No day is typical for high school counselors.
"You can have a student walk into your office and they could be homeless," says Tawnya Pringle, a school counselor at Hoover High School in San Diego. Or she may need to counsel another student stressed about making straight A's and worried his or her parents will be upset if that doesn't happen.
So, what does a school counselor do? The short answer: School counselors aim to help students thrive academically, personally and socially, and assist them in exploring their options after high school.
"Our mission is supporting academic, career and social-emotional development with all students," says Jill Cook, assistant director for the American School Counselor Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit that supports and promotes the profession.
The long answer: School counselors do all of the above by engaging with students and parents across all grade levels. Some counselors work with students as young as the elementary school level, offering direct and indirect support.
Examples of direct student services include instruction, appraisal and advisement, professional assistance during times of transition or stress, or other situations that may negatively affect students. Indirect student services include consultation and collaboration with parents or school staffers on behalf of the student and referrals.
ASCA describes school counselors as "vital members of the education team." Outside of the classroom, they serve in a supporting role.
"I think good school counselors are really the heart of the school," Cook says. "They know the students, they know the families, they know the classrooms and the school staff."
The Role of School Counseling in Academic Support
On the high school level, students will work with counselors from freshman through senior year. Pringle says this often begins with group presentations from school counselors in ninth grade to make students aware of available services, which is followed by individual appointments.
"Some of them, obviously, in ninth grade, don't know what they want to do," Pringle says. "But that's where we start having those conversations and those individual counseling sessions. 'Let's take a look at what your abilities are, what are your skills, what are your passions?'"
As students progress through high school, counselors work with them on matters such as scheduling, transcripts and college applications. Counseling department services also extend to helping with the college search, discussing financial aid and writing letter s of recommendation.
Counselors also help students explore options such as attending community college, joining the workforce or enlisting in the military.
"Some parents think that the student must go to a four-year school, but we know that's not necessarily the right journey for all," Cook says.
Pringle notes that services for students who are struggling academically often go underused.
"I think sometimes students are embarrassed" to ask for help, she says, or some students may have been turned off by a bad experience with a counselor.
For students who are struggling, counselors can help connect them with resources or sit down with the student's teacher to identify problem areas. Beyond individual student needs, the school counseling department can also serve as a valuable resource for families.
School Counseling as a Resource for Parents
Counseling can offer families strategies on parenting and helpful advice on how to connect with their children, says Pringle.
"I've had a lot of parents come in over the years that just have said, 'I don't know what to do. How do I handle when my teenager is doing this, this and this at home?'" she says. Sometimes she'll recommend family therapy if there are serious issues at home.
Pringle recommends that parents arrange an appointment with their child's school counselor as a good first step in establishing the parent-counselor relationship.
"Trust us," Pringle says. "We also want the best for their child."
But parents shouldn't think of the profession as the guidance counselors of the past, says Cook. "The school counseling profession has shifted; it's definitely more proactive. It's not reactive, waiting for the students to show up in an office."
School Counseling and Personal Issues
Students can seek one-on-one help from their school counselor to discuss personal issues such as bullying, or seek crisis counseling, says Pringle. School counselors are there to help students with academic and career development as well as social and emotional issues.
In her time as a counselor, Pringle has observed social and emotional issues become more prevalent.
"I'm seeing that there has been an increase in anxiety and stress and maybe trauma that the kids have been experiencing, whether it's been an outside world or within their family, and they're losing concentration on the academic end," Pringle says.
While school counselors work with students on issues related to stress and anxiety, they are not mental health professionals.
"School counselors are not therapists," Cook says. "They don't provide long-term therapy."
For issues beyond their expertise, school counselors make referrals. The referral may be to a mental health practitioner on site or a community agency, depending on a student's needs and a school's resources.
"Anything related to long-term sadness, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, high levels of anxiety for a long period of time -- those are all things that get referred out," Pringle says.
Nationally, counseling departments tend to be stretched thin. ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one counselor. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 442 students for every school counselor in the 2017-18 school year. That number represents the national average, with ratios varying by state.
States with larger student populations tend to have worse ratios than states with smaller student populations. For example, Vermont has 196 students for every counselor, compared to a 925-to-1 ratio in Arizona.
But that shouldn't deter families from seeking counselors' services, experts say.
"School counselors are in this profession because we want to connect and because we want to help, and help them and make a difference in their lives," says Pringle.
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