In the school context, there can be a wide variety of difficulties and challenges. Schools are, by nature, a very dynamic and complex environment. Students at the same school can have a wide variety of very differing needs, and it is of the upmost importance to provide them with the specific support they require
There are many terms to describe the process of helping an individual overcome challenges and maximise growth, such as counselling, coaching or psychotherapy. The professional who is best placed to provide these services, such as counsellor, coach or psychotherapist, varies depending on the goals to be achieved, the approach or model used or the context in which they work.
Counsellor and Psychologist are the terms that are most often used broadly and interchangeably, and although both provide support and encourage healthy development and mental health, they take different approaches to achieving these goals. It's important to make this distinction to provide clarity and recognise the differences in the roles.
The main objective of the School Counsellor is to identify and address the social, emotional and behavioural needs of the school community (students, families, teachers etc) and provide the necessary emotional support, allowing everyone to have an optimal experience at school. The School Counsellor employs a consultation approach.
In the case of a School Psychologist, they work with an intervention approach, with a focus on understanding and intervening in the emotional and behavioural context, as well as with academic issues. This is done in a more exhaustive and specific way, analysing the problem through testing and assessing.
As we can see, the difference between these two roles is that generally school counsellors work at the level of the entire school community (students, families, teachers etc), while school psychologists tend to focus on working with individual students with more specific issues. In other words, school psychologists are the mental health professionals that are trained to test for and officially make a diagnose, whereas counsellors can only suggest those conditions exist, and make referrals to a school psychologist for additional testing.
These two school-based professionals typically provide counselling rather than psychotherapy (Hess, Magnuson and Beeler, 2012). There are similarities between counselling and psychotherapy, such as the provision of a confidential space in which to explore personal difficulties or the effectiveness of the intervention depending, to a large extent, on the quality of the relationship. However, there are also important differences.
In general, we can say that counselling is a short-term service delivered to individuals or groups to increase their adaptive functioning. In the case of school counselling, the adaptive functioning is relative to the school setting. An illustration of a counselling intervention is when a student who is struggling in her peer relationships finds, with the help of the school counsellor, solutions to reduce the conflict.
Conversely, psychotherapy provided by a psychologist tends to be a longer-term practice, representing a deeper, more fundamental level of work, over a longer period. Also, the issues or concerns that an individual presents can be more serious and may reflect a pathology (e.g., depression, suicidal ideation, eating disorder (Hughes and Theodore, 2009).
However, this distinction does not mean that School Counsellors never work with students who have a diagnosable disorder. It just means that their focus is one of support rather than treatment. For example, a student may have a serious disorder (e.g. generalised anxiety disorder) but still be seen by a school-based professional who works with the student on strategies to manage the anxiety while he or she is at school in order to achieve academic goals. Ideally, the student is also working with an external therapist to manage the anxiety disorder.
Here, School Counsellors can play an important role by providing the family with a referral to a local therapist, by staying in close contact with this therapist, by reinforcing the student’s use of newly learned coping strategies, and by consulting with the student’s teachers as appropriate.
It is important to emphasise once again that the complexity of the issue to be treated in the individual student, and the goals to be achieved will require the intervention of one professional or another. As we have seen, school is not the right context in which to carry out a therapeutic intervention and similarly, the school counsellor is not the professional best placed to carry out such work. The School Counsellor does carry out interventions throughout the school community, which can complement therapeutic interventions. Many times the work carried out by the School Counsellor is preventive, increasing exponentially the welfare and health of the entire school community.
Feltham, C. (1995). What is counselling?: The Promise and Problem of the Talking Therapies. Sage Publications Ltd
Henry, A (2012). How Do I Select a Therapist or Counselor? Recuperado de https://lifehacker.com/how-do-i-select-a-therapist-or-counselor-5874359
Hess, R.S., Magnuson, S. and Beeler, L. (2012). Counseling children and adolescents in the school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wake Forest University (s.f.). What’s the Difference: School Counselor vs. School Psychologist? Recuperado de https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/blog/whats-difference-school-counselor-vs-school-psychologist/
Proofreading and editing by Gráinne Keeshan