What's A Guidance Counselor?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

School counselors are a source of support for parents and students; they are a person you may count on to understand and meet a child or teen's educational goals. Beyond helping young people fulfill their academic requirements, a school counselor can guide students in managing the demands of school, home life, and socialization while teaching skills like planning, compromises, and negotiation. 

They may not teach a class directly, but counselors can have a significant impact on students and offer guidance that teachers might not. Understanding how these professionals can provide support to your child through high and low moments can be beneficial.  

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A brief history of school counselors

In the United States, school counselors were established in the early 20th century as vocation guidance counselors who focused on preparing students for the workforce.  The focus changed in the 1920s and 1930s due to child development, hygiene, psychological advances, and a more clinical approach to school counseling. 

In the beginning, many teachers doubled as counselors in this country. In the 1960s, counselors in public school districts were afforded more funding, allowing the vocation to flourish. The profession expanded beyond the focus on academic and career achievement, emphasizing helping children develop social and personal skills. 

Some teachers initially opposed the idea, believing schools should be limited to more traditional educational concerns rather than personal and social development. However, its popularity continued with the majority of educators, and by the 1970s, guidance counseling was implemented in schools from kindergarten to high school. In the 1980s and early 1990s, new concerns were raised. Many teachers and school administrators questioned the effectiveness of school counselors.

In response to these concerns, in 2003, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) released a national framework for school counselors. In 2004, that model underwent revision to close opportunity and achievement gaps and ensure all students from kindergarten to grade 12 had a counselor providing specialized guidance. In 2019, the ASCA National Model's 4th edition was published, emphasizing the importance of assessment, management, and offering definitions of programs and student services. 

What role does a school counselor play?

Today, former school counselors have evolved into guidance counselors that offer various services and are often a crucial part of the education system. They help students prepare for life in diverse ways, including educational or academic planning, social and emotional skills development, and relationship building with parents and teachers. Counseling can help students achieve their goals in their future careers and social interactions.

The counselor job is often available from kindergarten through grade 12. The role focuses on helping students grow their self-understanding and acceptance of themselves. School counselors assess students individually, catering to each person's specific needs. This personalized assessment may allow students to rely on a counselor to assist with their academics, teacher relationships, personal concerns, career goals, and social life issues (such as bullying). Counselors often conduct one-on-one or group sessions, presentations, and workshops to support students. 

Overall, the goal of a school counselor is to ensure that every student reaches their potential academically, emotionally, and socially. A counselor can help develop coping, organizational, and communication skills to give students the tools to attain a sense of self-acceptance. Some professional school counselors can also provide students with psychological counseling. 

Grade level differences - varying degrees of counseling

Counselors' responsibilities may differ depending on what branch of education they are involved in. With different ages and levels of development in schools, the problems students face may change and evolve. 

Elementary schools 

At the elementary level, one counselor may be assigned to the entire school. These counselors often work with students ranging from kindergarten to grade six. Elementary counselors might manage behavioral concerns, bullying, and family life. 

They might pay attention to students experiencing social difficulties, mental health symptoms, or signs of at-home conflicts. Furthermore, elementary school counselors can help students overcome bullying, gossip, and disagreements with teachers and friends.

Middle school 

A counselor may take on similar student issues at the middle school level. This group often includes students from grades six to eight. The onset of puberty during this stage of development may bring new concerns, including relationship issues, body image, sexual troubles, self-harm, and friend disagreements. Students may start to show symptoms of mental health conditions at this age, and the counselor may offer resources and suggestions depending on the need of the moment. 

High school 

Counseling in high schools may be based on academics and future plans for grades nine through twelve. Counselors aid students in making choices regarding their future careers and college education, including discussing information on financial aid. While school counselors may address social and emotional issues, often the main focus is to prepare students for their life beyond school and help students identify abilities and interests. 

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Some college and university campuses offer school counseling as well. A campus may have multiple counselors to accommodate the number of students. Students might talk to counselors about which classes to take for graduation, career, advice, and scholarship concerns at this level. They may also seek financial or childcare advice. With students over 18, parents may not be involved. 

