One of the directors of school counseling that my district had used to talk about RAGS – “random acts of guidance services.” It’s where you basically just do school counseling things without critically thinking about your school or program as a whole. And it’s not ideal, because while something is absolutely better than nothing when it comes to serving our students, it could be so much better! It could be intentional. Intentional school counseling is about making purposeful plans, being aligned with student needs, and doing things because it’s what’s right for your students (not just because someone else is doing it).
Keep reading for seven ways to be more intentional in your school counseling program:
1. Set Goals
Intentional school counseling absolutely includes clear goal-setting. There are always things you could be doing, more to add to your plate. How do you decide what to focus on? What to collect data on? What skills to emphasize more in your core curriculum? One way is through your goals.
There are three types of school counseling goals:
- Personal Goals: Goals you have for yourself. Professional development you want to participate in, things you want to do more or less of, ways you want to challenge yourself, etc. Ex. Using more cognitive behavioral strategies in individual and group work. Being more organized.
- Program Goals: Goals you have for the program. New initiatives to try, specific services to increase, ways of making decisions. Ex. Evaluating three groups during the year. Conducting two advisory council meetings. Using a universal screener to guide tiered services.
- Student Outcome Goals: Goals you have for how students will be different as a result of the school counseling program. Ex. Decrease the number of students identified as chronically absent by 20%. Decrease counseling self-referrals and office behavioral referrals for conflict by 15%. Increase the number of students who believe school is a safe place by 25%.
There might still be quite a bit you do that isn’t aligned with any of these goals, but ideally, most of what you do is. Setting goals is like creating priorities which helps you to focus your time more effectively.
2. Collect and Analyze Data
There are three purposes data has in school counseling:
- For planning: To identify which services, programming, and intervention will best meet our students’ needs. Ex. Needs Assessments
- For evaluation: To determine the effectiveness of our services in order to make future decisions regarding curriculum and student interventions. Ex. Progress Monitoring
- For advocacy: To demonstrate our impact as well as our use of time. Ex. Use of Time Tracker
With too much to do and not enough time, data can help us make sure our time is being used in the best ways possible. It can also help us advocate for our school counseling programs.
3. Use a Core Curriculum Map
For most elementary counselors, delivering class lessons is a core part of our programs. When we’re operating in “random acts of guidance” mode, we’re just winging it with both what our lessons focus on and the content of the lessons themselves. And while some things can be spontaneous and turn out beautifully (individual counseling sessions can often be like this!), class lessons are not a great place to skip planning.
Planning your lessons has the following benefits:
- Sequencing skills in meaningful ways within grades (i.e. emotional identification before I-messages) and across grades (i.e. increasing levels of social skills as students get older), which is a research-based practice
- Being prepared for any seasonal SEL needs (i.e. test taking prep in April, gossip in May)
- Knowing what lessons need to be created and/or purchased and/or prepped
- Lessons are covering knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors that your students genuinely need
- You’re organized and ready!
4. Structured Group Counseling Sessions
Sometimes, things can naturally occur and flow in group sessions in ways that facilitate tons of growth. Other times, it’s a total train wreck if you don’t have things planned and prepared. Group counseling is one of the best uses of our time, not only because it’s an evidence-based tier 2 practice, but because we’re able to provide targeted support to multiple students at once. We can set ourselves and our students up for success by planning out our group sessions in advance. That doesn’t mean we aren’t flexible to new directions the sessions might flow to, it means we go into sessions prepared with meaningful activities. This is extra important for psychoeducational groups (vs. support and processing groups).
I often start by working backward. What are the global objectives of the group? How do I want students to be different as a result of the intervention? What symptomology or behaviors do we want to decrease? What knowledge do students need to gain, what attitudes or beliefs do I want them to develop, and what skills or behaviors do I want them to use?
The answers to those questions guide what is focused on in each session! In an ideal world, you’ll also map out specific activities (books, games, etc.) that align with each as well, but even just having an outline before the group starts meeting is incredibly valuable.
Structured group counseling also intentionally incorporates relationship-building rituals and elements of reinforcement.
5. Focus on What’s Inside Your Control
There’s a lot outside of the school counselor’s control. Those things can be both extraordinarily frustrating and incredibly harmful to our ability to support students. To avoid getting weighed down by these frustrations, we get to focus on a balance between advocating for our role and leaning into the things inside of our control.
We can be more intentional and purposeful in our work by maximizing or optimizing what is in our control. Here’s what that can look like:
- Using the absolute highest quality and most relevant resources for our students
- Finding PD that builds on our strengths
- Identifying what counseling theory (and associated strategies) to use with different students
- Being organized with our materials, time, and plans
- Using problem-focused coping (where we don’t focus as much on our distress and instead brainstorm what we can do) which research says helps avoid burnout
6. Follow the MTSS-B Model
There’s a lot of jargon in education, and sometimes it’s only around for a couple of years. I truly believe MTSS is here to stay, though. It’s a good thing, especially if we’re flexible with the exact model and how it fits with our school’s needs and resources, it can give everyone a framework for thinking about prevention and intervention. As another bonus, our teachers are well versed in MTSS for academics so piggy backing on that language can be a way to build their investment in our work within MTSS-B.
Using MTSS-B makes us more intentional because it’s data-driven by nature! I think it also helps to have a big picture view of our program by thinking about what services and programming we provide at each of the tiers.
Being an intentional school counselor means proactively planning as much as we can, with clear purpose for everything we do. Crises (and “crises”) will always come our way, but the more we’re prepared for everything else, the more impactful our work will be. By setting clear goals, collecting and analyzing data, using a thoughtful curriculum, and aligning our work within the MTSS framework, we can feel more confident and organized and fulfilled. Who wouldn’t want that??
If being an intentional and purposeful school counselor is a goal of yours, you will LOVE Your Counseling Compass, where you get the resources and trainings you need to be the strongest and most fulfilled counselor you can be!
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