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Clarifying the Role of School Counselors

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School guidance and counseling programs have received little attention in the current movement to reform education.

Yet recent research has shown that sound guidance for students can greatly enhance the learning that occurs both inside and outside the classroom.

We must re-evaluate the role of counselors in our schools. By tapping their specialized abilities and--where necessary--modifying their training, we can create new and more effective approaches to counseling.

Noting that many students become discouraged under the current system, the College Board suggested in a recent report that "improved guidance and counseling in our schools can contribute significantly to reducing the considerable waste of human talent that now exists.''

While all students can benefit from a strong program, disadvantaged children "are in greatest need'' of the supportive environment counseling can help promote, the board reported in "Keeping the Options Open: Commission on Precollege Guidance and Counseling.''

The current ratio of counselors to students across the nation is approximately 1 to 420. Sadly, many districts employ no counselors at the elementary level--a critical time in children's development.

Counselors often strongly influence or even decide a student's educational direction. To be effective, they must be able to foster self-confidence in young people. And they must be prepared to help students expand their academic opportunities and make appropriate career choices.

But most graduate programs stress general counseling skills--psychotherapeutic techniques for working with individuals--rather than strategies for handling groups or managing broad programs. The result is a disparity between what counselors are trained to do and what they are actually called upon to do.

A counselor's daily commitments typically include a wide range of duties: scheduling courses, monitoring exams, dealing with behavior problems, conferring with parents and teachers, providing career information, working with social agencies, talking with probationary officials, meeting with college representatives, designing and facilitating evening workshops for parents, and more.

Yet because counselors rarely receive training in program development and organizational management, they tend to deal with major issues in a case-by-case manner.

This approach leaves large segments of the student population with no assistance. And counselors have little or no time to educate students or parents in preventive activities.

The time has come to create a new model for guidance and counseling. As recent reports have recommended, counselors might productively serve as coordinators of students' learning opportunities by working to improve the academic program and climate of the school and by developing a variety of support services to assist all students. Not simply one more piece in a loosely wrapped package, counselors can tie together all facets of the school experience.

Providing direction to schoolchildren should no longer be seen as one person's responsibility. Administrators and policymakers must readjust their perceptions about the counseling field and begin to work with counselors, exploiting their professional strengths while acknowledging the limitations of the position.

With the support of these groups, counseling can--and should--become a team effort.

The most important figures in changing the counseling function within individual schools are building administrators--who often act as either the motivating force behind a strong program or the ineffective managers of a hopelessly reactive one. They are in a position, however, to reinforce counselors in several ways.

They should, for instance, use counselors inside as well as outside the classroom. The counselors could work in teams with teachers to develop a holistic perspective on each student.

Principals should consult with counselors on developmental considerations as they resolve behavior issues with students--especially before they take drastic disciplinary measures.

So that counselors can reach students or parents they are unable to see during the normal working day, they should be authorized to work flexible hours.

To assess the guidance and counseling department's strengths and limitations accurately, administrators must oversee regular, comprehensive evaluations.

To foster professional growth, they should facilitate linkage between counselors at different levels of schooling and encourage them to attend professional meetings.

Counselors should not be used as administrative assistants--a tradition well established in many schools.

At the district level, administrators should review the amount of funding appropriate for counseling services. Sufficient resources must be available to counseling staffs for purchasing literature and other materials, attending conferences, and visiting college campuses.

Districts must strive for the development and implementation of comprehensive and unified guidance programs. Attention to such issues as self-esteem, career awareness, and precollege counseling needs to begin in the very early years.

Within their jurisdictions, districts can compare the differences between school systems with comprehensive programs and those without: The facts should speak for themselves.

School boards can require districts to report on the ways in which counseling departments have been incorporated into fulfilling annual objectives.

In addition, as active and respected members of their communities, board members can solicit the involvement of local business and civic groups. Such groups can provide internships, mentoring opportunities, and college scholarships.

And states must fund continuing training--during both regular and summer sessions--for counselors. The focus of these efforts should be program development and evaluation. State education departments could work with local professional associations on the format of this training.

States should also make a concerted attempt to include a representative from counseling on any statewide educational task force or committee. With their special knowledge, counselors could help determine the possible impact of such a group's decisions on young people's personal and intellectual development.

In responding to current proposals for reform, the U.S. Education Department must begin to recognize counseling as a valuable component in schooling. Funds to improve these services--particularly in the urban setting--need to be appropriated.

Under the department's auspices, a national forum should be arranged, allowing educators, scholars, and government officials to discuss the future of guidance and counseling.

Additional federal funding is also needed for research about counseling, special projects, fellowships, and recognition awards.

To encourage a scholarly exchange of ideas, not only the government but also private foundations might offer monetary assistance to researchers and practitioners. I know of no major foundation that proclaims the improvement of guidance and counseling as one of its annual funding priorities.

At no time in recent memory has the moment been so right for re-evaluating and reshaping guidance and counseling programs.

Counselors must begin to view themselves as the orchestrators of this process, developing new allies on behalf of their students. They must teach the community about their role and enlist the support of other educators for their work. Through these efforts, they can clarify and solidify their important place in schooling.

Vol. 7, Issue 36, Page 32

Published in Print: June 1, 1988, as Clarifying the Role of School Counselors
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