How to Become a School Counselor

James Paterson
James Paterson

A school counselor’s responsibilities have expanded over the past 30 years, and the issues they confront are more complex, but overall, the job is still rewarding and stimulating. Here’s an idea about what the job entails, and which school counseling skills might be needed – and how to get them.

What Counselors Do

“Gone are the days of school counselors sitting in their office simply handing out college applications, making schedule changes for students or waiting for a crisis to occur,” says the American School Counseling Association (ASCA) as it describes the ways counselors help students.

Generally, school counselors divide their responsibilities into three areas: Academic achievement, college and career exploration, and development of student social, emotional and mental health. That can be accomplished through individual or group sessions or in classroom lessons.

They often communicate with parents and moderate parent conferences, and work with administrators on discipline issues, academics, scheduling (responsible for determining each student’s schedule) and school climate. They are considered part of the school leadership team.

The school level at which they work often determines their role. Some counselors would say that identifying learning issues is a priority in elementary schools, social/emotional concerns are most common in middle school and career and college planning grows more significant in high school, but each level involves a mix of responsibilities. Those interested in a counseling career should consider the different skills and requirements at each level and what might suit them best, including the maturity of the students.

ASCA has a national model for a school counseling program that describes the position.

Training, Education Needed

ASCA says an advanced degree, typically a master’s, is generally required, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics agrees, but a few states only require a bachelor’s. A background in education is a plus in the hiring process. There are also various continuing education requirements for each state and a specific process for certification and reciprocity at the state level.

Skills Required for a School Counselor

Good counselor education programs will address the three primary job requirements. Here are some other skills that will be needed.

Flexibility. A counselor’s work can change from minute to minute because they wear a lot of hats, and typically have a caseload of 250 or more students on average. They have to respond quickly to parents, administrators and staff — and regularly to emergencies.

Empathy. More than any other skill, counselors have to shield their biases and try to put themselves in the position of their student so that the student feels comfortable communicating, and so the counselor can appreciate their concerns.

Organized. The wide-ranging responsibilities result in a lot of communications, considerable paperwork and handling increasing amounts of data. Their day is full.

Communicative. You’ll learn counseling session methods, but you will also need to communicate easily with administrators, staff, parents and in the classroom. Writing skills are needed too.

Tech talented. Like all jobs, there is increasingly a technology component to scheduling, reporting, communications and presentations.

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