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What Does a School Counselor Do?
Becoming a school counselor at the high school level means the counselor works to guide students and offer advice as they struggle with decisions and actions that may affect the rest of their lives. For instance, if they are under consistent peer pressure to use alcohol or drugs, the school counselor can sit down with the student and either initiate a discussion or respond to student’s questions about their particular situation or other stresses which are tempting them to give in to outside pressures.
Guidance counselors also helps students figure out what they will do after they graduate; will they continue to college, go to vocational school, or go straight into a job after graduating from high school?
What Age Groups Do They Work With?
A guidance counselor can work with students from the elementary level up to the high school level. A school counselor may work with students struggling with peer pressure and career plans and work with younger children who have been targeted by bullies.
Guidance counselors are also responsible for working with students suffering from mental health or behavioral issues. While both a guidance counselor and a psychologist will work with students, counselors have more general responsibilities, helping students with career and school questions, bullying and mistreatment at home, such as child abuse or neglect.
A guidance counselor may be alerted to a specific student’s need by the teacher or school principal, as well as being asked to connect with the child and engage one-on-one. A school counselor may contact the child’s parents or guardians to express concerns or ask them if everything is going well at home.
Why do We Need School Counselors?
For one, guidance counselors act as official liaisons between students, teachers, school administration, and students’ families when the student is experiencing either mental or emotional difficulties or academic issues.
In a world where younger and younger children grow up familiar with technology, that does not mean that they are aware of good ‘netiquette’, or good online behavior. A child who is perceived as smaller, weaker, or less likely to push back against online aggression may be targeted for online harassment or cyberbullying. This affects them emotionally and academically. When the teacher or parents realize something is wrong, either through the child’s dropping grades or demeanor, they may go to the school to find out what is going on.
Becoming a school counselor is often the school official responsible for taking the child aside and asking them if anything is wrong or going on. When the child feels comfortable enough to admit what is happening, it allows the school counselor, teacher, and parents to take any needed actins to stop the bullying. An effective school counselor may also find out that a child’s home life has deteriorated, or that the child is afraid of something happening in the home. In this case, the counselor can let the child know they are there to help and provide them with access to meaningful resources that can help them weather the rough times some kids must often deal with on their own.
What Issues Might School Counselors Deal With?
While becoming a school counselor, some of the more tasks you will encounter in your position include:
- Going over educational progress (or lack of) with parents and/or teachers
- Discussing learning goals with students so they can make future plans
- Helping students learn new interpersonal skills and study habits
- Making referrals of students to either in-school or other professionals
You can expect to use creative means to help you reach students wherever they are and whatever they’re going through and guide them. However, school funding may not allow for every tool you need to use as in some schools enrollment of new students may often outstrip education expenditure.
Your biggest challenges may include helping students bring their grades up; in partnership with the district, you may need to lessen the effect of poverty on your students’ ability to learn and help them work through and learning disabilities they have by working with them and with their teachers to create an optimal learning environment.
You’ll also work together with the teachers in your school if they have students dealing with behavioral issues. You may be pulled in to help these students or discuss methods of dealing with their behavior with their teachers or parents. Student mental health issues can affect a student’s ability to learn effectively; if you notice a student struggling with depression, anger issues, or bullying, you’re the ideal person to speak to them and refer them to the appropriate therapist or other resource.
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How to Become a School Counselor
Earning your bachelor’s degree is a first step toward your career goal. While you likely won’t be becoming a school counselor directly after earning this degree in school counseling, you should plan to earn your bachelor’s in psychology, education, or social work if you want to gain access to the position. With any of these degrees, you’ll lay a strong foundation for a master’s master's degree in school counseling.
Your psychology degree opens the door to understanding how we develop and behave. You’ll also gain needed research skills. A social work degree is also a good option as you’ll learn psychology, counseling, and sociology before you graduate. Add statistics or research courses, and you’ll be good to go. An education degree teaches you everything you need to know about working with children in a school setting and gives you the basics you need for a school counseling career.
A Bachelor of Social Work degree is broad-based enough that you’ll be able to enter a range of specialties, including rehabilitation specialist, mental health assistant and, most commonly, caseworker.
Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, education, or psychology, you’ll be ready to return to school after working for a year or two. The master’s degree in school counseling in school counseling takes about the same length of time as other master’s degrees, 60 credit hours which can usually be finished over the course of 2-4 years depending on the amount of time you have available.
You’ll have a few options: you can either earn a direct school counseling degree or you can earn a counseling master’s degree with a track in school counseling. You’ll likely also have to participate in a clinical experience or an internship. You can expect to spend about 50-100 hours of practicum and up to 600 hours in a supervised internship if you haven’t already been working in this type of environment. In addition, your classwork involves research.
After earning your degree, it’s time to study for and sit for the National Counselor exam.
At the doctorate level (Doctorate in Counselor Education), you are much more likely to supervise other counselors, research, or teach. You may have established a goal to become a core faculty member or begin working in a counseling program that has been accredited by a CACREP (The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) degree program.
No matter to what level you aspire to, you will be able to make a difference in the lives of children, students, and their families. If you’re a faculty member with a college, you will be instrumental in students’ decision to work as counselors, even a guidance counselor. Specifically, a doctorate in counselor education prepares you to work in a mental health field, counselor education, and school counseling or administration positions.
Experience requirements differ from state to state. In 15 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia a new guidance counselor is required to have previous counseling or teaching experience ranging from 1 to 3 years. It may be a good idea to work for two or three years as a teacher or counselor after earning your bachelor’s degree before returning to school for your master’s in school counseling.
Five states also make it mandatory for applicants to have counseling or teaching experience. However, they do allow this to be satisfied with proof of the applicant’s supervised and school-based internship or practicum; this applies in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and Oregon. Two states say that, if an applicant’s master’s degree was from a field other than school counseling, they will have to have previous school counseling or other related experience: Nevada and New Hampshire.
And the Virgin Islands requires teaching or counseling experience if the applicant doesn’t have or isn’t eligible to have a valid teaching certificate.
Finally, four states require that applicants have a teaching certificate or license so they can be certified or licensed as a school counselor: Arkansas, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Rhode Island. North Dakota has rescinded this requirement.
A guidance counselor does have to take a national exam (the National Certified Counselor exam), which communicates to the counselor’s co-workers and to the public that they meet standards for counseling practice. The NCC exam and certification are given by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Before they take and pass the NCC, counselors are required to take and pass the National Counseling Exam (NEC).
In addition to the national certification, a new guidance counselor, as well as existing counselors, are required to obtain and keep current state certification or licensure. Each state’s requirements are different. For instance, Colorado requires that the guidance counselor take and pass an approved induction program for a guidance counselor and pass a specific PRAXIS exam. In Massachusetts, a guidance counselor must document that they have completed a 450-hour long practicum in an educational setting, complete required coursework, and earned a passing score on the Massachusetts Communication and Literacy Skills Test. In New Mexico, a guidance counselor is required to take the New Mexico Content Knowledge Assessment for guidance counselors.
For quite a few people who are required to obtain a license to practice in their professional field, they must also, in order to obtain a license to practice, show evidence of paid work experience. In some states, internship or practicum experience doesn’t suffice to fulfill this need for paid work experience. Thus, you might feel like you’re dealing with the old chicken and the egg analogy. Which comes first?
There is a way through this dilemma for a guidance counselor who have not earned a full educators license: you could find a job as a counselor or therapist in another professional setting, such as a halfway house. You can earn a salary and some experience, and then go back to the licensing board, apply to take the exam, get your license, and apply for open school counseling positions.
In the event of license revocation, depending upon the circumstances, it can be extremely difficult for the school counselor to regain their licensure and find new employment as a school counselor. The counselor’s past issues and loss of licensure may follow them, making new employment difficult to obtain.
Where Do Education Counselors Work?
A guidance counselor could work in elementary, middle, and high schools. At the elementary level, they may communicate with parents or guardians and teachers of the students they are working with. Their goals are to determine any special needs or strengths the child may have, as well as any behavioral issues.
In the middle school grades, a guidance counselor meet with individual students and discuss any difficulties they may be having as they transition from pre-teen to the teen years. A guidance counselor also assist them in developing supportive groups (teachers, friends, and parents) to help them to succeed in navigating to the teen years. In the high school years, a guidance counselor could work with students to consider their upcoming professional and academic options before graduation.
In each of these areas, a guidance counselor will perform many tasks:
- Using human growth and development knowledge to design programs and projects to go along with a student’s interest and behaviors
- Knowing about social and cultural foundations so they understand the behaviors and relationships in the school setting
- Knowledge of career and lifestyle development as a guidance counselor to guide high school students in preparing for college or work
- A guidance counselor must be comfortable with research and program evaluation; they examine school programs to ensure they meet the needs of students
- A guidance counselor is the epitome of helping relationships; their largest role is to develop trusting relationships with students
When workers first begin as a guidance counselor, their early-career salaries in the US average around $50,700. In their late-career stage, and depending on whether they’ve moved to a different school district, their annual average salary is closer to $67,000.
In your daily work, you’ll assess students and give them diagnostic tests as needed. You’ll also interpret their test results to ensure they are receiving a free, appropriate public education that is best suited to their needs. You’ll meet with teachers and parents to discuss exam results and may observe students in their classroom to see how they’re learning. You may need to refer the student to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis of mental disabilities, behavioral disorders, or learning disabilities so that they receive all the services they need, which will enable them to focus on their learning.
You can expect to be involved with planning and the implementation of in-school programs and you may also recommend learning approaches to teachers and parents of children with behavioral issues.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the employment of both school and career counselors is forecast to increase 8% in the 2019-2029 decade. Due to the increase in student enrollment in K-12 schools, the demand for school counselors, as well as career counselors, will respond with more growth. With more students attending schools, the need for academic, career, and developmental services for students can only increase.
School counselors also respond to suspected child abuse or neglect cases. When a teacher discusses their concerns with the school counselor, who is a mandated reporter, they will contact law enforcement or child protective services.
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