10 Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Up Your School Counseling Program

Whether you’re stepping foot into your freshly painted, linoleum-floored, window-filled office for the first time or moving to a new building, I’ve got a few stories to share and some valuable insights to help you avoid a few mistakes when setting up your comprehensive school counseling program for the school year.

1. Not Establishing a Referral System

For a smooth transition and to avoid having to undo structures you built unintentionally, make sure you have a referral system in place. Trust me, if you don’t, the students, teachers, and even the admin will create one for you. And that’s probably not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Balancing your school day with scheduled classroom guidance lessons, fair share duties, PLC meetings, parent meetings, small groups, individual sessions, planning time, responsive services, etc can be like putting together a 5000 piece puzzle. 

Take the immediacy out of your need to respond by having a referral system for staff and students that allows you to pause, be thoughtful about your time, and fit in needs when you are available. 

A few ideas are: having a pencil box with referrals in each classroom. The students fill them out and the teacher puts them in your mailbox.  Have a designated spot outside your office, like a special mailbox with referral forms that students can complete on their own. Or even create a survey with a QR code that students or staff can scan to request your assistance.  (This last suggestion was not something I ever tried out; have always been a low-tech pencil and paper person myself.)

2. Doing Something Just Because the Last Counselor Did It

The cool thing about being a school counselor is the ability to make decisions about what works best for you, the professional. Maybe the last counselor was passionate about poetry, so she sponsored a slam poetry group after school.  But that is just not your thing. And guess what? You can say NO.  

In my case, the school counselor before me ran the student counsel program.  Not only was that something I have zero experience in, most of the meetings ran either during lunch time or after school.  And you know how valuable lunch time is, right?  It was like the most busy time of my day as a school counselor.  The after school commitment didn’t work on my end either, with needing to pick up my own two children from their school, and put on my mom hat.  

Admittedly there were a few teachers that I wanted to run away from when I saw them in the hallways those first few months.  As they would  strongly hint that I needed to take up that student counsel sponsor role. 

And as hard as it was to set my boundaries and say that students counsel was just not going to work for my schedule, I did it.  And boy was I glad I stood my ground.

Sometimes, you might find yourself in trickier situations, like providing breaks for students with IEPs.  Or perhaps taking on groups for standardized testing. 

When you’re new to a building, you might be approached with requests that test your limits. That’s when it’s crucial to know your boundaries and communicate them transparently. 

ASCA Roles and Ratios documents are fantastic resources to support you in these conversations. Being upfront about your schedule also helps eliminate any confusion about squeezing in non-school counseling duties.

3. Writing Every Lesson & Group Curriculum on Your Own

School counselors have been doing this for years.  And been using up years of their lives doing this.  But in case you already didn’t know, there are countless amazing SEL resources and evidence-based school counseling curricula available out there. And sometimes they are even free!

If your school or district is working toward building-wide SEL implementation, they may be willing to purchase a curriculum. Principals, or even your PTO, will often times also have money available for you to use. 

I used to get money raised by the PTO myself.  The amount averaged about $200- $300 a year. 

In other words, don’t hesitate asking.  What’s the worst that could happen? 

And if it’s not too much to put a little plug in here, depending on your budget, consider purchasing the entire WholeHearted School Counseling Storewide Bundle for a (more than) 50% discount! 

It includes tons of counseling lessons, small group activities, games, functional decor, and more! And the bonus of all bonuses, since it’s a growing bundle, if you buy it now, all future products will be FREE!

4. Not Using Data to Build Your Small Groups

You may run into a situation where you are asked to start running a small group because a teacher feels stuck and needs support with student behavior. Or a student lost a family member and your admin wants you to run a grief group for that student. These are all great reasons to start the conversation about what supports should be put in place to support student needs. And a small group may absolutely be the best choice. But make sure there is data supporting the need.

Bringing in an outside agency to run a grief group, or making that referral to the family may be more appropriate if a therapeutic intervention is needed. 

For behavior interventions, you’ll want to make sure you collect data so that the skills focused on during the group meet the function of the behavior. Use teacher observation, your own observation, attendance and behavior report data, parent input forms, etc before throwing them in a basic, “social skills” group. 

Remember, you are trained in providing targeted inventions. So build your lessons to support the specific student behavior. 

Check out another great ASCA resource on Making DATA Work your comprehensive school counseling program, here.

5. Saying Yes to Everything

It is important to set clear boundaries about non school counseling duties. We are part of a system and sometimes that system needs a little extra support here or there. 

I’m not talking about the one time you cover lunch duty for your Instructional Strategist so she can attend a professional development conference. I’m referring more to agreeing to sub once a week in 1st grade for one hour so that the team can have an extra plan. Doing more than your fair share of recess, lunch and after school supervision.  Answering phones for the front office staff during their lunch duty.  Or pulling a group to teach reading skills to a group of Kindergarteners.

