What Is a School Counselor? How to Help Students Thrive

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A smiling school counselor holding a clipboard.School counselors are often a critical element of the educational experience. They act as advocates, mediators, consultants, supporters, observers and navigators, leaning on their expertise to help students handle the pressures of school and daily life. Their work goes beyond helping students develop the skills to achieve academic and professional success. It also prepares students to live their lives with a sense of purpose and well-being.

What a school counselor is and how they help students are complex questions to consider. School counselors must have a deep understanding of human behavior, social and cultural dynamics, career development and a variety of other elements involved in educating young people. Earning a master’s in school counseling can provide a strong foundation for those who are interested in pursuing this challenging but satisfying career.

What Is the Role of a School Counselor?

School counselors work with students to develop various academic and social skills that can translate to better grades, stronger friendships, improved behavior and other positive outcomes. The specific duties of school counselors depend on the educational settings in which they work.

For instance, an elementary school counselor may meet with parents or guardians to address their children’s strengths, behavioral issues or special needs. Middle school counselors may guide students through tough transitional years by helping them establish supportive communities comprising their parents, teachers and friends. High school counselors may direct students to think more seriously about their academic and professional options as they prepare for graduation.

Because different students have different needs, no two days are identical in a school counselor’s work life. This variety is one of the reasons why the role of a school counselor is among the most intriguing and satisfying in the field of education.

How Do School Counselors Help Students?

Creating supportive learning environments that position students for future success is at the core of what school counselors do. Within this central mission, counselors have several important responsibilities.

Human Growth and Development

Students are in a constant state of physical, mental and emotional change. School counselors help them navigate these often confusing times. Leveraging their understanding of human developmental stages, counselors may help design academic programs and projects that complement a student’s individual behavior patterns and interests.

Social and Cultural Foundations

School counselors must have a firm grasp of the social and cultural dynamics that shape behaviors and relationships within the school environment. Counselors are trained to recognize issues that may cause students stress or hinder their ability to thrive, such as bullying, academic struggles and conflicts with friends. They help students overcome these challenges by implementing support programs designed to build confidence, positivity and self-worth.

Career and Lifestyle Development

School counselors, particularly high school counselors, are typically charged with helping students prepare for life beyond school walls. They can help students identify and nurture specific strengths and interests. They can also help correct weaknesses that can persist later in life, such as poor time management or a lack of organization. Counselors often work with students to develop strategies for achieving specific academic and career goals. These plans can also help establish responsible lifestyle habits that benefit students as they venture into the real world.

Research and Program Evaluation

School counselors routinely assess school programs to ensure they are meeting students’ needs. These evaluations typically involve collaboration with students, parents, teachers and administrators. The goal is to identify potential stumbling blocks within a curriculum that could impede a student’s progress toward graduation and career success. Counselors then work with other school stakeholders to develop strategies for closing these gaps and preparing students for the challenges ahead.

Helping Relationships

At its core, the role of a school counselor is to cultivate trusting relationships. These connections define the dynamics among counselors, students and parents. Counselors sometimes participate in developing parenting and bonding strategies to form stronger connections within a student’s family. This element can be particularly helpful for teenagers as they go through dramatic developmental changes.

How to Become a School Counselor

Individuals exploring how to become a school counselor should begin by reviewing the requirements set by the state in which they plan to work, as they can vary. However, some steps are common to successfully pursuing school counseling positions across the country.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in counseling or a field such as education, social work, sociology or psychology is an essential step for aspiring school counselors. This establishes the foundational knowledge they’ll rely on throughout their careers.

Pursuing an internship as an undergraduate can help students put that knowledge into practice and cultivate their counseling skills. Internships can also help students widen their professional networks, which can pay dividends later. Many school districts offer internships, as well as other counseling providers such as social service agencies or health care clinics.

School counselors are also typically required to have a master’s degree, either in school counseling or a related field. A graduate-level curriculum can provide students with intensive study on topics such as professional and ethical issues, counseling children and appraisal procedures. Master’s programs can also help students improve their interpersonal, analytical, listening and speaking skills, which are essential to the profession.

School counselors must also be certified by the state. States have different requirements, and some require licensure in addition to certification. Others either prefer or require school counselors to have a teaching license within their state or a certain amount of classroom teaching experience.

A Fulfilling Career

School counselors can make a difference in the lives of young people on a more personal level than many other education professionals. In addition to helping students navigate their academic journey and prepare for a career, school counselors can help young people develop as a whole — personally, academically and professionally. The position entails great responsibility, but it can also be substantially rewarding.

The online master’s in school counseling program at Wake Forest University teaches students valuable skills that can help fuel success in a number of possible career fields. The 60-hour online degree program offers clinical instruction through practicum and internship experiences as well as advanced therapeutic techniques.

If you’re interested in becoming a catalyst for positive change in students’ lives, learn more about how Wake Forest University can help prepare you to achieve your professional goals.



Recommended Readings

How to Become a College Counselor

How to Get a Counseling Degree

What to Expect in Counseling Courses



GoodTherapy, School Counseling

Indeed, How to Become a School Counselor

KidsHealth, School Counselors

Positive Psychology, “What Is School Counseling? 14 Roles & Goals of Counselors”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors