If you were elected to your board of education many years ago or have children who are older, you may still be using the “G word.”

For school counselors, that word is “guidance.” While no longer part of their job title, you may still see and hear the word in reference to departments and in other contexts. 

The change highlights the more expansive role these staff members play compared with their guidance counselor predecessors. 

While most school social workers and school psychologists only work with students under the auspices of the child study team, school counselors serve all students. They focus on three tiers or levels of service: prevention/universal support, early intervention and intensive/individual intervention. 

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 1 counselor for every 250 students – although many school districts struggle to meet that target. Just as with teachers, it can be a challenge for many districts to fill openings.

To learn more about the challenges school counselors face and why they are so critical to promoting wellness and mental health at New Jersey’s schools, we reached out to two school counselors: Jillian Shadis, director of school counseling at New Providence School District (Union County), who was the 2021 New Jersey School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year; and Dawn Flanagan, guidance coordinator at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly (Burlington County), who was recently named Counselor of the Year by the Burlington County School Counselors Association.

How has the role of counselor evolved, especially when comparing what they do today to when they were referred to as guidance counselors? 

Shadis: The American School Counselor Association is the national organization that has defined both the concept of school counseling, as well as the role of the school counselor. ASCA focuses on providing professional development for school counselors, enhancing school counseling programs, providing legal and ethical guidance and researching effective school counseling practices. For almost two decades, they have endorsed and promoted the support of the whole child — social, emotional, and personal — in addition to educational and vocational services provided by the “traditional” guidance counselor. A 2007 blog post titled “The Evolution from Guidance Counselor to School Counselor” by the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development explained the concept shift wonderfully and succinctly.  

Additionally, beginning in the year 2000, the New Jersey Department of Education worked with the New Jersey School Counselor Association on the New Jersey School Counselor Initiative. The intent was “to develop a program of education, development, and support for state school districts that will maximize the implementation of N.J.A.C. 6A:8-3.2 and that will ensure delivery of a comprehensive guidance and counseling program for grades K-12.” It was at this time that the transition from the term “guidance” counseling to “school” counseling began in our state. In 2004, New Jersey replaced the “Guidance and Pupil Personnel Services” certificate with a “School Counselor” certificate to better reflect the preparation and goals of counselors in our public schools. With this initiative and the growth of the NJSCA, many districts also shifted their focus to servicing the whole child through their counseling program, instead of providing solely academic and post-secondary counseling.

A change like this is not made overnight, by any means. In fact, the NJDOE still refers to guidance counseling in some more recent laws and regulations, even though it initiated the change to school counseling! Old habits, especially in terminology, are hard to break. However, it starts with a change in philosophy, and a willingness to recognize school counselors for their qualifications and all of the services they provide to students. 

As it relates to student wellness and nutrition, what do you see as your primary role as a school counselor? 

Flanagan: My primary role with respect to student wellness is to address mental health, emotional concerns, academics and personal/social issues. My goal as a school counselor is to help triage student issues. Whether it be a sounding board, to provide resources, or assist students in making their own decisions, I strive to provide a comfortable space for students. They need to be able to share their concerns, knowing they are 100% safe with me. While I do not have a direct focus on nutrition per se, it is important for me to address the whole student and their situation(s). So, should that include nutrition, I will do all that I can to address those issues with the student as well. 

Shadis: To me, wellness falls into two categories: physical wellness (including nutrition) and mental wellness. Each affects the other, and the role of a school counselor is to work with the student to ensure that both are in a state that allows the student to attend to their classwork and maintain friendships and relationships. To be clear, the role of a school counselor is to support the student with any challenges, so that the student may find success in the school setting. Many times, when a student is struggling with either physical or mental wellness, they need more support than the school counselor can provide, and the counselor can provide referrals and resources to the family for outside assistance. School counselors, with permission from the family, also connect with those outside providers to maintain a continuum of care for the struggling student, mirroring in school the skills the student is working on with their outside therapist or doctor.

What kinds of concerns do you hear from students about student health and wellness most often? 

Flanagan: Most often, students share concerns related to mental health and anxiety, including peer relationships, academic and social stress, family issues and performance pressure. The anxiety can literally be crippling for some students. 

Shadis: The majority of concerns I hear are stress and anxiety related. Rarely, if ever, do I hear of physical wellness concerns directly from the student. As part of counseling, though, I do ask about their eating and sleeping habits, which obviously connect to how they are feeling mentally, and sometimes set goals or work on strategies to improve those.

What measures would help improve student health/wellness? 

