In the last 100 years, school counseling in the United States has evolved from an educational position focused on vocational guidance to the current model more in line with the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) comprehensive school counseling model. Although ASCA continues to provide clarity regarding the expectations for school counselors, there continues to be inconsistency related to school counselor responsibilities. Some of this role confusion can be traced to the relationship between principals and school counselors.
The Relationship Between School Counselors and Principals
Historically, principals have viewed the school counselor role as reactive and administrative, affecting the relationship between the school counselor and the principal and their effectiveness. Since many daily school counseling tasks are directed by the principal, principals must understand ASCA’s best practice expectations for school counselors so they clearly understand the duties the counselor can fulfill. A collaborative focus on establishing program priorities and educational outcomes for students leads to increased job satisfaction for school counselors. Unfortunately, there continues to be a gap in understanding between principals and school counselors. The College Board, National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and ASCA all agree that the success of a school counseling program depends on the principal’s support.
Even among school counselors, perceptions differed on the definition of appropriate duties. Researchers found that some counselors needed to fulfill nonguidance activities, including clerical tasks and bus duty. While some counselors noted concerns with engaging in bus, hall, and cafeteria duty, others felt that these duties were appropriate. Carol A. Dahir, Joy J. Burnham, Carolyn B. Stone, and Nicole Cobb in their article, “Principals as Partners: Counselors as Collaborators,” used the Assessment of School Counselor Needs for Professional Development to assess attitudes, beliefs, and practices of school counselors and discovered that school counselors differed on their priorities, beliefs, and strengths. A 2019 study by Marybel Ruiz, Michelle L. Peters, and Cheryl Sawyer titled “Principals’ and Counselors’ Lens of the School Counselor’s Role” found that school counselors’ perceptions of their role align with the ASCA National Model. However, some counselors still considered hall, bus, and cafeteria supervision their responsibility.
A study of elementary school principals revealed their understanding of the positive impact school counselors have on students’ academic, behavioral, and mental health. However, a similar study found administrators struggled with requiring counselors to assist with special education services. The principals had limited resources to meet the needs of special education students and didn’t know where else to turn. Gerta Bardhoshi and Kelly Duncan, in their article, “Rural School Principals’ Perceptions of the School Counselor’s Role,” surveyed principals and found that they valued responsive service, guidance curriculum in classes, system support, and individual student planning. However, noncounselor tasks, according to ASCA, were highly rated by principals including testing, special education assistance, and maintaining student records. Interviews with principals disclosed varied responses regarding counselors’ responsibilities, including emotional support for students, tasks related to helping students schedule appointments, testing, and proctoring exams.
While many counselors continue to have to explain or justify their role to principals, trust, respect, and open communication contribute to a strong principal/counselor relationship.
Common Ground and Challenges
Julieta Monteiro-Leitner, Kimberly K. Asner-Self, Cheryl Milde, Dennis W. Leitner, and Doris Skelton in their article, “The Role of the Rural School Counselor: Counselor, Counselor-in-Training, and Principal Perceptions,” looked for similarities and differences between counselors’ and principals’ views of the counselor’s role. While most of the counselors and principals in their study agreed on job expectations, the researchers found differences related to how much time counselors spend on counseling individuals and small groups, engagement with special education, and administrative tasks. A joint report from the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy, ASCA, and NASSP supported these findings. These professional organizations determined that principals and counselors agreed that student growth, social development, and career planning were the most important counselor activities, while differing on the importance of counselors engaging in administrative tasks, facilitating testing, and scheduling.
Counselors and principals agreed on appropriate counseling duties most of the time. Surprisingly, counselors and principals also agreed that counselors should perform hall, bus, or cafeteria duty, and schedule students for classes but should not coordinate the standardized testing program.
According to the ASCA model, it is the counselor’s role to create a strong relationship and educate principals on best practices and expectations. When the role is performed in this way, principals and counselors alike perceive that counselors are meeting student needs and establishing priorities. The study “Principals’ and Counselors’ Lens of the School Counselor’s Role” agreed that counselors must advocate for themselves. However, we wonder if this responsibility should fall solely upon the school counselors. Ellen S. Amatea and May Ann Clark in their article, “Changing Schools, Changing Counselors: A Qualitative Study of School Administrators’ Conceptions of the School Counselor Role,” found that most principal preparation programs do not provide information on the role of a school counselor. Instead, most principals learn on the job or rely upon their own personal or professional experience.
