In any given year, as many as one in five American children and adolescents experiences a mental health disorder, according to a study released in May from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To Lynn Linde, that is evidence that an irrefutable need for professional school counselors exists. “Those are the kids in our schools, and those are the ones who need our help and additional support to be successful,” says Linde, the director of clinical experiences at Loyola University Maryland and chair of the American Counseling Association’s School Counseling Task Force.
There is an inextricable link between children’s mental and emotional health and their ability to learn and be academically successful, Linde says. There is also research to support that statement, but some members of school communities, specifically in school administrations, don’t always understand that, she says. And if school stakeholders don’t grasp the link between children’s mental health and their ability to succeed in the classroom, they may be less likely to carve out the needed space for professional school counselors to do the work for which they have been trained.
In fact, Linde calls that circumstance the crux of the problem with school counseling today — too many school counselors have to negotiate with their administrators to use the valuable skills they have developed through their training and education. “There isn’t that negotiation if you’re a teacher,” says Linde, a past president of ACA. “Why as a school counselor do you have to negotiate? You don’t tell a math teacher how to teach math. Teachers have a lot of latitude within their classrooms. Why don’t we [as school counselors] have the same latitude?”
Linde doesn’t profess to have an answer to that question, but she hopes to see the situation rectified in coming years. And she is not alone in identifying a problem with how often school counselors are compelled to plead their case.
From her on-the-ground perspective, Sharon Sevier sees the results of the CDC study played out in real life at her school. The issues today’s kids are dealing with run the gamut from family issues and poverty to depression, suicide ideation, self-harm, autism, low self-esteem, anxiety and learning disabilities, to name just a few, she says. The mental health issues Sevier is witnessing among today’s students are becoming more significant than at any point in her 40 years of work in education, she says. “Many of these kids are in desperate need of therapy, but the school counselor is the only mental health expert they get to see,” says Sevier, a professional school counselor at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Mo. “And most boards of education are quite clear that school counselors are not to do therapy due to all kinds of liability issues. But the school counselor has to deal with them so the teachers, with class sizes of 30-plus, can teach. It’s our job to handle the issue at hand and try to get that student back into the classroom.”
Like Linde, Sevier believes the biggest hurdle school counselors must overcome before filling the role for which they have been trained is convincing the administration and faculty of the true value and benefits that school counselors can provide. “Because of this lack of understanding, school counselors struggle under the burden of assigned ‘extra duties that keep them from delivering their program,” says Sevier, a member of ACA and the assistant chair of the Board of Directors of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), a division of ACA. “We [at ASCA] have a very defined program that addresses personal [and] social development, academic development and career development. Within each of those areas, we have a K-12 curriculum that focuses on various outcomes and competencies. We do individual planning, giving every student the benefit of academic advisement based upon their strengths, talents and areas needing focus. We handle responsive services, providing individual interventions for students in need. Finally, we engage in system support, doing what is necessary to keep our programs running well and supporting the school and district through committee work and professional development.”
“This program is research based and, when fully implemented, it’s been shown to have a very positive effect on school climate and student achievement,” Sevier continues. “But when an administrator looks at the school counselor as someone ‘not having a class list and papers to grade,’ our program suffers because the school counselor is assigned to extra duties, such as running the schoolwide testing program, filling in for absent teachers, performing supervisory duties, etc. When our program suffers, so does the school climate and student achievement. In short, our kids suffer.”
The general lack of understanding about what professional school counselors do (or could do, if allowed) to support student success rates is “highly evident,” Sevier says, especially in light of the economic hardships many school districts are facing. “Too often, school district administrations look at cutting counselors as some of the first cost-saving measures,” she says. “Our students are coming to school every day with heavier and heavier baggage, and our teachers are under fire and under pressure for test results. Our teachers cannot take on one more thing. They need their students to come to school ready to learn and to be engaged in the educational process.”
Generally, teachers have neither the time nor the expertise to help students deal with the mental health and personal issues they are facing, but that is precisely what school counselors have been trained to do, Sevier points out. “It truly does take a village to raise children,” she says. “And school counselors are an integral part of that village because they tend to the life skills that children need to learn to become self-sufficient, effective problem solvers, critical thinkers and individuals who understand and appreciate the value of relationships in every facet of their lives.”
