In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Counseling in middle school will be somewhat similar to counseling in an elementary school. Middle school counselors will run groups and provide individual counseling related to managing anxiety, addressing self-esteem, and dealing with loss (such as parental divorce), as well as providing academic counseling and coordinating testing.
Issues to Understand
Counseling in any educational environment will necessitate that the counselor be ready to address issues that community mental health counselors will not have to grapple with. First, the school environment is not set up as a therapeutic community. The middle school counselor, like a counselor in residential treatment, will have multiple roles, though schools are not set up for milieu therapy. The middle school counselor will need to address issues with classroom teachers, coaches, and of course parents and guardians. At times, the middle school counselor will be torn on what issues to bring to teachers and administrators and what to keep from disclosing. All that school counselors need to remember is that the golden rule is “What is in the child’s best interest?” While the “best interest” may be debated, it is likely that including parents, teachers, and coaches could certainly be part of that.
Middle school counselors, in addition to counseling work, will also serve on multidisciplinary teams with special education teachers, school psychologists, school nurses, and, possibly, administrators. It is essential that a middle school counselor be able to advocate for the child’s best interest and explain how counseling supports the child’s educational attainment. Teachers and administrators will likely be more concerned with a child’s behavior and academic performance and may not always understand the mental health issues behind acting-out behavior and deficient academic performance. The middle school counselor will need to serve as a bridge between the school and parents, including facilitating meetings with the parents to address a child’s academic and emotional well-being.
Readers interested in counseling children in any school setting will need to be prepared to deal with abusive and neglectful parents or guardians. This means mandated reporting of issues to child protection services and a willingness to address sensitive topics with authoritarian parents who will want the counselor to side with them against the child even in egregious situations (e.g., the verbally abusive parent who insists he is doing this for the good of the child). Good negotiation skills are required, as well as an ability to deal with pressure from teachers, school administrators, and parents. Good organization skills are also a necessity because the number of students in a middle school will exceed the American School Counselor Association’s recommended student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1.
Best Aspects of the Job
The best aspects of middle school counseling may lie in the variety of services and roles a middle school counselor will need to play. Middle school counselors will provide individual and group counseling, run support groups, possibly serve as advisor to a school mediation program, sit on multidisciplinary teams, assist with school athletics and other functions, and coordinate referrals to off-campus providers. One veteran middle school counselor in New York once told me, “I love the variety in my work!”
Challenging Aspects of the Job
Some of the best aspects above may also become some of the challenging aspects. For example, variety can begin to make a counselor feel stretched thin in the job. Many middle school counselors, especially those who serve as the only middle school counselor on their campus, may feel frustrated with the workload and the inability to address deeper psychological issues. Teachers are likely to give more respect to middle school counselors who also have been teachers, and counselors who never served as teachers may feel disrespected.
Then there is the reality that some school administrators will view the middle school counselor as simply a quasi-administrator and offer little support for the therapeutic role. After all, high stakes testing seldom takes into account the role good emotional health plays in school performance.
Occupational Outlook and Salary
The occupational outlook for middle school counselors likely mirrors the BOLS figures of 14% growth through 2018 (BOLS, 2010–2011). Therefore, job prospects are good, provided a middle school counselor can move, as some regions of the country are expanding (the Sunbelt), while others are contracting (upper Midwest and Northeast). Salary figures are again among the highest, with a median of $57,000 (BOLS, 2010–2011). Most middle school counselors work a 10-month schedule, though others may have a 12-month contract.