Area’s school counselors face new challenges amid changing landscape
School counselors are now responsible for so much more than getting students into their classrooms and then out into higher education and finally their own careers.
Area’s school counselors face new challenges amid changing landscape
School counselors are now responsible for so much more than getting students into their classrooms and then out into higher education and finally their own careers, according to Learn4Life, a network of non-profit public schools that provides students personalized learning, career training and life skills.
Today’s school counselors must also focus on the mental health, behavioral health, emotional well-being and psychosocial development of the many students they serve. With an all-too-constant virtual barrage of headline news of mass shootings, brutality, drug overdoses and hate speech on social media, emotions can be triggered of young people’s own past traumas.
This can lead to them acting out, withdrawing from their school work and falling behind on their academics, the Learn4Life study says.
“School counselors play a significant role in promoting student success, fostering emotional health and shaping the leaders of tomorrow,” said Jaspreet Kaur, school counselor coordinator for Learn4Life. “Unfortunately, across the country there is a lack of understanding and consistency in the role of the school counselor. And with a shortage of professionals and insufficient funding, we have a system that often underserves minority students, those from low-income households and others most in need of help.”
National School Counseling Week was Feb. 6-10, a recognition that brings a renewed emphasis on funding to hire more counselors. There are currently more than 130 child-focused organizations petitioning the White House to declare a federal national emergency in children’s mental health.
Local school districts are responding to the changing challenges of school counseling.
“Counselors and all school staff are required to do much more than ever before,” Rome City School District Superintendent Peter Blake assessed. “Unfortunately, the role of the counselor changed in the 1970s and most communities simply continued down the path of counselors being responsible for career planning and post-secondary life, which is why there is such a void in many places related to supporting kids and families through trauma-related events and/or social/emotional skills.”
Blake said the Rome district urges its counselors to participate in professional development, attend conferences and workshops led by people outside of their own region, and to focus on collaboration both internally and externally.
At this time they aren’t looking to expand on their counseling staff, but Blake said the counselor-to-student ratio in the district has always been one of the best in the region, if not the state. Many districts are still working to find full-time counselors for elementary schools, he said, which Rome has had for a long time.
Amanda Jones, the director of counseling services for the Rome City School District, added that the applicant pool for state-certified school educators in general has dwindled. Nationwide the number of people going into the field of education has declined, Jones said.
Blake added he does not think the current situation is solely a mental health issue, but one of student behavior and defiance, which is most likely driven by what is being called “mental health.” There are many factors that are playing into why there has been such a drastic change in student motivation and behavior, Blake said, including school-related issues, family dynamics and general parenting.
“The issue is that people have problems, big and small, but society is struggling with assisting folks through issues and social media has created an environment where adults have zero trust in each other because everyone thinks they know better because of what they have found online in some platform,” he said. “The emergency is the loss of basic human interaction and people listening to each other. Until we get back to a place where people value each other as people, mental health and behavioral issues will continue to rise because the human brain can only take so much negativity.”
“We are seeing increases in both the severity and amount of behavioral issues of students, especially at the elementary and middle school levels,” Jones said. “This increases the number of students who need short term and long term supports at school, and sometimes counseling outside of school.”
When they make referrals to outside agencies for mental health and behavior related concerns, local agencies all typically have waiting lists averaging at least six weeks, she noted. This creates added pressure on the school counselors in particular because they spend the majority of their time doing preventative work and other tier 1 approaches with all children, but now must also address an increase in tier 2 behavior and mental health interventions. Their plates, which were already full, are now overflowing, Jones said.
Guidance Department Chair Alexis McKerrow at Proctor High School in Utica said since the start of the pandemic, they have recognized that the current student population has an increased need for mental health intervention and support.
“I think our role as school counselors has grown immensely in recent years compared to what the role of a school counselor was in the past,” McKerrow explained. “I think the quote in their assessment is something that we are seeing across our entire profession. It is my hope that with bringing attention and support to our profession that the public will have a better understanding of what our role is in the schools and the significant impact that we have on our student’s.”
McKerrow said in Utica they have formed a Mental Health Committee of various support staff to look at the mental health needs across the district. They have also implemented an Social Emotional Learning curriculum for students in grades K-8 and have provided more professional development for the district’s school counselors and support staff in grades K-12 pertaining to suicide prevention, crisis response and mental health.
Training is paramount in keeping up with current challenges facing the students and their counselors.
“I think it is very important to be providing continuous opportunities for professional development to our school counselors as well as staying up to date on the most recent information being put out by ASCA (American School Counselor Association) as well as NYSSCA (New York State Counselor Association),” McKerrow explained. “Also, the collaboration between our school social workers and school counselors is imperative to ensure we are providing the best counseling support and social/emotional support for our students.”
New Hartford Central School District Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said he sees a lot of evidence that the educational system at large is currently underserving students who are in need. And it isn’t just a local problem.
“I think we are seeing in all communities today that there is a dramatic increase in mental health needs,” he explained.
But this is not necessarily a new topic, as Tangorra said he recalls conversations on rising mental health issues going back to the late 1990s while in another administration role.
“We were seeing a rising number of students with mental health issues even then and it hasn’t gotten better,” he said. “The needs of families and students has increased while services across the board have diminished.”
In the New Hartford district, they have capitalized on a recent increase in Foundation Aid to improve their own offerings from school counselors and social workers, Tangorra said. And now they want to increase the focus to include even more students at a younger age - targeting elementary school-aged kids for school counseling services including early assessments and interventions where necessary.
“Here we are focused on all of the pathways to education,” Tangorra said. “We want to make sure we not only concentrate on college and career preparation for our students but also that their social and emotional needs are met as well.”
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