George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

The School Leader and Counselor Alliance

When these two school professionals commit to working together as a team to ensure wellness, develop student trust, and build community, everyone wins.

September 8, 2022
PeopleImages / iStock

Students across the country have returned to school, and with their return comes the need for consistency, structure, and safe spaces, as well as the opportunity for healing. Making sure that school counselors and administrators are partnered around prioritizing student wellness is critical to true school improvement.

A New York Times nationwide survey of 362 school counselors found that “Nearly all the counselors, 94 percent, said their students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions, and almost three-quarters said they were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends.”

Statistics like these have overwhelmed schools, hotlines, and hospitals the nation over, and it’s easy to see, as we start a new school year, that the needs remain, but the responses must evolve. As school systems recover and rebuild, it’s critical to amplify the relationship of school counselors and school administrators, as well as their work around wellness, trauma responsiveness, and restoring trust in communities.

From this educator’s standpoint, there needs to be more cohesion between the administrator and the counselor, forming a unique blend of daily connecting around the wellness work of the school, prioritizing tiered levels of student support, and making certain that the resources are in place to ensure safety, as well as the ability of a school to equitably and appropriately get students what they need, when they need it.

Some Strategies to Maximize Success

In a phone interview, Lauren Ioli, recent Montgomery County Public Schools Counselor of the Year in Maryland, provided the following strategies for optimizing the relationship:

  • “It starts with trust. If you don’t take the time to build the trust, you won’t be able to make effective decisions together to prioritize student needs, and that just hurts students.”
  • Take the time to understand one another’s perspectives on the priorities in the school around social and emotional support and well-being. “Talk about what an encouraging environment looks like so people know they can try things, take risks; keep the fun in functional.”
  • “Consistently schedule dedicated, weekly time to examine student needs: Look at efforts that are working, areas of growth, and use data-informed decision-making in the process.”

Phyllis Fagell, an LCPC, professional school counselor, journalist, and author of Middle School Matters, explains that “it is about that balance of supporting one another, respecting each other’s role and workloads. ... Administrators often rely heavily on their school counselors for many things, but it is important to support them fully in all they have to do; supporting a counselor emotionally is supporting the kids directly, and so plan ahead to keep them free of things like bus duty, test proctoring, and class coverage so that their schedule is as flexible as possible to provide the level of support that schools now see daily.”

Fagell adds, “I encourage administrators to use the term ‘school counselor,’ as ‘guidance counselor’ is an outdated term that no longer captures a school counselor’s education, training, and role.”

Elizabeth Merino, Montgomery County Public Schools assistant principal and former instructional specialist for the Office of School Counseling, says one of the most important aspects of the collaboration between administrator and counselor is “communication! Keeping each other in the loop with what is going on is imperative to student achievement and well-being. Whether the communication happens formally or informally, it’s a process that will allow for solution-oriented outcomes to occur.”

Over the course of multiple interviews with school administrators across several states, I began to find some recurring themes:

  • Put social and emotional work at the forefront of your decision-making, and place your school counselor alongside you in the room. Yes, make sure they are in the room—at the administrative meetings, at the leadership team meetings, bringing information directly to staff.
  • Strive to be responsive, and not reactive, together in identifying students who need those Tier Two and Tier Three levels of support.
  • Make equity a direct part of your work in supporting students; every student deserves care, compassion, and strategic skills to regulate their emotional needs.

Three words with powerful connotations for school communities: September is here. Consider the following questions in your schools as you teach and lead your way into fall:

  • How will the roles of school counselor and administrator create positive social and emotional impact in the school?
  • How will these goals be shared with staff and community?
  • In what ways will we collect student/family voice data to assist in what these groups consider critical social and emotional needs?
  • What would it look like, in your school, to prioritize social and emotional health and wellness, as guided by these roles, and live them out daily in the school?

With the legacy of Covid-19 still fresh in our homes and school hallways, and the future of education and mental health on the line, Elizabeth Merino provides this final insight:

“The future of this work should focus on ensuring that there’s a purpose behind the collaboration among administrators and school counselors. The role of the school counselor is at the forefront in a post-Covid world, and it’s equally as important as the classroom teacher. It’s key for school administrators to lean in and work alongside their school counselors to ensure that our students and community feels welcome, protected, and that they are part of an authentic partnership.”

While school counselors and administrators don’t have all the answers, they’re experts at finding or creating solutions when partnering with one another. Despite the weight of their individual roles and responsibilities in this postpandemic world, prioritizing student wellness at the system level calls upon both to dedicate themselves to amplifying this tandem relationship for building the conditions, language, and actions that support positive social and emotional health.

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