A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Part 1: Focus on changing roles of elementary school counselors during National School Counseling Week

Education today is many things. Most parents and educators agree that it’s a process that involves the whole child. Academics are key, of course, but so is preparing children for life in the 21st century. 

As times have changed so has the role of school counselors. Where once they were primarily considered service providers, today they are so much more. Their role, according to the American School Counseling Association, is to ensure optimal achievement for all students. 

Today, school counselors support children’s academic and career goals but also their social and emotional development. It’s a big world out there, and school counselors play a unique role in ensuring students have what they need to become full and productive citizens. 

As part of National School Counseling Week, counselors at all grade levels across the Fort Thomas Independent Schools were asked about what they do, how they do it and what we should know about their role in our children’s growth and development. Special thanks goes to Trinity Walsh, college and career counselor at Highlands High School, who helped organize and gather information for this project.

As part one of this three-part series on school counseling, we focus on elementary school counselors who help children navigate the system and build the foundational skills that will bolster them in their academic careers and beyond. 

Meet the elementary school counselors. Most said they started out to become teachers, but found a passion for helping students with their lives beyond the classroom. 

Whitney McKay, Johnson ElementaryI have been a social worker since 2000 (with an MSW) and a certified school social worker since 2001. I chose this profession because I love kids and wanted to work directly with them. I considered going back to school to get an education degree with a master’s in special education, but when I thought about, what it was I wanted to teach kids, it wasn’t math and English…it was social skills, emotional management, empathy. The skills I thought were most important in life pushed me toward a career as a counselor in schools rather than a teacher. 

Shauna Luebbers,  Moyer ElementaryI have been in the school counseling profession for 13 years. I stumbled into school counseling by chance. I was going to college with plans to be a teacher but after coordinating an afterschool program for at risk elementary students, I fell in love with helping students and addressing their social and emotional needs. I immediately knew that my graduate degree would be in school counseling. The job of a school counselor can be challenging (like all jobs in education) but the long-term rewards far outweigh the day-to-day stressors. 

Rachel Caswell, Woodfill ElementaryI am going into my fifth year as a school counselor. I started my education career as a teacher but quickly knew I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in school counseling. In high school, I had a teacher who always kept me after class for a few minutes to check in on how I was doing. It wasn’t my school counselor, but these extra few minutes made me feel supported and cared for. I knew I wanted to be that type of person in a school, and being a school counselor gave me the biggest opportunity to have that impact. 

The elementary counselors chose to answer the questions as a team, so each of these answers was a collaboration between McKay, Luebbers and Caswell. 

1. What would you say your primary role is as a counselor? What are some other duties you have? 

Elementary school counselors help all students with social-emotional development, careers and academic achievement. We help all students grow into successful adults of the future. 

As elementary school counselors, we teach classroom counseling lessons in every student’s classroom. These topics include, but are not limited to, empathy and feelings, bullying awareness, growth mindset, emotion management, conflict resolutiom and problem solving. 

We meet the needs of students in smaller settings through small group counseling and individual counseling. Small group counseling topics vary based on the needs of our students each year. However, examples of small group counseling have included: family changes, social skills, anger management, managing stress and worries, friendship, building resiliency and being a new student at school. 

If a student is struggling and needs to talk one-on-one they can leave us a note, contact us through Schoology or parents, teachers and administration can refer a student to us for additional support. However, if a student needs long-term counseling we refer the student to outside agencies. 

2. Are you involved in academic planning for students? How/what input do you provide? 

Elementary school counselors collaborate with teachers, parents and administration to help remove barriers a child may have that is impeding their academic achievement. 

3. How are you involved in the social or individual development of students? 

The social and individual development of students is one of our major roles as elementary school counselors. (see above) 

4. What would you like parents and students to know about your role? 

The elementary school counselors want all students and parents to know that their child is our top priority. We want students to feel safe and comfortable coming into school each day. If there is something that is getting in the way of that, we want to know. We will do whatever we can to make sure school is a place that feels like a second home. 

5. While school and personal safety has always been a concern, in light of recent shootings and violence, how has your role changed or intensified?

We are fortunate to work in a community that values our work as school counselors. Our district has recently added two more school counselors to our team, one at the middle school and one at the high school. This shows the weight our district places on supporting our students in Fort Thomas during these difficult times. 

This year we conducted a resiliency poll with all students in grades 3-12 as an additional tool to identify students who may be in need of extra intervention. We were able to learn which students were struggling with social isolation, bullying, anxiety, thoughts of suicide and more so we could get them the resources they needed quickly. This was another helpful tool to find our struggling students and keep them from falling through the cracks. 

As counselors, we want to make sure every child has “a person to turn to.” We ask students often, “who’s your person?” It doesn’t have to be one of us, but they need to have someone they can talk to. Building relationships with each child is number one always. 

Fort Thomas school counselors: Britane Bednar, Ann Listerman, Erica Thomas, Lori Maines, Trinity Walsh, Laura Schnitzler, Whitney McKay, Shauna Luebbers and Rachel Caswell.

6. What are some of the more pressing issues you deal with on a daily basis such as bullying, cyber safety, grief, depression, drugs (not just use by students but how they might affect students’ family dynamics), fear and other concerns? 

All of the above are issues we deal with on a daily basis. Through collaboration with our teachers, they always let us know if there has been a change with a student. Maybe he or she has become more reserved in class, falling asleep, absent or pulling away from peers. These warning signs let us know if a child may need additional support. Our teachers place a lot of emphasis on the social-emotional needs of our students which makes our jobs easier. 

7. Are there issues you feel could use more attention? Is there a need for more resources to address these issues? 

Our district does an incredible job supporting our needs as counselors. If there is a curriculum, training or workshop we would like to purchase or attend they are more than willing to support us if it meets the need of our school. Each of us attends our state school counseling conference each year, and we were able to go to larger trainings outside of the state this summer. These opportunities keep us up-to-date with the latest counseling resources and interventions to bring back to our schools. 

8. How do you keep up-to-date on issues of concern? 

The main way we keep up-to-date on issues of concern is by being members of the American School Counseling Association, attending trainings and workshops, and networking with other school counselors. ASCA sends magazines and has unlimited online resources for our support. 

This summer, one of us was able to attend the National School Counseling Conference in Los Angeles, California, while another was learning at the Educational Summit put on by Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab and Relay Graduate School of Education. It’s incredible the resources we are able to bring back to our schools after being provided with these amazing opportunities. 

9. What are ways students and parents can seek help or support from counselors? Are there ways to identify when you might be able to help? 

In our elementary schools, each school has a way for students to contact their school counselor. This may be through a Google survey linked on their Ipad or simply leaving a note in their counselor’s “mailbox.” We send newsletters home to our parents, and they are always encouraged to email or call us at anytime. Hopefully, our faces are familiar where no student or parent shies away from reaching out to us. 

10. What part of your job do you enjoy most? 

The students. Being able to sit down with students one on one and ask them how they are doing. We love knowing they have a trusted adult they can go to for whatever they need. This isn’t something any of us had in elementary school, and we are incredibly thankful we can be that person at Moyer, Johnson and Woodfill elementary schools.

Next: Changing Roles of Middle School Counselors

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