Flanagan: Fostering supportive relationships among students and staff is so important for a student’s overall health and wellness. Creating a positive and inclusive school culture allows students to feel connected, therefore improving student health/wellness. The availability of school counselors to provide a safe space as well as resources for students allows pupils in need to know they have people that care and are there to listen and help. Continuing to promote mental health awareness and acceptance helps students know they are not alone and that resources are available. 

Shadis: College admissions drive the majority of the students at New Providence High School, so in the bigger picture, more reasonable admissions rates and less demand to take the most rigorous courses and participate in a million activities to try and set themselves apart would truly help improve student wellness … but I know that’s a pipe dream. Less societal pressure, both locally and nationally, to attend a prestigious school would also make a marked difference, but I’ll add that to my list of dreams as well. Realistically, until we live in a society that reduces some pressure, I think we are going to continue to see the stress on our children manifesting itself in mental and physical ailments.

How can schools – and school counselors specifically – best identify the students that may need help as it relates to student wellness and nutrition? 

Flanagan: This is where it is so important for counselors and staff to work collaboratively to assist students. Communication is essential. When students are comfortable, they will share. Counselors must be attentive to students, observing changes in behavior and academic performance. Doing check-ins with students to get a pulse on how they are doing physically, mentally and emotionally can assist in identifying those students that may need additional support. 

Do you often get involved with students that struggle with chronic absenteeism, and what are some of the best strategies for keeping kids in school?

Shadis: School counselors are very much involved with students who struggle with chronic absenteeism. In New Providence, we usually have a team of folks that work with those students, including the counselor, assistant principal, case manager (if the student is classified), and either the student assistance counselor or district crisis counselor. The best strategy to keep kids in school is easier said than done: Don’t let them stay home. 

Parents should be not just encouraging their kids to get to school, but if/when possible, picking them up and putting them in the car to bring them. Being in their pajamas is OK! Getting them into the building, even if they stay with the counselor and don’t make it to class (at least right away) is better than giving in and letting them stay home. The longer they are out of school, the harder it is to come back. Parents are in the best position to set firm rules in their home about having to attend school in the first place, and not letting their child stay home unless they are truly ill.

Depending on the school district, the school resource officer may be sent out to the home with a district mental health team member to try and get the student into school if they are refusing to come. Districts have varied policies and procedures pertaining to this, though, and naturally, the parents have to be on board.

There is also a state-run organization through the New Jersey Children’s System of Care called PerformCare that we recommend to parents to assist students in crises … and refusal to get out of bed or attend school is a crisis. PerformCare can send a licensed clinician to the home within an hour to assess the child’s mental health needs and connect the family with additional support if/when needed. This is free to the family, and an especially useful resource for children who are too old to be picked up and put into the car! 

What should teachers and parents be looking out for as warning signs that may indicate that their student should connect with a school counselor or someone else to find out what is going on? 

Flanagan: Parents know their children best. Should a parent see a change in their child’s behavior or mood, social withdrawal, persistent anxiety, or sadness, change in sleep patterns, academic decline – they should reach out to their child’s school counselor and/or physician. 

Shadis: The New Providence School District utilizes the Lifelines curriculum and training for students, staff and the community. Lifelines is, at its core, a suicide prevention program, but in general, teaches folks the signs to look for that indicate a student might be at risk. They use the acronym FACTS to help folks remember the warning signs: 

  • Feelings (e.g. hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness) refers to extreme sadness or loneliness, anxiety or worry. You may observe these directly, as when a student says something about these feelings, or you may see the feeling expressed through body language.
  • Actions such as talking or writing about death or destruction – or drawing pictures with dark themes are warning signs. This can also include acts of aggression and/or recklessness.
  • Changes in personality (behaving like a different person, becoming withdrawn, feeling tired all the time, not caring about anything, or becoming more talkative or outgoing) or behavior (inability to concentrate, drop in grades). There may also be changes in sleeping patterns, eating habits, or losing interest in friends, hobbies, or personal appearance. Also isolating oneself. Or, and sometimes surprisingly, a sudden improvement after a period of being down or withdrawn is also a warning sign because it could mean that the student has a suicide plan.
  • Threats are more apparent and include statements such as, “I wonder what it’s like to die,” “I won’t be around much longer,” or “You’d be better off without me.” 
  • Situations such as getting into trouble at school, at home, or with law enforcement, recent losses, changes in life that feel overwhelming, being exposed to suicide or the death of a peer under any circumstances, being bullied or physically or sexually abused.

Other warning signs include changes in student appearance, changes in mood (for example, no longer cheerful or suddenly cheerful), changes in eating habits, student isolation in social situations, bullying behavior (even as a bystander), or an unusual pattern of absences, tardiness, or cutting class.

How stressful can it be for students to determine a) whether to go to college or b) which colleges to apply to, and how does that connect to their overall wellness? 

