How School Counselors Can Best Support Students’ Return to Learn

Counselor education professor Joseph Williams shares his thoughts on the need for a whole-child approach, the role of school counselors, and how to bring an equity lens to social-emotional learning.

Laura Hoxworth

The upcoming school year holds many uncertainties. When Joseph Williams considers what will make this year challenging, his answer is two-fold:

“COVID is a public health crisis, and a pandemic, and systemic racism is also a public health crisis and a pandemic,” he said. “Students have to battle with both of those.”

Williams, an associate professor of counselor education at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, said the past 18 months have only highlighted and exacerbated existing mental health and academic issues that students were facing prior to March 2020. Early research points to elevated levels of mental health problems like depression and anxiety among students of all ages and racial/ethnic backgrounds: “We see that kids are coming into schools a lot more fragile than they have been in the past,” he said.

As for how to address those challenges, for Williams, one thing is clear: ensuring students’ success – both academic and otherwise – depends on attention to social-emotional learning through an equity lens.

The Role of School Counselors

Why social-emotional learning? After a year or more of disrupted education, many schools and parents are concerned about making up gaps in academic achievement. Williams, whose research focuses on the academic resilience of K-12 students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, advocates for a whole-child approach, where schools teach social-emotional skills alongside content and academic skills like studying and organization. That’s because social-emotional skills – a student’s ability to do things like manage stress and interpersonal conflict – are directly tied to academic outcomes.

“There is close to probably two decades of research that demonstrates that schools that promote social-emotional learning get positive results,” he said. “The bottom line is that social-emotional learning leads to improved academic outcomes and improved behavior.”

That’s where school counselors come in.

“School counselors are often the first line of defense in identifying and addressing social-emotional needs because they have unique training to address those issues,” he said.

School counselors are trained to support students in numerous ways – both directly, through individual or group counseling, and indirectly through their work with parents, teachers, and administrators.

For the 2021-22 school year, Williams highlighted the importance of one tactic in particular: consultation, or assisting teachers, caregivers, administrators, or other adults in their relationships with students. Consultation can range from one-on-one meetings to designing and leading professional development training. Examples of topics could include educating parents on social-emotional learning and why it matters, helping administrators address issues with students, or increasing teachers’ capacity to identify signs and symptoms of depression and other mental health problems.

The major benefit of consultation, he said, is that school counselors can broaden their impact by working through other adults who make up students’ support systems. In many schools – where a single school counselor is responsible for serving hundreds of students – that’s an extremely valuable tool.

Importantly, however, Williams emphasized that school counselors’ impact hinges on school leadership. In order to best support their students through a challenging year, school leaders will need to recognize the unique expertise that school counselors bring to the table and allow them to use their skills appropriately.

Transformative Social-Emotional Learning

Critically, Williams said a whole-child approach in 2021 also needs to consider how students have been impacted by the racial upheaval of 2020.

Williams highlighted a concept called transformative social-emotional learning, which considers traditional social-emotional learning practices through an equity lens. In part, it acknowledges that important social-emotional competencies are expressed very differently across cultures, races, and ethnicities. It also applies core social-emotional concepts to content that addresses racial issues.

“For example, social-emotional learning teaches conflict resolution,” Williams said. “So how do we apply conflict resolution to some of the racial issues that we’re seeing today? How do we help kids make sense of white supremacy, police shootings of unarmed Black and Brown individuals, or the storming of the United States capitol?” Another example could be working with students to improve critical consciousness, a key social-emotional skill, by exploring personal, racial/ethnic identities and privileges and how they shape our experiences in the world.

One way or another, adults in school systems need to be prepared to address the questions and concerns about race and racism that students will bring into schools this year. “The reality is that kids are having these conversations online, and they are going to continue having these conversations underground when schools return,” he said.

That means schools will need to apply a equity lens beyond SEL and into all aspects of students’ educational experience. Some students are going to need more support, attention, programming, and resources – and that’s okay, he said.

“We’re all in the same storm, but we have to also remember that we’re in different boats,” he said. “Some of our students, particular those historically marginalized backgrounds don’t have access to the same assets and resources.”

Finally, Williams cautioned teachers, counselors, and school leaders alike not to forget about academically resilient students – those who maintain high levels of achievement motivation and performance despite the presence of stressful events and conditions that place them at risk of poor performance. The capacity for academic resilience varies from one student to the next and can grow or decline over time based on the presence of individual and environmental protective factors or processes that reduce or eliminate the impact of risk factors associated with poor academic and behavior outcomes. According to his research, Williams said these students often fall through the cracks because they typically do not receive as much support as their peers.

“We tend to focus on the students at the bottom of the pile, which is important, but we miss the students who are in the middle,” he said. “Resilient is not the same as invincible.”

Advice for School Counselors

How can school counselors best prepare for the upcoming school year? Williams offers two pieces of advice. First: prioritize self-care. “It might sound kind of cliché and cheesy, but the reality is that school counselors have also been going through twin pandemics,” he said. “They also have friends and family members who they may have lost to COVID, racial trauma they have experienced as a result of racial injustice, and lost opportunities they may be grieving. It’s like when you’re on an airplane and you have to put your own mask on first before you start helping the person next to you.”

Attention to self-care is necessary to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue, he said, which can be common in caring professions like counseling.

Second, knowing that mental health concerns are on the rise following a year of disrupted learning and trauma, Williams encourages counselors to lean into the mental health side of their role. “My philosophy is that when you merge a mental health counselor with an educational leader, what you get is a school counselor. We wear both of those hats, and that’s really what makes us unique.” This year, he said, “We have to get comfortable putting on our mental health counselor hats.”

However, Williams also emphasized the need for all education leaders to think beyond individuals to address deep, systemic issues that existed prior to COVID but are now even more evident. For example, schools could consider partnerships with external organizations that provide services to students beyond what schools are able to offer on their own.

Mostly, he hopes school leaders will seize the unique opportunity to slow down and reexamine how our education system can better support all students – this year and in the future. “Critically assessing how we’re supporting students is going to be key,” he said.

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