Important Skills for School Counselors

Important skills for school counselors

Few things are as fulfilling as helping students thrive. From working on better grades to dealing with difficult situations such as abuse or death, there are many situations that can lead to emotional and behavioral issues in students. School counselors are the key to helping students overcome hardships and thrive academically, socially and emotionally.

This article will explore key skills school counselors should master to succeed and make a difference in the lives of their students.

What do school counselors do?

First, let’s discuss what school counselors actually do. The first thing to note is that counselors rarely focus entirely on a student’s academics or entirely on their home life. Instead, they strike a balance between helping students cope with major life events such as divorce or death while also guiding them toward academic excellence

What exactly does this mean for counselors? It means that you must focus not only on skills that allow you to communicate clearly about academic and career opportunities, but also those that allow you to communicate empathically. Counselors must be able to listen to the students they are helping and allow them to feel as though someone is “on their side.” This cannot be done with academic help alone.

More specifically, school counselors have certain responsibilities and tasks that are nearly universal. These include:

  • Maintaining comprehensive student records
  • Filing reports and helping students connect with applicable resources
  • Interacting with administrators, teachers and parents to improve student performance and well-being
  • Interpreting student information and observations to identify concerning trends

Most of the points above are self-explanatory, but the last one might be confusing. School counselors must be able to recognize signs of potential problems. Students who are depressed might exhibit certain behaviors, for example, which hint toward their struggles. The same is true of students experiencing abuse or undergoing serious life events. Good school counselors are able to notice abnormal behavior and draw accurate conclusions.

As you might expect, there is a lot that goes into effective counseling, and there are a number of skills school counselors use every day. We will go into some of the most important of them below.

Mental health

The first thing we’ll discuss is the skill of interacting with students struggling with mental illness. While the number of mentally ill students, as well as the disorders they are living with, will vary from school to school, most counselors have at least a few students who need help with their mental health. This often translates into working with students overwhelmed by social and academic norms. Skilled school counselors can work with these students to teach them the skills they need to cope with these stresses. This, in turn, can help them interact with other students and thrive in social and academic environments.

Another aspect of mental health that counselors help with is crisis intervention. Counselors not only work with students with diagnosed mental health issues but also those with undiagnosed issues as well as students without a formal condition but who are struggling due to life changes and circumstances. It is important for counselors to be able to recognize both of these situations in order to better help students. Once you have determined what is behind the behavior or struggles in question, you must then intervene to stop the crisis before it becomes insurmountable. If you suspect abuse, for example, you must be able to make the choice to intervene and report the abuse as well as address the mental and emotional aftermath.

In order to successfully help students living with mental health issues, be it a chronic problem or something temporary, you must also be able to communicate effectively.


Communication is an absolutely critical skill for school counselors. You will need to rely on your ability to interact with others, including the following individuals, in a few different ways:

  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Parents
  • Administrators

Counselors routinely interact with teachers in order to build an action plan to help students thrive. The ability to synthesize information and explain why your suggestions are important can often be the difference between the student getting the help they need to overcome the conflict, challenge or difficulty in their life, and continuing to struggle with the issue, which will only compound with time. Similar interactions occur with parents and other administrators.

Interacting with parents can be difficult, especially if they are not receptive to the fact that their child needs help. This can be even more difficult when communicating with parents you suspect of abuse or parents who know abuse is occurring but refuse to address the issue. Effective school counselors understand how to be respectful even under stressful circumstances in an attempt to convince parents to accept their recommendations to help their child. Note that this also means understanding when to bring school administrators into the situation.

Administrators often need to be included in decision-making, especially if the child needs any nonstandard accommodations. Allowing a student to sit in an empty classroom during lunch or take their exams in a room away from other students, for example, often requires administrative approval. Counselors must understand how to approach these administrators as well as how to clearly and effectively explain the challenges the student is facing. They must also be able to express how their suggested accommodations could help the affected individuals. 

