Distributed CounselingTM

Distributed Counseling personalizes learningIn 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

Distributed Counseling improves academic performanceEach 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. students and teachers collaborate on a projectTeams 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.

Team Collaboration and Integration of Counseling Strategies
In ISA schools and SLCs, the team comprises teachers, administrators, and one or more counselors, all working with an ISA coach. The team is the engine for program development, playing a formative role in planning school curriculum and instruction, professional development, and the distributed counseling program. Regular team meetings provide a forum for discussing students, planning staff development, and producing strategies and mechanisms for implementing the ISA principles. In terms of distributed counseling activities, ISA teams use regular common meeting time for a number of purposes:

  • Discussing specific students for the purpose of identifying a plan of action to support their progress
  • Learning and sharing effective counseling strategies
  • Integrating college-preparation activities into the curriculum
  • Integrating counseling issues into advisory and core-course curricula, such as peer mediation, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and health and sexuality
  • Meeting with students who are not performing up to expectation— for example, not completing assignments on time — (often with a family member included in the meeting)
  • Meeting with students who have emotional problems (often with a family member included in the meeting)
  • Examining student data, such as that on course passage rates and ISA student writing and math assessments
  • Designing college-preparatory events such as a college fair or visit

Regular team meetings are an important vehicle for sharing knowledge and perspectives with the aim of supporting students’ academic and social development. The counselor often plays a leading role in working with the team on addressing many of the themes outlined in the preceding list, especially those that relate to student behavior and social development.
ISA team members described some of the ways in which their teams work together and their plans for future collaboration:

“We bring a lot of different skill sets and perspectives to the table that a single teacher wouldn’t have.”

“We’re going to try to work more as a team on delegating responsibilities, with the counselor being the central point of contact.”

“We look at data every quarter—we look at the number of children failing and then look at the reasons why they fail. The counselors develop the list by team. We have a quarterly morning meeting by team. And when they take the Regents, we’ll look at that.”

A Dedicated Counselor Integrated into the Team
In ISA’s distributed counseling program, the counselor is a critical member of the team in planning how to support a cohort of students. While the counselor works with students individually—much as a traditional guidance counselor does—he or she devotes much of his or her time to working directly with and supporting the team’s teachers in their role as advisors to students.
There are many ways in which counselors support team members:

  • Participating in team meetings, especially those that address individual student needs and issues (for instance, through case conferencing)
  • Facilitating team interventions about individual students, often directly involving parents, students, or both, in the problem-solving process
  • Preparing curriculum, including materials and activities, for advisory groups
  • Training teachers in counseling techniques that can be integrated into their instructional practice
  • Coordinating communication between team members about counseling and advising issues
  • Coordinating the college-preparation program for the school, including working with teachers and students to ensure that students will meet the necessary requirements and deadlines for applying to college

ISA counselors remarked on their contribution to teams at their schools:

“I’m trying to do more workshops and will be going to advisories more to assist teachers and to conduct workshops, and I’ll be bringing in people… I’m helping them distinguish between when it’s something they can do and when it’s something that should be referred. I work with advisories to do workshops with advisors. I’ll bring in different community-based organizations to do presentations for them on teen-related issues—pregnancy, peer pressure, and sexuality.”

“As for a formalized distributed counseling program, the advisor is the key person with whom the students build a relationship along with their peers. If the students need further help, then the guidance counselor comes in. I have to be supportive of advisors who aren’t used to advisory—model and give lessons, come in once a month to give activities and support teachers in advisory, but advisory is teacher driven.”

Teachers in ISA schools discussed the important role of the counselor within their ISA team:

“I think the counselor is a very important aspect of the program. To have a counselor there who can really be hands on and involved in their lives is a really good thing. And then, as the kids like to say, she can “get in their business” and really gets to know them. Part of that grows out of the meetings that we have and talking about the kids; she has a knowledge of the kids that no other counselor is going to be afforded just because of the intimacy that she has and that’s a tremendous advantage.”

“[The counselor] is part of our team and she works closely with us. We’re constantly discussing student backgrounds—what we can do to help them. We have a lot of parent meetings. We’re there to support each other.”

“She asks for a list of [student] names for the conferences we would like. She contacts parents and sets up a meeting and then informs us when the meeting is going to take place. She gives us background and then we sit down at the meeting and she leads the meetings. She’s wonderful.”

