academy in Illinois, has been credited with helping reduce chronic absenteeism by 61% over two years and raise her school’s academic standing. Her multifaceted approach to her work also addressed students’ emotional needs by bringing them together in “peace circles” to discuss and resolve their conflicts (Wegner, 2018). 

When it comes to social and emotional development, counselors can play a significant role in everything from reducing negative student behaviors (Curtis et al., 2010) to reducing the spread of gossip among students (Cross & Peisner, 2009) to increasing awareness of depression and suicide risk (Erickson & Abel, 2013). Counselor support can also make a tremendous difference for students from low-income families and students from underrepresented groups, as in the examples of counselors helping students of Mexican descent build stronger relationships at school (Malott et al., 2010) and increasing the sense of empowerment and aspiration among Black males (Wyatt, 2009).  

The effect school counselors have on young people’s career and college plans is well known, but the results of a statewide counseling initiative in Colorado (Johnson, 2016) is especially notable. Fueled by a state start-up grant, Colorado created 220 new school counseling positions over eight years and provided counselors with training in dropout prevention and college access strategies. The affected schools saw the dropout rate decline from 5.5% to 3.7%, while college attendance and persistence increased by 13 percentage points. And, in an important unintended consequence, student participation in career and technical education more than doubled. With more students attending high school, the schools’ total funding base increased enough for the new counseling positions to pay for themselves once the grants expired. By investing $16 million up-front in new counseling positions, Colorado created counseling positions that more than paid for themselves and saved the state over $300 million in the social costs associated with supporting high school dropouts.  

Maximizing school counselor effectiveness 

Given the differences school counselors can make in everything from school climate to classroom achievement to individual behavior, what are some of the conditions that need to be present for schools to make the most of the expertise and training of their school counselor? 

Counselor caseloads 

The success of the Colorado initiative offers insights into something school counselors have long known — they can do more when they have manageable caseloads. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of not more than 250 students per counselor, but the average caseload nationally for 2014-15 was 482, with just three states having ratios at or below the recommended ratio, and 11 states reporting a ratio of 500 or more students per counselor (ASCA, n.d.-c). 

The Colorado initiative succeeded in part by reducing counselor ratios at the participating schools from 363 students per counselor to 216. Given the financial savings the state has realized as a result of adding school counselors, it is understandable why several states are considering providing funding for new school counselor positions (see, for example, Bisaha, 2018). 

Use of counselor time  

Regardless of the number of students on their caseloads, school counselors often find themselves limited in their effectiveness because they are assigned administrative duties that have little to do with their role as a counselor. Although counselors recognize the importance of taking their turn with obligations like lunch duty and supporting the safe start and end of a school day, tasks like changing student schedules, administering building-wide tests, and constructing the school’s master schedule take them away from the student-centered tasks that should be the core of their work. 

Administrators can support counseling efforts by sitting down with their building counselors before the start of each school year to develop a clear understanding of the counselors’ role. The ASCA Agreement Template (ASCA, n.d.-a) provides counselors and administrators with a starting point for this discussion, outlining the goals of the school counseling curriculum for the year and the appropriate allocation of the counselor’s time to achieve those goals. This template also serves as a source for creating assessment data to measure the effectiveness of the school counseling curriculum and to build plans for future years based on those results. 

Counselors looking to improve the results of their college access curriculum may want to review the time they allocate to this task, as well as their college expectations for their students. A study by the Education Commission of the States (Zinth, 2014) shows that 73% of high schools with a high college-going rate have counselors who devote 20% or more of their time to college counseling, while only 25% of the high schools with a low college-going rate have counselors who spend that much time on the task. At the same time, 72% of the counselors at the high college-going high schools place college access as their first goal, while the low college-going high schools list college access as their first goal only 32% of the time. 

Access to community resources  

The American School Counselor Association recommends all school counselors convene a counseling advisory committee (CAC) as part of its counseling curriculum. Separate from the school improvement committee, the CAC’s goals are to “foster a collaborative partnership with community stakeholders, educate the advisory members about the school counseling program’s strengths, demonstrate the program’s unique needs and communicate the program’s outcomes” (ASCA, n.d.-b). By engaging local business leaders, clergy, mental health specialists, and leaders of community organization, CACs help broaden awareness of the school counseling program and widen the potential resources the program can draw on. 

Although an engaged, effective CAC can foster greater recognition of the school counseling program and establish community ties to improve counseling services, school counselors report challenges in convening regular meetings of their CAC and an inability to direct their activities due to lack of time. High caseloads can prevent school counselors from making the most of their CAC, but with the right amount of administrative support, counselors can begin to engage their CACs actively and create student-centered goals for the committee that members can fully support. 

Review of counselor training 

Some school counselors have expressed a desire for their graduate school training in school counseling to align more with the duties and activities they experience on the job. This need was highlighted in a survey conducted by the National Consortium for School Counseling and Postsecondary Success: 

The survey discovered a strong discrepancy between school counselors and school counselor educators on the content covered in counselor education programs, with counselor educators reporting much more effective coverage of topics than practitioners. This gap in perceptions suggests that counselor educators may need to pay closer attention to the demands of those in the field as well as emerging responsibilities such as a greater need to support career and college readiness. (Brown et al., 2016, p. 12) 

In light of the ever-changing needs of students in all three school counseling areas, counselor training and continuing education programs need to be fine-tuned to ensure counselors are providing students and families with the latest in research-based programming and advice. A bill passed by the Michigan legislature in November 2017 requires all counselors in that state to receive such updates as part of their regular recertification requirements. Other states would do well to consider the best path they can take to support counselors’ desires for current training. 

School counselors have a long record of working effectively with students, parents, fellow educators, and community members to create new paths of learning, achievement, and self-discovery. While much of this work is done behind the scenes, it has been empirically shown to make a difference in the lives of our students and our schools. More important, that difference resides in the hearts and minds of students who are leading stronger, healthier lives, thanks to the school counselor who supported them and showed them more of what their lives could be.  



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