This first week in February is National School Counseling Week, sponsored by the American School Counselor Association and the Connecticut School Counselor Association, and it provides the perfect opportunity to highlight the unique contribution of school counselors within Connecticut public schools.
What does school counselors’ work entail? Eileen Melody, chairman of the Connecticut School Counselor Association, says that counselors work with students in three different realms: academics, workforce readiness, and social and emotional needs.
What that looks like on a day-to-day basis for a counselor varies greatly. Melody, a middle school counselor in Mansfield, says, “I’ll be in my office and the phone will ring with a call from a teacher who asks me, ‘I have a student who is having trouble regulating—can they come spend time with you?’ Or I’ll get a call from a parent: ‘My son just lost his father, can you meet with him? Can you talk to his teachers about the difficult time he’s having right now?'”
Both of the above are opportunities for Melody to meet one-on-one for counseling with a student, but she also works with students in groups. “I deal with a lot of peer conflicts. Students who aren’t getting along, and it’s affecting their work in the classroom. At the middle school level conflicts grow very fast. Individual disagreements can grow from involving two kids to 16 kids very quickly, so it’s important to intervene right away.”
Melody also meets with students in lunch groups to work on social skills development, helps run a career café in the fall, and works with the school’s Unity Club, which provides a safe, non-judgmental space for students of all backgrounds and sexual orientations. She also goes into classrooms to lead lessons with students, including co-teaching lessons on high school transitions for middle schoolers about to make that leap.
School counselors are certified staff who have master’s degrees in school counseling. Their k-12 certification enables them to work in elementary, middle, and high schools, yet only 26 percent of elementary schools employ school counselors.
“We see this as a great disservice to students,” Melody says. It is precisely in the early grades that teachers are seeing the biggest increase in students who need behavioral supports to succeed in the classroom.
“The average counselor to student ratio is 1:440, and that’s just not very manageable,” Melody adds. “If we’re starting our services at middle school or above, we’re missing a prime opportunity when children’s brains are developing and their patterns of behavior are being developed.”
Unlike school social workers and psychologists, who counselors work with closely, school counselors work with all students in a school.
“It’s very difficult for a teacher if they don’t have a counselor at their school to turn to,” Melody says. “Our role is very collaborative. We work with staff members as well as students and families, and we work to connect families and kids with the resources they need in and out of the building.”
Melody adds, “Schools cannot work in isolation. We have to work with families, some of whom are really struggling. I would love to see more partnerships and collaborations where diverse organizations all come together and look at how we can best help all kids succeed.”