The most common reason people cite for going into the counseling profession is a desire to help people – to turn lives around – and if you’re going to do that, what could be more rewarding than working with people who are just beginning their lives, and helping them to make a good start? School counselors do everything from resolving problems with discipline or schoolwork to helping out students from troubled homes and supporting those who are experiencing bullying or other issues. It’s an incredibly involving role that will enable you to help hundreds or even thousands of children and young people build up confidence, improve their social skills and become more self-aware, considerate human beings. If you want to succeed in the role, these are the key skills you will need.
Empathy is the foundation of any counseling career. It’s vital that you can empathize with and understand any issues that might affect the well-being of students if you are to look after them properly in this role. They will be able to tell if your interest is genuine, and it will make a big difference to their willingness to trust you if they can see that you have genuine empathy. Building that trust is essential before you can move a conversation beyond a superficial level and really get to grips with a child’s issues. The best school counselors are those who still remember what it was like to be young and how much more intense many experiences are when encountered for the first time. As an older person, you may not always understand students’ choice of words or the references they make, though you should aim to familiarize yourself with these things as much as possible, but ultimately, if you can connect with them at an emotional level then the rest will follow.
In order to connect effectively, it’s vital to be aware that students from different cultural backgrounds relate to the world in different ways. If you simply try to project based on your own experience, you might miss things that could be crucial. To avoid making that mistake, you should endeavor to broaden your cultural awareness wherever possible. Be careful not to get drawn into believing in stereotypes – draw upon your own experience of people from different cultures, rather than relying on what you have heard other people say. You should also be aware of the differences that exist between adult and youth cultures. Finding out what your students are interested in and trying to engage with the same media, play the same games, and follow the same social media trends will improve your understanding.
While it’s important to relate to the students you work with, it’s also important to be professional and maintain a bit of distance. This helps to preserve your authority. There’s nothing more embarrassing for a young person than having to spend time with an adult who is trying to be cool and is overly involved. Maintaining a professional distance also protects you from getting too emotionally involved and putting your own mental health at risk, or getting into situations where an inappropriate level of emotional dependency develops. It’s good to be friendly, but that’s different from being a friend, which could compromise your ability to do your job. Professionalism also matters because you are setting an example to students who need to learn how to present and conduct themselves as they get older. Furthermore, it helps you to make the right impression on other members of school staff, not all of whom will properly understand what it is that you do.
Not every counselor is cut out to work in schools because if you’re going to be good at it then you need to be able to treat students with respect, just as you would adults. This applies no matter how foolish their decisions may be or how trivial their problems may seem. What matters is their subjective experience, and they have had a lot less time to observe the way the world works or develop coping skills than adults have. It’s essential to recognize their agency and to help them develop it so that they can gradually build up both the competence and the confidence that they will need in adult life. One of the things that young people crave most is the chance to be seen and heard for who they really are. If you show them that you’re trying to do that, and that you don’t think less of them because they’re young, they will be much more willing to engage with you.
Even when you’re new to the job, working in a new school, or dealing with a situation with regard to which you have little experience, it’s important to conduct yourself with confidence. This doesn’t mean overreaching yourself – you should be aware of the borders of your competence and ready to seek help where required. What it does mean is that you should talk to students – and, where relevant, parents and members of staff – in a calm, assured manner, and remember that you have a strong academic foundation to draw on. This, in turn, helps them to have confidence in you, so that they believe you can help them and feel able to trust you. The best way to maintain your confidence in your skills is to keep using them, and keep returning to your books and study notes so that you know your subject in depth.
It’s no mystery that counseling is fundamentally about listening, but there’s more to that than simply sitting there and making the occasional note. Becoming a good listener requires learning how to use eye contact, gentle interjections, and appropriate sounds and body language to steer the speaker. It means knowing when and how to affirm, encourage, or query without interrupting. Showing students that you care about what they have to say is far more effective than telling them. When you ask questions, think about whether you want them to be open-ended – giving students room to raise whatever is on their minds – or directed toward focusing attention on a particular area that you want to know more about. Make sure that you don’t jump in with more questions too quickly, cutting off something which the student might have been struggling to say. Don’t be afraid of silences.
As a school counselor, you are liable to find yourself working with a much bigger caseload than counselors in other fields, and with that in mind, it is vital that you’re properly organized. Make sure you keep good records, be diligent about writing up your notes after every meeting, and read them through carefully before you next engage with a student. Make sure you keep track of the additional reading and research you need to do and schedule enough time to get through it without problematic delays. Allow room in your schedule for contingency planning in case you are given unexpected things to deal with and ensure that if you need to take a day off you will be able to catch up again reasonably quickly.