Principals and school counselors hold important, influential positions, yet both professionals often find themselves operating in mutually exclusive realms. Irregular communication and poorly defined professional expectations work against establishing and maintaining collaborative principal/counselor relationships. Consequently, an unintentional chasm is created, resulting in a reactive partnership, rather than a proactive one focused on improving school quality. To build healthy, professional relationships capable of supporting quality student programming, principals and school counselors must proactively focus on establishing relationships, professional perception, regular communication, and clear professional expectations.
Establishing a Relationship
Collaborative and productive principal/counselor relationships take intentional work. Strong relationships between principals and school counselors enhance role understanding, prevent burnout, and positively impact the overall performance of a school. Training programs for principals should support the vital role of creating a collaborative principal/counselor relationship. Researchers have also found that many secondary school principals felt unprepared to constructively work with school counseling teams. By proactively focusing on the importance of this relationship, new principals will be better equipped with a clear vision of how school counselors can most effectively benefit both students and school programming.
ASCA reinforces the value of counselors partnering with their principals. School counselors offer principals valuable perspective on school systems and student academic and social-emotional needs. Working together, school counselors and principals can develop inclusive, well-rounded school leadership teams designed to positively impact student achievement and character development.
Accurate perceptions of professional responsibilities are an important element in the principal/counselor relationship. Productive relationships are promoted when principals and counselors agree on their roles. Traditionally, principals have viewed the school counselor role as a reactive and administrative support service. However, state and national school counseling models clearly outline counseling best practices. Because many principal preparation programs lack specific training on appropriate school counselor duties, principals must learn on the job or rely on their previous personal experiences to guide their use of school counselors.
Principals are generally satisfied with the performance of their school counselors, especially in the areas of delivering classroom lessons, conducting individual and group counseling sessions, conducting consultations, and engaging in programs. These are appropriate duties for a school counselor and provide common ground upon which principals and counselors can build strong student support programs. Principals highlighted areas such as cultural awareness and competency, program evaluation, outreach to external stakeholders, and parent education as areas for growth among their school counselor teams. As such, these results are worth exploring. While the duties are appropriate tasks for school counselors, principals and counselors should consider how added communication, better defined roles, and perceptions may further promote healthy relationships.
Counselors may feel conflicted when expected to perform duties outside of those recommended by national counseling models. While they must satisfy professional expectations, counselors are obligated to serve students using best practice techniques in established counseling models. Consequently, sometimes this dynamic contributes to poor principal/counselor relationships. Counselors generally perceived their relationships with their principals more negatively than did principals. In particular, secondary counselors and principals demonstrated a more pronounced contrast between program satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In other words, while principals may perceive their school’s counseling practices as effective, school counselors may feel inadequate and less optimistic about the same programming. This type of perceptual chasm promotes role dissatisfaction for many school counselors. Furthermore, most school counselors generally agree that both appropriate and inappropriate professional duties exist; professional responsibilities that best demonstrate a positive impact center on those outlined in national counseling models.
Evidence suggests there is some common ground between principals and counselors when it comes to these duties. Counselors whose duties regularly aligned with national counseling models demonstrated stronger relationships with their administrators. This would suggest that regular, candid conversation should be a priority between principals and counselors to maximize the quality of the professional partnership.
Reliable communication is a cornerstone for establishing and maintaining healthy principal/counselor relationships. Regular communication strengthens relationships and promotes role clarity for counseling teams. Principal/counselor communication is essential to supporting academic performance, sharing the school’s vision and mission, and connecting leadership teams.
Clear Professional Roles
Tasks that principals most often delegate to school counselors and do not align with professional roles as outlined by best practice school counseling models lead to disagreements between counselors and principals and the undermining of organizational goals. Coordinating test administration, supervising students, and managing student discipline diminish a counselor’s ability to institute and maintain an effective school counseling program. However, Carlos P. Zalaquett in his article, “Principals’ Perceptions of Elementary School Counselors’ Role and Functions,” found that some alignment exists between tasks recommended by school counseling models and those often required to fill programming gaps. Determining common ground regarding professional boundaries not only impacts students but enhances principal/counselor teams.
Students, parents, and the community benefit when principals and counselors work together closely. Exploring the current school counseling best practices, including the ASCA model, leads to a healthy principal/counselor relationship. When principals and counselors understand each other’s perspectives on the counselor role, awareness around the need to establish a constructive relationship in a professional setting will increase—for the good of the entire school.
Mark C. Gillen, PhD, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in River Falls, WI. Matthew Dass, EdD, LSC, is the principal of Grand Rapids High School in Grand Rapids, MN. Emily Spofford is a school counselor at Prescott High School in Prescott, WI.