The crucial role of school counselors in multidisciplinary teams

Given the complex times we live in, education along with raising children has never been so important, yet also never more challenging. In the US, a combination of intense pressure on the school system, in both financial and societal terms, the difficulties of the Covid-19 period, the growing inequality in society, and the iniquitous treatment of minorities, have created a truly difficult environment. This, combined with the hazards of social media, means that there are also a growing number of mental issues being reported among children and teachers alike, including stress, depression and anxiety.

This article will look at the role that school counselors can play in not only combatting these issues, but also in promoting positive learning in the classroom and helping students to greater achievement. In particular, the focus will be on how school counselors can thrive in multidisciplinary teams to provide invaluable support, while also looking at how people can build a career in this field, and the importance of lifelong learning in this kind of discipline. 

The role of a school counselor 

School counselors often play a key role in the success of a given school, both through their work with individual students and by providing valuable assistance and insight in relation to school-wide programs and general issues within the educational environment. Generally, school counselors are responsible for providing vital support and guidance to young people during the course of their academic careers.

Typically, one thinks of students being sent to see the school counselor after behaving badly in school. However, though this does happen, it is just as common for someone to decide to speak to the counselor at the school to help them with a problem or a question that they may have. School counselors often work with students to process their issues and potentially come up with an action plan or specific goals that may help them move forward.

Counselors also provide support in group settings and work to develop school-wide strategies. Furthermore, school counselors may also be responsible for mediating conflict between students and teachers, assisting with job or college applications, and even organizing peer counseling programs. In some cases, they may also choose to refer students to psychologists or to other specialists if they believe that they would benefit from additional assistance.

It is important to note, however, that the primary role of a school counselor is not to punish; instead, they should aim to help children should a diagnosis be necessary. They are present first and foremost to support students in a positive manner and provide a safe space for discussion and expression outside of the pressures of the classroom and without fear of punishment or recrimination.

Working as part of a multidisciplinary team

Today, many schools have found success by employing a multidisciplinary team to help students overcome problems and work to achieve shared goals for the future. Multidisciplinary teams work by forming a group of experts from a range of different professions in order to tackle a specific issue or set of issues, or to address how to attain a given goal.

Ideally, each party adds valuable information, and through strategic discussion, the group can then connect with each other and identify areas for action or improvement in relation to the present levels, goals and progress of a student or group of students, as well as any relevant support and services that may need to be provided.

There are several benefits to a multidisciplinary approach. In general, we can say that it is hoped that by bringing together people from different fields, it will be possible to gain a more overarching, diverse and complex picture of the issue at hand, and to use a variety of approaches to help take decisive action. Various members of the team are typically asked to provide valuable insights into the discussion and suggest potential solutions, which the team as a whole can then analyze in terms of their potential effectiveness. In addition, any individual who works on a regular basis with a multidisciplinary team has immediate access to a support network where they can potentially seek out assistance with any issues they may have.

A broad perspective

In education, the people involved in a multidisciplinary team may include teachers, support staff, school administrators, child psychologists, speech and language therapists, parents, and, of course, school counselors. Naturally, the perspective of a teacher will be different from that of a parent, counselor or administrator, and each party must work hard to understand and collaborate with the other.

Typical situations where a multidisciplinary team might be required include developing a basis for assessing the development of student progress, identifying ways to provide additional support for students, collaborating on research-based intervention strategies, advocating equitable education and working hard to remove any systemic barriers that may be in place.

It is important to note that while school counselors will have been trained to deal with a variety of situations and will have strong theoretical knowledge to underpin their decision-making, the kind of approach needed and the circumstances involved can vary wildly depending on the specific academic setting, as well as the surrounding context of the socio-economic environment in which the student or group of students find themselves.

In the US, many schools look to provide a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), which refers to a framework of continuous improvement where educators look to provide support through academic and behavioral strategies for children with the help of data, with the aim of meeting the social, emotional, and behavior needs of students from a strengths-based perspective. With this approach, students are assessed both in terms of their academic achievements and their general levels of behavior.

It is hoped that by conducting detailed assessments on a regular basis, it will be possible to identify potential issues in time and provide the requisite academic, social, emotional, or behavioral support as early as possible. 

How counselors can make the difference

There are several ways in which school counselors may be asked to contribute to a multidisciplinary team. One potential task would be to discuss issues with other members of the team in order to identify potential strategies moving forward — for example if a class or an individual is suffering from poor academic performance in a particular area, or if the school has identified a particular goal, such as improving the behavior of children in between lessons.

In the latter case, the counselor can lean on their theoretical knowledge and previous experience to provide potential practical solutions — such as setting clear expectations for students and providing individual support for children that struggle to meet those expectations — that might help the school achieve its objective.

Counselors may also be asked by the team to work with students on an individual basis to provide further support, or to provide short-term, goal-orientated counseling sessions to students as part of a plan to reach a certain objective. This might involve working with students who have been identified as having issues concentrating in class and trying to explore positive strategies for improving their classroom behavior and performance and delve deeper into why this may be happening, for example stress at home, or underlying neurotypical difficulties such as ADHD.

