School Counselors: Unsung Heroes of School Climate
By Mathew Portell
In January 2016, my school embarked on a journey to pursue a trauma-informed approach to education primarily because the research and brain science is clear that trauma impacts brain development, behavior, academics, and even health outcomes. In addition, what we were doing was not working for anyone―our students or our staff. Our early conversations always included Dr. Beth Schroeder, our school counselor. She, like most school counselors, is an expert on intervention and supporting the social and emotional needs of our students. She was also already implementing data-driven academic, social, and emotional systems for students that allowed her to identify their specific needs.
Dr. Schroeder impressed upon school leadership that in order to support students with trauma, we must create a supportive and positive school environment. In 2016 the American School Counselor Association produced a document titled The School Counselor and Trauma-Informed Practice. In this document, the association addressed the role of the school counselor in utilizing trauma-informed practices and reinforced Dr. Schroeder's argument.
Now, three years into our journey of being a trauma-informed school, our school counselor continues to play a key role. I was able to sit down and ask her some questions about her role in our culture shift, as well as how others can help shift their school culture to become more trauma-informed. This is Dr. Schroeder's 21st year as a school counselor. She has been a school counselor in urban districts across numerous states.
MP: What do you feel the school counselor's role is in the school?
BS: We are vital members of the education team. School counselors create comprehensive school counseling programs that focus on education, prevention, and intervention activities. We provide proactive programming that engages students and includes leadership, advocacy, and collaboration with school staff, administrators, and families.
MP: How do you feel school counselors can support their schools in adopting a trauma-informed approach?
BS: School counselors are certified/licensed educators with a mental health background. We are uniquely qualified to address the developmental needs of all students as well as provide responsive services that help break down barriers to learning and help to develop the skills and behaviors critical to achievement. We are in a unique position to identity students affected by traumatic events and can provide the support and resources those students need. School counselors understand trauma need not predict individual failure if there's sufficient focus on resilience and strengths, and if schools can promote safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.
MP: What excites you about schools wanting to shift to being trauma-informed?
BS: Connected communities and positive school climates that are trauma-sensitive create conditions where students thrive and succeed. The atmosphere created by a collaborative and supportive school is positive and affirming. It's exciting to see that schools can once again be the hubs of a community's conscience. The focus is once again on the whole child, not just rote academics.
MP: What is the most challenging part of being a school counselor in a trauma-informed school?
BS: Any shift in culture can be riddled with uncertainty. It's easy to get lost in a focus on theory versus actual practice, and to underestimate the environmental or situational factors both within and outside our control. There's the risk of vicarious or secondhand trauma. And a big challenge is taking small-scale change to big-scale systems. We have to provide the level of services necessary to really support the work of trauma recovery.
MP: What is one piece of advice you would give to new school counselors?
BS: In general, be the change you want to see in the world. Our voice is only as strong as our presence in the school. In trauma work there are lots of moving parts, so always remember to care for yourself, then care for others. And be sure to always seek the input of others in the school community.
I have some advice of my own as a principal: If you are looking to strengthen your school culture to support all students in a trauma-informed environment, utilize your school counselor. They have the training and skills to move the work forward. The counselor should be an integral part of the leadership team, especially when focusing on trauma-informed cultural shifts. Allowing them a few minutes at every faculty meeting to explain the science around trauma and strategies to support students can be a huge help.
Most importantly, allow counselors to do their job. So many times, school counselors help with many different tasks including testing, lunch duty, etc. Although these tasks are important, they are not nearly as important as school counseling.
Mathew Portell is the principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, Tennessee, and the founder of Ride for Reading, a nonprofit that distributes books via bicycle to low-income communities.