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In Defense of School Counseling

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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An article from last month's Educational Leadership stated that high school students are highly dissatisfied with their guidance counselors. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the ratio of over 700-to-one of students to counselor in Minnesota, Washington D.C., Arizona, and California.

But the larger reason is embedded in the term, guidance counselor -- a term, by the way, being replaced with a new concept and phrase: professional school counselor.

High school students need guidance in many areas of their lives, including choices of courses to take, career paths, specific pursuit of jobs or higher education after graduation, and a whole array of personal choices (including friendships, peer pressure, relationships, and community engagement). A number of students also need counseling, which I would describe as more intensive, sustained, and personal intervention in any of these areas, as well as a host of problem behavior areas students might encounter.

Students in the survey complained that their counselors didn't know them, particularly if they were not on a college track. Considering the ratios of students to counselors, how can this be a surprise?

How can professional school counselors be a source of anticipatory guidance to all students around such an array of personal and career issues, and also be available to counsel students on highly personal matters and individualized choices, often fraught with challenge and complexity due to family, cultural, and contextual considerations?

Answer: It's impossible.

And yet, which it comes time to cut positions in school budgets, counselors are seen as among the most expendable. Of course, this is a catch-22: Since they are not seen as effective, what's the loss in letting counselors go? But what should be quite clear is that school counselors have a pivotal role to play in the social-emotional, character, academic, and vocational development of students, from pre-K through high school.

We need to see them as the quarterback of the team, not as lining up at multiple positions on the field simultaneously. Professional school counselors in Israel, for example, serve this role effectively.

Israeli counselors have responsibility for the mental health and well being of students in the school -- but not by seeing all of them individually. Rather, their role is to promote a positive school climate, encourage strong relationships with multiple faculty and staff members, assist parents in providing proper guidance and support for their children, arrange and support programs to build students' social-emotional competencies and sound character, bring in community and Internet resources around career and academic planning, and to provide direct services where possible or arrange for them from elsewhere when necessary.

They are quarterbacks who are expert problem solvers and consultants -- not individuals who are expected to do it all under impossible circumstances.

Let's hear from school counselors who are working as quarterbacks, as well as those who are trying to be many other players on the field at once:

  • Where is professional school counseling working best, particularly in high school, and what tips do you have for counselors now?
  • Can the role of counseling, and the resources allocated to it, be enhanced in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)?
  • Would a focus on school climate and prevention allow for more effective use of counseling resources?

We look forward to hearing your voice on this topic!

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Hardy's picture

Nothing is impossible if educators begin understanding the role of the school counselor. In a system dynamics, the school counselor is the advocate for all students and has available a framework to deliver a developmentally appropriate K-12 school counseling program that provides students with competencies in the area of academic, personal/social, and career/college. Such framework was developed by the American School Counselor Association and adopted by the individual states who are chartered members. School counselors also provide data showing effectiveness of programs in achieving student success.

Our education departments are too concerned about student academic achievement and often forget that in order to address achievement, learning barriers have to be eliminated. School counselors are highly qualified student support service professionals who can address these issues through individual, group and/or classroom guidance lessons so that ALL students are serviced.

At budget times, let's not cut back what is the "nerve" of supporting the students, but have a discussion on promoting the positive side of the school counseling profession and its impact in supporting teachers, and administrators by dealing with student needs.

There are many quarterbacks in the profession. The ones not on the field are designated to task by their local districts who misuse their professional expertise because of the unknown factors related to their training, the school counseling framework, and their effectiveness. How about starting with a graduate course in educational leadership that shows the role of student support staff such as school counselors? Or simply designating the school counselor to do what they are trained to instead of assigning non-school counseling duties? Or believe that student issues begin at the elementary level where there are no school counselors in some states, but certainly are needed and can begin the process of working with children at an early age?

Peter Senge discusses the "mental models" that we often have in our environment. It is time to change schools' mental models from school counselors being assigned to tasks that are needed on a day to day basis by the local level, and engage them in their practice to assist with school climate, character education, college, career, academic achievement and many other student skill development.

Just imagine what students could accomplish if they all had school counselors from elementary through high school with appropriate transition, and support? Maybe it is time to open the discussion.

Nancy Adelman's picture

In my view, there ought to be some changes in how counselors are prepared and certified. There is room in the field for more differentiated roles. One area of training that the counseling profession could use a lot more of is a youth development perspective--that is, being prepared to identify young people's strengths and build on them.

betty siimbolt's picture

I care deeply about being accessible and on-point. I answer every phone call, see every child who comes to me, help every teacher who asks, do everythng as best I can with my experience and knowledge. What is clear from these last sentences is that it is all reactive and not proactive. I have a caseload of over 1300. I can not do what needs to be done and it hurts, but most importantly and the only real thing that matters - it hurts the students.

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