Teachers As Advisors
In the typical high school, the teacher is primarily responsible for the academic progress of students whom he or she teaches. In the ISA model, in addition to providing instruction, the teacher serves as an advisor to his or her students, monitoring and supporting their academic, social, and emotional development throughout their high school career. The small size of ISA schools and the team structure produce conditions in which teachers can know their students well. Teachers develop relationships with students that allow the former to “leverage” high-quality academic work and successful school behaviors (for example, perseverance, revising work to improve its quality) from their students.

There are many means by which teachers act as advisors in ISA’s distributed counseling system:

  • Leading advisory groups
  • Offering extended-day opportunities for academic support and extracurricular projects or activities
  • Addressing individual student needs through case conferencing and interventions
  • Conducting transcript reviews with individual students or groups to assess whether students are on track to graduate
  • Working closely with the counselor to provide individual students and groups of students with the resources they need to succeed (tutoring, counseling, conflict resolution, and so on)
  • Integrating counseling techniques and college-preparation activities into their curriculum and instruction.

In many schools/SLCs, teachers are assigned an advisory group, composed of a small number of students for whom they serve as the official advisor (see the section “Advisory Groups,” below); at other sites, teachers select particular students whose progress they monitor or with whom they work intensively. Students bring personal concerns to their advisor, and advisors work to remove obstacles to students’ progress in school and to academically challenge their students. Positive relationships with students allow advisors to foster their advisees’ progress.

The structures and mechanisms listed in this report provide critical tools for advising students; however, effective distributed counseling requires a fundamental shift in mindset regarding the teacher’s role—from that of primarily offering instruction to that of providing a range of supports that encompasses social and emotional, as well as academic, needs. It also requires teachers to think about their responsibility for students’ success. It demands a change from a largely passive stance, as in, for example, “I teach and the rest is up to the student,” to a proactive one, as in “I find the ways to connect to my student and give them every chance to succeed.” To achieve these critical shifts, teachers need ongoing support from their administrators, the counselor, and one another. In ISA schools/SLCs, teachers are also supported in this role by the ISA coach.

Teachers from ISA schools described how acting as advisors, and forming relationships with students, allows them to support their students:

“Teachers feel it’s their responsibility to address whatever issues kids come to them with; they feel responsible to be the front line to address the problems.”

“In developing relationships with their students, teachers are gaining for themselves emotional capacity. They have a “bank.” It helps them to be able to be more honest with students and for students to be honest with them… It’s hard to receive criticism or any words that are disciplinary if a relationship hasn’t been built. Teachers work on that. Being able to have a relationship with their students in a way that their students can go to them and say, “Look, Miss So-and-So, I’m having difficulty with this.”

“There’s a falsity some teachers have when they believe they’re there to just teach a subject. And the very fact we’ve come into the profession where we’re with kids at such a malleable age. You see things going on and address issues. We can use our own experiences to give advice to kids.”

Students in ISA schools also recognized the benefit of relationships with teachers:

“Every teacher knows your name. So they know what’s wrong with you. If you don’t understand something in class they find the time to explain it to you by yourself.”

“My teachers are the motivation to do my best work. They push you and help if you need it. You can have a personal relationship with your teachers; they talk to you and give you extra help, too.”

Student Support Mechanisms
ISA schools/SLCs create or adapt specific structures or mechanisms that help the team to monitor and support student success—academic and social. Two of the most commonly used, case conferencing and advisory groups, are described below.

Team Case Conferencing

black-students-graduatingCase conferencing is a method for focusing the team’s attention on the progress and needs of individual students (see Appendix 4). In a typical case conference, a teacher (or counselor or administrator) “presents” a student about whom he or she has concerns, often based on the student’s academic performance, behavior, or both. Teachers share observations and evidence, such as academic performance in class, grades, or samples of student work from their classrooms, to gain an understanding of the issues facing the student and reasons motivating specific behaviors. The counselor often shares his or her perspective on the nature and source of the student’s difficulties.

Together, the team members develop strategies that teachers can use in their individual classrooms to address the problem. If the student has an advisor on the team, he or she may agree to communicate the plan with the student and the student’s parents and monitor the student’s progress (and report back to the team). In some cases, the student and his or her family meet with the team in person to address problems or issues and develop a plan to address them. This is sometimes referred to as an intervention. The counselor may also meet with the student one on one.
Many ISA teams devote some of their team meeting time to case conferencing—or, as one team called it, “kid talk.” Teachers may take turns selecting a student to present, or the team may develop a system for making sure that students who need attention are discussed. In some schools, teams break down into smaller groups to discuss different students whom they have in common so that more students can benefit from case conferencing.

