At the base of the tree are the theoretical roots that anchor the practice of school counselors including: a developmental focus, a systems perspective, a commitment to social justice, and a dedication to data-based practice and ethical decision-making.
The goal of school counseling is to promote development of the whole child in order to ensure students will “flourish.” A flourishing student is one who is most fully receiving the benefits of his/her educational experience and is achieving their personal potential. Moreover, the goal of school counseling is not only to support positive, healthy, human development, but also to help create a school environment that protects a student’s right to flourish.
Using a “strengths-based” framework (Galassi & Akos, 2007), school counseling programs should have two goals: 1) to foster the developmental assets of students (Benson, Scales, & Mannes, 2003) and 2) to reinforce protective factors that build resiliency in students (Werner & Smith, 1992). Toward both of these objectives, school counselors maintain a focus on the strengths of students as opposed to a focus on pathology or remediation of student deficits.
Research by Benson (1997) and associates have identified 40 developmental assets that enable students to flourish. These assets can be categorized into 4 groups of 20 external assets (support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, time) and 4 groups of 20 internal assets (educational commitment, values, social competencies, positive identity) as described in the following links:
As the links illustrate, each of the 40 assets can be described in observable terms and each asset subsequently lends itself to a school counseling program goal. For example, in the first category of support, assets 5 and 6 are “caring school climate” and “parent involvement in schooling” respectively.
The resiliency literature (Bernard, 2004) has identified protective factors that can be implemented at both the individual and system level. One model, proposed by Henderson and Milstein (1996), includes six protective factors that fit the school counseling mission:
School counselors operate from a social justice orientation. This social justice orientation has three primary elements: (1) the perspective of equity in student access and outcomes from school counseling programming, (2) the fostering of a safe and inclusive school climate that allows all students to flourish, and (3) the understanding that ‘problems’ as more complex than residing within the individual alone, but rather requiring advocacy and the utilization of resources at the individual and school/community levels.
One of the callings for School Counselors, as outlined in our professional standards (ASCA 2005) is to serve all students. Historically this has been a difficult task because it has been easier to attend to small group of vocal students rather than finding the quiet students who are falling through the cracks. In the era of school reform, all school personnel have been asked to teach and reach the wide range of students who seek an education. In an effort to promote equity and access for all students, a professional school counselor must pay close attention to under-served groups in their schools. That is students who, due to poverty, ethnic/cultural group membership, gender, spiritual practices, disability status, and sexual orientation, have been denied access to opportunities or made to feel unwelcome.
The school counselor is uniquely qualified to identify and address injustice in the school setting for a number of reasons. First of all, the school counselor is in touch with a variety of stakeholders including students, parents/guardians, and staff members. They are trained to build relationships with stakeholders and utilize listening and facilitation skills to understand and respond to concerns present in a school community. Secondly, a school counselor serves as a member of committees and teams that consider policies and practices that impact students. They use their knowledge of individual concerns and school-wide problems to advocate for students who are being systematically denied access or treated unfairly. Finally, a counselor is trained to use data to develop and evaluate their comprehensive counseling and guidance program to ensure that all students are developing to their highest potential.
Acts of social justice may involve removing barriers to achievement, creating safe environments, or providing additional support for students in need. For example:
Whether it is promoting school-wide cultural awareness events, providing focused group sessions on college readiness, or increasing enrollment of underserved students in honors classes, a school counselor’s goal is to promote the flourishing of every student.
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Socio-Ecological Systems Theory posits that human development is shaped through an interaction between the individual and their environment. According to the systems perspective, individuals influence and are influenced by the systems in their environment. Student and school problems then, are a function of the pattern of interaction between the individual and their environment. Subsequently, in order to eliminate problems that block students from flourishing, those problems must be addressed on many levels and in the context of a ‘system’ that includes not only the student and school but also the student’s environment (family and community).
School counselors must work within and between multiple systems at different levels, including the student, school, and community. Since students influence and are impacted by the systems of which they belong (Bronfrenbrenner, 2005; Carns & Carns, 1997; Hernandez & Seem, 2004), a useful strategy for working with students and their families is to adopt a broader or a more holistic perspective. For example, professional school counselors have been long asked to see student issues through the lens of family systems perspective (e.g., Amatea & Brown, 2000; Lee, 2005).
In addition to students being members of a family system, the school is another a system. Schaef and Fassel (1992) described a school district as a mega system, a school as a system, and classrooms as subsystems. Families and schools are both an interconnected system (Amatea & Brown, 2000; Caffery, Erdman, & Cook, 2000), as well as a system in its own right with distinctive memberships and predictable ways of interacting. Students, therefore bring to school their family system dynamics, while attempting to negotiate the complexities of the classroom and school systems. This larger ecosystem provides the environment in which student problems evolve and the social context in which they can be analyzed and addressed by school counselors. Moreover, family systems and school systems are subsystems of yet a larger ecosystem—the social-cultural context of the community (Bronfenbrenner, 2005).
