Are You A Counselor?

When I inform people that I am a School Psychologist, I almost always hear their reply, "Oh, so you're a school counselor?"  I hear this so often, that I decided to take a couple moments and answer that question here.

Yes.  But, mostly no.

It is understandable why many people are confused about the roles between school psychologists and school counselors.  Generally, neither professionals work as licensed teachers.  Neither have their own classroom with regular students.  Both of them work in the mental health profession with students.  Both professionals work to help students succeed in schools.  Both professionals have very similar college training in education, psychology, and counseling.

However, there are several differences between both professionals' educational background and typical job duties.  These are general differentiations and will not hold true for every professional school counselor or school psychologist.  I am also writing this from my experience in the Kansas school system, so other state requirements may vary.

Up until recently (in Kansas), it was impossible to become a school counselor without having first been a school teacher for two years.  (That regulation has recently changed, and new school counselors do not have to have had prior teaching experience.)  Therefore, most school counselors have (at minimum) two years of teaching experience on their resumes prior to becoming a school counselor.  School psychologists do not have to have teaching experience, nor must they have a undergraduate background in an educational field.

School psychologists most often must complete a more rigorous collegiate program, with a longer field experience requirement prior to being credentialed.  School psychologists must (generally) complete a 600-clock hour practicum while in graduate school, followed by a full year of full-time professional practice.)
  • School psychologists must first receive a Master's degree in (general) Psychology.  Most then continue their studies and earn an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology.
  • School counselors must receive a Bachelor's degree in School Counseling.  Some then begin working toward a Master's degree in School Counseling.
There is also a difference in the number of jobs for both school counselors and school psychologists.  Because school psychologists must attain a higher collegiate education, it is common to find school psychologists being stretched across an entire district, or across several school buildings; a lengthier education course reduces the number of individuals who are willing to tackle the rigorous education track a school psychologist must endure.  "School psychs" often must commute between school buildings to reach all of their students.  On the other hand, it is very common to find a school counselor in each school building, even in smaller districts. 

School psychologists and school counselors share many similar job duties.  Both are able to help teachers, students, parents, and school administrators find academic solutions to difficult problems.  School counselors often focus their efforts on finding solutions to current issues in a student's life, whereas school psychologists tend to do long-term work with students across several years.  This is not at all to say that a school counselor may not see a student across a long time frame, or that a school psychologist may only see a child for a short time - that it also completely possible.

I'll try to further distinguish the two professions by offering three quick rules:
  1. School counselors tend to focus on social/environmental issues that hinder educational progress.  School psychologists tend to focus on educational challenges that are based on physical/mental/biological factors.  Both professionals tend to play critical parts of school improvement teams, student assistance teams, and IEP teams.
    1. Let me provide a short example.  Imagine a child, Tim, is having a hard time learning at school because there is ongoing strife at Tim's home due to his parents' constant bickering.  A school counselor would likely be referred to speak to Tim to help him find ways to feel comfortable at home and at school.  A school psychologist would likely not play a part in Tim's situation since there were no apparent cognitive processing issues.
    2. Now, lets look at Amy.  Amy is a 7th grade student who has routinely been late for school and her grades are slipping due to her missed time in class.  Amy has also been medically diagnosed with sleep apnea.  In this situation, a school psychologist would likely work with Amy, the school counselor, and the school nurse to help provide academic interventions that could help Amy.
  2. School psychologists work regularly with children with psychological disabilities.  School counselors work regularly with children with emotional concerns.
    1. There is certainly much variability in specific roles of school counselors and school psychologists from school-to-school.  Some schools may only have one of these professionals working for the school; most schools prefer to employ both a school counselor and a school psychologist.
    2. The important thing to remember is that both of these professionals are here to serve students in making their school experience positive and productive, while also providing supports for improving a student's mental health.
  3. School psychologists work primarily with students who have been identified with special education needs.  School counselors work with all students who need emotional support, not just students who need special education services.
    1. Of course, school psychologists must work with students in general education situations, especially when working with student support teams, and during the process of evaluation to determine if a student would be eligible for special education or related services.
    2. Of course, school counselors must work with students in special education situations when the student is need of emotional support.