No day is typical for high school counselors.
“You can have a student walk into your office and they could be homeless,” says Tawnya Pringle, a school counselor at Hoover High School in San Diego. Or she may need to counsel another student stressed about making straight A’s and worried his or her parents will be upset if that doesn’t happen.
School counselors help students thrive academically, personally and socially, and assist them in exploring their options after high school. The American School Counselor Association, a professional group, is sponsoring National School Counseling Week Feb. 2-6 to promote the profession.
“The absolute biggest misconception, without a doubt, would be that we’re just there for scheduling,” says Shelby Boisvert, a guidance counselor at Lowell High School in Massachusetts. She thinks most people don’t understand that most school counselors are therapeutically trained to counsel individuals.
Academic support: Services for students who are struggling academically often go underused, says Pringle, the counselor in California, who was also a finalist for the national 2015 School Counselor of the Year award.
“I think sometimes students are embarrassed,” to ask for help, she says, or some students may have had a bad experience with a school counselor. Counselors can sit down with the student’s teachers, for example, she says, or connect students with peers dealing with similar struggles so they can learn from one another.
Freshmen at Boisvert’s school in Massachusetts take a seminar that includes content on establishing good study habits and patterns, which students can use throughout their academic careers.
Parental counseling and support: Counselors can offer families strategies on parenting and helpful advice on how to connect with their children, says Pringle.
“I’ve had a lot of parents come in over the years that just have said, ‘I don’t know what to do. How do I handle when my teenager is doing this, this and this at home?'” she says. Sometimes she’ll recommend family therapy if there are more series issues at home.
Boisvert’s school offers after school training for families on how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and how to access mental health services, among other topics, she says. But connecting with working parents can be a challenge.
Pringle recommends parents arrange a one-on-one appointment with their child’s school counselor as a good first step in establishing the parent-school counselor relationship.
Individual counseling: Students can seek one-on-one help from their school counselor to discuss personal issues, such as bullying, or seek crisis counseling, says Pringle.
“Sometimes there’s a myth that we do therapy in schools and that’s not it,” says Pringle. School counselors are trained to be the front line in terms of assessing what the issues are in a child’s life, she says, but if they feel something more in-depth is going on they’ll refer the student to a therapist.
She informs her students upfront that their conversation is confidential – unless the student divulges something that relates to his or her safety.
Both counselors say the number of students they are responsible for can make the job a challenge. Nationally, the ratio of high school students to a school counselor is nearly 500 to 1, The New York Times recently reported.
But that shouldn’t deter families from seeking their services.
“School counselors are in this profession because we want to connect and because we want to help, and help them and make a difference in their lives,” says Pringle.