Through the National Model (2005), the American School Counselor Association fosters a developmental and systems approach to working with students and families. Because comprehensive programs integrate notions underlying holistic perspectives on child development (see Lerner, 2002, for a review), including developmental contextualism (Lerner, 2002), dynamic systems approach (Thelen & Smith, 1994), and Bronfrenbrenner’s (2005) ecological model, other educators (e.g., teachers, administrators, paraeducators) who are major contributors to students’ “educational subsystem” are also encouraged to help students reach career, academic, and personal-social developmental competencies. ASCA’s website provides a useful summary of how the national school counseling model functions in schools and school districts. In summary, a systemic perspective appears to be an effective framework for delivering guidance and counseling services in schools.
In light of Bronfenbrenner’s Socio-Ecological Systems perspective on obstacles to educational achievement, school counselors are required to make greater utilization of resources outside the classroom (Adelman, 2002). The school counselor can not afford to solely approach problems on an isolated, individual student level but rather must operate at a higher, systems level, working for change inside/outside the school while accessing supports and resources in the greater community in order to overcome impediments to student flourishing.
Amatea, E. S., & Brown, B. E. (2000). The counselor and the family: An ecosystemic approach. In J. Wittmer (Ed.), Managing your school counseling program: K-12 developmental strategies (2nd ed., pp. 192-203). Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media.
American School Counselor Association. (2005). The ASCA national model: A framework for school counseling programs (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.
Caffery, T., Erdman, P., & Cook D. (2000). Two systems/one client: Bringing families and schools together. The Family Journal, 8, 154-160.
Carns, A. W., & Carns, M. R. (1997). A systems approach to school counseling. The School Counselor, 44, 218-223.
Hernandez, T. J., & Seem, S. R. (2004). A Safe School Climate: A Systemic Approach and the School Counselor. Professional School Counseling, 7(4), 256-262.
Hinkle, J. S. (1993). Training school counselors to do family counseling. Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 27, 252-257.
Lee, C. (2005). Urban school counseling: Context, characteristics, and competencies. Professional School Counseling, 8,184-188.
Lerner, R. M. (2002). Concepts and theories of human development (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schaef. A.W., & Fassel, D. (1992). The addictive organization. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Thelen, E., & Smith, L. B. (1994). A dynamic systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
How do school counselors enact needs based, best practice?
Inherent in the strengths based approach and the strategic planning approach is the concept that school counselors develop comprehensive school counseling programs from evidence based best practice and based on student /school needs rather then prescribed percentage of time allotted to any one school counselor role/function (Brown & Trusty, 2003; Galassi & Akos, 2007; Wood & Kaszubowski, 2008). In order to effectively engage in data-based practices school counselors must disaggregate archival data (such as achievement scores, attendance, and discipline records) in order to prioritize the most pressing school priorities to be addressed by the school counseling program. Similarly, the school counseling program should conduct regular needs assessments of students, teachers, and parents/guardians in order to most effectively design and implement interventions from different tiers of the school counseling program.
Enacting evidence based practice means that school counselors use interventions and models proven to be effective. For example, research evidence suggests that conjoint behavioral consultation (CBC) is more effective than other consultation models (Guli, 2005). Therefore when engaging in consultation around a behavioral student issue, school counselors should work to include the teacher and parents/guardians in the consultation process. An effective school counselor consistently uses such best practices when enacting each of the various school counselor roles.
Ethical Decision Making
School counselors are confronted on a daily basis with situations that generate complex ethical problems. These problems are rarely solved through a quick reference to ethical codes or state laws. Rather professional school counselors must make ethical decisions that are based on ethical codes and laws, informed by consultation with other professionals and guided by a reflective process before and after taking a course of action (Corey, Corey & Callahan, 2007). School counselors engage in ethical decision-making in all of their activities; from individual cases and group counseling to parent consultation and culturally-appropriate intervention planning. Ethical decision-making starts with knowledge of the code of ethics for the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and an understanding of the decision-making process appropriate for professional dilemmas. In interpreting the ASCA code of ethics, school counselors regularly consult other professional colleagues, the Washington School Counselor’s Association (WSCA) and counselor educators.
Certified school counselors develop a professional identity congruent with knowledge of all aspects of professional functions, professional development, and state and national school counselor organizations. They adhere strictly to the profession’s codes of ethics, especially those that have been established by the American Counseling Association (ACA), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), and other relevant codes of ethics. They are familiar with state and federal policies, laws, and legislation relevant to school counseling.
Corey, G, Corey, M & Callahan (2007). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (7th ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.