Leadership for a Strong School Counseling Program: March 2020

Today’s school leaders face many challenges. In addition to advancing academic achievement, principals also attend to an increasing array of mental health challenges with which students are faced. At the same time, secondary school leaders are under pressure to ensure all students are set up for success in college and the workforce. Understandably, principals can feel overwhelmed by these enormous pressures. However, they might be missing an untapped resource in their buildings—school counselors.

School counselors are uniquely positioned to support students’ academic achievement, social-emotional well-being, and postsecondary readiness and success. Multiple studies have shown that strong school counseling programs are linked to improvements in attendance, increased college-going rates, decreased discipline referrals, and other positive outcomes. However, in some parts of the country, school counselors struggle to meet students’ diverse needs because of high caseloads, ambiguous job descriptions, outdated and low expectations, limited professional development, and sometimes a lack of support from school leaders who may not understand how the counselor role should be carried out.

While providing clearer and higher expectations for school counselors can go a long way, meeting the myriad challenges students face calls for a reenvisioning of the school counseling profession. School counselors could work more efficiently, and students could be served more effectively, if they embraced an approach to school counseling that author Mandy Savitz-Romer refers to as an “academic home” in her book Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success. In this approach, counselors work at the hub of student supports, connecting and coordinating services much as primary care physicians coordinate patient care in medical settings.

In this role, school counselors serve as the first point of contact for students, providing as much support as is feasible and referring students for specialized services when needed so they don’t fall between the cracks. Specialized supports could include mental health counseling, legal support for immigration issues, or even individualized assistance with college essays. Most school counselors already work within a robust network that includes teachers, administrators, and community partners. In the “academic home” model, the counselor serves both as the first point of contact in a student support system and as the person who provides leadership to create alignment among the services provided by community partners that might otherwise become fragmented or inequitable.

Use the following strategies to be sure you’re maximizing the impact that counselors can have on students’ academic and social-​emotional development.

1. Protect School Counselors’ Time With Students

Historically, there’s been some confusion about school counselors’ roles and where their priorities should lie. To support a comprehensive school counseling program, principals need to have a clear understanding of counselors’ roles and how their time can best be utilized to support the school’s mission.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) offers guidelines for appropriate counselor responsibilities. Principals looking to unlock their counselors’ potential might begin by developing a clear, shared understanding of how counselors spend their time. Talk to your counselors about their duties and see if certain responsibilities could be distributed to other staff to allow for more time directly supporting students.

It might not seem revolutionary to suggest that school leaders formulate clear expectations for counselors’ roles, but as the profession has evolved and counselors have found themselves adjusting their roles to meet changing societal needs, it’s time for educational leaders to update their expectations, too. (For instance, when counselors are asked to carry out extensive noncounseling duties such as test administration, it compromises their ability to provide critical direct services, such as implementing a social skills lessons, meeting with a student struggling with gender identity, or reviewing attendance data and identifying appropriate interventions.)

2. Adopt Clear Mission and Vision Statements

School leaders know that mission and vision statements are an important factor in creating a school culture founded in core values. Most schools’ mission statements emphasize key components of school counselors’ purpose, namely promoting academic achievement and postsecondary readiness. It is important not to overlook that these are also primary goals of counseling offices. Therefore, principals should consider how a school’s mission statement might reflect a commitment to supporting students’ personal development as well as their academic and post­secondary development.

Many school counseling programs also offer their own mission statements to reflect their internal core values and purpose. Not only does this help situate the counseling program within the larger educational vision of the school, but it helps focus programming. When the goals of counselors are aligned with those of school leaders, it increases commitment and motivation to pursue that vision. Also, because students and families may not understand what school counseling today offers them, updating your mission statements can offer a clear message to outside stakeholders about how these professionals support students.

3. Provide School Counselors With Leadership Opportunities

Some of the most promising school counseling programs we have found place school counselors on the leadership team. More often than not, this decision reflects the school leaders’ vision of school counselors as experts on their students and it highlights school counseling as instrumental to meeting schoolwide goals.

