December 6, 2022
The following article is co-written with EdTech expert and author Carl Hooker. Carl has 20+ years in education and K12 consulting. He speaks on a multitude of topics from digital wellness to technology integration and district leadership.
Many students have been impacted by an amazing counselor. School counselors and psychologists are the pinnacle of mental health in K-12 school districts. They’re responsible for advocating for students’ well-being, mediating conflicting, spearheading violence and drug prevention programs, and much more.
As I’ve been writing about teacher shortages in my Forward to Different series and podcast, it's clear that counselors are not immune. Nearly 30% of school counselors leave their position after the first year. Additionally, a report published in the Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research found that 67% of mental health professionals reported experiencing high levels of burnout. Key contributors include:
High volume of non-counseling duties
Lack of administrative support and supervision
General burnout (Chronic fatigue, depersonalization/compassion fatigue, and stress)
The lack of mental health resources available to address these compounding issues continues to plague school districts. Across the country, K-12 schools don’t have enough on-site counselors and psychologists to cater to the mounting mental health needs of students.
Exacerbated by COVID-19, Suicide rates among youth and gun violence on school campuses is at an all-time high. Furthermore, studies have shown that social distancing and remote learning mandates have resulted in increased stress among students and strained relationships between teachers and students.
Considering these harrowing statistics, students need more mental health support than ever.
“Looking at this situation outside of the COVID-19 context makes it abundantly clear just how vulnerable this profession already was to attrition, but taking COVID-19 into consideration as well as virtual learning and the mental health crisis that has ensued among young people, school counselors have found themselves in impossible working conditions,” says Teodora Pavkovic, lead psychologist and cyber safety expert at Linewize.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a student counselor to student ratio of 1:250. However, only 14 percent of schools met this criteria during the first full year of the pandemic in 2020.
The current average national ratio is one school counselor for every 415 students — but in some schools, the ratio is much higher.
According to the American Counseling Association’s ethical standards, school counselors “have an ethical responsibility to monitor their feelings of burnout and remediate when their feelings potentially influence their ability to provide quality services to their stakeholders.”
School counselors are responsible for maintaining their physical and emotional health to ensure quality care. When a counselor’s well-being is neglected, their ability to help students is compromised.
The national student to counselor ratio far exceeds the recommended 250:1. Large caseloads make it difficult to remember student names, build rapport, and earn trust. Furthermore, high caseloads can quickly lead to heightened stress levels and stronger feelings of depersonalization.
This creates a domino effect of complications. A higher number of students increases the risk of missing a student in crisis. As a result, students who lack access to sufficient mental health support will continue to suffer in silence. And, without resources to guide them, their struggles can negatively impact academic performance, behavior, and social awareness.
School counselors are uniquely positioned to gauge the wellbeing of the student body. However, it’s not uncommon for counselors to struggle to implement changes. Counselors need the support and supervision of principals and other administrative officials in order to develop programs and practices that address the challenges they observe. Without a clear, open communication channel, progressive changes are difficult to make.
According to Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, “School counselors experience role ambiguity when their responsibilities or the expected level of performance is not clearly identified.”
School counselors and school psychologists are motivated by the prospect of having a positive impact on their students and environment. Yet, despite the clear role statements set by the ASCA, school counselors frequently find themselves in organizational systems where roles and responsibilities don’t align with the counselor’s training or ethics.
“More needs to be done to help clarify the role of the school counselor, whose job description currently encompasses too wide and vague a scope, including student's academic, social and personal needs and outcomes,” says Pavkovic.
So we have identified the importance and impact of the role of the school counselor in a school community, but we also acknowledge the large turnover in the position. What are some strategies for school and district leaders to recruit high-quality folks in the position? Here are a few strategies that leaders have shared:
Hiring personnel should outline clear responsibilities that fall within the American School Counselor Association’s list of acceptable duties. Create a role agreement that reinforces your commitment to ASCA-approved responsibilities.
Set collaborative goals and expectations. At a minimum, meet with your school counselor at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year to discuss those responsibilities, address any gaps, and review goal progress.
School counselors tend to be overworked and overwhelmed. An unhealthy work-life routine can negatively impact counselors’ ability to help students while tending to their own mental health needs.
During the interview process, communicate the prioritization of healthy work-life balance and establish boundaries early on. This could mean mandatory mental wellness days, reinforcing acceptable tasks and “asks” for counselors, and setting defined working hours.
Studies have shown that lower student to staff ratios may have a positive correlation with improved test scores and higher graduation rates. A strong student to staff ratio enables school counselors to effectively support and manage the student body.
Schools that aren’t in a financial position to hire more staff (as many are) should — at the bare minimum — be transparent about future plans to improve student-to-staff ratios and address how the school will actively prevent case overload in the interim.
Many states have developed unique solutions to address the shortage of mental health staff at schools.
For example, Montana State University and the University of Montana developed the Rural Mental-Health Preparation/Practice Pathway federal grant program to prepare graduating counseling candidates to gain experience as counselors in rural communities. One of the primary objectives for the program is to increase the number of counselors in rural schools and communities and to foster quality rural mental health services in the state.
Over in California, the state senate launched its "Golden State Teacher Grant Program” to provide aspiring school counselors with $20,000 grants for a four-year commitment to working in public school districts.
State leaders should leverage policies and grants to address mental health challenges and improve the pipeline of mental health professionals in schools. There are many federal grants available to fund school counselor salaries, mental wellness program development, and professional development opportunities.
Reach out to your state educational agency to learn more about grant opportunities that support your school’s mental health efforts.