Advocacy from day one
In Patricia Henderson’s experience, very few school administrators don’t want what professional school counselors bring to the table. They simply don’t understand the depth of what these counselors offer, says Henderson, who worked as a school counselor and director of guidance for more than 30 years in both California and Texas.
When principals or teachers see kids having difficulties, whether that involves anything from misbehaving to showing signs of depression, they may not make the connection that school counselors have the tools to help those students work through their issues — or better yet, Henderson says, can help head off those issues before they arise.
When administrators or teachers don’t fully grasp what professional school counselors can provide, school counselors must understand their roles and skills well enough to communicate their potential to others and advocate for it actively, says Henderson, who now works as a consultant and serves as an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
“Generalized areas for continuing growth for school counselors and school counseling begins with our believing in and advocating for the integrity of our professional identity — defining who we are and what we are best trained to do [and] how we can best help,” she says. “Rooted in that identity, school counselors need to have the confidence and courage to advocate for their correct programs and services.”
Ideally, that advocacy should start on day one, Henderson says. When a school counselor interviews for a position or when a new principal comes on board, school counselors must be able to describe their planned counseling program and how they will deliver it, she says. “And if they started off on another foot [before then], they need to craft the program with the administration where they set the priorities for what should be delivered,” says Henderson, a member of ACA and ASCA.
The counseling skill set is what sets professional school counselors apart from others in the school, Henderson says. “While [school counselors] also apply other skill sets — for example, teaching, consulting, guiding and advising, referring and interpreting test results — the counseling skills, competencies, values and ethics learned in earning their master’s degrees are uniquely theirs among school staff members. They are knowledgeable about how to help students address developmental and situational issues that may impede their healthy personal, social, career and educational development. They teach a guidance curriculum, which is different than an academic curriculum. Through their graduate school curricula, they have deeper understanding of healthy growth and development and know more about how healthy human relationships and socially appropriate behaviors are developed than [do] their educator peers. When students stumble in such areas, they are trained in how to intervene effectively through counseling to help them get back on track.”
The best way for school counselors to advocate for using those counseling skills is to help others understand the results those skills can produce with and for students, Henderson says. “Teachers, school administrators and others who have not experienced a counselor education curriculum have no idea how counseling is different than chatting, teaching or disciplining,” she says. “From the outside, counseling may look similar to what others do, but it is a very different practice. Respectfully helping others with whom we come in contact know and respect those differences means seizing opportunities to proactively and spontaneously teach them about what we do, what our standards and values are, and how we have contributed to students’ growth.”
Jasmine Mcleod, a specialist who oversees 150 other school counselors as part of the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of School Counseling, agrees. School counselors must ensure that others in the school see them as necessary to supporting students’ ability to learn, and accomplishing that requires having “a seat at the leadership table,” says Mcleod, a member of ACA’s School Counseling Task Force. School counselors need to be part of discussions at the school and district levels so they can shine light on the needs of students and explain how school counselors can uniquely contribute to meeting those needs, she says.
Linde adds that from their first day on the job, school counselors should aim toward building relationships with members of the school community — students, administrators, teachers and parents — and making those members aware of the results the school counselor’s work produces with students. If school community members see those positive outcomes and connect them back to the school counselor’s efforts, they will be more motivated to ensure that the counselor is given the necessary time and resources to perform his or her job most effectively.
When professional school counselors don’t advocate for themselves and their programs, they open themselves up to being assigned a variety of noncounseling duties. And when that happens, Sevier says, school counselors are taken away from their primary responsibility: the students.
“If a school counselor is, for instance, in charge of the schoolwide testing program, that program typically takes up the better part of a month or more,” Sevier says. “What does the counselor do if a student is in crisis? You can’t cancel a state-required test, so what happens to that student? Perhaps they are assigned to someone who doesn’t possess the expertise in counseling that the school counselor does. How helpful is that to the student, the faculty member, the administrator, the parent?”
