The Evolving Role of High School Counselors

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In 2017, former First Lady Michelle Obama described school counselors as education “heroes” who help legions of young people find their way from uncertainty to prosperous, confident futures. Mrs. Obama is widely known for giving education a high profile during her time in the White House, and she took countless opportunities to point out the role that counselors can play in shaping students’ paths to college and in life.

Counsel, according to dictionaries, is advice, opinion or instruction given in directing the judgment or conduct of another. That, paired with a healthy dose of compassion and education, sums up the role of today’s school counselors. The first school counselors in the United States emerged in the late 1800s during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Jesse B. Davis is considered the first school counselor in the U.S. because he was the first to implement systematic guidance programs in schools in 1907. As a high school principal, Davis encouraged the school English teachers to use compositions and lessons to relate career interests, develop character and avoid behavioral problems. From the 1920s to the 1930s, school counseling and guidance grew thanks to the rise of progressive education in schools. But when the Great Depression hit, the result was a temporary decline in school counseling and guidance.

In its first hundred years, the role of school counselor was that of guide and mentor when it came to helping high schoolers with academic and personal issues, especially students preparing for their college years. It’s only been recently, in the past ten years, that counseling has become a defined career path and the role has morphed into addressing social and emotional issues in a preventative instead of a reactive way.

In reality, school counselors are not just guidance counselors any more. This dedicated and grossly understaffed legion of men and women helps students with academic, emotional and social issues that come up at school. The needs of high school students differ from the issues of elementary school students as well, so trained school counselors must shift their methods to accommodate these needs.

“Within the last five years, we’ve also noted an uptick in the demand to help kids with social and emotional issues such as depression and anxiety,” noted Trudi Storbacken, a school counselor of 20 years. “Studies have shown that students ages 13 to 18 are the most affected with anxiety and depression, but we are seeing a rise in chronic anxiety in elementary students as well. In the middle school level, much of our time is focused on helping kids in crisis and also being in the classroom to help students learn about personal boundaries, self-worth and good choices.”

Storbacken shared that sensory or break rooms are being added to elementary and middle schools to give lower-grade students a place to go for a few minutes to gather themselves. For students with occupational therapy components in their IEPs or 504 plans, these rooms are used as a therapy tools. “Calming rooms” consist of a quiet space with dimmed lights, books, kinetic sand, coloring and soothing music, all designed to help anxious students decompress, gather their thoughts and go back to class better than when they left. More activity-based areas are available for students who need to expend nervous energy. These sensory rooms are stocked with ball pits, trampolines, squeeze machines, swings, balance beams and tactile boxes that offer a sensory break from the overstimulation, bright lights, loud noises and constant motion of a classroom.

Gone are the days of school counselors who sit in an office handing out college applications, making schedule changes or waiting for a crisis to occur. Today’s school counselors are vital members of the education team and they’re often the first line of contact with students in crisis. Their unwavering mission to support the emotional and social needs of today’s students is continuing proof that our former First Lady was correct; school counselors are indeed our education system’s unsung heroes.

“Our job is a huge faith walk,” Storbacken concluded. “Being that person students confide in or go to during the tough times is a gift. Most days my peers and I don’t know who will need us, but we go in with the strong faith that we are right where we need to be. Our gift to them is our time, patience and love. We are committed to using our training to make a significant difference in these kids’ lives while helping them to get through another day at school. We all have a deep passion for the generation and helping them be the best they can be.” ■

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