What Role Do School Counselors Play in K-12 Education? ‘We Really Attend to the Wellbeing of the Child With the Idea That Will Then Make Them More Successful in Other Areas,” Says Assistant Professor Rolanda Mitchell
School counselors can play a vital role in the wellbeing and success of K-12 students and, as a result, school counselors often have to be a jack of all trades, according to Rolanda Mitchell, an assistant professor of counselor education in NC State’s College of Education.
The American School Counselor Association, Mitchell said, advocates for school counselors to broadly focus on three areas of service – academics, career and college readiness, and personal and social issues – to address the needs of the whole child and their holistic development.
“As school counselors, we really come from the mind that a well child is going to perform better in school,” Mitchell said. “Being mentally healthy is going to increase the likelihood that they’re going to turn in their homework and do their assignments. So, we really attend to the wellbeing of the child with the idea that will then make them more successful in other areas.”
How Can a School Counselor Help Support K-12 Students and Families?
School counselors work in both preventative and responsive ways when working with students of all ages in K-12 schools, Mitchell said.
On the preventative side, many school counselors plan a calendar each year, with different campaigns and programs scheduled for different months. For example, a counselor might plan an anti-bullying campaign to help students understand what bullying is and how to handle conflict related to bullying before the situation arises.
On the responsive side, a counselor might also intervene if a situation arises between two students related to bullying in order to provide emotional support or mediation.
“If a child is having some challenges, things that we can’t necessarily plan for, then we would do a responsive activity, which could be individual counseling or small-group counseling to help the child,” Mitchell said.
School counselors address social and personal issues that range from teenage dating drama and social media squabbles to helping children deal with a transition to a new school, cope with anxiety, or provide support as a child deals with grief after the loss of a friend or family member.
However, because counselors often have hundreds of students on their caseload, there are situations where they will refer the child to more comprehensive services, such as an outpatient therapist.
A school counselor might refer the child to outside services when they are coping with issues, such as trauma, that require more consistent or intensive intervention than a typical school counselor has time for each week. However, Mitchell said, school counselors will still remain involved in that child’s healing journey.
“Most out-patient therapy appointments are one hour, once per week, but the child is coming to school every day. So, the school counselors can still check in on them, monitoring behavior and attending to crisis responses, but the therapist is doing the more intensive, consistent therapy over a longer span of time,” Mitchell said.
When school counselors are unable to work with students, for example during holiday and summer breaks, Mitchell said counselors can also connect with parents and guardians ahead of the school closure to help connect them with local resources or even just offer workshops for dealing with common adolescent issues.
“Effective counseling with children and adolescents incorporates parents in some way or another, where parents feel some agency,” she said. “Parenting is difficult, and there’s no manual about that, so school counselors can be helpful by hosting workshops to help parents understand warning signs and letting parents know what resources are available if a crisis comes up over the break.”
What if Students or Families Are Reluctant to Use School Counseling Services?
Whether because they’ve had a previous bad experience with the school or counseling, or because they come from a background where mental health care is stigmatized, students and their families might be reluctant to utilize counseling services offered in K-12 schools.
To address this, Mitchell said there are a variety of steps school counselors can take to help students, parents and guardians feel more comfortable with visiting the counselor and have a better understanding of the services they can offer.
- Make themselves visible in the school building: If counselors maintain a regular presence throughout the school, Mitchell said, students and families are more likely to view them as just another integral educator in the building who is contributing to their child’s educational experience. Additionally, being involved in the positive aspects of a child’s school life — for example, making sunshine calls to tell families when something has gone well for a student — can help break down some of the negative stigma around counseling.
“Being present and allowing the families to see [counselors] as a source of support all the time, not just when something is wrong, can be a big part of that. And that way, when something does come up and the counselor has to call home because the child is in need of specific mental health support, they’re not a stranger. They know who you are and they know why you’re there,” she said.
- Incorporate a child’s culture into the counseling process: When first working with a child, Mitchell said it’s important for counselors to engage the student in conversation about their family, as well as their culture, traditions and the things that are meaningful and important to them. Knowing this information can help counselors incorporate those personal aspects into the counseling process, to help students or their families feel more comfortable.
“For example, if a family is kind of reticent about mental health care, but they have a very strong faith or religious background, those pieces can be integrated into the counseling and therapeutic approaches, and that makes it feel a lot more comfortable for the family and child,” she said. “An effective counselor is one that takes the time to understand the child’s background, understand that family story, understand their culture, have some empathy for the reasons that mental health might be stigmatized and try to blend the two so that they might feel comfortable participating in services.”
- Allow children time to open up: Parents and teachers may often expect to see improvement after one visit to the counselor’s office, but Mitchell said it can sometimes take multiple sessions of rapport building in order for a student to feel comfortable opening up and discussing their problems with a school counselor. Giving students some time to play or talk about their interests before opening up can often go a long way toward helping them believe the counselor is a person they can trust.
“I’ve had sessions with kids at school where we’re looking at YouTube videos because they want to tell me about the things they’re interested in, and then they’ll open up because they feel ‘this is somebody who is actually listening to me’,” she said. “Having games, fidgets and other activities for the child to do in the counseling space can decrease some of the anxiety they have about being there.”