A lot of what will help you to understand the problems of students you counsel lies not so much in what they tell you but in what you can observe about them. This can include speech – factors such as tone or choice of words can be very revealing – but it also includes things such as the way they present themselves, how clean they are, how old their clothes are, and how concerned they are with fashion or individual style. A student’s choice of jewelry, haircut, or bag can also tell you a lot about a student’s social affiliations and what might be going on at home. You should also pay attention to their body language, from the way they carry themselves to how much they make eye contact, how they sit, and whether or not they seem nervous or distracted. Remember that these factors can have different meanings in neurotypical and neurodivergent students, though the latter will not necessarily have been diagnosed as such.
As you gather information about students, you will need to take the time to analyze it properly and keep track of any changes. You will need to aggregate observations over time so that you can monitor students’ development over the course of their school careers and quickly identify any worrying changes in their patterns of behavior. It’s also useful to collect data in forms that enables you to compare different students, so that if you notice a lot of worrying behaviors of a specific type, you can begin to look for possible systemic causes. Using a standardized approach to all this means that in the event that you have to hand a case over to another counselor, that person will (if the student concerned gives permission for the sharing of notes) be able to hit the ground running.
Inevitably, you will run into some situations as a school counselor which you don’t know much about. This could be anything from an unusual home situation to a rare learning disorder that you suspect might be affecting schoolwork. This means that you will have to be ready to do research as needed, and know where to start in each instance. In case you can’t figure this out, you will need to ensure that you have access to other counselors whom you can consult for advice (always remembering, of course, not to say anything about individual students which might make them identifiable). You should also make sure that you stay up to date with relevant new research as it is published so that you will always have the best available data and tools to inform the diagnoses you make and the treatments you provide.
Sometimes the reason why it’s difficult to figure a case out is that a student’s real problem is not what it might seem to be on the surface. You will need good critical thinking skills in order to look beyond what first presents itself and attempt to discover any underlying causes (bearing in mind, of course, that there are also situations that are deceptively simple, where there really is nothing else wrong). if you believe that a student you are working with may have a mental illness or a learning disorder, you will need to think carefully in order to make the right diagnosis and figure out the best way of providing treatment, bearing in mind that an array of medical and social factors often need to be taken into consideration. You may also need to reassess students who have already received diagnoses and treatment plans but don’t seem to be making the expected progress.
Although some types of counselors are not supposed to give advice, this is not the case in the context of work within a school. Although you should be careful not to be overbearing or damage the trust relationship by pushing students too much, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to share a bit of wisdom, especially if they ask for it. Rather than just solving problems for them, however, it’s helpful to work through them together, with gentle prompting, in order to develop their own problem-solving abilities and help them to become more aware of the various resources at their disposal. Alongside this, you will have to keep your own skills sharp in order to deal with social problems developing between two or more students, which often have complex underlying causes.
Sometimes solving a student’s problems cannot be done simply by getting them into different habits of thought. There may be times when they need help to deal with a school staff member’s problematic behavior, for instance, or to cope with a risky situation at home. You may not always be the right person to intervene directly – and, again, it’s important to know the limits of your competence – but it’s your job, in these situations, to make sure that they get the right help, even if that requires you to take actions which other people in the school may dislike. Your first duty is to ensure the well-being of the students who come to see you, which means speaking up for them – with their permission – when they are unable to do so effectively themselves. In some situations, such as when you become aware that a student is misusing drugs, you have an obligation to report them, but even then you should ensure that they are treated fairly and their rights are respected.
When you start out as a school counselor you will probably be given a job description that seems fairly straightforward, but ask anyone who has done this kind of work for a while and they will tell you that sooner or later you’ll find yourself called upon to deal with situations quite outside of that remit. This could be anything from facilitating group support sessions to deal with a tragedy, to helping students adjust to a new way of working, as required during the early stages of the COVID pandemic. You’ll be the school’s go-to person in any and every type of situation where emotional understanding or psychology is required. Getting your license in professional counseling by taking an Online Master’s Degree in School Counseling at St. Bonaventure University will give you the confidence, flexibility, and broad range of skills necessary to cope with whatever comes your way. The program includes two internships so that even at the very start of your first job you will have valuable experience to draw on.
When you are looked to as a source of wisdom, it can be easy to start thinking of yourself as someone special, but a good counselor knows that nobody is perfect and there is always more to learn. it’s important to analyze and reanalyze your own actions with a critical eye. Despite what people may tell you, there is no such thing as a truly neutral position in counseling, but by making sure that you are alert to your own biases you can put yourself in a position to correct them. You will also need to monitor your own mental health and make sure that you don’t become overwhelmed when dealing with difficult situations. With this in mind, almost all counselors are also recipients of counseling on a regular basis.
All of these skills can be developed while undertaking a counseling degree. You can also work on many of them in advance of that, learning from recommended books or practicing in the course of your day-to-day life, so you will have a head start when you study formally. After graduating, most counselors ensure that they keep on studying throughout their careers, whether formally or informally, in order to keep on improving their skills. You will also learn from experience, and when you do, you will understand what a huge difference study like this makes to what you are able to achieve in the counseling room.