“If We Don’t Define Our Roles, Someone Else Will”: Professional Advocacy in School Counseling

Added May 16, 2019

To better understand how they are engaging in professional advocacy, school counselors were interviewed and surveyed about their experiences. The study focused on two research questions: (1) What are school counselors’ experiences engaging in professional advocacy? and (2) What effect do individual participant variables (e.g., years of experience, level, setting, race, and gender) have on school counselors’ engagement in professional advocacy at the school level?

Interview findings suggested that school counselors viewed professional advocacy as beginning at the top of the hierarchy (e.g., principals, school boards, counseling organizations, etc.) and trickling down to school counseling programs. In this way, school counselors view the macrosystem (i.e., cultural values and norms) and exosystem (i.e., the system that impacts school counselors, but where they do not regularly interact) as important starting points that can have trickle-down effects on the microsystem (i.e., school level system, in which they regularly interact). Within the microsystem, participants described principals as critical voices in advocating for and defining their roles. Participants also identified experiencing challenges inherent in engaging in professional advocacy and reported facing resistance from other school personnel who did not fully understand the function and responsibilities of school counselors within the school. On the exosystem, participants described working with various entities outside of the school, such as presenting in conferences for principals and engaging in counseling organizations to promote their roles. Though there was limited mention of the macrosystem, it was noted that there is often a general lack of awareness about what school counselors do. To combat this lack of knowledge, participants found success in promoting their roles to multiple stakeholders across both the microsystem and exosystem.

The survey responses expanded upon the interview findings by clarifying professional advocacy strengths of the participants in the microsystem. In general, participants rated themselves fairly high across all of the survey items, suggesting that they are generally comfortable with microsystem professional advocacy. The survey illuminated their perceived strengths as being effective communicators with principals, maintaining positive relationships with school professionals, and using problem-solving strategies to find solutions to role challenges. Participants rated themselves lower on two areas related to professional advocacy. They reported less experience sharing data with their principals and a lower tendency to “choose battles” related to advocating for their roles. Contrary to what may be expected and what was suggested in the interviews, those with fewer years of experience reported being more comfortable communicating their roles to their principals. This may be indicative of the rising significance of accountability in schools and the relationship between the school counselor and principal becoming more important (Cisler & Bruce, 2013), with newer school counselors likely having more recent training in these areas.

Professional advocacy is a critical tool for promoting school counseling programs and changing the views about the profession. As reflected in this study, it allows school counselors more time to spend on the tasks that they are trained to do, and in more extreme cases, save jobs. Further, it promotes access to services to populations who might not otherwise receive the support. Despite the importance of professional advocacy, it comes with challenges. Participants suggested that they faced resistance to engaging in their work and were fearful of potential repercussions. Therefore, ensuring that all stakeholders within the school and in the broader community are aware of the value of the profession is crucial to the future of the field and to schools being equipped to support their increasingly diverse student bodies. School counselors should seize all opportunities they can to promote the necessary and important work that they do. School counselors must be persistent when they enact professional advocacy strategies and work to build relationships and trust with all stakeholders. With an ever-evolving educational landscape, school counselors must have a strong voice, informing and showing others how they contribute to the school’s mission.



Stacey Havlik, PhD, Marie Ciarletta, Emily Crawford, PhD