Workplace culture has significantly impacted employee retention, productivity, creativity, and collaboration. School leaders should prioritize engagement, communicate and practice core values, and foster collaborative working relationships. Here are a few ways to improve the culture at your school:
Launch social and emotional professional development sessions
Survey your staff on a regular basis to track their wellbeing
Share your mission state to ensure staff are aligned with values
Always model core values
Create opportunities for social gatherings (like a Trivia Night!)
Provide access to professional development programs
Check in regularly
Show appreciation and be present
With high turnover rates for school counselors, retention should be top priority. Once you’ve hired a great school counselor, how do you keep them?
“Providing financial incentives is certainly one way of helping schools and districts hold onto their counselors, but a lot more is needed,” notes Pavkovic. “Counselors must be given more manageable workloads and have to be provided with the resources they need to help those students whose challenges surpass their level of training.”
According to the ASCA, school counselors should work alongside other educational stakeholders to create learning environments that promote educational equity for all students.
To cultivate a school culture that promotes systemic change and student success, counselors should be granted the time and resources necessary to collaborate with administrators, families, teachers, and community leaders. These collaborations help reinforce the mission of the school counseling program. Counselors should included as part of a the campus leadership team.
Individuals are much more likely to feel effective at their job when they've been equipped with the tools and resources necessary to be efficient and productive. For example, wellbeing platforms and student threat detection software makes it easier to ensure the safety and mental safety of students is protected.
Every educator — and in particular school counselors — want to sleep better at night knowing their students are safe. What measures are in place to identify vulnerable students before it's too late? How can schools ensure counselors have a system in place designed to mitigate safety and mental health risks? The right tools can be instrumental in school counselor retention.
Student wellbeing platforms such as Educator Impact, on the other hand, allow students to self-identify when they're struggling with issues that negatively impact mental health and safety.
Assess the current state of student safety in your school with a complimentary Student Safety Audit.
High volume of non-counseling duties is one of the biggest causes of burnout among counselors. These tasks include:
Monitoring the cafeteria and halls
Supervising students at recess / crosswalks after school
Maintaining student records
Performing disciplinary actions
Preparing materials for testing,
Acting as a 504 coordinator
“Although sometimes uncomfortable, setting boundaries is necessary in school counseling,” said TaRael Kee, a school counselor at Collinsville High School. “We are compassionate and empathetic in nature and for many of us, saying yes to increased workloads and extra duties feels easier.”
Review the list of appropriate responsibilities outlined in the ASCA National Model and conduct a regular audit of current school counselor duties.
Are there any tasks that do not require a specialized certification? Are counselors currently responsible for tasks that fall outside the scope of ASCA-approved duties? If so, delegate those responsibilities accordingly.
Although burnout looks different for everyone, recognizing early signs can help stop it. Preventative measures may mean the difference between a long tenure and a high turnover rate.
Although counselors have a duty to protect their own mental health, as previously mentioned, they often agree to take on increased workloads and non-counselor duties in the interest of helping their colleagues and the school. These additional responsibilities can quickly result in burnout and feelings of loss of control.
Additionally, school administrators should provide school counselors and other educators with tools to self-assess burnout risk. Tools like Educator Impact enable school to not only make it easy to assess the wellbeing of students, but to keep a pulse on the wellbeing of staff. You can use Educator Impact to run regular wellbeing check-ins, gather feedback, and connect staff with the appropriate support resources.
Your school counselor may have several innovative ideas to improve student wellbeing based on their professional experience and observations. For example, perhaps they’d like to develop a more streamlined system for setting up appointments, create a communication procedure for dealing with parents, or have more opportunities to talk in classroom and group settings.
School counselors need adequate support in order to make a strong impact on systemic processes. They play a crucial role in the success and wellbeing of students, and their feedback and suggestions should be strongly considered during administrative decision-making.
Continuing education is crucial for successful counseling careers, particularly in today’s tumultuous time.
“Outside of the heavily off-balance counselor-to-student ratios, many counselors also struggle to deal with their student's mental health difficulties, such as self-harm behaviors, which they have not been trained to handle,” says Pavkovic.
School counselors and other mental health professionals need access to professional development resources that help expand their professional skills and nurture their ability to respond appropriately to sudden shifts in mental health among students.
Counselors play a significant and instrumental role in schools. It doesn’t take much to show appreciation, but it goes a long way. A simple “thank you” gives school counselors the recognition they deserve and can help motivate them to remain in their position.
For example, according to the ASCA, National School Counseling Week, which takes place every February, “highlights the tremendous impact school counselors can have in helping students achieve school success and plan for a career.” While every school should participate, there are several ways you can show appreciation throughout the year:
Say “thank you”
Acknowledge gratitude during school announcements
Enable your students to give certificates of appreciation
Allow students to decorate counselor doors with positive affirmations and recognition
Over the past several years additional federal funds have been allocated to support mental health initiatives in schools. Most notably, the Safer Communities Act was recently passed to address the mental health crisis among students in America.
The Safer Communities Act allocates billions of dollars in additional funding to support the development and implementation of student wellness and safety programs in schools. This includes offering schools the funds necessary to increase the number of diverse, highly-qualified mental health professionals on-site and provide school counselors with additional professional development support.
There are many reasons counselors decide to leave a school. In addition to burnout, more counselors are also leaving schools to launch independent practices. As the mental wellness space grows, it’s possible that unsatisfied school counselors are pivoting career tracks in search of job satisfaction.
Strong recruitment and active retention efforts can keep your counselors happy and your student body healthy.
“When you invest in school counselors, you’re not just investing in students’ academic achievement, mental health and college and career readiness,” said Jose Cardenas, a counselor and program specialist for the Stockton Unified district. “It’s an investment in the entire school, in families and whole communities.”
Topics: Mental Health
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