George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

In Defense of School Counseling

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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!

Was this useful?

Maurice J. Elias

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

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor, Exectuive Director of the Bullying & School Safety Foundation and Creator of

As a counselor, I realize I can't be everywhere at once so I look at it from the three tier perspective of the RTI model. For the 80%, I use technology to expand my presence and create a positive school environment with my daily webcast I also do classroom presentations once or twice a month about social skills and our school wide expectations. With the 15% who are at risk, I use groups focused on social skills development and team building to help them connect with something outside the classroom. With the 5% who need the most help, I do 15 minute weekly check ins and get all the help I can from other sources.

However, I don't think we'll begin to really make progress on these issues until we realize that social skills are critical to classroom success and must be taught just like any other subject from kindergarten forward. We wouldn't put a poster about multiplication on the wall and point to it when a students made a mistake and say, "you know our school policy on multiplication!". Not would we give them a time out, take their recess away, put them in detention or suspend them for not being able to read at grade level. If they don't know how to do what needs to be done, it needs to be taught and technology is a real resource that can help us expand our reach and impact. We need to work together to create new ways to reach students in innovative ways and help the teacher to become a resource as well.

Sara E Wood's picture
Sara E Wood
High school BusTechEd, Elkhart, IN

You are so right about teaching social skills--at home, at school, at church--everywhere.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

The one person on the staff that every school needs is the COUNSELOR. Call her/him whomever you want, the reality is CHILDREN HAVE HUGE EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS AND THEY NEED SOMEONE TO TALK TO WHO IS A PROFESSIONAL.

Thank you for all you do. Unfortunately, like most of education, the rest of the world, including some parents, teachers and administrators need to learn how very important YOUR JOB IS.

I have taught in the most and least privileged schools in our country. I have heard it all. Parents who leave children alone for weeks, children of drug dealers, alcoholics, prostitutes, abusers (all kinds), children who are being bullied,mean girls (and I mean like the film "Mean Girls"), cutters, run-aways, pregnancy at 12, the most depressed children, children trying to come out, children living with a dying parent, children who just found out all the members of their family died in a auto accident on I-95, the sibling of a murdered victim, friends of students who committed suicide and as a teacher I have lost 12 students because of Cancer, Auto accidents and Suicide.

Even "small" issues we need you, hate the step-parent &step-siblings,
rejected by peers, overweight, loss of family member, just got dumped by a text message (that is a biggie, a real biggie!!), pet just died,
hates moms boyfriends, hates dads girlfriends, cannot keep up with the work, cannot read, cannot do math, cannot do PE, clumsly, awkward, does not have boobs, etc.

And, there is never enough time for you and not enough of you. Who ever decided that there is only 1 to 700 has no understanding and compassion for children. Schools need Social Workers and Counselors. And no one should assume parents teach anything at home anymore.

I teach social skills the first day. How to stand in line, how to let girls in first, how to say please, thank you, and I'm Sorry.
I teach through literature. I teach through the Arts and through the interactions of stories through drama and film. The world opens up when children see other people and how they live. It is a moment by moment experience.

There are some issues I will not touch and feel a Counselor must talk to a student one-on-one. I do not have the permission to step into a child's adult world even tho they come to me with the pain and tears. I ache at how many children have their childhood robbed by the selfishness of adults. The world is changing and schools need all the help they can get. Thanks for all you do. I sure appreciate your support and admire all of your work. I know we need more of you. Please let your voice be heard. I do not feel enough people, especially politicians who think they know public education and do not, are aware of emotional problems which block the schollarly success of many students. Please tell us how to back you in forming a group/committee/task force/to enlighten this ever growing need.

Loretta Whitson's picture

Howard Zinn's autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, (2004) speaks to the influence one person can have when dedicated to making a difference and in righting wrongs. Many understand this concept fully; they are among the countless number of school counselors, motivated by care and compassion to help young individuals manage their formative years effectively. So many school counselors are instrumental in impacting the lives and the future of many children and youth. School counselors pay attention to important areas in student's lives that no one else is trained, and able to do.
In many states across the U.S. the education budgets for the coming year can only be categorized as catastrophe. When cuts are made to school counselors, it many times means that their caseloads increase, by not just a few more students, but by hundreds of students. That changes the playing field. Teachers would not be able to teach in the same way, if the number of students they teach increased by one-third or even doubled or tripled. As Maurice Elias so eloquently stated, "How can professional school counselors be a source of anticipatory guidance to all students . . ." They can't when their case loads are so high.
One high school counselors carrying a 600+ student ratio asked me once, "Do you know 600 people by their first name." Of course not! The point being how can counselors provide the necessary guidance ALL students need when their job is unmanageable because of high ratios and additional responsibilities that are non-counseling related.
I would advocate that in the reauthorization of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) pay particular attention to defining a "highly qualified" school counselor. NCLB clearly defines "highly qualified" school teachers and others. When the basic framework for public education does not mention "school counselors", the underlying message is perhaps they are not important enough to define. Starting there, plus using research on effective school counseling practices are sorely needed!

Christine Jacobsen's picture

I agree wholeheartedly with Rusty May, about the need to embed social emotional learning into the school counseling curriculum, and every discipline, from kindergarten on. I love the use of technology, and the practice of triageing interventions based on the RTI model. The general perception that school counselors can do, and are responsible, for it all, is misguided. It is clear that along with the rest of education, school counseling needs to update its skills for the 21st century.

Dr. Susan Stillman's picture

While I agree that times are difficult for school counselors due to layoffs and high caseloads, the crucial factors that continue to enable school counselors to make a difference in meeting student and system needs are three fold: school counselors' personal alignment with their own social emotional learning skills and leadership competencies, (so they are not being "told" what to do but instead are self and socially aware and know how to effectively advocate for their programs and roles as well as for their students), strong interpersonal alignments with all stakeholders to promote their school counseling program mission and goals as well as address all student needs, and structural alignments with the ASCA comprehensive program model (or similar state models) as well as with the school's educational mission. Through a systematic comprehensive program, school counselors can, in fact, access all students and work with universal interventions, such as social emotional learning skills training through classroom guidance for all students, aligned with ASCA standards, as well as the group and individual interventions that were mentioned by Rusty, above. School counselors who are truly school leaders and advocates for students work in multiple and diverse ways to reduce the achievement gap, always use data to demonstrate effectiveness and accountability, and continually collaborate with others. School counselors need to develop powerful social emotional learning competencies to be able to be their own assertive, effective, and powerful advocates--only in this way can they be school leaders who serve their students, their school system, and their constituencies and protect their programs from further cuts.

Terrie Moore's picture

Indeed an interesting article regarding guidance counselors and the caliber of services that are provided. Elaborating from a teacher's viewpoint, counselors at times are designated job duties within the school that far removes them from addressing the real needs, which is that of the children. Now the effectiveness of counselors has come into questions, are they really needed? It depends how their role is viewed. In their defense, I see the need. However, the local school district views the need on the opposite end of the spectrum. The district contends the data does not support the need for guidance counselors. The job their profession supports promotes student achievement and defines the different between success and failure of our children. In today's society children are entitled to an education along with the guidance that is needed to achieve career goals. Often our childern are lacking the parental involvement needed to become successful. Are guidance needed you ask, absolutely. After all it takes a village to raise a child.

Lauren Klein's picture

This is very interesting and unfortunately too true. Schools and educators need to pay some attention to how the adult relationships are some of the most important in terms of development and confidence. Lauren Klein

Lauren Klein's picture

This is too true. Adult relationships are very important in a young persons development. Thanks for the great post!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.