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What is a Comprehensive School Counseling Program?

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Comprehensive School Counseling Program

A comprehensive school counseling program aims to support all students in terms of maximizing opportunities for academic achievement, ensuring mental health, reinforcing healthy emotional choices and advocating for students in general. School counselors design, deliver and review school counseling programs that should cover the foundations of counseling. These programs are integrated into the school’s mission and become part of the learning environment regardless of students’ ages or grade levels.

Few people would argue that there is no need for school counseling. Children and young people are not immune from stress, and the issues that cause that stress are increasingly complex. The sad fact is that, according to the US Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second- highest cause of death for people between the ages of ten and thirty-four. Additionally, the perceived necessity of a college education in America and the explosion in tech jobs has mandated an increased emphasis on academic success, adding to the pressure young people face from other issues. Recognizing those things, twenty-three states now require schools from kindergartens to high schools to have school counselors. Additionally, those states have put standards-based programs in place to ensure that the counseling will meet the needs of the students.

Focus of Comprehensive Counseling Programs

The primary aim of a comprehensive counseling program is to ensure the best outcome for every student with due attention given to their unique characteristics, including physical limitations, mental acuity, special abilities and social factors such as home environment, family circumstances and cultural differences. The scope of the program is broad with a special focus on preventive and developmental strategies. Program development is typically based on student data collected over the years. The American School Counselor Association or ASCA National Model provides a framework for a comprehensive school counseling program.

The ASCA Model

The most effective school counseling programs result from the collaboration of the counselor, families and other school staff. The program aims to make sure that all students have equal access to educational resources and referrals to community resources when needed. The program should define the benchmarks for educational achievement in very specific terms, and the program itself and all decisions pertaining to the program should be data-driven. According to ASCA, the program should cover the three developmental domains, which are academic, career goals and social/ emotional support. Additionally, the program should include the professional competencies, skills and abilities required of a school counselor managing the program.

Student Need/ Program Need

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While students needs are the prime consideration, the ASCA model also addresses the needs of school counselor programs in general. An abstract on the challenges of school counseling says that the greatest challenge is achieving legitimacy on three levels: organizational, institutional and political. School counseling programs are relatively new and grew out of career counseling to include academic and personal goals as well. They are diverse and vary school-to-school. The organizational platform on which legitimacy is based is the ability to prove success. Programs must be able to prove they are achieving results and, as so, have a reason to exist. Institutional legitimacy means that counseling must be recognized as an institution within the educational realm. For that recognition to occur, there must be common goals, standards and structure. Counselors, as part of the institution, must have roles in decision-making and policy. They must be recognized players in the system. The third area through which legitimacy is attained is political. When a program is recognized as having value, it is retained. Those who do not meet this qualifier disappear. School counseling programs have to achieve some social collateral that leads to “clout” according to the paper. That means programs must demonstrate they achieve the maximum results with the least use of resources. An example could be creating gang-mitigation programs such as after-school interventions among school students that visibly decrease violence in a community.
The ASCA standards help programs to reach all of those platforms to achieve legitimacy as a valued school asset that is identified by its proven successes, protocols and structure and its ability to affect change through intentional use of resources ( the counselors themselves).

Professional Requirements

Although some counselors find work after earning an undergraduate degree, being recognized as a professional counselor generally means earning a master’s degree. All states require professional counselors to be licensed. While requisites vary by state, that usually means having a counseling master’s degree along with completing a certain number of educational hours, practicum and internships. Licensing also requires passing state exams and having enough postgraduate clinical hours. School counselors typically have a degree or specialization in that discipline as well as internships and practicums performed in schools.

Role of the School Counselor

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School guidance counselors provide direct and indirect services to students. The school counselor may have more direct contact with high school students to provide assistance to comply with state and school graduation requirements as well as to provide guidance for making career choices and completing college applications. These functions are in addition to the day-to-day activities that may include conferences with parents, one-on-one interviews with students requiring assistance and similar pursuits.

Additional Counselor Responsibilities

Counselors work with individual students, with groups of students (such as a peer group that has been disruptive) with classes and entire schools and with parental and community groups as educators about mental health and academic interventions. With globalization and immigration, counseling has taken on an inclusive personality.
Part of counseling’s new direction is toward being culturally aware and reactive. Every school has a culture, and that culture is formed over time by faculty, staff members, the community around the school and even the students. A school’s culture might be reflected in the ethnicity or affluence of its students, in the unwritten rules of behavior, means of conflict resolution, safety of students, cleanliness and state of repair of classrooms and other things that influence student success or failure.
The influence today on ethnic parity plays into the role of school counselors. Minority students have been shown to have a disproportionate amount of health issues. That applies to the people in their homes as well. According to Counseling.org one in five students speaks a language other than English at home. Counseling can help those students navigate the waters of assimilation and come to value their ethnic heritages as assets.
Another aspect of this is the willingness of the inclusive counselor to examine his or her own cultural biases in forming relationships with clients because it is those relationships that spur on the trust, and it is the trust that causes change.

