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How Can Schools Ensure All Students Benefit From a High-Quality School Counseling Program?

New policy brief offers do's and dont's for school leaders
Counselor with student

Even in the best of conditions, many students who could benefit the most from the help of a school counselor with academics, social-emotional support, or postsecondary plans have limited access to it. It’s no surprise, then, that the pandemic has imposed further restriction on school counselor access, even as reports of anxiety and depression have risen, the urgency around academics has increased, and the course of college admissions has started to shift.

Recognizing the importance of this role, many school, district, and state leaders not only want more counselors, but also more from their school counselors. A new policy brief, authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer and Ph.D. student Tara Nicola, and published as a part of the Annenberg Center at Brown University’s Ed Research for Recovery series, offers leaders guidance.

Here Savitz-Romer and Nicola highlight a few key considerations to help schools and districts ensure all students are benefiting from counseling programs:

DON’T hire more counselors without specifying the scope of their role. 

While many schools know they need to hire more counselors to ensure students can access supports, the role itself is often not clearly defined. This ambiguity often means counselors find their attention and effort directed away from their central tasks. Instead of attending to academic and social-emotional support and college access, counselors are being asked to cover classes or lunchroom duty. “This is something the profession has dealt with since its inception,” says Nicola. “Hiring more counselors is important, but school and district leaders need to have an understanding of the counselor role if they want their counselors to have the most impact.”

DO devise systems to ensure better collaboration.

Figure out how teachers, social workers, and external partners like nonprofits or community organizations can work with counselors. “Schools might be bringing in more people to help, but we don’t necessarily have systems for collaborating,” says Savitz-Romer. “If you’re bringing in new staff or community resources, be sure to invest or attend to the infrastructure and mechanisms to help people work together.” 

>> For more on understanding the role of school counselors, listen to Savitz-Romer on the Harvard EdCast.

DON’T forget that effective counseling programs are comprehensive.

While counselors may have to perform “triage” in some situations, leaders should keep in mind that the role is most effective when counselors are able to help in the three domains — academic, social-emotional, and postsecondary — concurrently. Often, leaders direct counselors to focus on one particular area instead of recognizing that all three are interconnected. “If kids are feeling hopeless about their future, that means we want to attend to those feelings of hopelessness in a way that has them thinking about their future and postsecondary goals, to see a way forward,” says Savitz-Romer. “An integrated approach has to be the focus.”

DO make counseling work central to schooling.

Student wellbeing should be the focus of any school. As a result, “going back to normal” may not be the answer. To make schools both supportive and effective, counseling needs to become an essential practice within schools. Savitz-Romer and Nicola point to research-backed interventions and programs, like Student Success Skills, that can make practices that benefit student wellbeing an integral part of the school day.

>> In this Usable Knowledge story, Savitz-Romer weighs in on using counselors and counseling programs effectively during the pandemic.

For more do's and don'ts, read the full policy brief.

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