What is a School Counselor and What Do they Do?

Student success—it’s what drives our nation’s school counselors. Achieving it, maintaining it, improving it… above anything else, school counselors are advocates for student success.

These licensed/certified professionals work in the school system at every level (elementary, junior high, high school) and in every setting (public and private), where they provide individual and group services focused on:

  • Academic achievement
  • Post-secondary planning
  • Short-term counseling for emotional, social, and behavioral issues

They advise, counsel, consult, and collaborate while keeping the developmental needs of their students in mind.

They are strong advocates for their students, often collaborating with families, teachers, administrators, and the community and attending student-focused meetings, with the primary goal of identifying student needs and challenges and implementing counseling programs and services aimed at improving student outcomes.

They may work to identify and assess specific student needs, manage existing needs, and partner with teachers to establish effective IEPs. They may also refer students and their families to outside services, when necessary.

Day in the Life of a School Counselor: What School Counselors Do

School counselors also develop and deliver group activities and services aimed at improving student outcomes. From anti-bullying campaigns to career events to safety seminars, their programs are always designed to improve academic achievement, discipline, and social and emotional well-being.

On any given day, school counselors may:

  • Counsel a student on her career plans following high school
  • Attend an IEP meeting for a student with disabilities
  • Help a student complete a college application
  • Organize a schoolwide anti-bullying campaign
  • Counsel a student dealing with divorce
  • Counsel student groups on alcohol and drug abuse
  • Help a student make changes to his class schedule
  • Work with administrators to create and implement a school crisis plan
  • Collaborate with teachers to develop classroom management strategies for a child with behavioral problems
  • Provide academic advising and orientation for new students
  • Advise parents and students subject to discipline procedures

School Counselors and the Use of Applied Behavior Therapy

School counseling is the ideal setting in which to apply any number of applied behavior analysis (ABA) techniques as a way to help improve student outcomes. Although ABA has been traditionally used with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders, a growing body of evidence reveals that ABA techniques are useful with children with a variety of needs and in a variety of settings.

School counselors may apply ABA strategies when dealing with students with behavioral problems, when designing IEPs for children with ASD, and when counseling students. In addition, their knowledge of ABA and its effectiveness can be incredibly useful when collaborating with special education teachers, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists, all of whom regularly use ABA.

School counselors may use their knowledge of ABA to help teachers solve issues within their classrooms. For example, a school counselor may help a teacher implement the extinction strategy to stop a student’s disruptive behavior in class. In extinction, the student’s disruptive behavior (leaving his seat and shouting out in class) would be completely ignored by the teacher. Only when the child displayed the appropriate behavior (sitting in his chair and not speaking out in class) would the teacher recognize and reward his behavior, thereby reinforcing the desired behavior and causing the extinction of the disruptive behavior by ignoring it.

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How to Become a School Counselor

To become a school counselor, you’ll need a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling. You can view a list of graduate programs in school counseling, by state, here.

Master’s degrees in counseling include a supervised practicum, internship, and courses such as:

  • Human growth and development
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Research and program evaluation
  • Career development
  • Psychological and social theory
  • Pupil appraisal and evaluation
  • School-based consultation theory and practice

If you want to work as a school counselor in a public school setting, you’ll need to obtain a K-12 state license/certification through the state board of education. All states require a master’s degree in counseling to qualify for state licensure, although each has specific coursework and supervised experience requirements. In many states, you’ll also need to take and pass an examination to earn licensure—either a state-specific examination or the Praxis I (PPST) and/or Praxis II: School Guidance Counseling exam(s).

You can view a list of state requirements for school counselor licensure here. You can also learn more about school counseling in your state here.

Professional Certification Opportunities

While professional certification isn’t required to practice as a school counselor, achieving a national designation allows you to establish your commitment to the profession and enjoy career advancement.

You can earn the National Certified School Counselor designation through the National Board for Certified Counselors by completing at least two academic years of post-graduate work as a school counselor and achieving a passing score on either the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).

You may also choose to pursue the esteemed Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) designation through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Currently, to achieve this designation, you’ll  need a master’s degree in psychology, education, or behavior analysis that includes acceptable graduate coursework in behavior analysis and a defined supervised practical experience. You may also qualify by completing a Verified Course Sequence, which can be completed through a number of schools as either a stand-alone course sequence or as a graduate certificate, provided you have a master’s degree in one of these three areas.

However, your master’s degree in school counseling may soon qualify you for this designation. This is because in January 2022, the BACB will remove the degree restrictions, opening up the BCBA to a wide variety of master’s-level practitioners in the human services field. In anticipation of this change, many schools that offer the VCS have already removed the degree restrictions, allowing counselors, social workers, and other professionals to complete the VCA now. And then, in 2022, you’ll have the option of satisfying the experiential and exam requirements necessary to earn the BCBA designation.

Salaries for School Counselors

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), School Counselors earned a median salary of $60,510 annually.

  • 25th percentile: $47,390
  • 50th percentile: $60,510
  • 75th percentile: $77,210
  • 90th percentile: $98,190

School Counselors earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • California: $81,590
  • New Jersey: $76,040
  • Massachusetts: $75,660
  • Washington: $75,160
  • Maryland: $72,730

The top-paying metropolitan areas for School Counselors, according to mean salary, were:

  • Riverside (also includes San Bernardino and Ontario), CA: $91,540
  • Napa, CA: $90,530
  • San Jose (also includes Sunnyvale and Santa Clara), CA: $87,860
  • Hanford (also includes Corcoran), CA: $86,680
  • Bremerton (also includes Silverdale), WA: $85,770
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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.