Flanagan: Decisions regarding future plans after high school, whether it be to attend college, a trade or technical school, work, military, etc. can definitely be stressful for students. We, as school counselors, work with students throughout their entire high school career to help assist — first with career goals and establishing areas of interest. Some students know from the minute they walk into our high school what they want to do after high school. The majority don’t have a clue. Parents are seemingly becoming more and more receptive to the idea of trade or technical school versus the push to attend college. We are fortunate to have a plethora of classes for students to experience to try and find a direction. We also use Naviance, a web-based platform that includes career inventories and career interest assessments, as well as career exploration information and videos. Naviance also includes a comprehensive college search component where students can narrow down their options by selecting specific criteria that are important to them – i.e. size, location, majors available, cost, clubs/athletics available. It also has a feature that allows students to see how other Rancocas Valley graduates fared when applying to specific colleges by comparing SAT scores and cumulative GPAs. This, along with trying different classes, assists students in determining if college is for them and where to begin the college exploration process. Additionally, we encourage students to shadow those in a field or occupation that interests them.

Shadis: Depending on the school’s culture or norms surrounding college, it can be incredibly stressful to determine what you want to do post-high school! If your high school has a high percentage of students who traditionally attend four-year college right out of high school, the pressure can be toxic. I’ve worked in several school districts where the percentage is well above 90%, and it’s crushing for some students who either a) don’t really want to go to college, or b) don’t get into the “right” (i.e. popular, reputable) colleges. The way it affects students can run the gamut, but in the most serious of cases, I know students who have attempted suicide because of the pressure they feel, whether real or imagined.

When it comes to student wellness and nutrition, what do you think the biggest challenges are for school districts? 

Flanagan: Identifying students in need is probably the biggest challenge. While many students are identified by counselors and staff as needing assistance, many that may need help are not identified. It is our hope that parents/guardians that need assistance with meals utilize the school breakfast and lunch program by identifying their qualification through the application for free or reduced lunch. In an effort to encourage completion of this form, this application is part of our “Opening Day Documents” that parents are required to fill out in order for students and parents to obtain access to our Genesis portal, which includes students’ schedules and grades, and current academic performance.

What can parents and board of education members do to better support school counselors? 

Flanagan: Communication and collaboration are essential. Additionally, boards of education can support maintaining a healthy and reasonable student to counselor ratio by making sure there are enough school counselors employed in their districts. Rancocas Valley has done just that and values the role that school counselors play. Adequate ratios allow counselors to provide individualized attention to students and the ever-mounting issues our students face. 

Shadis: The first thing that would be incredibly helpful is if parents took the time to understand the role of a school counselor. Many do, but so many others don’t understand what appropriate versus inappropriate school counselor responsibilities look like, or the scope of our programming. School counselors are encouraged to push this information out, but not everyone reads it. I am certainly biased, but I think it should be an obligation for board members to learn such information, preferably from a supervisor or director of school counseling, or in districts that don’t employ anyone with such a title, from an administrator who has taken the time to understand the role.

What can New Jersey (as in the state government) do to better support your efforts to promote student wellness and nutrition? 

Flanagan: Collaborating with communities and allocating sufficient funds to support wellness programs, nutritious school meals, and mental health resources are all ways to support and promote wellness and nutrition. New Jersey has developed NJ4S in response to the mental health crisis that is plaguing our students. Rancocas Valley is currently utilizing the resources offered through NJ4S.

Shadis: The best way for the state to better support our efforts is also to understand the role of the counselor. So many documents, bills and other information from the state still say “guidance counselor” on it, and it is evident that they don’t understand what it’s like to be “in the trenches,” so to speak. Having a representative at the state level that can advocate for school counselors is the best way to support our efforts both in general, and specifically to student wellness and nutrition.

What does your school district have in place, if anything, to help students who may need more help than you can provide in your capacity as a school counselor? 

Flanagan: Rancocas Valley has partnered with Care Solace. At no cost, Care Solace quickly and confidentially finds available mental health and substance use providers matched to the student’s needs.

Shadis: The New Providence School District is fortunate in that we employ a full mental health team comprised of folks with all different areas of expertise, including but not limited to a student assistance counselor, school psychologists, nurses and social workers. We also have a district crisis counselor who is primarily housed at the high school/middle school (we share a building), but also serves students in the elementary schools if and when needed. The district crisis counselor and student assistance counselor do not have set caseloads and work with students as needed to support their mental and physical well-being, whether in the moment or on a more long-term basis. We also have a robust database of outside counseling and medical professionals that we can refer families to should their child require more support than can reasonably be offered in school. Whenever possible, we obtain releases to speak with those outside professionals so we can maintain ongoing communication and a continuity of services in an effort to best support the student.

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.