At Sevier’s school, the administrators grasp the importance of counseling, and for that reason, they require one school counselor to be in the office at all times during school hours to tend to unexpected student needs. “If a school counselor is mainly a clerical person, working on schedules and little else, who works with students on bullying, respect issues and other characteristics that make a school environment a safe place to be?” Sevier asks. “Students need to know that they have someone they can go to for advice and assistance at all times. They need to know that they have someone on their side when things aren’t going well. We can’t tell a student who’s depressed that we have to do hall duty or cover a classroom or manage a test. They need help right then and there. To do otherwise could lead to disastrous consequences.”
Henderson echoes those thoughts, emphasizing that school counselors must prioritize students as their No. 1 responsibility. That can be challenging, especially considering all the disparate tasks that are sometimes heaped on the school counselor’s plate. But Henderson says school counselors must make it clear that, in the context of ethical standards, the children and adolescents in schools are their primary clients.
Integral to putting students first, Henderson says, is having a well-designed counseling and guidance program. A well-designed program is based on what the students’ needs are and how a counselor can best serve those needs, she says. “If everyone understands that it’s a full-time job to implement that program, then there isn’t time for nonguidance tasks,” says Henderson, who, with Norman Gysbers, coauthored the fifth edition of Developing & Managing Your School Guidance & Counseling Program, published by ACA in 2012.
Unfortunately, not all schools across the nation employ professional school counselors, Sevier says. Most high schools have at least one school counselor, but many elementary schools have only part-time counselors, if they have them on staff at all, she says. And even in schools in which a school counselor is present, a defined school counseling program isn’t necessarily mandatory, Sevier says. In Missouri, where Sevier works, having both a school counselor and a school counseling program is mandated at all levels, and schools are evaluated on the basis of those elements being in place.
In schools that do maintain a counseling and guidance program, the type of program can vary from state to state and district to district, Henderson says. “A lot depends on the individual counselors or counseling teams understanding the value of their unique skills and having the courage to advocate for using them to best serve the students,” she says. “To get off to a good start, counselors have to have a vision of what they think a good program looks like and a belief that it is how they can best meet children’s and adolescents’ needs. [It is] a sketch of their own ideal program.”
Putting a plan in place
In Developing & Managing Your School Guidance & Counseling Program, Henderson and Gysbers offer school counselors an outline for planning, designing, implementing, evaluating and enhancing a comprehensive program.
The development of any comprehensive program begins with the counselor working with a group of stakeholders in the school, such as the principal, teachers and others, Henderson says. It is ideal when those stakeholders are supportive of counselors helping students with their personal struggles, she adds. Together, the team works to design a program that will meet students’ most pressing needs.
“A design consists of deciding such things as what students need to learn and be able to do as a result of participating in the program, the priorities for addressing the needs of various categories of students and the percentages of time counselors should spend in implementing different kinds of program activities,” Henderson says. “Having designed the program they would like to have in their school, they then work collaboratively to fully implement it.”
A key part of developing a comprehensive program is setting priorities, Henderson says. “School counselors potentially can help 100 percent of a school’s population, but priorities need to be established for using their talents and skills most efficiently and effectively,” she says. “Priorities need to be set for which students should be served in the best interest of the school community.”
Priorities should be established on the basis of identifying the areas of greatest need, whether that is done through collecting data or collecting the thoughts and opinions of stakeholders in the school community, Henderson says. For example, her community has a substantial military population, so helping students through parental deployments is high on the priority list for counseling programs in area schools.
Setting priorities is easier said than done, however, Henderson warns. Tough choices inevitably have to be made, and certain areas will receive less time than others. Striking a balance in which the priorities add up to 100 percent of a counselor’s time — “not 200 percent,” Henderson says — is also a challenge.
Any comprehensive plan must include three areas of focus — career, academic and personal/social, says Gysbers, the curators’ distinguished professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri and editor emeritus of the Journal of Career Development. All three areas are intertwined and affect one another, Gysbers says, so the focus of any guidance plan must include all three in balance.
Once a program is in place, laying the priorities and plans out on a calendar in terms of how the program will be implemented by the week, month and year is helpful, says Gysbers, a member of both ACA and ASCA. Sharing that calendar, and the expected benefits of implementing the plan, with administrators can help school counselors avoid being assigned noncounseling duties, he says.
