In traditional high schools, teachers are responsible for the academic progress of students taking those teachers’ classes, and the guidance counselor is responsible for addressing any social or emotional problems that may emerge. Teachers rarely meet to discuss students they have in common—and even more rarely meet with the counselor to consider how to support students both academically and emotionally. In contrast, in the system of distributed counseling, developed by ISA, teachers and a counselor regularly work together as a team to support students’ academic and social-emotional development. Thus, both teachers and counselors have an expanded role in supporting students’ success. Teachers find that when they form strong relationships with their students, they are better able to support them and to demand more from them academically (Lee et al. 1999; Bryk and Schneider 2002; Ancess 2003).
Beliefs about Distributed Counseling
Each staff member’s role in contributing to students’ success in school is a central feature of ISA’s beliefs about distributed counseling. “To improve the quality of education so that all students can achieve, every staff member, individually and as a team, has an important role to play in attending to students’ social and emotional needs so that every child will have the support needed to succeed academically” (Freeman and Mogulescu 2003). The following beliefs undergird the ISA principle of distributed counseling (Freeman and Mogulescu 2003; House 2002; ISA 2004, n.d.):
- Sustained and trusting teacher-student relationships can be used to influence student performance, motivation, and achievement.
- Every adolescent should have available to him or her an adult who is responsible for monitoring and advocating for that adolescent’s academic and social progress.
- Students, like adults, are respected as autonomous human beings. Thus they are recognized not only as students, but also as individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.
- All team members encourage all students to achieve. As schools/SLCs strive toward improvement, student failure becomes less and less of an option.
- The parent is a significant partner with whom to communicate about his or her child’s academic and emotional growth or any issue that may be standing in the way of progress in high school.
The Major Components of Distributed Counseling
A staff member in an ISA school described how distributed counseling has changed the relationships of students and teachers in the school:
In a traditional high school, most counseling unfolds as a crisis intervention; however, as relationships with students deepen, I have experienced that crises do not occur as frequently. This is because [when] we work to develop and practice strategies to help students solve social problems and because students feel more connected to the adults in the building, we can prevent crises in the first place.
ISA does not advocate for any one prescribed model for its schools to follow in implementing distributed counseling. Instead, ISA supports each team as it develops its own program, one that is appropriate to that team’s goals, contexts, and students. However, as delineated in what follows, there are several core components that are fundamental to distributed counseling in all its permutations:
- Team collaboration and integration of counseling strategies. The team members collaboratively develop goals and strategies for supporting students, meet to discuss the progress of individual students, and integrate counseling and academic subjects.
- A dedicated counselor integrated into the team. The ISA counselor provides direct counseling to individual students and groups of students. As a full participant in the team, the counselor helps team members to develop the skills and knowledge to help them to collaborate in advising students.
- Teachers as advisors. The teacher’s role is expanded to include serving as advisor, monitoring and supporting his or her students’ development socially and emotionally as well as academically.
- Student-support mechanisms. Teams put in place a variety of structures and strategies to support students’ academic, social, and emotional development. Two common strategies that are used to help teams support students’ progress are team case conferencing and advisory programs.
- Consistent communication with parents. Teachers have sustained and purposeful interaction with parents, regularly communicating with them about their child’s performance.
- College preparation. A four-year college-preparatory sequence of activities is developed by the team. Through these activities, students and families are informed of and actively engaged in the process of preparing for college.
Below, we elaborate on how these core components are practiced in ISA schools/SLCs. While we treat the components separately, they often overlap with other mechanisms or strategies employed by a team or school.
Ultimately, distributed counseling is as much about a commitment to change the way we relate to adolescents in our high schools as it is about any single curriculum or school structure—it means moving away from treating each young person as simply a student to be taught and moving toward treating him or her as an autonomous, developing individual with the capacity to learn, to engage with others, and to succeed. Every interaction between a teacher, counselor, or administrator and a high school student can be an occasion for distributed counseling. The structures and mechanisms that a school creates are the tools with which to act on that commitment.