School Counseling in Elementary School

While you may think it obvious that “kids are people too,” it is actually normal in our social culture to regard children as very simple creatures. Consequently, their particular social and emotional needs are often overlooked and neglected.

In elementary schools, as teachers instruct their students in ‘reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, and many other subjects in order to help students advance their academic skills, another expert is needed to help with students’ psychological and social needs. That expert is the elementary school counselor.

Is school counseling in elementary school for me?

Students in elementary school are not only learning academics, but also developing their self-concept in terms of their academic and social success. Simultaneously, they are developing their communication skills, their decision-making skills and habits, and their values. An elementary school counselor works to help these students deal with each of these challenges.

Working as an effective elementary school counselor requires several things: The counselor must enjoy children; must be able to relate to children in a genuine way, earning their trust and encouraging their participation; must be able to fairly and accurately identify students’ needs; and must be able to use a variety of methods to help students reach their goals. In addition to helping students with academic goals, the elementary school counselor also helps them with social difficulties (for example, adjusting to a different social group, dealing with unpopularity, or developing conflict resolution skills); helps them develop understanding of their own identities; and guides them through their changing attitudes regarding school, parents, peers, social groups, and self.

Since an elementary school counselor may work with a great number of students, both individually and in groups, an effective counselor is well-organized and attentive to detail. Accurate records must be kept of both individuals and of the school population as a whole. The effective counselor must be so organized as to always have the important information at hand, whether it’s for advising a student, communicating about a student’s progress to a parent or teacher, or when speaking to the administration about student issues.

School counselors must be able to work with all the other people involved in a student’s education—teachers, principals, and parents—and coordinate information and planning between the different groups. Thus the effective counselor is not only good with children, but also good with adults and skilled in dealing with organizations.

Industry vs. Inferiority

One of the psychosocial stages of development described by psychologist Erik Erikson, the “Industry vs. Inferiority” stage is the time when children ages roughly 6 to 11 form part of their identity based upon their ability to work well and succeed.

Early success helps children develop lifelong confidence; while a pattern of failure often results in a lifelong perception of inferiority.

In addition to their job as a counselor of students, school counselors also have particular legal and ethical standards to deal with. Two major areas of concern include dealing with privileged communication and confidentiality, and with complying with mandatory abuse reporting laws. Guidelines for these two areas vary from state to state; but all school counselors are required to act with consistency and integrity in performing their duties.

An elementary school counselor performs a number of different roles, dealing with individuals, groups, and systems; as well as meeting academic, personal, and social needs.

Some of the academic support offered by elementary school counselors includes the teaching of organizational skills, study skills, and test-taking skills (including how to deal with test anxiety). Counselors also help students establish goals, monitor progress towards those goals, and re-evaluate their goals based upon results and new information. With the help of counselors, students learn to self-identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies for success in light of that knowledge. Such academic guidance helps students who might otherwise fall behind instead begin a pattern of success that will propel them to future achievement.


Effective goal-setting involves creating goals which are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Sensitive

As elementary school students face the many demands of their social environment, counselors help them to understand themselves and their relationships to others. Effective counselors help students with developing peer relationship skills and with establishing coping skills for the many stresses they face. Students gain a better understanding of their social environment, and of the choices they have in responding to it, when counselors take the time needed to answer their question and guide them though their problems. Sometimes, a counselor may be helping a student transition from one school environment to another; other times, a counselor might help a student of one socioeconomic class interact with students of another. Additionally, counselors also promote multicultural awareness and provide substance abuse education.

Elementary school counselors also respond to particular problems faced by students. They may be involved with teaching conflict resolution skills, or with individual and small-group counseling. Sometimes the student counseled is struggling with bullies or social rejection; other times the counseled student is the bully (physically or socially) and must be corrected in their approach to others. This process may involve meeting with not only the bully’s parents, but also the parents of the bully’s victims. Counselors may even be involved with family crisis interventions, helping to deal with issues of anger, depression, and/or emotional distance. Sometimes they will have to consult with other professionals, or even refer students (and families) to other professionals for the help they need.

Elementary school counselors have to work with parents, teachers, and school administration, often coordinating information between the different groups regarding students’ goals and progress. Sometimes they provide parent education. For teachers, they help identify at-risk students, and sometimes they come in as classroom speakers. For the administration, they help monitor and influence the school climate, and provide data on student results.

School counselors may also be involved in addressing issues facing the school system, in addition to addressing the issues faced by individuals within the system. Through their interactions with at-risk students, counselors may gain special information on the needs of the student body as a whole, and can communicate that to school administrators. Sometimes this involves identifying a worrisome trend in a particular social group, or in recognizing a problematic effect of a particular school policy or program. In this way, every student—not just those who participate in counseling sessions—can benefit from the school counseling program.

Theories of school bullying

For many years, school counselors and psychologists were taught that bullies were unpopular children; rejected by their peers, they lashed out at weaker children as a means of coping with their rejection.

However, research in the past decade has identified an alternative phenomenon: many bullies are in fact quite popular, but employ “bi-strategic” methods of social interaction. In some situations, they use affirming behaviors to gain friends and social status; in other situations, they use bully tactics, involving either physical force or social pressure. Such “bi-strategic” bullies tend to be quite intelligent and particularly socially savvy—and invisible to counselors who have not kept up on their education.

What’s the job market like?

Job growth for elementary school counselors nationally through 2020 is projected at eight percent, somewhat slower than the average for all occupations. However, regional differences in student enrollment will result in differences in schools’ need for counselors. Enrollment in the South and West is expected to grow the most, while student enrollment in the Northeast is actually expected to decline.

Current counselor-to-student ratios average 459-1 nationally; but as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 250-1, growth will occur as states strive for that benchmark. In the meantime, Wyoming and Vermont have the best ratios (183-1 and 203-1, respectively), while Arizona and California the worst (respectively 815-1 and 810-1).

Does it pay well?

The median salary for school counselors (including elementary and high school counselors, at both public and private schools) in 2010 was $60,000 annually. (For comparison, the median salary for all occupations nationwide was only a little more than half that, at $33,840.) School counselors work full time; some get summers off, when school is not in session.

School counselors are often represented by the same union that represents the school teachers (or sometimes by a subdivision of that union), and therefore will get the same negotiating advantages of the union, with health and retirement benefits packages affected accordingly.

How do I get started?

In order to work as an elementary school counselor, you must be licensed/certified by your state. In some states, this can be attained after your bachelor’s degree, but most states require school counselors to posses a master’s degree in school counseling, or a related field. You can review your state’s requirements with the American School Counselor Association or Additionally, many states also require a criminal background check.

Classes you should take as an undergraduate include Human Growth and Development, Child Psychology, Sociology, and Cultural Anthropology; as well as communications classes to develop your speaking, listening, and interviewing skills. For more specific information about the skills you’ll need to develop in order to become an elementary school counselor, you can review the School Counselor Competencies published by the ASCA.

School counselors must also be prepared to commit to continuing learning. Not only do many states require continuing education for their licensed counselor, but new psychological research often provides important information for counselors helping students with dealing with social problems or with meeting academic goals. Falling behind in continuing education puts counselors at a disadvantage, as they try to address problems with an inadequate—or even refuted—understanding.

If you have a heart for helping children, then you’re already partway down the path toward becoming an elementary school counselor. Schools—and children—need people like you to help struggling students meet both their academic goals and thrive in their social environments. Look into a master’s in counseling, so you can equip yourself to meet these important needs.

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