What about parents?

The reach of school counseling may go beyond students. Some counselors may work with parents to create a productive and caring environment for students. These counselors can explain student academics as well as serve and support families and student’s loved ones through challenging phases, such as coping with losing a loved one or a divorce.

Parents can reach out to the school to request academic evaluations for their children to understand their child's grades better. They can also express concerns regarding their child to the counselor, such as worries about bullying. At times, counselors may be in charge of placing children in unique educational services. For example, students may receive an individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan for accommodations due to a disability. In these cases, family may be called in for meetings about the student's progress in school and their accommodations. 

How do school counselors differ from school psychologists?

Below are a couple of differences between the job description of school counselors and school psychologists. 


School counselors and school psychologists may receive different schooling. While the education prerequisite of school counselors may vary, they are often certified educators and hold a master's degree in school counseling. Often, they study counseling, life planning, and behavior. A counselor job description typically won’t require a Ph.D. 

School psychologists may have a master's degree in clinical counseling or a doctorate in psychology. In their training, they may focus more on knowledge related to child and cognitive development, prevention, and intervention tactics, as well as assessing children and youth. These programs may also require participation in clinical training, research, and assessment.

Function in the school 

There tends to be a difference in how counselors and psychologists function within the school. School counselors meet with and focus on the success of every student. They provide academic assistance, as well as career and personal advice, to optimize the potential of the students.

School psychologists may meet with students to assess their emotional and psychological needs. The psychologist may work with students with developmental or learning disabilities or those being held back by failing grades due to stressors outside the school.

School psychologists may counsel students and parents, develop educational plans, and work with teachers to implement the academic aid each student receives. They may also work closely with the school district administration and outside entities, promote programs to improve student achievement and consult with teachers to ensure the school community is emotionally and academically optimized.

How can school counselors steer students to success?

Counselors are on hand to assist students in various matters, guiding them toward their goals in and outside of the school environment. A counselor can be a listening ear if students are having trouble at home, work, or in their circle of friends. They can often offer helpful advice on how to deal with a situation, achieve academic goals, deal with bullying, improve self-esteem, and navigate youth homelessness. 

Alma Lopez, the lead school counselor for Livingston Middle School and 2022 School Counselor of the Year embodies all of the ideals of the school counseling profession. Focusing on strengthening communities, she advocates for equity in education despite cultural differences, ensures that all students get free school or reduced-price lunches, and works on recruitment for their strong counseling program. All this in addition to the essential central task to prepare students for the next level of schooling.

Other options for students 

Your resources may not be limited to school counseling. There are many social programs available with the same structure that children and teens may attend. For example, the Boys and Girls Club of America and the YMCA often offer youth support. The role these may play in a child's life can be immense. These programs and their volunteers and members often offer guidance, leadership, and counseling services with a safe place to participate in activities and sports with peers. Case management may also be beneficial service in young people’s lives. 

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Counseling options for parents and teens 

Parents experiencing challenges while their children age and experience new milestones may also benefit from counseling. Although parents might not take advantage of school counseling, a licensed therapist can be rewarding. Busy parents can also take advantage of therapy through online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp

A growing body of evidence suggests that online therapy is an efficient way of connecting with a counselor when a person is seeking help. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, a peer-reviewed research journal, examined information from over 100 different online counseling trials. The study found that overall attitudes between counselors and participants were as favorable as in-person counseling. Online therapy is a unique form of counseling that eliminates barriers associated with face-to-face counseling, such as stigma, cost, and time constraints while being equally effective at treating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and many other mental health concerns. 

Parents can use internet-based methods to meet with a provider over the phone, via video, or live chat while choosing a scheduled appointment that best suits their needs. Additionally, if you have a child aged 13 to 19, they can take advantage of online therapy through a platform like TeenCounseling, which offers the same benefits. 


The role of a school counselor takes on many shapes and forms. Depending on your child's age, school environment, and needs, a school counselor may provide meaningful and practical support. You can also find your child support through a trained child therapist. If you're interested in learning more, consider reaching out to speak to a counselor for further guidance.
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