Becoming a school counselor: What should you know?




Child therapy holds immense value for the overall development of schoolchildren. It plays a pivotal role in helping them navigate their emotions and difficulties while improving their communication skills. These benefits not only provide immediate relief but also lay the groundwork for sustainable solutions in the future.

For those who get fulfillment from assisting children in overcoming the challenges they face in school and life, a school counselor could be the ideal career. Here is a look at what is involved in this profession, including educational requirements, certifications, and ethical responsibilities.

What does a school counselor do?

The focus of school counselors is to assist students in building their academic and social skills. This can lead to improved behavior, better grades, and stronger friendships. Counselors use various tools, such as teaching core curriculum lessons covering bullying prevention, career planning, and conflict resolution.

However, their work extends beyond aiding students with college applications and figuring out their schedules. The responsibilities of school counselors can vary based on the type of school or educational center that employs them. For example, a counselor for elementary students might focus more on helping them manage their emotions and form good relationships with peers and adults. On the other hand, a high school counselor might help prepare students for college and potential career paths.

What education do you need to become a school counselor?

The first step to becoming a qualified school counselor is to complete a four-year undergraduate degree in a related field. Common undergraduate degrees for school counseling include education, psychology, and social work.

A bachelor’s degree in psychology will give aspiring school counselors a comprehensive understanding of counseling techniques, human behavior, and mental health evaluation. Completing a bachelor’s degree in social work provides students with valuable insights on how to deal with issues that affect students, such as family and financial problems. This knowledge helps them collaborate better with teachers, understand how the education system works, and develop a supportive learning environment.

Having a doctorate isn’t necessary for this profession. However, most states require school counselors to earn a Master’s in Counseling or a similar field from an accredited university. In this program, students will cover counseling theories and approaches, behavioral and learning issues, ethics, human development, interventions, and legalities.

A Master’s in Counseling program generally takes around two years to complete. However, those who study part-time may take three or more years to finish their degree. Other programs also require more credits.

When considering how to become a school counselor, choosing a university accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) is essential. For example, St. Bonaventure University offers a CACREP-accredited online program. Students are not required to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) to apply, offering an accessible route into the profession.

How do you get certified and licensed?

The specific process and requirements for certification and licensure will depend on the state where one intends to practice. School counselors will need to meet educational and practical experience requirements. In some states, they may be asked to pass exams, submit test scores and transcripts, or pay a certain fee. 

In the United States, part of the certification process involves passing a standardized examination. This might include exams such as the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), a requirement in many states. This exam evaluates the knowledge and abilities needed to provide effective counseling services.

Another exam option for school counselor certification is the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE). The NCE consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, 160 questions of which are scored.

In California, students must pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) to become a licensed school counselor. The purpose of the CBEST is to evaluate basic reading, math, and writing abilities. Those who do not pass a section of the test will be given the option to retake the entire test or only the section they failed.

Aspiring school counselors in Missouri who did not complete a school counseling master’s program approved by the Missouri Department of Education will need to pass a Praxis II school counseling test and earn a score of 590 or higher. The Praxis II test checks how much students know about certain subjects and how well they can teach those subjects.

In addition to passing the necessary tests, some states will require school counselors to accumulate a specific number of hours of supervised experience before they can acquire a professional license. They might also need to complete extra coursework, participate in continuing education activities, or attend workshops to renew their license and stay updated on the best practices and industry standards.

The importance of hands-on experience

Getting real-life experience is a key part of counseling education. It lets professionals apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world situations. During their experience, they’ll have the chance to observe, learn important counseling skills, and do the work of a counselor.

Individuals aspiring to become school counselors typically gain knowledge and skills through internships and hands-on training guided by an experienced and licensed school counselor. Throughout their master’s program, they have the opportunity to shadow and learn from these licensed professionals, witnessing their interactions with students, teachers, and parents. Those focusing on mental health and wellness in school counseling often complete their practicum and internship alongside a licensed mental health counselor.

Not all areas of the United States require aspiring school counselors to gain practical experience, especially if they are already licensed teachers. The following states do not have requirements for experience or internships:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Maine
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia

In general, a school counseling student needs to complete approximately 600 to 900 hours of practical experience. This includes supervised fieldwork in school settings.

If a state has experience requirements, they might base them on a certain number of hours, a semester, or a school year. In California, for example, students are required to complete at least 48 hours of supervised training in a specialized program, including practical experience with school-aged children, if they are working on a post-bachelor’s degree. In Idaho, students must complete 700 hours of fieldwork, with 75% of it taking place in K–12 classrooms.

Becoming a school counselor requires various hands-on experiences. This means working directly with students, collaborating closely with teachers, and actively getting involved in school and community activities. By engaging in these different opportunities, aspiring school counselors can learn and improve the skills needed to make a meaningful impact on students and the school community.

Professional development for school counselors

School counselors manage many important duties, and it is essential for them to take part in continuous professional development. This helps them stay informed about the latest standards, practices, and research in their field, and it is a requirement to maintain certification as a school counselor in most states.