Give yourself permission to say, “No.” 

And you can even refer to your schedule to also say, “During that time, I am seeing a 1st grader for her individual counseling sessions.” Or “During that time, I am meeting with my 3rd grade attendance group.” 

This way, your value is redirected to your specialized training and not a duty that another staff member may be able to fulfill.

6. Failing to Advocate For the Role of the School Counselor Within the School Community

When a school counselor fails to educate teachers and school administration about their role and responsibilities, several negative consequences can arise. Firstly, there may be a lack of understanding and appreciation for the counselor’s expertise and the valuable services they can provide to students. This can lead to underutilization of the counselor’s skills and resources, limiting their ability to effectively support students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. Without proper education about the counselor’s role, teachers and administrators may not refer students to the counselor when appropriate or seek their guidance when dealing with student issues.

Secondly, the absence of education about the counselor’s role can result in a misunderstanding of boundaries and expectations. Teachers and administrators may unintentionally overstep their own roles by taking on tasks that fall within the purview of the counselor. Conversely, they may overlook important signs or behaviors that should be addressed by the counselor, potentially missing opportunities for early intervention and support. This lack of clarity can lead to a fragmented approach to student care and support within the school, ultimately diminishing the overall effectiveness of the counseling services provided.

7. Putting too Much on Your Plate. 

Yup. This mistake is similar to #5. 

In addition to saying, “Yes” too often to things that are not our job duties, school counselors can get burnt out by trying to do too much of what IS your job duty. 

Let’s refer back to your schedule. 

School counselors have to account for travel time. Especially in elementary school – you have to pick up those cute, bubbly, bopping around Kindergarteners for their small group AND bring them back every time. So if you are running a 20 min small group, you actually need to put 30 min on your calendar for them. 

If you have back to back classroom guidance lessons, you have to account for travel time, supply clean up, etc between these classes as well. One attendance group should not end at 9:15am and another 1st grade whole group lesson begins at 9:17am. Teachers and students will be disappointed when you are not able to make it on time and you’ll feel overwhelmed before you even begin. 

If you have one hour built into your schedule each day for responsive services, and you have referrals in your box, schedule those students in. At First, allow 30 minutes for each individual counseling session. This gives you time to take notes and make any necessary phone calls after the session if needed. Do not overdo it and try to fit all 10 referrals into your one hour session. Pace yourself.  Say, “No” when appropriate.  And don’t be afraid to do such.  You only have so many minutes in a day.  

8. Underutilizing Outside Agencies

When you are new to a district or building, ask about a list of agencies that are used to refer out to. Find out what youth opportunities are available for before/after school groups, individual therapy, group counseling, grief supports, etc. Also, find out what programs have been given permission to run groups or support during the school day.

Many times there are non profits that you can call that will help support your building during a student or staff member death, for lessons on personal safety, or to run a young women’s empowerment group, etc. 

You do not have to do it alone.

Utilize your community resources and with building and district permission, invite others to come in and provide support.

9. Neglecting to Establish Clear Goals and Objectives for the School Counseling Program

Neglecting to establish clear goals and objectives for your school counseling program is a mistake that’s best to avoid if you can. I’ve seen firsthand how crucial it is to have a well-defined roadmap for your counseling program right from the beginning. 

When I started as a new school counselor, I made the mistake of diving into my work without setting clear goals.  And it created confusion and inefficiency. Which meant a constant feeling of being overwhelmed.

Without clear goals and objectives, it’s like sailing without a compass. You might find yourself lost and unsure of where to focus your efforts. By taking the time to establish specific goals, you create a sense of direction and purpose for your counseling program. 

Identify the areas where you want to make the most impact.  Whether it’s academic achievement, social-emotional well-being, career development, or any combination of these. This also helps you align your efforts with the overall mission and vision of the school.

Furthermore, clear goals and objectives provide a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of your counseling program. They allow you to measure your progress and identify areas that may need improvement. This data-driven approach is crucial for demonstrating the value of your program to stakeholders and securing resources for future growth. It also helps you make informed decisions about the allocation of your time, energy, and resources.

10. Overlooking the Importance of Self-Care 

And last, but certainly most importantly, MAKE TIME FOR YOU! Before your day begins, during the school day, and when you leave. School counselors are givers, but when you give too much, you are left empty. Don’t become so caught up with your job as the school counselor, that you lose sight of who you are as an individual. 

You are not just a school counselor.  You might also be an artist.  A mom.  A gardener.  A skydiver.  

Remember to to practice self-care. 

Take time to recharge. 

And if you need a reminder, you can print and hang this somewhere close. 

One Comment

  • Yes yes yes!!! I have worked in a similar role for years and am currently taking time off due to a cancer diagnosis. If and when I go back I will employ all of these!!! Being sick and one step removed opens perspective!! Very wise advice!!


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