How school counselors provide support to students and staff

The role played by counselors in school life is frequently underestimated. Although often keeping a low profile, they are always there to keep everything running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, supporting both students and staff with advice, guidance, and referrals when necessary. As well as day-to-day life, counselors also support people through major events that affect schools more widely. 

School counseling is a highly qualified profession, with most states requiring at least a master’s degree in school counseling from an accredited college or university. Budding counselors will also have to complete a relevant practicum or internship and pass an exam at the state or national level for licensure. School counselors are expected to act primarily as student advocates, providing support for mental health and emotional well-being as well as educational guidance and career advice.

What a counselor does

While a counselor works within the system, motivating students to achieve and meet the school’s expectations, they will always put the needs of the student before the demands of parents and authorities. A good school counselor knows that getting to the roots of a student’s problems is the best way to ensure positive long-term change, rather than pushing them in a direction they’re still unwilling to take. At the same time, counselors can find themselves providing essential support to teachers and other school staff, helping them to deal with challenges of both a professional and personal nature.

St. Bonaventure University offers an excellent guide on how to become a school counselor, covering qualifications, personal requirements, what to expect, and more. You can take a Master of Science in school counseling at the college that will prepare you for a rewarding career providing advice, guidance, and support to young people as they undertake their essential education. 

Life management

School counselors are there to help students manage their school life and studies. This can range from assistance in setting out a schedule, improving study skills, and cramming for SATs, to applying for specific colleges or jobs after graduation. Career planning and advice was originally the main role of school counselors, but their remit is now much wider, taking in personal and mental health issues as well.

A counselor is someone who will listen to your problems and provide constructive support. Social and academic pressure can lead to anxiety in students or even a breakdown if these issues are not addressed. Speaking to a counselor can help to resolve the problems and tensions that are weighing heavily on a student’s mind. Counselors can point students in the direction of appropriate resources if needed or provide guidance and advice on developing effective coping strategies.

Tackling prejudice

Social issues at school may include bullying, peer pressure, and navigating personal relationships. Students may be confused about their emerging sexual or gender identity or be facing discrimination over their choices. 

School counselors have an important role to play in combating prejudice of all kinds, including racism and discrimination toward LGBTQ+ students. They can do this by offering counseling to affected students and by raising the issues before the entire student body. Counselors can collaborate with teachers and school authorities to create a positive environment where diversity is celebrated and there is zero tolerance for discrimination.

Counselors might also work with students and staff to organize events during the school year or create action groups around issues such as climate change or tackling gang violence. Taking a proactive approach to visible or widespread problems is as much a part of a counselor’s job as helping individuals overcome their personal difficulties. Creating a healthy environment for students and staff alike can alleviate many potential problems before they arise. 

Supporting staff

Counselors can assist school staff in better understanding the needs of particular students. Teachers will naturally be concerned by falling grades or disruptive behavior in the classroom, especially if the student in question has previously been diligent and well-behaved. Consulting the school counselor can help the teacher understand why the student is acting this way, allowing them to work towards a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.

Counselors can also take a frontline role by being guest teachers in classrooms and helping out staff by taking lessons in counseling-related subjects such as ethics, citizenship, or sex education. Counselors may teach the classes themselves or prepare a lesson plan for the teacher, then sit in to offer support if necessary. School counselors can provide supplementary material for teachers throughout the semester, helping to reduce both their workload and their stress levels.

Professional development

Running a professional development workshop for school staff is one way that counselors can support teachers directly. This might include showing them strategies for dealing with anxious or disruptive students in the classroom, teaching them professional listening skills, or running a class on approaches to neurodiversity. 

Counselors can also provide career advice for teachers who feel stuck in a rut or just a space where staff can talk about their emotions and concerns in a non-judgmental environment. Collective brainstorming for solutions to shared problems might lead to an ongoing project that teachers, counselors, and even students can collaborate on.

Encouraging teachers to do daily feelings checks each morning before they start work is another way that counselors can support staff. Teaching mindfulness and meditation practices can also be beneficial for stressed and overworked school employees. Teacher burnout is an increasing problem in the United States and elsewhere, and counselors can play an important role in ensuring that teachers stay in the profession and continue to be actively engaged in their work.