A team member from an ISA school delineated some of the ways in which case conferencing has been used at her school:

“We find a common thread in the student’s behavior. We find out as a team, why isn’t she walking around in your class and she’s walking around in my class? We look at class structure. What is happening in that class that the child is not walking around? Another child is afraid to use English. This child, when pushed, speaks English. She is afraid—but she can do it. As a team, we decided that we’re going to put her in a group with mid-level English speakers and also students who were willing to help her. She was supported by students but she was also where students spoke English.”

ISA team members noted some ways in which case conferences can involve students and parents in interventions:

“We fill out the child protocol form and then discuss the issue as a team, and try to bring the student in as well. We are all around this round table, his five teachers and his mom. We ask him questions in front of his parents and other teachers. . . . “You’re saying you don’t have homework and he wasn’t studying for the midterm.” We made up a contract. “If you do X, Y, and Z, we will take you off the at-risk contract.” He sat over there answering questions. He was really alert. Maybe he needed a wake-up call.”

Advisory Groups

Many ISA schools/SLCs incorporate an advisory group into students’ and teachers’ weekly schedules.

Typically, advisory groups consist of a small number of students working regularly with a teacher or other staff member. The goals for advisory groups vary but typically include monitoring and supporting students’ progress socially and academically and enriching the curriculum with topics, materials, and activities that will foster students’ academic success and healthy social development, among them college preparation, health and sexuality issues, and conflict resolution.

student voiceThere are many possible configurations for advisory groups. Most are made up of a consistent group, numbering between twelve and eighteen students, and meet regularly, at least once a week, for one class period (forty to one hundred minutes). In some ISA schools and SLCs, groups meet several times a week. Groups may consist of students from the same grade level or across grade levels. In one ISA school, one advisor works with a girls-only group to focus on female students’ unique needs.

The curriculum for advisory groups is developed differently at each site—sometimes by the team working closely with the counselor, other times adapted from a growing number of resources for advisory systems, such as The Advisory Guide, published by Educators for Social Responsibility (Poliner and Lieber 2001), and the Advisory issue of Horace, published by the Coalition of Essential Schools (2004). Advisors typically have wide flexibility in how they implement advisory curriculum and structure their groups. Advisors often draw heavily on their own interests and experiences to shape their advisory curriculum; for example, one teacher employed Project Adventure activities that he had learned in a previous school to focus on student leadership.

In addition to planning and leading advisory groups, advisors often have specific responsibilities for their advisees:

  • Monitoring academic progress, such as through reviewing transcripts
  • Communicating regularly with the family about an advisee’s progress
  • Coordinating action plans, as developed in case conferences, for advisees
  • Meeting with the counselor about an advisee
  • Providing advisees and parents with information and resources for college preparation

Advisory groups can also provide a forum for college-preparation activities—such as researching colleges and college requirements—and lessons. In some schools, counselors rotate between advisory groups, working with students on college preparation and other kinds of activities, such as those concerned with health and sexuality issues.

Advisory groups, through the relationships they foster and the activities they undertake, can help build a school culture of caring, respect, and success. Some schools use advisory groups to collaboratively plan school-wide events, such as a holiday celebration, or to develop school-wide policies. Others use advisory as a forum for college preparation.

ISA team members shared their perspectives about advisory and their role as advisor to students:

“Advisory provides a place for a student to know an adult. “

“This is a place where it’s very small, intimate, where it’s much easier for a student to talk about an issue that is important to them without having fears of having people come down on them… We talk about what is important to them. We talk about team building, collaboration, behavior, relationships between male and female, student and student, student and staff… In the future, hopefully. . it will benefit them in a positive way in the future where they won’t get into trouble, they’ll know how to resolve the situation without name-calling or violence.”

“We act as intermediaries and advocates for the kids. We are supposed to keep an eye on failing students and why they have gotten low grades. We call the homes and so on. We also check their planners and binders to see if they’re writing down their homework. The idea of [advisory] is that if fifteen kids are given to a teacher, you can monitor the kids through the years to graduation. This is not purely academic but we can combine both.”

