How to solve problems that come with putting more counselors in schools

We need more effective, diverse, and well-trained school counselors to address the growing mental health concerns of today’s youth.
Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy
Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy
Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy is the dean of the School of Education at American University.

After the horrendous July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, and the ongoing gun violence in the US, including the slaughtering of 19 Uvalde Texas elementary students and two teachers by an 18-year-old male, President Joe Biden recently signed a gun safety bill that includes funding for mental health programs, and crisis intervention programs for today’s youth.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new law’s total cost at $13 billion, a large chunk of which will be used to increase funding to expand existing mental health and school safety services programs, including $1 billion over five years for two programs to boost the number of mental health counselors in schools. Although there is a huge divide on gun safety laws, it appears that both progressive and conservative politicians agree that American youth are suffering from mental health challenges spanning from suicidal ideology to anxiety disorders. And the surgeon general has even declared that youth mental health is at the “crisis” level.

I’m grateful that President Biden has voiced his commitment to mental health counseling in schools. His support is a tremendous boost to the counseling profession which has been losing school counselors due to the pandemic and budget decisions. For instance, in 2018, Baltimore City Schools decreased its number of school counselors by 30 percent to cover rising costs in schools. Baltimore principals, like in other school districts across the country, are often in a position of having to choose between eliminating a counselor position to retain a teacher. So President Biden’s financial support to states and districts is critical. Principals must never have to choose between counselors and teachers.

School counselors need clear roles

There are problems that local and state boards of education must address before the number of school counselors can be increased. First, districts and states need to clearly state the role of school counselors in legislation and ensure that counselors are using their unique skills to help students, teachers, and families. Historically, school counselors (formerly known as “guidance counselors”) have been “catchall” staff positions for everything from scheduling to discipline to acting as assistant principal.

The American School Counselor Association has tried valiantly to define the role of school counselors and school counseling programs, but many administrators still utilize counselors for everything except counseling. It’s not uncommon to see counselors disciplining students and serving as substitute teachers. School districts need to hire enough counselors to cover students’ academic planning, college/career planning, and emotional/mental health support.

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In well-funded school districts, counseling offices have separate counselors who work only on college and career preparedness, while other counselors work with students on social and emotional issues. All schools, regardless of setting, need well-trained counselors who have time to work with students and their families.

In addition, the counselor-to-student ratio must be reduced to serve students better. Many high-need urban districts, for example, have counselor-to-student ratios as high as 1,000:1. ASCA recommends a 250:1 ratio. Research has even indicated that smaller ratios are related to better attendance and higher GPAs. And, if we want counselors to address the mental health needs of students, they must have the bandwidth to either provide counseling services or ensure that students have access to mental health services outside of school.

Third, school counseling training programs have become expensive because of increased credit requirements. Typically, a 30-60 credit master’s degree is a must-have on one’s path to becoming a school counselor. These programs can be quite expensive. If we need to hire more counselors, we must create scholarships and streamlined programs that allow students to work while earning school counseling degrees.

Scholarships will also ensure that racially and culturally diverse individuals have access to counselor training. A good example of an existing counseling scholarship program is the National Board of Certified Counselors Foundation’s Minority Fellowships for doctoral and master’s level counseling students. I propose that similar fellowships be provided for school counselors to work in the most challenged schools and communities to provide not only mental health support but also academic support.

SEL is facing resistance

Finally, we must increase the number of counselors trained to work in resistant communities. In some states, lawmakers and conservative activists have targeted mental health curricula, often aiming for social and emotional learning programs that train students to manage emotions and practice conflict resolution. For instance, lawmakers in Indiana and Oklahoma have put forward bills that would limit the use of SEL in the classroom. Counselors must be prepared to work in hostile communities that are resistant to inclusivity and racial equity.

Again, we need an increased number of effective, diverse, and well-trained school counselors to address the growing mental health concerns of today’s youth. Nevertheless, the president and Congress need to start addressing the issues above for how to make it happen. This would help ensure that increasing the number of counselors in schools would actually address the problems this is intended to solve.

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