Exam stress

Sitting exams is one of the most stressful experiences in life, no matter how old you are. Worry and pressure to succeed can lead to many negative consequences. One of these can be an inability to concentrate when you need to. Lack of sleep, loss of appetite (or over-eating), irritability, reliance on drugs or alcohol, depression, headaches, and stomach pain are other possible symptoms.

Counselors can help students by letting them talk through their worries, identifying anxiety triggers, and exploring coping mechanisms. Students may feel like their whole identity is bound up with exam success, and that failing to obtain the best grade would be catastrophic. While counselors will always encourage students to work hard and do well, providing a more realistic perspective on exam importance can help to reduce debilitating pressure.

Counselors can teach students stress management techniques, help them to schedule their time, and advise on diet and self-motivation. Exercise, fresh air, getting enough sleep, and regular breaks can all help with revision and reducing stress.   

Changing schools

It’s relatively common for students to have to move to a new school, especially if they belong to a family that has to move around a lot for work. These students need extra support as they may fall behind academically, become socially isolated, or develop emotional problems that can extend into adulthood.

Students who find the transition to a new school difficult may internalize their feelings, becoming shy and withdrawn, or externalize their emotions via aggressive or disruptive behavior. Counselors should look for signs that something is wrong and work with the student to provide resources that will help them to integrate successfully.

One of the best ways to help is to look for ways to reinforce consistency. While many things may be different from their old school, focusing on ways that experience, expectation, and ability can transfer to a changed setting is key. School counselors may be able to create a program for students that have arrived mid-semester that will help to ease the transition. Encouraging them to try new activities may be a way to help them to connect to an unfamiliar environment.   

Traumatic events

Unfortunately, traumatic and violent events are increasingly common in today’s world. Even more sadly, these often involve children. Even if children are not directly affected by such events, hearing about them can still cause anxiety, insecurity, and other negative psychological results.

School counselors are often first responders in terms of attending to the mental health of students in the aftermath of events such as school shootings or terrorist attacks. In the case of a shooting or similar tragedy in the school where the counselor works, they will need to deal not only with the immediate impact of the attack but also the long-term consequences as the whole community attempts to come to terms with what happened, to move forward, and hopefully to heal.

Talking about violence

Counselors also need to be prepared to talk to students who are troubled by an event they’ve seen or read about in the news. Giving reassurance that they are still safe and protected is paramount. Beyond this, the counselor may encourage the students to work through the thoughts and feelings generated by the news.

This may turn into a longer-term constructive project, perhaps to counter radicalization or promote gun safety. One of the most negative consequences of a terror attack, after the immediate loss of life and injury, is the feeling of powerlessness it can engender. By leading students in a proactive project of this nature, counselors can restore their sense of agency and self-determination, as well as give them a creative and positive outlet for their anger and grief.

Advising parents and staff

Counselors are important in advising parents and teachers on how to talk to children about traumatic events, as these can be difficult conversations. There is also the uncomfortable fact that if adults are honest, as they should be, then they can only offer partial reassurance. Terrible things do happen, and they can’t always be avoided, but this unpleasant truth must be put into its proper context and perspective.

Children should be encouraged to talk, and they should be listened to without being shut down. Don’t silence them with hollow reassurances too soon. Be honest, rely on facts rather than platitudes, and ask them how they really feel rather than telling them how they should feel. There is no one right way to have this conversation but getting children to open up so you can understand what they’re thinking is an important first step.

Understanding and moving forward

When working with students affected by tragedy, school counselors should help them to understand what happened before moving on. A traumatic event can shatter a person’s view of the world as a safe, secure, and orderly place, affecting their emotional development and their hopes for the future. Attaining true comprehension of the event lets them reconstruct a meaningful worldview, one in which violence and terrorism are acknowledged, but are not the dominant features.

To move forward from such events, counselors can lead community meetings, organize group therapy sessions, and send newsletters to families, as well as continue one-to-one counseling with students. Trauma is a collective as well as an individual phenomenon. Opening up ways for students, families, and administrators to support and counsel each other is the best path toward healing and resolution.     

Conclusion

While major tragedies are thankfully rare, there are moments in every life that can be emotionally or mentally challenging, from moving to a new school or workplace to a relationship breakdown or examination pressure. School counselors can help those affected to move through these moments and find new opportunities on the other side.

Helping students and staff navigate major life events is when school counselors really step up and act as an incredibly valuable resource to the school system as a whole. 

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