In addition, counselors may be asked to work with teachers to adapt the curriculum or lesson structure to suit particular sets of students, formulate goals that are appropriate for children with specific learning difficulties or styles, or tackle various social issues, such as racism or LGBTQ issues. They may also work with other education professionals to assist with selecting the right academic path for different students.

A wide range of skills needed

Naturally, it is essential for anyone involved in these processes to have not only a wide range of experience, so that they can understand the issues involved, but also a detailed level of specialist knowledge and theoretical background. School counselors generally need to be well-versed in the use of statistical models for assessing student behavior and academic performance, understand key indicators related to mental health issues, and be capable of identifying potential gaps in education for students of certain demographics.

In addition, it is vital to have a detailed understanding of the potential reasons for particular issues that students may be experiencing — for instance, how a student’s behavioral levels may be affected if their parents are going through a divorce, or how socio-economic issues can impact or influence academic performance, as well as what strategies are available to help produce positive results.

One of the biggest advantages of working with a school counselor is that they can take a wider view. Teachers are generally under constant pressure to achieve positive academic results, follow the given curriculum and ensure that discipline is maintained within the classroom.

Counselors, on the other hand, can take a more holistic approach, focusing not only on these factors — all of which are undoubtedly important within a school — but also paying greater attention to the well-being of students and the overall environment of the school, as well as any other factors that may be overlooked. They are also able to devote a greater amount of individual attention to students that may require it.

Preparation is key to the transition

Given the complexity of the task and the wide range of skills needed to succeed in this kind of challenging environment, naturally, school counselors require a great deal of academic preparation and professional experience. There are several options available for people who are interested in a career as a school counselor, but in general, in the US at least, prospective counselors are required to complete a BA in any subject, before a master’s degree in counseling.

It should be noted, however, that many school districts will specifically request an MA in school counseling, due to the specific nature of the educational environment, which requires specialist knowledge and training.

Interestingly, more and more teachers interested in building a second career are looking to make the transition from teacher to school counselor. This career path, available by gaining a degree from St Bonaventure University, is particularly attractive for teachers who enjoy working in the school environment but would like to be able to give students greater individual attention with fewer constraints, and focus more on the well-being of the children instead of academic achievement or class dynamics.

School counselors who are former teachers are also particularly attractive prospects for schools, as they can use their classroom experience to empathize with both the students themselves and the other educators involved, while they are also used to working with parents, administrative staff and other specialists to provide educational and behavioral support.

Fortunately, courses like the online Master of Science in Education School Counseling at St. Bonaventure University can be completed by prospective counselors even if they already work full or part-time in another position. Students of the course will have the opportunity to work towards becoming fully licensed school counselors and gain a detailed understanding of both the practical strategies involved in the work and the theoretical frameworks that underpin the role of a counselor in an educational environment.

In addition to more theory-based work, students will also have the opportunity for field placements in a variety of different school environments so that they can gain the experience needed to start their new careers. Furthermore, the online nature of the course means that it can be completed without having to relocate to a campus university, and its flexible nature is particularly useful for current teachers.

Continuous improvement

Of course, further experience is still vital once fully qualified as a counselor. Just like with any other profession, new school counselors will lean on their theoretical knowledge and field placements to help them deal with the challenges of their new profession. However, it is only by beginning to work in a genuine school environment on a consistent basis over many years that they will really begin to grow in their profession.

Of course, particularly in their early years, most counselors will rely on the help of both the more experienced fellow counselors, and their colleagues in the school, including teachers, administrators, and other specialist support staff. There is also no question that the very best school counselors will always assume that they have more to learn and will continue to focus on their own professional development.

In fact, the concept of lifelong learning is in many ways crucial to building a successful career as a school counselor, given that it is essential to not only be aware of the developments in the fields of counseling and psychology, but also to have up-to-date knowledge of the educational sphere, and also some understanding of particular challenges faced by children in the area or the environment in which they live.

As well as additional formal courses that may be available, many school counselors also benefit from mentoring schemes, peer-to-peer review sessions, and simple informal discussions with colleagues. Naturally, there is also plenty of information available in written form, both online and in print.

A key position in any school

Overall, there is no question that school counselors can have a genuinely positive and often crucial effect on a child’s educational pathway, by not only helping them to deal with any problems or issues they may face, but also by helping them to set and reach positive goals in their lives.

However, it is important to note that in a complex and usually large organization like a school, no one can change things on their own. Though much of the daily tasks of a school counselor may take place in a certain degree of isolation from other school staff as they focus on the specific needs of individual students, at the same time, they are best able to help students deal with their problems and achieve their goals by working in close cooperation with the other people involved. This is why, in many cases, a multidisciplinary team can be the best way for them to instigate real change.

There is no question that anyone who trains to be a school counselor is taking on a significant challenge. In addition to the current issues listed at the start of the article, school counselors must be prepared to deal with a wide range of other more universal problems in a high-pressure environment.

The best school counselors, however, are able to show empathy and understanding combined with professional knowledge in order to help children reach their true potential. The journey is never easy, but the reward of helping young people move toward a brighter future is almost unparalleled.

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