A day in the life of a school counselor

The role of school counselors — and what they do to help students — has changed dramatically through the years

Middle school counselor Jodi Parsons said one of the first things parents usually tell her is that they didn’t know there was a counselor available to middle school kids and they certainly don’t remember them from their own school experience.

 “That’s where our conversation begins,” said Parsons, who’s worked as a counselor at McKelvie Intermediate School in Bedford for 14 years. “They probably were there, but their primary role was likely scheduling and adjustments and transitions. Now, that is such a minor part of my role.”

It used to be if a kid needed help picking the best elective, filling out a college application or finding out about prerequisites for classes, the guidance counselor was the go-to. But these days the counselor’s schedule is more likely to include classroom lectures on bullying or anxiety, researching appropriate 504 plans and addressing the effects of opioid-addicted parents and peers with students one-on-one.

“We are no longer guidance counselors,” said Annette Blake, past president of the New Hampshire School Counselors Association and a counselor at Belmont Middle School. “We are school counselors, because we really work with the whole school to prevent problems before they happen.”

 “We work inside the classroom, alongside the teachers, to help,” Blake said. “And that’s another change we’ve seen in the field – we are here for all students, not just the ones at risk.”

Requirements in NH

Under the Rules and State Practice Procedure in New Hampshire, school districts are required to have comprehensive developmental school guidance and counseling programs rooted in state and national standards (private schools are not required to have school counselors). These programs must encompass measures that reflect competency successes in academics, and social and career learning.

 The counseling program also has to include:

• A curriculum that, in collaboration with classroom teachers and other educational professionals, provides all K-12 students knowledge and skills appropriate to their development, including prevention and pre-referral activities.

• Individual planning with all students to assist in establishing individual goals and developing future plans through coordinated, ongoing systemic activities, including personalized, individual goal-setting and parental involvement.

• Supportive, short-term counseling—including individual, group or both – with the goal of facilitating the educational functioning or academic achievement of all students K-12; crisis assessment and referral; consultation with school personnel, parents, local agencies, or appropriate others; conflict resolution; drop-out prevention; substance and abuse issues;  individual, school, family, or peer issues impacting the educational environment.

And of course, college and career counseling.

Operating at a deficit

Though the responsibilities of counselors and the complexities of the challenges they are charged with addressing have ballooned nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of school districts in the United States meet the recommended student-to-school counselor ratio of 250:1 or lower, according to a 2016 study conducted by Douglas Gagnon and Marybeth Mattingly at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. In fact, access to school counselors varies considerably across states.

Median ratios are more than 1,000:1 in Arizona and California, but under 250:1 in North Carolina, North Dakota, Vermont, Montana and New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, the counseling load in each elementary school is not supposed to exceed the equivalent of one full-time guidance counselor per 500 students enrolled; in middle and high schools, it’s not to exceed the equivalent of one full-time guidance counselor per 300 students enrolled. Furthermore, for secondary schools with more than four school counselors, a director of school counseling must be hired to oversee the program, and high schools with an enrollment that exceeds 500 have to provide a registrar in addition to the required guidance counselors.

The district median ratio of students-to-counselors in New Hampshire is 232:1, Gagnon said.

Further, according to the Carsey study, although rural districts are the most likely to lack any school counselors, the median caseload in rural districts is lower, at 380:1, and 25.5 percent meet national counseling recommendations. Only 4.2 percent of city districts nationwide meet or exceed a ratio of 250:1, with the median city district reporting a student-to-counselor ratio of 499:1.

That is having or can have a distinct effect on students, particularly the most vulnerable, the study’s authors found.

“Students living in poverty often benefit from more intensive support, as they are much more likely to come from difficult circumstances such as less stable homes and more violent environments,” according to the study brief. “It is difficult to estimate the number of children with social or emotional impediments to learning, but by any measure it is substantial. Addressing the non-cognitive challenges these students face is important not only for them but for their peers, who can experience harmful spillover effects.

“Even students who perform well can face ‘last mile’ hurdles that prevent them from successfully transitioning to suitable college or career options.”

Challenges in NH

In her role as the Advocacy Chair for the New Hampshire School Counseling Association, Annmarie Timmins, a middle school counselor at the Center Woods Upper Elementary School in the Weare School District, recently surveyed 180 out of 793 New Hampshire school counselors.

According to Timmins’ survey, one of the biggest challenges counselors face is trying to fit the “extra” work handed them by school officials in addition to their regular responsibilities.

“Many of us in New Hampshire are doing some of what [American School Counselor Association] considers appropriate — providing classroom, group, and individual counseling to all students — but we also feel overwhelmed with ‘inappropriate’ tasks like bus and lunch duties, 504 case management and providing long-term therapy,” Timmins recently wrote in an article for the New Hampshire School Counselor Association newsletter.

She went on to quote a grade six and seven school counselor who said that in addition to her requisite counseling duties, she is also required to oversee testing, lunch, scheduling, PowerSchool updates for new students, class creation, and the end-of-year celebration.

“We are the dumping ground for all orphan tasks,” the counselor commented in her survey response.

Furthermore, nearly all of the respondents, Timmins said, identified barriers to doing what they are supposed to be doing, such as being asked daily or weekly to do hall, recess, lunch, and/or testing duties.  Timmins said the ASCA lists each of those duties as an inappropriate detraction of a counselor’s professional role.  She went on to say that some school counselors were being asked to substitute teach, and that one does clerical work for the secretary once a week during the secretary’s lunch break.

Another significant portion of time, according to Timmins’ survey, is taken up by 504 plans, an educational plan for students with disabilities that lays out special accommodations that must be made for that child. The biggest problem, Timmins told Parenting NH, is that counselors are expected to complete all aspects of these plans, from writing them to holding meetings with all the concerned parties to overseeing implementation and offering long-term counseling.

This is a problem, Timmins said, because school counselors really aren’t meant to offer therapy.

This sentiment was echoed by one counselor in Timmins’ survey who identified 504 plans as a top barrier to doing her job, replying that she felt “ill-equipped to deal with some of the issues because I’m not a therapist.”

Timmins, citing the ASCA’s “The School Counselor and Students with Disabilities” recommendations in her newsletter piece, writes that school counselors should not be writing plans, supervising the implementation of plans or providing long-term therapy.

“The Missouri School Counselor Association elaborated on ASCA’s position in its 2011 position paper on 504s to say that school counselors are often not trained on 504 Plans in their educational programs, writing plans can put school counselors in an adversarial role with parents, and overseeing plans creates a dual role conflict with teachers,” she writes.

Counselors are further challenged in finding time to get into classrooms, a mandatory part of the job.

According to Timmins’ survey, nearly 140 of the respondents are delivering classroom lessons and almost as many are offering small-group counseling. But they are only able to do so occasionally, according to the survey. Timmins writes that one elementary school counselor with a caseload of 430 students teaches in three to five classrooms a day and runs two to four groups a day on changing families, divorce, anxiety and social skills, while another K-5 counselor with a 400-student caseload is part of the daily Unified Arts rotation.

Going forward

William R. Hughen, district director of school counseling for the Hudson School District, said that there has been a push in recent years to educate not only parents but school officials about what a counselor’s job does and does not entail. He said through increased awareness, some of the challenges that counselors face may be alleviated.

Timmins echoes this notion.

Timmins said “the results [of the survey] remind us that we must continually educate our stakeholders about our role and our professional expertise. Doing so can be a challenge but not doing so makes our jobs harder to do.” 

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene. She recently gave birth to her third child.