“Academically we have discussions about how they’re doing in their classes and what are some strategies they use to overcome some of the challenges they have in their classes. I did a lot of writing with the kids during the first semester and it was great; we got to know each other more. I tell them to write about anything they want for ten minutes and then I lock up the journals.”

ISA provides opportunities to plan and strengthen advisory throughout the year through professional development and networks. Many ISA teams have used team planning time at the ISA Summer Institute, the annual professional development retreat sponsored by ISA, to develop their advisory curriculum or program. ISA also sponsors a leadership and guidance counselor network to support the unique professional needs of those fulfilling each role. For example, facilitators of the ISA Guidance Counselor Group (described below) disseminate curriculum resources for teams to use in their advisory program as well as provide an opportunity for counselors to learn about and share best practices across ISA schools.

Consistent Communication with Parents
In the ISA model, students have fewer teachers than do their counterparts at a typical high school, and teachers communicate more regularly about students with one another and with the counselor. These conditions are conducive to better communication with parents. As with the other strategies described above, effective communication with parents and family requires both making a commitment to the goal and developing structures and mechanisms to achieve it. ISA schools employ a number of mechanisms:

  • Regular phone calls by advisors to their advisees’ parents
  • Teacher conferences with parents
  • Parent and student orientations to introduce and discuss the mission of the school and aspects of its academic and counseling programs
  • Team intervention meetings with students and parents
  • Home visits with students’ families

An ISA teacher discussed how her role as advisor brought her into contact with parents:

“It’s nice that I get to know my fourteen students closely. I’m in contact with their families; I’m their point person at the school.”

The parent of a child at an ISA school commented on the level of communication she has with the team:

“The communication is very good between parents and teachers… When it is necessary I can go in and talk to them. I have gone many times… I have talked to teachers, a counselor, and even the director. The teachers have given me a good response. They have all been great and very helpful. The rapport is very good between parents and teachers.”

And a student recognized how teachers’ communication with parents supported his success:

“If you know you have that pressure, you’re going to get a phone call, it will persuade you to do more [sic] better.”

College Preparation
College preparation is a central goal of all ISA schools. In the distributed counseling model, the team members share responsibility for all their students’ college readiness—from entry to the school through graduation. The team, with support from its guidance counselor or counselors, develops a context-specific college-preparatory sequence of activities to ensure that students and families will be informed about what they need to do to be prepared for college. ISA teams have undertaken, as part of such a sequence, the following activities:

  • Mapping out a sequence of college-preparatory activities by grade level (beginning in ninth grade) Offering events to orient parents about the college-preparation process
  • Using advisory or other vehicles to disseminate college curricula and information
  • Arranging visits to colleges
  • Providing support for the college-application process, such as in essay writing and interviewing
  • Assisting in preparation for the SAT® and Regents exams
  • Making connections between classroom activities and college expectations
  • Meeting with students individually about college admission requirements
  • Providing students with opportunities to take college courses while in high school

Team members in ISA schools discussed their goals for college preparation:

“We want [the students] to be exposed to college, to know what is expected of them from early on so that they have a plan of action, and [we] assist them in getting what they need so they can go beyond high school—to college and a good foundation. We’re trying to build their foundation, their knowledge base. I don’t want a doubt to enter a student’s head… I want them to say, ‘I’m going.’”

One ISA team member outlined some of the components in her school’s college-preparation program:

“Students will receive weekly college orientation from the guidance counselor. Students will get prepared for the PSAT and SAT exams. Students will visit colleges and universities. Visitors from colleges will speak in school. Students will attend college fairs. The guidance counselor will arrange these activities.”

Students reported some of the means by which their ISA schools emphasized college preparation:

“We’re taking courses at [a local community college]. We see the environment, subjects, and how you have to work in college. They take us to trips to college. They took us to Mercy College, where we saw an anatomy class. We know how to get scholarships. We went to a fair at Columbia University.”

“We get help with writing college applications, such as what they’re looking for, and we have the opportunity to go to actual colleges and see actual professors.”

A parent noted how her son’s ISA school had influenced his thinking about his future:

“The ISA team has allowed kids to really focus on their goals and to think about their post–high school plans. My son has always wanted to be an NBA superstar. We were concerned that he wasn’t realistic about the future. But this year things have changed. He is much more excited to talk about job possibilities, how to get from point A to point B in terms of career. The ISA program has forced him to think about his realistic college and career goals.”

College-preparation activities do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a concerted effort to develop a school culture in which attending college is an expectation for all students.


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.