Things have never been easy for children. In post-pandemic America, with racism, identity issues, and inequality all prevalent alongside a wide range of widespread social pressures, things are particularly difficult right now. In addition, the expectation for students to perform well academically is often immense, while the incredibly fast-changing world we live in only increases the feeling of instability and insecurity felt by many schoolchildren. In this context, there is no question that school counselors can play a crucial role in supporting and guiding children through these challenges.
This article explores the current issues faced by schoolchildren in the US, the impact these can have on mental health, and how school counselors can work with their colleagues to provide valuable support. In addition, it will also look at the importance of supporting high achievers and working hard to improve academic performance within the education system. Furthermore, it will examine the soft skills needed to be a successful school counselor, the type of training they receive, the importance of lifelong learning, and how collaboration is a vital aspect of a career in counseling.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were reports that schoolchildren in the US were suffering from worryingly high levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. In the years since, all these problems have worsened to the extent that some experts are calling it a full-blown crisis, with various issues to the fore that are a serious challenge for young people. In terms of their mental health, for example, many have noticed that excessive social media use can have a negative effect on the well-being of children. In addition to issues of addiction and focusing too much on screen time, social media may also amplify feelings of low self-esteem or anxiety.
In recent years, cases such as the death of George Floyd have also highlighted the distressing specter of institutional racism, something that is both incredibly sensitive and highly complex. In addition, many young people are also struggling with other kinds of prejudice, such as that directed towards the LGBTQ+ community, with many students, particularly in their teenage years, also having difficulties in determining or expressing their identity.
Strategies of coping
The impact of both the pandemic itself and the response to it — from closing schools and sports clubs to family bereavement, constant debate, and social division — further deepened problems for many young people. Many studies have indicated that the negative impact of the measures in reaction to the pandemic have led to worsening social and mental health problems. For many children, these issues have often made life overwhelming, particularly if experienced in combination with other hardships such as family instability, poverty, or money issues.
Most generations are subject to a significant change or distress of some kind, and the good news is that there are some strategies and steps that have been proven to assist children in times of difficulty. The idea that children are especially resilient — as if unaffected by difficult events — is perhaps exaggerated, but most people in general have the capacity for resilience. Though it is always important to bear in mind that there is no magical cure, and that each child has a unique situation with their own strengths and challenges, this does not mean that the situation is always hopeless. On the contrary, if children receive the right guidance and assistance as they pass through these difficulties, a difficult period in their life can – in the right circumstance – provide them with extremely positive models and methods of coping that can last a lifetime.
Providing vital emotional support
It is the job of the school counselor to provide additional support and advice that the children may not typically receive within the classroom, or in some cases at home. If a student comes (or is sent) to the counselor with a problem, the first and most important step is to provide them with a sympathetic ear and personal attention. Often, talking and listening is a major step. Beyond this, counselors often work with the student to figure out a pathway to dealing with specific issues and offering practical steps to take — such as initiating discussions, writing down their thoughts, or identifying ways to make progress. In some circumstances, the counselor may also recommend further testing or assessment, or refer the student to a specialist if they believe they need additional help.
In conflict situations, counselors may also be responsible for liaising between students, teachers, and parents. In this case, counselors are asked to act as a conduit to improve communication and try to resolve any issues. On top of their expertise in the field of counseling, psychology, and mental health, in this situation a school counselor also has the added advantage of standing outside the main school framework to some extent. Whereas students and teachers must be concerned with academic performance, behavior, and classroom interactions, school counselors are more easily able to take a step back and assess the situation in terms of the well-being of the individual child. In addition, counselors may also be involved in more general, school-wide programs to meet a specific objective. For example, improving classroom behavior in terms of greater respect for the teacher, providing a greater variety of after-school clubs, or helping students prepare for their career through higher education or employment.
Good behavior and academic achievement
Of course, students are also expected to maintain good academic performance while behaving appropriately within the classroom and throughout the school. This may be difficult if the student suffers from a condition that may detract from their ability to concentrate or behave appropriately, such as ADHD, autism, or chronic fatigue syndrome but is exasperated when adding the social issues listed above.
In this case, school counselors will work to help students improve and develop through clear guidance and action plans. Typical strategies include forming groups to practice study skills, classroom guidance units aimed at improving test-taking abilities, and time management training. Given the potential complexity of the reasons behind poor behavior or erratic academic performance, it is not always easy for the class teacher to tackle the issues of individuals. Fortunately, the school counselor is available to provide more personalized assistance for pupils who might be struggling, or who simply want to maximize their potential.
The importance of professional collaboration
There may also be opportunities for the counselor to collaborate with other staff members or even parents and children to meet a particular goal, or to provide valuable information. For example, many schools employ a Multitiered System of Supports (MTSS), which provides a framework where a team of experts, including school counselors, teachers, administrators, and other professionals such as speech therapists and special education experts, work together to provide crucial and targeted support for students.