In September of 2018, NASSP hosted an informative roundtable exploring the principal/counselor relationship. “Our counselors provide what I like to call ‘qualitative formative assessment’ data on the culture and climate of the school. Simply put, they have and understand the pulse of the school,” noted Tommy Welch, former principal of Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA, during the roundtable. “This information is vital when implementing a new initiative.”

At TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, MA, the director of school counseling partnered with the school’s special education director to launch an intervention team that included active participation of the principal. The team meets weekly to identify struggling students and connect them with the appropriate support programs or interventions, further ensuring that no student falls through the cracks. Because the school’s principal attends each week, the team often sees their feedback turned into action—they spot changes they can make at their school to better serve all students. Positioning counselors to take on leadership roles enables them to launch new systems that serve the entire school community.

4. Invest in School Counselors’ Professional Learning and Development

Just as professional development is critical for improving teachers’ content knowledge and instructional practice, similar training for school counselors provides new learning opportunities. Indeed, students’ needs are constantly evolving, and today, they depend on counselors to support them on issues ranging from homelessness and anxiety to managing admissions processes that are increasingly competitive and complex.

Our research shows that counselors say they don’t always engage in professional learning opportunities due to financial constraints, lack of relevant opportunities, and sometimes, because of limited support from school leaders. Certainly, school leaders try to offer school-based professional learning that applies to the majority of the school staff. However, this may miss the mark for counselors. Fortunately, there is a range of virtual and in-person professional development associations that can offer support to counselors at a reasonable cost. Organizations such as ASCA and the Southern Regional Education Board offer webinars and online learning opportunities for counselors. School leaders should budget for counselors to attend these sessions, as they not only provide great learning opportunities, but they also enable counselors to network with colleagues—something that is often missing for counselors.

Mentoring programs across schools, especially for new counselors, ensure that counselors can consult on ethical issues or learn new ways of approaching a challenging issue. I have also seen school districts offer meaningful districtwide professional learning on topics for which there is a shared interest. Using professional learning communities, book clubs, or affinity groups, school counselors gain opportunities for networking and sharing best practices within role-alike groups. School and district leaders might also consider partnering with nearby school districts to share the cost of bringing in professional development providers.

5. Encourage School Counselors to Use Data-Driven Practices

Like teachers, school counselors have adopted the use of data-driven practices to improve student outcomes. The ASCA National Model states that school counselors should be proficient in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. As school counselors implement a comprehensive school counseling program, utilizing attendance, behavior, and academic data allows them to meet the diverse needs of all students. School climate data can drive schoolwide counseling initiatives, such as antibullying programs. Data can be used to provide financial aid workshops based on low rates of FAFSA applications the previous year. Additionally, school counselors can use data to support targeted student interventions by identifying students with multiple unexcused absences or who are not on track to graduate.

School leaders can support counselors’ use of data by ensuring they have access to data reports on early warning indicators and academic milestones, or statewide data regarding wellness. Because some school counselors report feeling intimidated by the use of data, principals might also include them in schoolwide data inquiry teams, research-practice partnerships, and other opportunities where other school-based staff is engaging with data.

Moving Forward

Too often, graduate programs fail to prepare principals for their role in supporting school counselors; therefore, administrators must collaborate with their counseling staff to identify systems and supports they can implement to improve counselors’ practice. In addition to implementing these strategies, principals might consider adopting biannual administrative conferences to discuss school responsibilities, updating school counselor job descriptions, or identifying goals for the year and outlining plans for the counseling department to meet those goals. With a national average of 482 students to every one counselor, principals may not be able to budget for additional staff. However, they can create conditions for current counselors to positively influence students’ educational experiences.


Mandy Savitz-Romer, PhD, is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Laura Colletta is the former assistant director of College Counseling at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, NY. Danielle Duarte is an education leadership doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.