March 2001 Column
An eerie silence about school counselors
Jean Peterson, Ph.D.
Coordinator of School Counseling
Purdue School of Education
A few months ago an acquaintance remarked, in connection with my preparing counselors for work in the schools, "I suppose, in light of Columbine, theres a lot of support for school counselors these days."
Unfortunately that is not true, even with the recent news. Counseling is usually mentioned only in terms of crisis-response, if at all. Attention focuses on response, not prevention and, if prevention, on increased security. There is an eerie absence of discussion about the roles school counselors can play in helping children and adolescents feel heard and acknowledged.
Good school counseling has the potential to change schools positively. I have studied effective programs and have seen amazing results when they are a priority. When the student-to-counselor ratio is purposefully lowered (the national average exceeds 500:1), counselors and students can, in fact, know each other. When counselors are not burdened by administrative and clerical responsibilities, they can put their prevention-oriented training to use. Less and less reactive counseling is then required.
Granted, counselors are not commonly seen as integral to systemic change. Even locally the trend is toward fewer "counselor days" per school, raising, rather than lowering, the ratio, no matter how stressed and stretched current counselors are. Few are able to work sufficiently with prevention, even though many do their best to incorporate prevention-oriented materials and activities.
The lack of attention to school counselors when school violence is in the news is, in part, understandable. Counselors generally do their work quietly. Bound by confidentiality, they cannot talk about their work. Then, too, there is the stereotype, based on the years they were trained as high school vocational counselors as quasi-administrators, some might say. Traditional training also did not emphasize being active outside of the counseling office.
That was then. Societal changes have now made the work of school counselors often like triage during disasters. Some days may be entirely crisis-oriented. The frustration for school counselors has long been that they are relegated to, according to a common metaphor in the field, "catching the children as they fall over the waterfall." Great efforts have been made to train school counselors to "work farther upstream."
With this in mind, university programs are currently producing a new brand of school counselor. In addition to developing skills for interacting with individuals, school counselors are trained to work with classrooms and small groups, emphasizing relationship skills, skills for assisting peers in distress, skills for resolving conflict and appropriate expression of strong feelings. The focus may also be on common developmental concerns. All students are involved.
School counselors have special skills. Not only do they receive the same basic skills-training as community counselors; they also are trained in school consultation, program development and group work appropriate for schools. They are attuned to the broad school climate. They keep a "finger on the collective pulse" as they interact in classrooms, small groups, hallways and lunchrooms, the teachers workroom, and the counseling office. Guided by their code regarding confidentiality, they are nevertheless aware that, according to that code, confidentiality must be breached when a student-client is in danger or is a danger to someone else.
School and corporation administrators are wise when they work to keep the student-counselor ratio reasonable, divest their counselors of work that can just as well be done by someone without special training, allow them to counsel in a multitude of ways, and encourage them to spend the bulk of their time in prevention.
Effective counseling must begin at the elementary level and extend through the school years, proactively building a base of prevention. A good place to begin is to make sure that an adequate number of counselors are on board in every school, encouraged to do what they are trained to do.