Canada: school counsellors take on a central role within school communities

From emotional support to preparing students for future careers, Canada’s school counsellors are experiencing a shift in school practice to see them increasingly become more integral to the lives of young people.

The days when school counsellors were primarily called upon to help a student on an ad hoc basis have been relegated to a bygone era. Today, school counsellors play a central role in students’ development throughout their primary and secondary school lives.

“The role of the school counsellor is changing to include leadership in the promotion of educational reform, as well as healthy and safe schools,” says Janice Graham-Migel, a school counsellor with the Halifax Regional School Board and Chair of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) National School Counselling Committee. The CCPA is a national bilingual association that provides professional counsellors and psychotherapists with access to exclusive educational programmes, certification, professional development and direct contact with professional peers and specialty groups.

Graham-Migel, who completed a PhD in Educational Administration from the University of Toronto and studied distributed leadership as part of her doctoral studies, explained to Education International (EI) that “the school counsellor plays an important role with interagency and interdisciplinary collaboration, focusing on the removal of barriers that impede student achievement.”

A former teacher and current member of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), Graham-Migel says that there has been a shift in counselling from a position to a programme, with school counsellors now expected to assume a leadership role, in addition to “nurturing leadership in the school community.”

Although education in Canada is organised under provincial authority, this shift has occurred in many regions across the country. In several school boards the recommendation is one counsellor for every 500 students. In the case of Nova Scotia, for more than 20 years its Comprehensive Guidance and Counselling Programme has developed to focus on four central areas in order to best address students’ needs: guidance curriculum; professional services; life and career planning; and program management and system support. The programme focuses on the personal, social, educational, and career development of students.

Educational planning and career development

“In a rapidly changing workforce environment and an increasingly mobile society, educational planning and career development continues to be an essential component of a school’s Comprehensive  Guidance  and Counselling Programme,” says Graham-Migel. “Supporting students with their life-planning and goal-setting, assisting them with transitioning to new labour and employment realities in Canada, and raising preparedness for postsecondary education, training, and careers is significant in a school counsellor’s scope of practice.”

A whole child approach

With the vast majority of school counsellors coming from the teaching ranks, the CTF, a partner of the CCPA since 2015, supported and promoted the recent 4th annual Canadian School Counselling Week to highlight the profession’s crucial contribution to the education community and to students’ wellbeing.

“Students and families face increasingly complex challenges. Schools are facing a variety of moral, ethical, legal and medical issues, as well as mental health issues,” said CTF President Heather Smith, highlighting that “the counsellor works together with the school community to solve problems at school in partnership with other professionals and organisations as needed.”

The importance of counselling has received added attention over the past year after Canada welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees. Even though the needs of young people vary from one province to the next, certain common needs have been identified and information is being shared across a country that opens its doors to immigrants.

From conflict awareness, supporting students displaying symptomology consistent with frustration, anger, depression, dislocation, and post-traumatic stress, to poverty and language issues, the role of counsellors is instrumental to helping newcomers adapt.

Addressing mental health

However, another area in need of greater resources is mental health, which can be addressed at early stages.

“At any given time of any given day, approximately one in seven Canadian children and youth under the age of 19 are suffering with a serious mental disorder that hinders their ability to perform basic tasks, disrupts day-to-day activities, and diminishes their opportunities for educational success,” said Ariel Haubrich, President of the CCPA School Counsellors Chapter. “As we increase our understanding of the deleterious effects of mental health issues on social-emotional development, educational success and career planning, early intervention and ongoing support by trained professionals can have a significant impact on positive outcomes for school-aged children and youth.”

The issue of wellbeing was the focus in Montreal last July during the CTF AGM, where educators and leaders in health convened to tackle mental health issues. To continue the conversation, the CTF VOX-Hear My Voice campaign permits individual teacher voices to join with colleagues across Canada to advocate on behalf of children and families. The CTF toolkit Hear My Voice – Advocacy to change “what is” into “what should be” can be downloaded here.

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