A guidance counselor works in a school setting to help students better prepare for continuing education, or to help facilitate decisions made about future careers. The requirements for becoming a guidance counselor varies among schools. These professionals tend to have at least a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in psychology, but may also have a B.A. in career counseling. Some places require high school counselors to have a master's degree as well, and many schools require the counselor to be licensed. In the college setting, counselors may not have a B.A., but may be experts in their teaching area. Sometimes the counselor at the college level is called an academic advisor.
In the elementary setting, guidance counselors are frequently catchall counselors who help to facilitate testing for learning disabilities and may also manage Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students in need of them. They tend not to offer psychological assistance, but may participate in observation of students in classroom settings or in psychological or intelligence testing. Children in need of significant counseling for psychological issues usually meet with a school psychologist, although in some schools, funding issues can mean that access to a psychologist may be significantly limited.
Usually, a guidance counselor in an elementary school is simply called a counselor. Regardless of title, these employees can be an excellent resource for children and parents. If a parent is concerned about a child's learning abilities, contacting the elementary counselor is a good first step. The counselor may be particularly helpful if the administration of the school does not take the parent's concerns seriously.
In the middle school setting, the guidance counselor may still participate in some educational testing for students deemed "at academic risk." He or she usually also helps students make decisions regarding choices in electives and whether they are challenged enough or too much by their present classes. When courses are too hard or too easy, he or she may be able to help the student change his or her schedule.
While the guidance counselor at one time was an everyday presence on the junior high or middle school campus, funding cutbacks have forced many counselors to work at more than one school on a part-time basis. The difficult years of beginning adolescence can be significantly aided by having a friendly counselor. Counselors may meet with students with emotional problems regularly, simply to check in with them and see if assistance can be offered, although this role is often performed by a school psychologist, if one is available.
In high school, emphasis for the guidance counselor is on helping students make decisions about their future careers or college plans. He or she helps a student make out a plan of study that will best fit his or her plans after high school. For example, a student who wants to attend a university will likely be directed to take courses that will help achieve this end and make the student eligible for attendance. The high school counselor may give information about financial aid options for those who wish to attend trade schools or college after graduation. He or she can also help those students who are struggling and are at risk for failing to graduate.
While working with a guidance counselor can be very helpful for many students, it can be important that the student not depend entirely on the counselor's information. If a student is interested in applying to particular colleges or getting financial aid, for example, it is worthwhile for her to double-check information and ask for guidance from a perspective college. Sometimes information changes so quickly that the counselor simply cannot keep up.