Many counseling organizations provide continuing education credits and training opportunities for school counselors. Here is a look at some of the most prominent organizations.

National Board for Certified Counselors

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is the organization in charge of approving ongoing education for counselors. They offer various continuing education programs, including conference courses, dissertations, home study continuing education, online courses, publication activities, volunteering (for a humanitarian, national, or state organization), webinars, and workshops.

American Counseling Association

The American Counseling Association (ACA) is a non-profit group certified by the NBCC as a provider of accredited continuing education. It represents all licensed counseling students, professional counselors, and other professionals in the US. Specific details about their current programs can be found on the American Counseling Association’s official website.

American School Counselor Association

At the forefront of its mission, the American School Counselor Association aims to champion school counselors and cultivate professionalism and ethical practices. ASCA provides support to school counselors worldwide through resources for professional development, conferences, online courses, books, and other helpful tools.

Every state has different continuing education requirements, and they are listed on the ASCA website.

Association for Counselor Education and Supervision

The Association for Counselor Education and Supervision is made up of teachers, students in higher education, counselors, and supervisors. This leading organization offers counselors in all work settings the chance to develop professionally. It mainly works toward improving counselor education and supervision in keeping with the ACA’s goals.

State counseling associations

Many state-level counseling organizations and boards provide training and continuing education programs for school counselors. Examples of state counseling associations include:

  • California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (CALPCC)
  • Florida Mental Health Counselors Association (FMHCA)
  • Ohio Counseling Association (OCA)
  • Texas Counseling Association (TCA)

School counselors need to keep learning, whether it is for getting certified, moving forward in their career, or finding new job options. They may face challenges, such as not having enough resources or time, and overcoming them will require a careful and complete strategy.

Building a professional network

Professional networking makes many people, especially introverts, feel uneasy, but making connections is crucial. Many studies demonstrate its benefits, such as increased job opportunities, improved innovative thinking skills, moving ahead in one’s career faster, feeling more satisfied at work, and performing higher-quality work.

To enhance their professional growth, school counselors should establish a robust network. In the dynamic field of education, staying updated on the latest counseling and child therapy studies and strategies is crucial, and this can be achieved by connecting with fellow professionals. This involves attending conferences, participating in training sessions, joining networking associations, engaging in mentorship programs, and becoming part of online forums and communities.

Here are several effective methods that can help professionals become more comfortable with the concept of networking.

  • Start with little steps: Smaller and more relaxed networking events are a good place to start to avoid the pressures of major conferences.
  • Identify motivation: Look for a strong motivation and focus on it. For example, professionals can think of networking as a way to deepen their knowledge or make genuine connections with like-minded counselors.
  • Keep a positive outlook: It may be helpful to think about how forming connections will help one grow as a school counselor and enhance their knowledge and skills.
  • Find support: Consider looking for a mentor or joining networking groups where counselors can find others who share similar challenges.
  • Set clear goals: It may be helpful to set some specific goals before attending a professional networking event, such as chatting with at least two people or swapping contact details with them. A good goal will be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Building a solid professional network is a great tool for career advancement, deepening knowledge, and improving skills in the field of counseling.

Five good reasons to become a school counselor

A career in school counseling can be very fulfilling, particularly for those who find satisfaction in assisting children in reaching their full potential and triumphing in both their educational and personal endeavors. Here is a look at five other reasons this is a career path worth pursuing.

Ample vacation time

In today’s rushed and overworked society, the idea of working nine months out of the year and then having the summers off can be very appealing. In addition, during the school year, school employees also have time off for spring break and holidays, providing ample time to go on vacations, spend more time with family, or pursue a hobby. However, those who wish to continue working during the summer can often find opportunities to do so.

Provides fulfillment and purpose

School counselors can have a great impact on a student’s life. They can provide the necessary resources and emotional support to help students overcome personal and social obstacles, encourage them to pursue their dreams, achieve academic excellence, and become more confident in whatever they do. They may also work with parents and teachers to create a safe and positive environment at home and in school.

Positive employment outlook

This is an excellent career path for those seeking job security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for school counselors is expected to increase by 13% between 2020 and 2030. Within that period, around 4,400 job positions are expected to open up.

Salary and benefits

A good salary and benefits are another advantage of becoming a school counselor. Some of the states that pay school counselors the highest mean salary are California, Washington, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Many school counselors also receive flexible spending accounts, health insurance, life insurance, employment assistance, a retirement plan, and tuition reimbursement.

A dynamic role

School counseling is the perfect job for people who enjoy interacting with others and prefer not to perform the same tasks every day. School counselors keep busy schedules filled with different responsibilities, so it never gets boring. Moreover, they work and interact with a wide range of people, including administrators, students, parents, social workers, and teachers.

School counseling is a fulfilling career

Today, school counselors do more than just help students with homework and college applications. They also support students’ success in school, take care of their feelings and mental health, and help them grow as individuals. It is a very fulfilling job with positive job prospects.

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