Recognizing you need to talk to someone takes great strength – knowing who to talk to can sometimes be a challenge. Luckily, for most students, a guidance counselor is available throughout the school day that students can go for advice, help, or even just to catch up. Guidance counselors can be a support system and resource for students of all ages. Parents should be aware of how counselors can help emotionally and academically support your child.
“Our main responsibility is to support the social and emotional well-being of our students during their tenure here,” says Mike Strauss, school counseling department chair at Saint Ignatius High School. “This may be as simple as helping students navigate their courses and academics, to difficult situations such as the loss of a family member, bullying, mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues.”
Depending on the school, some schools may have only one guidance counselor for the entire student body, whereas other schools have half a dozen guidance counselors readily available to assist students any time they need. Both scenarios have their pros and cons, but establishing a relationship with a guidance counselor you feel best can support your needs is important.
“Each counselor has roughly 250 students among the four grades,” Strauss says. “We break our students up by letters of the alphabet and assign the counselors that way.”
“We all kind of work as a team,” adds Alicia McLean, director of school counseling at Beaumont School. “We do divide by grade level, but if one of us isn’t available, we all kind of step in.”
Students shouldn’t be afraid to drop by the guidance counselor’s office and see if they are available to chat. Some counselors may prefer that students set up appointments with them beforehand, but most will not turn down a student who is looking to chat.
“Students are free to drop in to see their counselors at any time,” Strauss says. “They can email us for appointments if that is easier.”
“We plan our day knowing that students will simply drop into our office and want to meet about things,” says Jeff Petrulis, school counselor at Rocky River High School. “For those who do like to schedule appointments, they can send us an email. Either way, we try to balance our scripted programming and lessons along with just being available for students as needed.”
Some schools may require students to meet with their guidance counselor once a semester or once a year. Each first meeting will look differently depending on the school and the counselor, but most counselors will try to get to know the student during the first initial meeting.
“There is no typical look to our first meeting,” Strauss says. “Sometimes students come in with a crisis and are very open right away. Others are hesitant to talk about things. We do our best to meet students where they are, and build a relationship of trust. Our philosophy is that we are our students’ biggest advocates on campus. Typically we will meet with our students several times a year. We also see students in our advisory program, which is a program that gathers 12-15 students each week to go over social-emotional lessons and community building activities. Our students know that we are a resource for them. Some are frequent visitors. Others drop in only once in a while.”
“It always looks a little different,” McLean adds. “If it’s something that’s pre-scheduled, the first meeting often is getting to know the student, getting to know their background academically, their family background, the things that they’re involved with, the challenges that they’re currently facing, their goals, etc. If it’s an unscheduled meeting, then it looks a little different. Then, it’s more of that direct approach to handling the problem at hand.”
Some students may not know what questions are off-limits to ask, or may feel uncomfortable opening up to their counselor. Students should share whatever they feel comfortable with.
“We let our students know that our place is a safe space,” Strauss says. “They can ask any kind of question, whether it deals with an academic issue or a social/emotional issue. We have had simple questions like where a club meets, to serious issues about suicide or depression. We often give an analogy that we don’t know what a student is carrying in their backpack emotionally, so we are ready for just about anything.”
“We are very open,” McLean adds. “We encourage our students to be open with us. They can ask us anything in terms of their academics, their struggles, their challenges, their goal setting. We are the kind of people in the building that they can come to about any topic that they might not be comfortable talking about at home or with their peers or with teachers.”
Guidance counselors are also a great academic resource. Students can go to them for academic advice, what classes they should take, how to handle academic stress and anxiety, and a variety of other topics.
“For some students, it’s helping them identify some clubs or sports activities they want to become involved with,” Petrulis says. “For us as counselors, we love to help students connect so that they really can engage in our school community, especially outside of the academic realm. We try to push them to find that school and community engagement.”
“We can advise students based on their future plans or goals, which classes to take, when to challenge themselves, what electives might be fitting for them that they might enjoy, things like that,” McLean adds. “We’re doing a lot of academic advising in that process. We also are doing it throughout the year. We do weekly grade tracks on our end, where we’re monitoring our pool of students and we’re monitoring their grades on a weekly basis. We come together then, in a student service management team, and meet bi weekly, and we discuss any students who might need additional academic advising.
Guidance counselors are present to help support a child’s emotional and mental needs. School and other areas in teen life can be challenging, and guidance counselors are there to offer support and a helping hand to those who need it.
“If our students know they have a trusted adult on campus, they are more likely to feel engaged and safe at school,” Strauss says. “As school counselors, we also know our boundaries. We do not diagnose students or treat students’ mental health situations, but we can offer resources outside of the school to get professional help.”
“I think you’ve got to bring it down to a human level,” adds Carolyn Beeler, college counselor, at Our Lady of the Elms. “It’s very important to listen to what is most important to the student. The main issue that students are facing today is anxiety and stress. Students generally are feeling a lot of stress and anxiety with going through this pandemic. There have been disruptions in learning and disruptions in their emotional growth. So some of the students might be a little bit behind in terms of their social emotional learning. That creates additional stress and anxiety for the students. We continue to be in a competitive culture and are constantly working towards trying to be the best and to be involved in so many different things. That is providing a lot of stress and anxiety and then social media is just adding to that, because they’re constantly exposed to what others are doing.”
Seeking help is not weak. It takes tremendous strength and courage to ask for help from a trusted adult on campus. There is more good that comes out of reaching out for help rather than suffering in silence.
“The biggest advantage is for a student to learn that they are not alone in their high school journey, and that they have someone they can trust in case they face adversity,” Strauss says. “Our message to our students is that courage is not figuring high school out on your own or keeping your emotions inside. Rather, courage is having the ability to ask for help when you need help.
Some students may feel anxious about meeting with the guidance counselor, which is completely normal. Do not be afraid to stop in and chat.
“Start with hello,” Petrulis adds. “Think of it as any other relationship. I would encourage them to remember that we’re on their side. Our goals are to help them accomplish their goals. We want to meet students where they are and then encourage them to make improvements along the way so that they can reach that level of self-efficacy as a young adult.
Some parents may be hesitant to let their child meet with the school counselor. It’s important to remember that school counselors are there as a resource for your child, not to judge them or their family.
“We’re here to help,” Petrulis says. “That includes both students and parents. We do not push any sort of agenda or try to push them in any certain direction. It’s about providing information and knowledge and hopefully helping to build the student’s self-confidence so that they know they can achieve their future goals.”