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School Counselors Getting More Attention And Smaller Caseloads

With heightened concern about school safety and student mental health, and with a clearer understanding of how student performance can improve through better emotional support, school leaders are giving counselors more attention today.

Carolyn Stone, a professor of school counseling at the University of North Florida, who writes and speaks about issues related to counseling, says that counselors are perhaps playing a bigger role because schools are more concerned about student emotional issues, in part because of the violent acts by students that have been so visible.

“As I move around the country talking to counselors in legal and ethical workshops, the increased emphasis on mental health because of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy is obvious,” she says, referring to the school shooting in Florida in early 2018 that killed 17.

And it appears there are three ways that the focus on counselor efforts is changing: the standards for them are better and clearer and administrators and school leaders appreciate their role and are doing more to improve their effectiveness. In addition, their caseloads have been decreasing.

In California, for instance, several districts have increased the number of counselors in their schools and have improved the ratio of counselors to students to 661-1, which is an improvement from the average in the state that had reached over 1000-1.

And the American School Counselor’s Association (ASCA) reports that the current nationwide average of one school counselor for every 455 K-12 students improved over the previous 464-to-1 level. It is the narrowest margin the ratio has been in three decades, according to ASCA.

The ratio is wide ranging, however. The highest is 924 students for every one school counselor in Arizona, and the lowest, with a 202-to-1 ratio, is in Vermont.

Jill Cook, assistant director for the ASCA, notes that while the association is pleased to see the improvement, the national average is higher than ASCA would like. It has set the appropriate ratio at 250-1 in order for counselors to be effective.

Their duties, she notes, include identifying students who are struggling emotionally or academically and providing support to them while mcontributing to school policy so that it reflects their unique perspective. They also work to improve school culture and play a key role in helping students explore career choices and successfully choose and apply to colleges.

She says heavy caseloads make it hard for them to be effective and handle those responsibilities.

So, what can school leaders and others do to help counselors be more effective. Here are five tips.

Understand their role. “It is important that administrators have a solid understanding of what today’s school counselors do so that they are not used inappropriately,” says Cook.  The ASCA has very well-defined standards and a lot of guidance, and, given time, school counselors typically know about resources available to them and are generally well-acquainted with standards.

Use them appropriately. Administrators and others in the school should avoid handing counselors tasks for which they are not trained or responsible– such as disciplining students or supervising testing. Too often counselors are asked to step in when a student is misbehaving or when a staff position needs to be filled, leaving their important work uncompleted.

Listen to them. Counselors often have a unique and intimate perspective about an individual student or broader issue in the school, and their ideas should be part of the decision-making process. “They must be able to articulate how their role impacts student success in all areas - academics, behavior and attendance,” says Terri Tchorzynski, a national counselor of the year and now a consultant about school counseling. “Once administrators begin to understand how the school counselor can support school improvement goals and can lead to positive student outcomes, then their role as a leader within the building becomes more apparent.”

Get them support. Schools are trying a variety of ways to help counselors meet the needs of students – from arrangements with outside counseling or social service agencies to connections with groups that can run assemblies or ongoing after-school programs that can provide support.

Champion them. In busy schools where the focus is often on the classroom, counselors can feel isolated – as if they are a separate function from the primary work in a school. And sometimes staff members treat them that way – or don’t understand that their work is important. School administrators and staff members should make an effort to celebrate their work and their individual achievements.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (www.otherperplexity.com)

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