Distributed Counseling and Advisory

Strong student-adult relationships can be key to improving student outcomes

advisory supports social emotional 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).

Distributed Counseling

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.


social emotional learning strategiesMany 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.

There 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. (See Appendix 2 for a list of resources.)

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.