School Psych vs School Counselor

Imagine you are a school psychologist who just met a new person person on the street. You now have the opportunity to share a little bit about your role in the school system. You begin with a routine introduction of your role, including your role with problem solving teams, data review teams, IEP teams, and you even admit to your role with individualized assessment . You say, "I work as a school psychologist."

The stranger responds, "Oh, so you're a school counselor?" The school psychologist in you is disheartened, but not upset. It's a common misunderstanding between two very important professions. If you need further clarification about the typical duties of school psychologist, you can take a look at my full page dedicated to that topic alone.

There are several differences between the school psych and school counselor educational background and typical job duties. These are general differences and will not hold true for every professional school counselor or school psychologist.

It is understandable why many people are confused about the roles between school psychologists and school counselors. Generally, individuals working in those professionals work are not asked to be primary instructional providers in today's classrooms. They are both considered "instructional support personnel" in many schools, and neither role typically is responsible for "teaching" lessons on a regular basis.

There are two giant caveats to the previous paragraph: (1) each district/state sets expectations for their employees' job duties (2) and each person filling those roles will certainly vary as well. I've known school counselors who never engaged in individual counseling with students, and I've known school psychologists who lead whole-class yoga sessions. The smaller the school district, the more these two roles seem to overlap (in my opinion). As many more schools begin to implement social and emotional curriculum, I have seen instructional support personnel be asked to lead classroom instruction or small group lessons; this is more commonly assigned to the school counselors, yet I've also seen school psychologists involved in this process as well.

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. Many school psychologists enter the profession directly from an undergraduate degree in psychology. School counselors can enter the profession from a clinical counseling background, yet my experience tells me that this is not the common path. Although Kansas state law allows this, most school counselors enter the profession after gaining experience as a teacher first.

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. That year (called an internship) is usually the final piece of a school psychologist's training program before completion of the school psychology program (unless you live in Texas.... which is another story altogether). The internship year is 1,200 hours of experience (a full school year) for school psychologists before they can become licensed to practice in Kansas.

School psychologists first receive a master's degree in psychology. Most then continue their studies and earn an specialist degree in school psychology. Few school psychologists venture beyond the specialist degree, unless they wish to pursue a tenure-track teaching position at a college or university.

School counselors receive a bachelor's degree in school counseling. Some then begin working toward a master's degree in school counseling. Few school counselors venture beyond the master's degree, unless they wish to pursue a tenure-track teaching position at a college or university.

There is also a difference in the number of jobs for both school counselors and school psychologists. Because school psychologists must attain a higher level of education before starting to practice, 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 pathway to licensure before earning their first paycheck. 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, behavioral, and social/emotional solutions to difficult problems. As a school psychologist, I have worked very closely with several school counselors and considered them to be professional mentors. I know they would say the same for me; we work well together as we strive toward the same goals for helping students succeed.

Three Quick Observations:

  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. 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. School psychologists tend to work regularly with children with psychoeducational disabilities. School counselors tend to work regularly with children with acute concerns. 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. 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. A school psychologist's role is narrow, while a school counselor's scope is wide. Of course, there are moments when 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. Alternatively, school counselors must work with students in special education situations when the student is need of emotional support.