Helping students: School counselors in spotlight this week

Current officers for the Delaware School Counselors Association: from left, Frank Shockley, vice president; Jennifer Davis, director; Maud Forsberg-Davis, director; Krissy Hall, secretary; and Brandon Townsend, president. Submitted photo

Decades ago they were guidance counselors, whose priority was helping students chart their course after post-secondary education.
Times have changed. So have the role and name.

In today’s world, the guidance counselor moniker has given way to school counselor, whose mission is to improve success for all students through implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program.

“Twenty years ago we were guidance counselors. And now, we’re not,” said Frank Shockley, school counselor at Southern Delaware School of the Arts, a grade K-8 magnet school in the Indian River School District. “Guidance counseling was something around forever. With a guidance counselor you were really focusing on whether a student was college ready, career ready … like helping them figure out what direction they are going to go in life.”

In the late 1990s, the American School Counselor Association promoted the change of retiring the word guidance counselor and making it school counselor. “About 20 years ago, there was this kind of a shift,” said Mr. Shockley, who currently serves as vice president of the Delaware School Counselor Association.

The difference, he says, is quite simple.

“School counselors are more proactive, more preventative,” he said. “Guidance counselors were very reactive. If a problem arose then they would help handle it, whether it was with a teacher, an administrator. Our job as school counselor is to be proactive. We want to try to prevent things from happening by being kind of this voice for the whole child and mental health.”

Feb. 3-7 is National School Counseling Week. It’s a time of emphasized advocacy and awareness to bring to light the importance of school counselors.

“You read the papers and stuff, and you don’t really hear about school counselors too often. It is not surprising to me, especially now I’ve been in the business for five years,” said Mr. Shockley. “Because a lot of times the school counselors work behind the scenes.”

The Delaware School Counselors Association membership is about 300 strong, encompassing elementary, middle and high school levels in Sussex, Kent and New Castle counties.

“Elementary school counselors have kind of been the last ones to be added to the equation,” Mr. Shockley said.

These days, a key focus is mental health.

“Focusing on the whole child is important,” said Mr. Shockley. “If you look at data, and there are so many sources out there, it tells you that mental health needs are on the rise. I think that is part of the reason why you’ve seen a shift of guidance to school counselor.”

School counselors are certified/licensed educators. Education requirements vary from state to state, Mr. Shockley said.

In Delaware, a school counselor must have a master’s degree in school counseling. “It would be master’s in education, focus on school counseling,” he said.

The school counselor mission is to help all students:

• apply academic achievement strategies;

• manage emotions and apply interpersonal skills;

• plan for postsecondary options (higher education, military, work force);

Appropriate duties include providing:

• Individual student academic planning and goal setting;

• school counseling classroom lessons based on student success standards;

• short-term counseling to students;

• referrals for long-term support;

• collaboration with families/teachers/administrators/community for student success;

• advocacy for students at individual education plan meetings and other student-focused meetings;

• data analysis to identify student issues, needs and challenges

“We aren’t teachers. We’re not administrators. We’re kind of a little bit of everything,” said Mr. Shockley. “It’s such an important job. We are trained to wear so many different hats.”

The school counseling effort provides an opportunity for students “to step outside the classroom,” said Mr. Shockley. “Education is so rigorous these days and students just need that type of support. Teachers can’t always provide that … and administrators are trying to run the entire building.”

Part of the advocacy is clarification, Mr. Shockley said.

“I know a lot of times people get confused, throwing in the word ‘counselor.’ Sometimes people get us confused with therapists. That is one thing we are not. We aren’t trained therapists, not mental health therapists,” he said. “We’re kind of the like the first responder — like an EMT reference. But we also have access to the resources to get students and families connected with therapists for some type of psychological services, if they need that. There are a lot of things happening these days. As an organization we definitely support more mental health resources.”

School counseling can entail group or individual attention and even family focus.

“Maybe they need help with social skills, developing friendships. Maybe they need help with behavior or attendance,” Mr. Shockley said. “We have the skill set to offer that type of support at school level. We also have the opportunity to meet students one on one.

“It could be social or emotional stuff, academic stuff, career stuff, behavior stuff. And if we feel like it’s something that we don’t have the skill set for, then we can get connect that student with the proper resource. That would be like referring them out to a therapist, and if the family agrees and wants its, connecting them with a school psychologist.”

“It’s connecting them with any resource they need. Sometimes it is connecting them with a food bank, or with organizations that give free clothes,” he said. “Our big mission is to support the whole child.”

A school counselor typically serves several hundred students. The American School Counselor Association sets the best effective student/school counselor ratio at 250 to one. Obviously, that ratio varies from school district to school district. It is often impacted by school unit count and financial resources.

“There are a lot of buildings where that (250 to one) is not happening, not just statewide but nationwide,” said Mr. Shockley. “The more of us there are the smaller the ratios, the more time we have to spend with each individual kid.”

In observance of National School Counseling Week, the DSCA will hold two recognition dinners — in New Castle County tonight and Kent/Sussex County on Thursday.

“It’s thanking them for hard work they put in, day to day,” said Mr. Shockley.

The DSCA also honors its members with an annual school counselor of the year award, selected from a small pool of finalists.
“Really, it is for advocacy and awareness,” said Mr. Shockley.