What is a Residential Counselor?

One of the biggest precepts of applied behavior analysis is the gradual, orderly progression of behavior modification, exemplified in techniques like graduated exposure or discrete trial training. There’s no better example of this in the world of rehabilitation than the role of the halfway house.

Managed by expert counselors with empathy, expertise, and firm expectations, these residential facilities offer a controlled, organized, supportive environment for either recovering drug addicts or patients with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities on their way to more fully integrating with society.

Halfway houses host individuals with every kind of behavioral challenge, from those with severe ASD (autism spectrum disorder) to recently released prisoners to recovering alcohol and drug addicts. Residential counselors have to bring to bear both a high level of expertise in behavioral treatments and a compassionate understanding of the challenges their residents face with addiction, disability, or other behavioral issues.

Often called halfway house counselors, residential counselors provide personalized care and therapy for charges living in temporary treatment facilities. They often live in the facility themselves, offering 24/7 access to other residents, handling both emergency situations and routine therapy. They might implement token economies to help addicts curb their urges, or use differential reinforcement to discourage violent outbursts, or manage stimuli to help calm agitation.

Residential counselors primarily work for non-profit social service agencies. They can work with all age ranges, from juveniles to geriatric patients.

Residential Counselor Job Description

Residential counselors are not usually the person primarily responsible for handling the cases of the house residents, but they are the ones that have the most day-to-day patient contact and may monitor and conduct treatment and therapies. Their role is both supervisory and therapeutic.

Many positions are for full-time residency in the halfway house, but some jobs involve shift-work, sharing that responsibility with other counselors on a rotating basis.

Counselors also function as de facto head of household in group homes, and take on jobs such as:

  • Ordering or shopping for home supplies and groceries
  • Monitoring facility conditions and performing light maintenance
  • Assigning rooms and making up chore schedules

In some roles, they may be expected to prepare and serve meals, monitor resident activities, control visitors, and lead house activities like roundtable discussions or behavioral games. They’ll also administer medication where necessary and legal.

They may also be responsible for transporting residents to various medical or social services appointments. They work closely with other therapists, social workers, and various medical providers and legal authorities, depending on the nature of the residents in the home.

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How To Become a Residential Counselor

Residential counselors come from all different types of backgrounds and walks of life. It’s a career that takes a knack for relating to people, for being both firm and empathetic, which can be more personality-driven than education-dependent.

It’s not uncommon for former residents to become counselors themselves, giving back to the same community that helped them out of their own difficulties.

Getting the right training in counseling and therapy can be as important as coming in with the right mindset, however.

What Kind of Education do You Need to Become a Residential counselor?

Most halfway house counseling jobs don’t require anything beyond a high school education. In some cases, you’ll be expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree in mental health, social work, or another human services-related field.

Often, the more education you have, the lower the experience requirements for a particular position, so earning a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree can cut the amount of time you will have to spend accumulating time on the job before applying for such positions.

Regardless of the degree you choose, you’ll want to ensure that it is properly accredited by the relevant specialty accreditation agency, such as the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) for social work degrees, or the Council for Standards in Human Services Education (CSHSE) in human services fields. You’ll receive both the most relevant and applicable education in the field, with a curriculum lined up directly with best practices and employer expectations.

Do You Need a License or Certification for a Job as a Household Counselor?

Most states do not have any type of licensing or certification requirement for residential counselors. Individual positions may require specific qualifications, however. Almost all residential counseling jobs require you to pass a criminal background check, for instance.

In some cases, and depending on job requirements, you’ll be required to obtain a food handler’s permit or a state-level counseling license, such as the Agency Affiliated Counselor license in the state of Washington.

You’ll also usually be expected to attend various trainings on CPR, first aid, suicide prevention, or other related matters.

With the emphasis on behavioral therapies in halfway houses, earning a certificate as a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) can both improve your chances at a position and increase your skills in administering behavioral therapies. With only a high school diploma, you can complete 40 hours of approved behavioral training and pass a competency assessment and exam to earn this valuable credential.

Residential Counselor Salary

Residential counselors fall in between two different Bureau of Labor Statistics job categories, Residential Advisor and Rehabilitation Counselor.

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Residential Advisors earned a median salary of $31,220 annually.

  • 25th: $28,820
  • 50th: $31,220
  • 75th: $38,750
  • 90th: $48,530

Residential advisors earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • New Jersey: $49,020
  • Vermont: $48,050
  • Minnesota: $41,080
  • California: $40,890
  • New York: $40,550

The top-paying metropolitan areas for residential advisors, according to mean salary, were:

  • Trenton, NJ: $50,560
  • Napa, CA: $48,390
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $46,210
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $45,810
  • Barnstable Town, MA: $45,730

According to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Rehabilitation Counselors earned a median salary of $38,560 annually.

  • 25th: $30,610
  • 50th: $38,560
  • 75th: $52,920
  • 90th: $65,880

Rehabilitation counselors earned the highest mean salaries in the following states:

  • Maine: $80,550
  • New Jersey: $71,570
  • Rhode Island: $60,230
  • Alaska: $55,100
  • Massachusetts: $52,200

The top-paying metropolitan areas for rehabilitation counselors, according to mean salary, were:

  • Portland-South Portland, ME: $94,340
  • Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ: $73,140
  • Olympia-Tumwater, WA: $59,970
  • Utica-Rome, NY: $58,950
  • Akron, OH: $58,610

It’s also worth noting, however, that many residential counselors also enjoy free housing as part of their role, a substantial benefit in many areas.

The role of residential counselor is an important one to many individuals progressing through behavioral treatments, and creating the right kind of environment for residents offers personal satisfaction as well as the opportunity to make friends for life.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Residential Advisors and Rehabilitation Counselors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.