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Turning Barriers into Opportunities

By Shari Sevier and Janice Speck | August 2020

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Are you frustrated by being assigned duties and responsibilities that become barriers to delivering your program? With advocacy and collaboration, these obstacles can often be turned into opportunities that enhance our programs.

Some schools have traditionally established a pattern of using school counselors to complete tasks outside their area of expertise or code of ethics, such as: supervisor, disciplinarian, clerical/IT administrative assistant, testing/assessment coordinator, special education/504 coordinator/case manager, and therapist. All these tasks must be covered for the school to run smoothly. So how can we transform these barriers into opportunities?

Supervision is necessary in all schools so that students are safe. Here are some suggestions:
  • When covering a classroom, use the time to deliver the school counseling curriculum.
  • If supervising just a few students, turn it into a focus group to gather information about students’ needs or evaluation of the program, giving students a voice.
  • If assigned to a hallway, lunchroom, recess or morning entryway duty, consider this your “satellite office,” providing an opportunity to answer questions and do check-ins to eliminate the need for students to miss class time. These are also great times to get to know students, greet them, and observe social behaviors.
Being involved in discipline situations puts school counselors in an unethical, dual-relationship situation. This might have legal implications because the counselor is not a certified administrator and can affect professional relationships with faculty and staff. Possible solutions for discipline situations include:
  • With your administrator, determine a set of expectations that allows you to work with students on problem solving, conflict resolution, and better decision making.
  • Take notes and gather background information on a situation so the administrator knows what it entails and can deal with it when they return.
  • Clarify expectations ahead of time regarding discipline hearings. School counselors are the students’ advocate – you can easily talk with the student about making good choices and better problem solving, but it is not your place to determine punitive consequences. Plus, doing so is detrimental to your relationship with students.
For staff or parent issues, school counselors could implement problem-solving strategies such as:
  • Listening to show empathy and understand the issue from all perspectives, including how it is impacting the person raising the issue.
  • Asking probing/open-ended questions, including what their idea of a good resolution might be.
  • Negotiating a solution or compromise.
  • Documenting the meeting by taking copious notes and letting the person know these will be shared with the administrator.
  • Showing gratitude and thanking them for their collaboration.
School counselors may find themselves being asked to fill in for clerical staff in writing passes, registering new students, or entering data. This assistance might be necessary in the case of an emergency, but it should not be the standard practice. Suggestions include:
  • Share the pass-writing duty amongst everyone in the office and create preprinted passes.
  • For registering new students, create packets that parents can complete before meeting with the school counselor.
  • Advocate for one consistent person (not the school counselor) to enter all data into the student information system. Track your time on task data to show the negative effect this responsibility will have on fully implementing the school counseling program.
Test coordination can take away the services of a school counselor from students, staff and parents from March/April to May/June, leaving no one to serve social/emotional or postsecondary planning needs at the end of the school year. If you are assigned this responsibility it is time to communicate, compromise, and advocate in the following ways:
  • Request clerical assistance for counting and sorting test booklets, answer sheets, pencils/erasers.
  • Request IT help to set up electronic testing materials.
  • Ask administrators to make sure that the faculty knows that the school counselor has the administrator’s support and may delegate responsibilities.
  • Request help from department leads or grade-level teachers to assist with test facilitation of their subject areas.
  • Suggest hiring of retired teachers/counselors to take over make-up exams.
  • Using time on task data, present the issue to your school board to provide a part-time test coordinator (possibly a retired counselor or teacher).
School counselors are often asked to be the 504 coordinators. However, a team approach may be the best way to address this process. By collaborating as a 504 team, each member’s work can be done more efficiently, effectively and fairly. For example, nurses coordinate medical 504s; administrators coordinate behavioral 504s; school counselors coordinate social/emotional 504s; and a teacher representative can coordinate academic 504s. Administrator involvement is critical because only they can assign school/district funds, facilities and/or personnel for accommodations.

Although school counselors are the mental health professionals in a school setting, they are not available to provide long term therapy. Ideas in this area include:
  • If school counselors are included for counseling minutes in an IEP, suggest the following language: “The student may seek the assistance of the school counselor on an as-needed basis.”
  • When meeting with parents of students who may need Tier 3 services, provide a list of therapists and/or community resources for them to contact that clearly states that the district does not endorse any specific therapist.
With clear communication, compromise and strong advocacy, school counselors can turn projected barriers into important opportunities. This creates a win for administrators, for counselors and, most important, for the students.
Shari Sevier, Ph.D., LPC, is director of advocacy for the Missouri School Counselor Association. Janice Speck, Ed.D., is a counselor educator with Missouri Baptist University.