Full Disclosure: I have my Master's in Education in School Counseling and I have worked in high schools in this capacity. And, yes, I have heard numerous unfortunate stories from families about how ineffectual their school counselor seemed to be. I’m not here to defend my profession[i], but to give you some tips about how best to utilize the services of the office.
- Make an effort to meet your student’s school counselor at the “Back-to-School Night”. Usually schools schedule the event for a weekday evening within a month of the first day of school. Introduce yourself and ask how often they meet with their students and for what reasons. Ask how they will communicate important information to parents. And, finally, ask how parents can share concerns or ask questions, and find out the method of communication (phone, email, text) that they prefer.
- Keep in mind their scope of services. They are not therapists. They are trained to work with students and families on issues within the normal range of problems and assist with problem-solving and skill-building. Beyond that, they should be referring to the school social worker, school psychologist, or an appropriate community resource. A decent school counselor should be aware of good child and adolescent therapists in their locale, and it’s quite appropriate to ask for their suggestions when you are seeking therapeutic help for your son or daughter.
- Attend all events hosted by the school counseling office. If they create an event to explain how to interpret your students’ PSAT score reports or schedule an evening for all juniors and their parents to unpack the college admissions process, make every effort to attend. I can’t tell you how many times parents expected me to repeat all the information I had provided during an event one-on-one to them. …Or told me they didn’t have time to read the newsletter I had posted. “Couldn’t you just explain it to me now on the phone?” Really?
- Prepare for your meetings with the school counselor. Take time to put in-writing your major concerns. Bullet point your questions in priority order. Email it to the counselor in advance of the meeting so s/he can be better prepared to respond. I remember one parent who followed this suggestion and sent a document with five major concerns and more than 20 bulleted questions under each concern. Smile if you will, but this parent meant business and I appreciated his forthrightness. Before the meeting, I emailed back that I could allocate only 45 minutes, so I asked him to highlight the most salient concerns and questions and we would cover as much as we could in the time allotted. But don’t expect your school counselor to be your personal assistant. Once pointed in the right direction, you and your student have the responsibility to do the research.
- Be proactive. If you know the school counselor assigned to your student is new to the school (and thus to your student) or if s/he has a huge caseload, it will be difficult for the counselor to write a meaningful recommendation in the college application process. Encourage your student to create a resume or bulleted-point list to assist the counselor. I have also had parents write a “brag sheet” which I found helpful in the process. If you want to be proactive about getting a teacher letter of recommendation, read my blogpost, "My Pet Peeve".
- Be upfront about your student’s history. Your school counselor is ethically bound to keep your confidence with only minor exceptions[ii]. It is much harder to support students if the school counselor knows only part of the story.
- Finally, be prepared to hear the not-so-good news objectively. If your school counselor tells you that 5 of the 6 colleges on your student’s list are “stretches” (perhaps including your alma mater), feel free to ask how they arrived at that judgment, and, if the logic is sound, work together with your student to find some schools that will be a better “fit” and “match”. A decent school counselor will want to make sure that, at the end of the college process, you have some good choices.
If you have other helpful suggestions that improved the quality of your interactions with the school counselor, please share them!
[i] National best practice guidelines state that a school counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250 is recommended for maximum program effectiveness. NC’s ratio is 1:389. In my opinion, the best counselors recognize that they have five audiences (students, parents, teachers, school administrator, and the community) and they strategically invest in addressing the concerns of all five to improve the academic, personal/social and career success of their students.
[ii] School counselors are required to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect and are required to take appropriate action if students engage in behavior that presents clear and imminent danger to themselves and others. Source: http://www.school-counseling-zone.com/support-files/confidentiality-guidelines-for-school-counselors-short-version.pdf