Approximately 3,200 school counselors from across the country and the globe are expected to descend on Denver for the annual conference of the Virginia-based American School Counselor Association, which gets under way on Saturday, July 8, at the Colorado Convention Center. And while ASCA assistant director Eric Sparks expects the event to be a lot of fun, plenty of serious topics will be discussed, and that's appropriate. Sparks enumerates ten of the biggest challenges facing school counselors in 2017, and his rundown collectively illustrates how these educators are on the front lines of major societal changes whose impacts will be felt on young people for many years to come.
Details about the event, whose keynote speakers include astronaut (and husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords) Captain Mark Kelly, motivation researcher Carol Dweck and author/inventor Calvin Mackie, are accessible below. But first, here's Sparks's list of challenges, many of which go well beyond the responsibilities most of us associate with school counselors.
"These kinds of issues seem to be on the rise," Sparks says. "It could be anxiety, it could be issues that are impacting their relationships with others. And school counselors really need to help identify students who might be having these needs and provide them with short-term support, either through counseling or, for the more serious developments, referrals to community agencies or community groups that can provide more long-term support for them."
Some schools have staff psychologists who deal with such matters. But more and more, school counselors are taking on these responsibilities, too. As Sparks notes, "There are plenty of needs to go around."
"There's a lot of pressure on students these days to perform well, whether that be academically or through activities and sports," Sparks points out, "and we're more aware as a society about these kinds of issues. In the past, that might have been dismissed. But today, we have a lot more awareness of things like stress, depression, anxiety, bipolar diagnoses. So school counselors need to know how to connect students with resources that can help them."
Although bullying is hardly a new concern, Sparks points out that technology has amplified the potential repercussions of such behavior in a major way.
"School counselors are working to identify students who've been bullied, and working to identify students who may be displaying bullying behavior," he allows. "And a subset of that is cyber-bullying and the issues that social media has brought along. There are now new, more instant ways to bully other students in a public setting, thanks to the virtual aspect of social-media platforms. Cyber-bullying opportunities are huge, and they're extremely widespread. It's very easy to make a student feel uncomfortable in what is essentially a public platform, and that can exacerbate the situation."
This subject is a raw one for many school counselors, partly because of the notoriety achieved by 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series about a high school student who leaves behind audio recordings that explain her reasons for dying by suicide. As we reported back in May, Denver Public Schools sent a letter to parents about the program based in part on a subject of the show's final tape, a school counselor who essentially brushes off the student's revelation that she's been raped. Shortly thereafter, the student takes her own life.
"This is a big issue that's something of a progression from bullying, bullying prevention and bullying intervention," Sparks says. "School counselors are always trying to be cognizant and aware of any students who might be exhibiting any behaviors that might indicate self-harm and responding to those immediately — connecting with parents and guardians to make sure they're aware of the situation and connecting students and parents with community resources that can provide support around self-harm feelings and ideas."
The controversy over transgender students and school bathrooms is national in scope, but the particulars differ from place to place. While a transgender locker-room bill died in the Colorado legislature back in 2015, a similar measure became law in North Carolina last year, and fights over related rules and regulations are taking place across the country. That can complicate things for school counselors, Sparks acknowledges.
"Some states may have very specific rules, and even if you don't agree with them, at least you have that rule to work with," he says. "But in other places, there's no policy."
Still, he sees a counselor's duty as clear, whatever the approach in a given area: "We need to help these students understand what their district policies are, what their state policies are. But we also need to create an environment to help students feel safe and be safe in school. We want to make sure that we're treating these students, and all students, with dignity and respect."
Continue for five of the biggest challenges facing school counselors in 2017, and information about the American School Counselor Association conference, taking place in Denver starting on July 8.
The disparity between schools in low-income and wealthy areas is growing, and so is the impact on students, as school counselors understand.
"We need to be aware of that and be on top if it as much as possible," Sparks maintains. "We need to look for additional resources that could be helpful for students to explore a career and post-secondary opportunities. It might be developing relationships with local businesses, with community organizations, and with faith-based organizations as well, to try to fill that gap as much as possible. There can be differences from district to district, but also within schools in the same district as to what resources are available. That's why counselors need to develop resource lists and make them available to students and parents."
Back in February, our post headlined "Activist: In Trump Age, Verbal Racism Aimed at Denver Kids of Color Is Rising" talked about the phenomenon of Latino children being accused by their Caucasian peers of being illegal immigrants no matter their actual immigration status.
"We're hearing cases of that" on a national level, Sparks concedes. "They're more anecdotal, and we don't have real data at this point in terms of how widespread it is. But we're hearing it quite a bit — and counselors need to help students work through that. We don't necessarily have easy answers for students afraid that their parents might be deported, or that they might be deported, or some combination thereof. But we need to help them to know what their resources are and help them to know where supports are, so they can get a handle on the situation as best they can."
He adds that "things have changed with the different direction the new administration is taking — and it's an issue that's been a real challenge for school counselors, and schools as a whole. But we need to help every student in school feel safe and feel part of the school, and also to work with students who might be bullying other students because of perceived immigration or racial issues around that — work with them to develop relationships with students, adults in the building and the community that are appropriate."
Even as school counselors have to deal with the panoply of issues outlined above, they still have to execute the more customary parts of their job — such as helping students prepare for life as a grownup.
"There's a huge focus on post-secondary planning, and not just from the high school perspective," Sparks says. "We're looking at helping students on the path to higher education, including college and community colleges with two-year degrees, but also helping students who want to go into the military or move directly into a career. And we're working with kids to figure out these options literally as early as kindergarten. At that age, it's more about awareness, but it gets much more specific as time goes on."
A school counselors' job was full enough already — and now, with so many other responsibilities, figuring out a way to keep all the plates spinning has become much more difficult.
"That's one of the things we'll be focused on a lot at this conference — helping school counselors develop a comprehensive school counseling program that is designed to address all these issues, whether they're the traditional ones that we've been experiencing for years or ones that are popping up all the time, whether they be social-media issues, immigration issues, gender-identity issues," Sparks reveals. "We need to learn how to fit those within a school counseling program so that we can help to address them across the board — not just for students who are having trouble, but also helping to address academic, career, social and emotional development needs for all students. Some of that will include being in a classroom setting, some of it will involve small-group settings, and some of it will be individual counseling. But it's all part of a bigger program that takes time and energy and training to develop."
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The multitude of tasks that school counselors are called upon to accomplish these days definitely add up, and as a result, Sparks says, "burnout can be a really big issue. We see statistics showing a lot of people not making it past five years before they leave the education field — and one of the big issues that connects to that is the student-to-school counselor ratio. The recommended ratio is one counselor to 250 students, but that often isn't met. The national average is one to 490. Colorado is below that, at one to 395, so there's been some good work here in recognizing the needs and working to reduce the ratio. But there are some districts around the country where the ratio is one to over 1,000. So we still have a ways to go in this area."
In Sparks's view, "We need to work with teachers and administrators to help them to understand the role of the school counselor, and to make sure they realize the role the school counselor can play. The school counselor is often thought of as the person who works with high school students to schedule courses and so on. But there's a whole different realm of responsibility that school counselors have today, and we need to educate folks in the school about that, as well as collaborating with them both inside and outside the school to help students. Because that's the most important thing."
The 2017 ASCA Annual Conference takes place July 8-11 at the Colorado Convention Center. Welcoming remarks will be delivered by Governor John Hickenlooper and Dr. Martin Dahinden, the Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States. For registration information, a complete schedule and more, click to access the ASCA Annual Conference page.