This paper will outline the roles of professional school counselors in the United States. A school counselor serves several important roles in the schools, including that of leadership, community outreach, and psychological support to students. They face a variety of unique legal and ethical issues that come from being in settings with hundreds of students and a mix of adults serving different roles. Despite these issues, a school counselor is still a positive force, and can be a positive influence morally.
The role of the professional school counselor is a varied one, consisting of not one type of care or treatment of psychological issues, but of a varied group of responsibilities ranging from academic help to suicide prevention, to administration of testing. A school counselor is usually a licensed educator who obtains a master’s degree in school counseling, making them uniquely qualified to fulfill their varied roles (www.schoolcounselor.org). They are usually employed in elementary, middle, or high schools. A good school counselor is important to the overall field of counseling, as they promote the providing of fair and equitable education to all people, as well as a safe learning environment, where the rights of all members of the school community are valued (Sandhu, 2000). The roles of the professional school counselor will be discussed in terms of five key themes of the profession, ethical and legal issues faced by school counselors, biblical values and insights into the profession, as well as personal reflections. Major Themes Relevant to School Counseling
As the United States has changed, so has the role of school counselor. The position began as a vocational aid, or a position to help students obtain jobs after leaving school (Bain, 2012). Although vocational guidance and training are still a part of school counselors job, it has increased to include administrative tasks, treatment of student’s problems, and many other roles (Bain, 2012). The role of a school counselor needs to be one that is constantly changing to adapt to the changing society of the U.S. and the needs of the schools. Today, the job of the school counselor is completed by those with a specialized high-level degree that is based on theory and research-based practices, recognizing that all students need focus and direction (www.schoolcounselor.org, 2012). Additionally, the job is more clearly defined by organizations such as the American School Counselor Association (Bain, 2012).
One of the biggest changes that has occurred is how children in schools behave. Problems that were once very rare or nonexistent are now more commonplace, and the school counselor is often the only one with proper training to modify or stop unwanted behaviors. One example includes sexual behavior among children (James, & Burch, 1999). Another example is non-lethal self-injury, such as cutting (Shapiro, 2008). Additionally, school violence and suicide have become increasing problems that school counselors must deal with (Fineran, 2012). Roles of School Counselors
Career and life planning is still a major component of professional school counseling (Daily, 2006). Especially at the high school level, an effective counselor can get students on the right path toward a career with specialized testing, or towards a college that fits their needs. Additionally, a counselor can help students deal with the stress of these decisions (Daily, 2006).
Leadership is another role of the school counselor. Traditionally within schools, leadership has been the role of administration, but increasingly counselors have been asked to take on leadership roles (Mason, McMahon, and George, 2009). Jobs like scheduling and even what direction a school should take are changing from things done only by principals to jobs done in collaboration with a counselor (Mason, et al., 2009). These changing roles and increasing responsibilities of counselors helps illustrate their importance to the well being of schools.
Counselors are also expected to take a role in school outreach to family and community. Although these roles may be vastly different depending on the socioeconomic status of the community, it is an important job no matter what the school district. The theory behind this role is that schools are more effective and students learn more if parents, students, administrators, and community members recognize shared goals and responsibilities (Epstein & Voorhis, 2010). The role that the counselor should take in ensuring that school and community collaborate include outreach to parents, coordinating volunteers for schools events, communicating to families the importance of learning, and communicating to families what can be done at home to ensure success in schools (Epstein & Voorhis, 2010). Depending on the community, these roles may increase or change.
As mentioned previously, school counselors also, of course, counsel. They are usually the only person present in a school with the training to handle student psychological issues, whether it be bullying, violence, suicide, sex, or a multitude of others. Add to this the stress of academic pressures or home life and it can be seen that the role of a professional school counselor is varied and vitally important. Role Differentiation at Different Educational Levels
The role of a professional school counselor also varies depending upon the level at which they work. The typical day for an elementary school counselor may be quite different than a middle or high school counselor. For the elementary counselor, the primary role can be seen as promoting the positive development of youth (Lindwall & Coleman, 2008). Lindwall and Coleman (2208) suggest the best way to do this is to promote a caring school community. This is best seen as a comprehensive, preventative, and developmental intervention (American School Counselor Association, 2005).
At the middle school level, most counselors spend more time on individual youth’s academic, social, and personal development (Zalaquett, 2012). Middle school students are a unique group, as many developmental changes are taking place for youths of that age. Because of the changes for adolescents in middle school, much of a school counselor’s job is to serve as a responsive direct service provider, changing daily duties as cases arise where a counselor can be helpful (Zalaquett, 2012). However much counselors prefer this direct intervention role, much time at the middle school level is spent on standardized testing and administrative tasks (Zalaquett, 2012).
At the high school level, the administrative and testing aspect remain, but more emphasis is put upon life after school., as obviously students at the high school level are either looking to enter the job market or continue on to higher education. Because many states have high stakes standardized tests for all high school students as a prerequisite for graduation, the role of the high school counselor is important for all students, not just the highest achievers or the problem children (McGlothlin & Miller, 2008). Also as a result of this test, it is reported that high school counselors have a higher demand of paperwork, caseloads, and other non-counseling duties when compared with elementary and middle schools (McGlothlin & Miller, 2008). Issues Faced by School Counselors
There are several issues and difficulties that professional school counselors face. Perhaps the biggest are high caseloads and other barriers to success that are implicit to the school counseling profession. In 2011, the average ratio for school counselors to students was 471 students for every one counselor (www.schoolcounselor.org, 2011). In some states, such as California, that ratio was as high as 1016 students per counselor (www.schoolcounselor.org, 2011). As can be imagined, it would be difficult to equally represent all student if you are responsible for 471 of them. This would lead to some students naturally falling through cracks. The students that a counselor sees in school settings are also hugely varied, leading to a constant need for updated knowledge and professional development (The College Board, 2012).
