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  • Lee McDonald

Building a Comprehensive School Counseling Program

Today’s mental health challenges among adolescents are well documented. According to the World Health Organization, depression is one of the leading causes of illness among adolescents while suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds. In honor of National Suicide Awareness Month, let’s discuss a sometimes overlooked role that is not only critical to student learning but to social and emotional development as well.


School counselors are essential stakeholders in a sustainable plan to support social and emotional learning. School counselors are key educators who reinforce student learning and maximize adolescent development. They assist students in managing emotions while applying interpersonal skills, developing academic achievement strategies and planning for college and career.


With an increasing need for student social and emotional support, a comprehensive school counseling program is crucial as part of your school or district’s plan for social and emotional learning. A school counseling program should ideally be guided by a pro-active curriculum that meets the needs of your school community. Model school counseling programs are grounded in a curriculum aligned to standards and competencies from the American School Counselor Association.


ASCA standards and competencies include the counselor mindsets and behaviors needed to guide students as part of a comprehensive school counseling program. ASCA mindsets are the recommended beliefs counselors should hold regarding student achievement and success.


ASCA behaviors are the essential actions counselors exhibit while implementing a comprehensive school counseling program. These best practices include a professional foundation (key counselor skills), direct and indirect student/family services and planning and assessment (program design and implementation).


As a first step, complete a needs assessment to determine what students need and what is not currently being provided by way of individual counseling, small groups and classroom lessons. Making Data Work is a great resource from ASCA publications and includes a school counseling practices self-assessment, tools to integrate the ASCA model and other best data driven practices.


When building your school counseling program, consider what direct services you will offer students. This can include solution focused brief counseling for personal, social and emotional issues. Setting and tracking SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) goals to help students progress academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. Individual academic support, advising and course selection. Post-secondary planning for vocational or technical schools and two or four year colleges. Career exploration to learn about various careers and occupations and how they align to a student’s interests, skills and values.


The facilitation of pull out psychoeducational support groups to assist students in gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate life’s difficult situations is also recommended. Potential topics include family dynamics (divorce, separation), social media, anger management, study skills, stress management, friendship and girls/boys subject specific topics.


Push in classroom lessons with direct social and emotional instruction on self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness and relationship skills. Other potential topics include understanding diverse perspectives, problem solving, conflict resolution, healthy coping skills and prosocial behaviors. Such proactive programming goes a long way in establishing a positive school culture and climate.


You may also wish to consider including character education programming as part of your school counseling curriculum. Character.org offers many free resources including 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, a framework for educators seeking school of character certification. Chip Wood’s Yardsticks is another great resource for educators to better understand child and adolescent development and social and emotional behaviors.


Indirect services, comprising of intervention and referral services to support teachers and students with school and home related challenges, are also typically part of school counseling program. This includes an interdisciplinary team of professional educators of teachers, administrators, child study team and counselors who coordinate services and team delivery systems to address the full range of student learning, behavior, social, and health problems in the general education setting. These supports can also be used to identify students in need of special education programs and services or as part of a Response to Intervention multi-tiered systems of support.


Wherever you are in this process, there are many resources through ASCA and other sites to get you started in building a comprehensive school counseling program. Get a team together to help you build support and momentum toward this goal as doing so is critical in supporting the academic, social and emotional needs of today’s students!

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