Counselors' Challenges Growing, but Ranks Aren't

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

What most surprised graduate student Stephen Larsen when he began working alongside counselors at an Oregon middle school was how busy they were.

"There is rarely ever a moment to sit down and relax," said Larsen, who was getting real-time experience at Gordon Russell Middle School in Gresham.

There are good reasons for the hectic pace: They have more to do than ever, the problems they handle are more numerous and complex, and there aren't enough of them to do the job.

Counselors don't sit in their offices waiting for students with problems to drop by; in effective schools, they create and implement a comprehensive counseling program for all students that addresses academic issues, as well as college and career aspirations and social and personal issues.

Many counselors say they are facing new, and often more difficult, problems with students than in the past, said Barbara Blackburn, president of the American School Counselor Association. For example, she said, far more students are engaging in such behaviors cutting, choking or burning themselves.

But with the added pressure -- and despite numerous studies showing how successful counseling programs can improve a student's academic and emotional life -- there aren't anywhere near enough counselors for the country's school-age population.

The association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, but the national average is nearly one for every 500. Many counselors have rosters of far more students, and some schools have no full-time counselors.

Furthermore, many counselors say they are being asked by principals to take on tasks that the association says are inappropriate, including doing clerical work, performing disciplinary actions or computing grade-point averages.

"With the stresses of everyday life, the challenges of growing up and the decreasing number of affordable mental health services, school counselors find themselves faced with a never-ending list of needs to be addressed," said Donna A. Henderson, associate professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and co-author of "Handbook of School Counseling."

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