Finally, school counselors often interact with students in dire need of help, as outlined above. This requires them to express a great deal of empathy. Recognizing what a student is living with and how it is impacting their social, familial and academic life is critical to success. Institutions, such as St. Bonaventure University, have an Online School Counseling Masters Degree that is designed to develop these communication and empathy skills alongside the knowledge needed within school counseling. Listening skills, boundary setting, empathy and socialization are all communication skills students need to be successful school counselors. St Bonaventure’s program gives students the opportunity to practice and use these skills within the community during a practicum and two internships.

Time management

School counselors rarely have an abundance of time. There are always students in need of help, and there are often too few hours in the day to provide care. As a result, time management is an incredibly important skill for school counselors to master. There are a few different aspects to consider. Setting schedules and sticking to them, for example, is an important part of time management. Just as important is completing tasks within a given time frame. Even the best schedules will fall apart when you fall behind in your work and must play catch-up.

Time management can be a tough skill to learn, but there are a few ways to get started. Staying on top of your work is an excellent incentive to master time management skills. Taking your time and setting realistic goals, expectations and deadlines, and sticking to them are all important for good time management.

You can absolutely learn time management even if you aren’t in school. It’s easier to learn while studying, where the stakes are a bit lower, but we have some tips for mastering time management at any point in your career. First, you have to accept that there’s no magic spell that will make the process easier. Instead, embrace the challenge and spend some time carefully going through your responsibilities as well as the time you have in the workday, and plan out a realistic schedule. As you become more used to this schedule, you will get a better feel for how much time you actually spend on each activity, making it easier to refine your schedule and get more done.

The important thing is to refuse to break your schedule. Barring a legitimate emergency, you have to stick with it until you have reached the point where managing your time feels like second nature. Until then, keep practicing and hold yourself accountable.

Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is important in just about every aspect of life. From interacting with loved ones to building a business, effectively responding to conflict is critical. This is especially true for school counselors. We’ve talked about how counselors interact in cases of abuse and help students on an individual basis, but we haven’t explored circumstances that involve multiple students. Fighting is not uncommon in school at most ages, but that does not mean it is something that should be tolerated. On the contrary, school counselors must be able to effectively intervene and talk to all involved parties to come to a resolution. There are a few ways that you can do this.

First, school counselors often facilitate individual and group sessions about anger management and conflict resolution. They provide help in mediating conflicts, modifying behavior and dealing with students who have anger management issues. This allows them to provide students with tools to recognize volatile situations and address them healthily before things get out of hand. School counselors also conduct group sessions that focus on academic achievement, social skills and, again, conflict resolution.

Note that school counselors don’t always have access to predetermined session notes. It is often necessary to develop lessons about conflict resolution on their own and then use them to teach the students in question. This is another reason why conflict resolution is an important skill for counselors to master – you might end up creating lessons about it.

Individualized education program (IEP)

One of the most important responsibilities school counselors handle is creating academic plans that suit individual student needs. We touched on this briefly above, but the process is more involved than simply allowing students to take tests in empty rooms. That result is simply one part of an individualized education program (IEP) designed to help students with nonstandard needs thrive.

To create an education program tailored to individual students, counselors must exercise their communication skills and listen to the student’s current complaints and struggles. Once they understand some of what is triggering stress and/or behavioral issues, counselors can begin to work with the student, as well as their teachers, to create an education program. This might include things like arriving to class late, missing certain days or assignments, or teaching the student in a particular way. If the student does well with video and imagery, for example, but not very well at all with text alone, the student’s IEP might include adding images and video to their lessons wherever possible.

Beyond the above, counselors must be able to adjust programs using feedback from teachers and students alike. They will also be responsible for monitoring a student’s progress while on the plan. If it doesn’t help in a substantial way, the school counselor might pursue other avenues of treatment.

Do you want to make a difference in people’s lives? School counseling might be a great career for you. Keep these skills in mind as you find the perfect program for your goals!