Difference in Elementary, Middle School and High School Counseling

The goal of school counseling at all levels is to help the student achieve academic, psychological and social health. That looks different in an elementary school than it does in a middle school or in a high school.

Elementary Counseling

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Issues elementary students face usually involve the home environment. Issues such as behavioral disorders and autism are compounded by physical and/or emotional abuse. A lack of resources may result in hunger or in not having seasonally appropriate clothing. Language barriers cause difficulties as well. Sometimes the counselors take on substitute parental roles while working with this age group.

Middle School Counseling

Middle schoolers face many of the same problems, but also begin to deal with body-image, sexuality, drug abuse, relationships and violence. Additionally, students in this age group are especially vulnerable to bullying and peer pressure. It is at this age, too, that academic pressure ramps up because grades are beginning to appear on permanent records that affect college admission.

High School Counseling

Counselors at the high school level are primarily concerned with helping students eliminate obstacles to academic success and in assisting them in charting an educational course that includes application to colleges and universities and obtaining resources. Additionally, these counselors will continue to work with students who struggle with special education needs.

The counselor-to-student ratio varies by school district and grade levels. ASCA recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students to achieve maximum results in the implementation of the comprehensive school counseling program. Various studies indicate that effective implementation of ASCA’s comprehensive school counseling program had a direct impact on raising student achievement, reducing the number of discipline referrals and managing behavior issues in all grade levels.

The ASCA model recommends that school counselors should be involved in direct and indirect student activities for at least 80 percent of their time. These activities include individual academic planning with students, administration and evaluation of the appropriate tests, counseling students for behavior challenges and other duties in this vein.

Measuring the Impact of School Counseling Programs

Program effectiveness should be measurable, and it is the job of the school counselor to demonstrate these outcomes based on data generated by school activities. The key benchmarks are student achievement, behavior improvement and attendance, which are all quantifiable in some way. Any data related to these three aspects should be used to recalibrate the program.

Positive Effects

According to one school counselor website, while the ASCA recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, the current ratio is actually one counselor to 476 students. Some schools see a ratio of 1000:1. In rural districts, schools often share counselors. It has been shown, however, that lower ratios lower the number of behavior incidents reported and raise the level of student academic performance.


When counselors collaborated within districts, they have advocated for systemic changes in the school cultures that reduced the dropout rate. They have also been able to affect changes in the school programs that lessened attrition.

Proactive Counseling

When counseling is done proactively in high schools, before students experience problems, there is less chance that they will leave school before graduation. Counselors who impart high expectations to their student clients are likely to see the students inculcate those expectations.

Behavior Issues

Counseling has been shown to lessen classroom disturbances that are due to behavioral issues. That, in turn, allows teachers to work unencumbered and to deliver a higher quality of instruction.

Risk Intervention

One study found that counselors, because of their training, could identify and assist at-risk children and youth. They not only developed but implemented programs that addressed needs at all levels. Interestingly, counselors were shown to also be highly effective in preventing youth suicide, starting in the early grades and involving family members. The professionals created a picture of suicide as a mental illness rather than as a way to end life in drama.

Impediments to School Counselor Success

Although the ASCA recommendation for a comprehensive school counseling program is that the counseling professional spend 80 percent of his or her time in counseling or adjunct activities, the reality is that they spend far less. In areas where schools share counselors, travel time eats up some of that allocation. Additionally, though collecting data about suicide rates, attrition and cultural information is important, as is writing reports about these things, those activities take time from actual counseling.
Another thing that eats up the counselor’s schedule is requisite accountability and the paperwork that entails. Meetings, such as those with family members or faculty and other people involved with student success are vital. So is assessing student needs through tests and interviews. Additionally, there is certainly time spent in face-to-face contact with individual students and student groups, in education through student assemblies and, in some cases, in supervising, or being supervised. All of those things, however, require paperwork.
An article in Psychology Today addresses ways in which school counseling programs could be made more effective. It suggests that parents advocate for counselors to be freed from tasks unrelated to counseling. That sounds like a no-brainer, and yet schools often ask the counseling staff to answer phones, substitute teach classes, supervise playground times and even act as crossing guards.
So, the Psychology Today article says that those issues could be solved if schools were required to adhere to the Comprehensive Guidance and Counseling Program as set forth by the American School Counseling Association. In other words, schools would be mandated to have certified, licensed counselors who would perform prescribed duties in their counselor role.
Building a standards-based comprehensive school counseling program is a bit like applying standards to the development of curriculum. Most people understand the need for uniform educational programs that give all students skills in mathematics, reading, science and technology. That is why schools require teachers to meet standards and to administer assessment tests. Successful student counseling requires more than a haphazard “pat on the back” and an “atta-boy” for achievements or a stern reprimand for perceived failures. It is not only time spent on children who cause problems or students identified with special needs. It also reaches out to families, breaches cultural barriers and recognizes achievements.


A comprehensive school counseling program focuses on the needs of students to ensure that they can make the most of their educational experience. The program should address the key aspects, including academic achievement, career guidance and support for social and emotional challenges. Outcomes should be documented and reviewed to serve as guidelines for realigning the program for subsequent school years.

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