Within the system, counselors are responsible for providing support in numerous areas, including career guidance, general academic performance, and leadership programs. In general, this approach is data-driven to identify strengths and weaknesses in individual students before providing tailor-made support to help them deal with things that they find difficult. Also, just as importantly, it can help them build on their strengths and work towards greater achievement. Counselors may work with other professionals to advocate for good behavior and important opportunities.
The right fit
Given that their primary focus is listening to the problems, needs, and aspirations of young people to provide them with meaningful support, it is essential for anyone who would like to become a successful counselor in a school to have a great deal of empathy and understanding. Often, they will be able to rely on their own experiences to help increase their understanding, though just as often the student may be undergoing something that is unfamiliar to the counselor. In this case, it is essential for the counselor to listen carefully, be humble in their approach, and work hard to treat the student as a partner in resolving any issues or achieving their stated goals. To help students and teachers alike, counselors must also be capable of seeing each perspective and providing sympathetic support often in situations of great stress.
In addition, they also need to possess a great deal of resilience and excellent communication skills, so that they can both listen and interpret the problems of others. This also helps them advocate for their own ideas and convince others of the importance of taking practical and useful steps forward. In a challenging and highly complex environment like a school, where the staff and students are both subject to varying internal and external pressures, it is essential for counselors to put forward their own point of view if they want to exercise genuine change. Furthermore, change often happens at a slow pace, which means that counselors also require a great deal of patience, determination, and persistence.
The educational path
On top of these kind of skills, education and a solid theoretical grounding are also essential components in the career of a school counselor. In the US, all school counselors are required to complete a BA degree and then a master’s in counseling. Due to the special nature of the job and the educational environment, many school boards look to hire graduates with a specific MA in school counseling. Fortunately, there is today a wide range of courses available in this field.
Though on-campus degrees are still common, many students instead look to complete an online school counseling masters, which offers them greater flexibility, something particularly useful if they intend to remain in a part or full-time work position while furthering their education. At the St. Bonaventure University, for example, it is possible to complete a Master of Science in Education (MSED) in School Counseling entirely online. In addition to more flexible scheduling, an online course is also useful as it is not necessary to relocate to complete the course. Students also have access to first class instructors and can complete field placements for gain practical experience.
In this course, prospective school counselors will develop the skills needed to truly help young people. There is a particular focus on individual and group counseling competencies plus developing broader cultural awareness and skills in relation to a range of different fields – including diversity, equity, advocacy, and opportunity. The course also focuses on improving critical thinking skills, mastering the art of communication, and evaluating important research.
In terms of theory, exploring multicultural counseling, aspects of play therapy, and the importance of clinical skills are essential skills for students to understand and implement. Graduates will emerge from their degree with both a thorough understanding of the tools and skills needed to operate in a school environment, as well as the theoretical knowledge to provide genuine expert assistance in their chosen field.
The journey has only just begun
Even upon graduation, school counselors will still have much to learn. Just like with many other professions, counselors often find that they only really begin to comprehend the true nature of the job once they are thrust into their first full-time role and come face to face with all the many issues involved in the life of an educational institute. This may be challenging, of course, but most school counselors also report that this is one of the most exhilarating parts of their career. They can fully put their theories and philosophies about school counseling into practice and learn to shape their approach to deal with the reality they are faced with.
Given the complexity of the profession and the educational environment in which school counselors are placed, the role of lifelong learning is also crucial in this field. After all, while people in some jobs may only encounter a few dozen individuals over the course of their career, a school guidance counselor working in a regular-sized school will, either directly or indirectly, be involved with the lives of many thousands of young people. While most of the best school counselors read and research different topics in their own time, there is also the opportunity for more structured learning, including through training courses and further educational options. In addition, many counselors benefit from mentoring partnerships or peer-to-peer review sessions, while organizations such as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) being vital sources of information.
Striving to make a difference
It is difficult to make comparisons across the changing winds of history, but there is no question that the children of the present day face a wide range of difficulties. In many cases, these issues will present in their school years, as they grow and develop and encounter an array of different challenges. In addition, there are also many positive paths for children to take at this time. Education constitutes a great opportunity for advancement, and the path from adolescence to adulthood presents a myriad of chances for growth and improvement. Clearly, school counselors have the capacity to provide vital assistance to schoolchildren, working alongside them to help them cope with the difficulties of life and take positive steps forward to help them find their place in the world.
Remember, no school counselors work in a vacuum. To truly provide meaningful change in the lives of pupils, school counselors must become adept at balancing the views of all the different groups of people involved in any educational system, and work hard to advocate their ideas and helping both the school and its students move forward. Counselors must also first provide genuine understanding, convincing others of the validity of plans of action that will lead to genuine benefits for the individual. Once a school counselor has mastered these areas, they will have the opportunity to provide genuinely useful and often crucial support for children as they face the trials and tribulations that life throws upon them.