Another issue dealt with is opposing priorities and agendas of school administration, which can lead to frustration in the workplace (McGlothlin and Miller, 2008). Although a school counselor might be best trained in how to help children and directly deal with their problems, they are often held helpless by the ideas of their administrators. Often school principals are faced with heavy pressure to succeed on state tests, and this pressure is passed on to counselors, who see a large part of their time consumed testing and related tasks, rather than on actual counseling (McGlothlin and Miller, 2008). The frustration from not being able to do the best job possible in the way one wants can lead to job dissatisfaction, and does a disservice to the students. Another major issue is accountability, or the demonstrating of effectiveness (Brott, 2010).
This can often be difficult to do, as much of what a counselor can accomplish with students goes unseen, and most measurements of accountability in education are based on testing. According to the literature available, accountability for school counselors is based upon “results based assessment, personnel review, and needs assessment” (Sink, 2010). These benchmarks are vague, and rely upon the input of administrators, who as previously mentioned may have separate agendas. Lacking in the accountability benchmarks are mentions of helping the children who need it, which could be quantified in terms of IEP effectiveness or things like retention rate and attendance rate of troubled students. Importance of Counselors to Education
Despite many issues for schools counselors, they still play a vital role in education. For one, they are “major players in problem solving”(McGlothlin & Miller 2008). This includes both student’s personal problems as well as school-wide issues. Their training allows them to anticipate crises inherent to adolescents in ways other school personnel cannot, and they are integral in reform, leadership, and student achievement (McGlothlin & Miller 2008). Dropout prevention is another key role of school counselors (Kelly & White, 2010). Education cannot be effective if a student is not in school. This is especially true in low-income school districts, where the dropout rate is 10%, as compared to 2.5% for more affluent districts (Kelly & White, 2010). School counselors are usually the only ones available to evaluate, monitor, and intervene with students who are in danger of leaving school (Kelly & White, 2010). Ethical and Legal Issues of School Counseling
As in all fields of counseling, Professional school counselors face a variety of legal and ethical issues. According to Froeschle and Crews (2010), school counselors face more ethical challenges than those who work in other settings. This is at least in part due to the variety of people they must work with, including students, parents, administrators, and other community members. Because of this, it is very important that school counselors are aware of and strictly adhere to their codes of ethics. A survey by Bodenhorn (2006) indicated that the top ethical concerns for this group were student confidentiality, parental rights, acting on information about student harm to self or others, breaches in colleague confidence, appropriate collaboration, and sharing information with parents and teachers (Froeschle & Crews, 2010).
Solutions to these issues are varied. One approach is making sure students and staff members alike are made aware of limits in confidentiality before sharing information (Froeschle & Crews, 2010). It would also be helpful to make parents aware of these limits, but to also ensure them that crucial information must be revealed, especially in terms of harm that could occur (Froeschle & Crews, 2010). For students that indicate that harm may occur, it is suggested that they be given two choices: one to call a parent while a counselor is present, or to have the counselor speak with the parent on the student’s behalf (Froeschle and Crews, 2010). According to the American School Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2004), imminent harm should always be an exception to confidentiality.
The literature suggests several potential ways to limit problems of confidentiality. One would be to make all relevant information available in published form to students, staff, and parents (Froeschle & Crews, 2010). Another would be to visit classrooms at the beginning of the school year to educate students (Froeschle & Crews, 2010). Finally, decision-making models should be used in conjunction with consultation with trained colleagues (Froeschle & Crews, 2010). There are also a variety of exercises and trainings available to school counselors to help make sure they are aware of the latest legal and ethical issues (Hall, Rushing, Beale, & Andrew, 2010). Biblical Values and Insights
For a Christian school counselor in a public school setting, it is still possible to promote positive Biblical values and insights. School counseling can be seen as primarily an ethical endeavor, where the counselor uses their training to help instill proper morals and moral development to the students they reach (Terepka, 2006). Biblical values can be taught in such a setting, but care should be taken to make sure these values still follow the appropriate codes of ethics. There have been cases where school counselors have had legal issues due to disregard of school board policy in favor of strictly biblical points of view (Stone, 2010). In one particular example, a school counselor in Wisconsin ignored board-approved literature on contraception and instead replaced it with information on abstinence in accordance with her religious beliefs (Stone, 2010).
In cases like this, it is certainly appropriate to counsel all sides of a particular issue and take your personal values into account, but at the same time one must be aware of applicable rules and policies. It must be remembered that a school counselor is not a private counselor and that the “school authorities have a right to control the curriculum… and, equally to the control the policies of the guidance counselors and other staff” (Stone, 2010).
In personal reflection, I believe the roles of professional school counselors are vitally important. Children in the United States spend the majority of their formative years in a school setting, and in the school setting guidance counselors are the only ones trained to deal with the myriad of psychological and social issues that inevitably will be developed. In order to be successful, school counselors should carefully adhere to applicable codes of ethics, as well be aware of school board policy. Despite these seeming imitations, school counselors can be highly effective, and are often the only outlet that troubled youths have.
It is my personal commitment to enter this field and be a positive force and influence. My ultimate goal is to become a school counselor in a public school. Despite limitations of state and board policies, I believe I can help instill Christian values in a legal and secular way that can help students. I believe today’s youth face a variety of problems that school counselors can help with, including the use of drugs and alcohol, sexual conduct, self harm, dysfunctional families, as well as the regular stresses of adolescents. I have been a teacher of middle school youth for 15 years, and would like to move into the role of counselor at this level to help the students I have come to love on a personal level, and to help them look at life in a positive way, entering the next stages of their lives with a positive ethical foundation.
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