As school counseling has developed over the past century, Gysbers says, differing views have been cultivated — even among school counselors themselves — concerning the primary role of school counselors. According to Gysbers, three main views have emerged:
- The school counselor as a consultant to parents, teachers and administrators
- The school counselor as a sort of analyst who looks at the data to determine what problems exist in the school and need to be addressed
- The school counselor as a provider of direct services to students
In reality, Gysbers says, counselors will likely fulfill a mix of all three roles. However, he emphasizes, the majority of school counselors view themselves as direct service providers, and he recommends that school counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time in that role. That doesn’t mean school counselors won’t also consult or analyze data, Gysbers points out, but, ideally, the bulk of their time should be spent providing direct service to students via the guidance curriculum, individual student planning and responsive services.
For the past two decades or so, school counseling, and to some extent the larger counseling profession, has been theoretically driven instead of driven by research, says John Carey, director of the Center for School Counseling Outcome Research & Evaluation (CSCORE) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Professional school counselors have done what made sense in theory, Carey says, but it is important to determine whether what they are doing actually makes a difference for their clients — the students.
From time to time, people ask Carey if school counselors are effective. The answer, he says, is not whether the individual professional is effective but whether what the individual is doing is effective. Carey likens it to the effectiveness of a doctor. If you have an infection and the doctor gives you penicillin, he or she is effective. If you have an infection and that doctor gives you aspirin, he or she is not effective, Carey says.
Through his work with CSCORE, Carey aspires to shift focus to whether the interventions school counselors are using are effective. However, he says, other discussions of late have been forcing the conversation in different directions, such as the debate over school counselor identity and how the ASCA National Model is organized. Concerning the latter, Carey contends the ASCA National Model doesn’t specify what interventions are being organized. “If you organize a set of effective interventions, you’ll be effective,” says Carey, a member of ACA. “The focus should be more on what you actually do with the kids.”
In addition to determining and adhering to evidence-based approaches, Carey says he’d like to see school counseling focus more on integrating its programs into the rest of education, as opposed to separating out the program. “ASCA is promoting the National Model as a way of organizing school counseling services, while the rest of education is moving toward whole-school systems like ‘Response to Intervention’ or ‘High Schools That Work’ — systems that integrate the work of classroom teachers, counselors, school psychologists, etc. We are still emphasizing our difference and distinction, while mainline education is concerned with collaboration and connection.”
One topic currently on the cutting edge of research, Carey says, is the role of noncognitive factors in student achievement. He says studies suggest that noncognitive factors, such as a student’s self-direction, initiative, sense of mission, sense of belonging and social skills, are better predictors of college success than SAT scores. That’s exciting, he says, because those noncognitive factors historically have been the focus of preventative counseling interventions. Now those noncognitive factors are being supported through research.
Another area that excites Carey is research into early indicators of disengagement that predict poor performance, high risk of dropping out of school and behavioral problems. One of the best predictors of disengagement, he says, is attendance in the first six months of high school. Once schools and counselors are aware of that, they can begin to track and attend to those students, he says.
“I think all school counselors ought to be advocating for the implementation of an effective early-warning indicator system in their schools and for the training and support necessary to use this system to help students reengage with school,” Carey says.
In another example, Carey says kindergarten teachers’ ratings of student engagement have been found to be good predictors of high school graduation. By gathering that feedback and following up with those students as they proceed through the grade levels, there is an opportunity for school counselors to intervene well before significant problems arise, Carey says.
In terms of counseling interventions that research has shown to be effective in schools, Carey points to cognitive behavioral interventions and brief solution-focused counseling. On the other hand, considering the time constraints school counselors face and the number of students they’re responsible for, he deems long-term, supportive, nondirective school counseling interventions as ineffective. School counselors should refer students out to a counselor in the community for long-term, supportive care, Carey suggests.
The collaboration between community and school counselors
As Carey suggests, with all that professional school counselors have on their plates, they can’t meet every need of every student, nor should they be expected to. That’s where professional counselors outside of the schoolhouse come in.
School counselors and counselors in the community can collaborate in multiple ways, says Linde, who is also a member of ASCA. The most obvious example is that school counselors can use counselors in the community as referral sources for students, but they can also invite those counselors into the schools to provide workshops for students. Additionally, Linde says, school counselors can form relationships with counselors in the community for consultation purposes, especially because school counselors are often working solo in their schools and may not have a supervisor close by.
If a student is working with both a school counselor and a private counselor in the community, Henderson says those counselors can benefit from collaborating and being aware of what work the other is doing with the student. If they don’t know, she says, the counselors run the risk of contradicting each other with the interventions they’re using. The parents of the students must grant permission for this level of collaboration to take place, however.
The middle school where Mcleod previously worked in Maryland contracted with a local agency to provide mental health services to students in the school at a reduced rate or as part of their health insurance. The school also had a working relationship with a local university, which covered the bulk of the cost to have students come take advantage of its mental health services on campus.
When Sevier served as director of guidance and counseling for the Rockwood School District in Missouri from 2001 to 2011, she put together a manual of area mental health providers. “We sent letters to therapists inviting them to be part of our resource manual,” Sevier says. “They provided information on a template, and those templates were typed and put into notebooks for the [school] counselors. As someone would hear of a new therapist, we’d reach out and invite them to become part of our manual. That manual served as suggestions for families who were looking for therapists with certain areas of expertise. We were able to give multiple referrals for families to choose from.”
“As a group,” she continues, “the school counselors and I would periodically go through the manual to discuss whether families were happy or unhappy with the names that had been referred. If certain therapists were not working well with our families or with the school, we took their pages out of our books. For those who received rave reviews from our families and schools, we put stickers on those pages. Many times, I’d invite the therapists to come in to do professional development for the counselors. Most had specific areas of expertise, and we were eager for the information. It also allowed professional relationships to build.”
Both school counselors and counselors in the community have a lot to learn from one another, Henderson says. School counselors have the advantage of being exposed to larger numbers and a wider variety of kids, while counselors in the community have the advantage of working in greater depth with select child and adolescent clients. If these helping professionals collaborate, Henderson says, school counselors can gain a deeper understanding of certain problems and solutions from counselors in the community, while those counselors can benefit from school counselors’ wide array of experiences with a diverse group of students.
In fact, Henderson says, collaboration should be the name of the game when it comes to helping children and adolescents because there is plenty of need to go around. “There’s room for everyone,” she says.
More to learn
Hungry for more resources on school counseling? Here are some suggestions worth checking out.
Books published by ACA (see counseling.org/publications/bookstore)
- Developing & Managing Your School Guidance & Counseling Program, fifth edition, by Norman C. Gysbers and Patricia Henderson
- Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools, second edition, by John J. Murphy
- Play Therapy: Basics and Beyond, second edition, by Terry Kottman
- Counseling Children: A Core Issues Approach by Richard W. Halstead, Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson and Jodi Mullen
- Active Interventions for Kids and Teens: Adding Adventure and Fun to Counseling! by Jeffrey S. Ashby, Terry Kottman and Don DeGraaf
ACA podcasts (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts/)
- “Solution-Focused Counseling in Schools,” with John J. Murphy
- “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling,” with John Sommers-Flanagan
Journal articles (see counseling.org/publications/electronic-journal-access; requires member login for access)
- “A Model for Building School-Family-Community Partnerships: Principles and Process” by Julia Bryan and Lynette Henry, October 2012 Journal of Counseling & Development
- “Mental Health Research in K-12 Schools: Translating a Systems Approach to University-School Partnerships” by Lisa M. Hooper and Heather Brandt Britnell, January 2012 Journal of Counseling & Development
- “School Counseling Outcome: A Meta-Analytic Examination of Interventions” by Susan C. Whiston, Wendi Lee Tai, Daryn Rahardja and Kelly Eder, Winter 2011 Journal of Counseling & Development
- American School Counselor Association (schoolcounselor.org)
- Resources for school counselors from ACA’s Public Policy Department (counseling.org/public-policy/external-links/resources-for-school-counselors)
- “Common Core State Standards: Essential Information for School Counselors” (counseling.org/docs/resources—school-counselors/common-core-state-standards)
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- John Carey at email@example.com
- Norman Gysbers at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Patricia Henderson at email@example.com
- Lynn Linde at LLinde@loyola.edu
- Jasmine Mcleod at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sharon Sevier at email@example.com
Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com