School Counseling in the Aftermath of COVID-19: Perspectives of School Counselors in Tennessee

Chloe Lancaster, Michelle W. Brasfield

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unparalleled disruption of student learning, disengaged students from school and peers, increased exposure to trauma, and had a negative impact on students’ mental health and well-being. School counselors are the most accessible mental health care professionals in a school, providing support for all students’ social and emotional needs and academic success. This study used an exploratory survey design to investigate the perspectives of 207 school counselors in Tennessee regarding students’ COVID-19–related mental health, academic functioning, and interpersonal skills; interventions school counselors have deployed to support students; and barriers they have encountered. Results indicate that students’ mental health has significantly declined across all grade levels and is interconnected with academic, social, and behavioral problems; school counselors have provided support consistent with crisis counseling; and caseload and non-counseling duties have created significant barriers in the provision of care.

Keywords: COVID-19, school counselors, student mental health, interventions, barriers

The psychological cost of the COVID-19 pandemic has been profound and wide-reaching. Although the K–12 population has been less susceptible to the adverse physical effects of COVID-19, for many, the pandemic has left an indelible mark on their mental health (Karaman et al., 2021). Before the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, youth mental health had become an issue of national concern, with one in six minors struggling with mental illness (Whitney & Peterson, 2019). Research has emerged to indicate that COVID-19 has further elevated the mental health problems of K–12 students across the nation (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021). The end of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions may have alleviated immediate issues associated with social isolation and online learning; however, for those students experiencing COVID-19–related trauma and crisis, symptomatology has persisted beyond school reentry (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2022; Patterson, 2022). As frontline helping professionals with training in mental health and school systems, school counselors are often the first responders to students in crisis (Karaman et al., 2021; Lambie et al., 2019), yet researchers have not explored reentry problems from the school counselor’s perspective. We conducted this study to understand school counselors’ experience of COVID-19–related student issues, their strategies to assist students, and their encountered barriers. We theorized that persistent problems related to the organizational structures within which counselors work, such as large caseloads, assignment of non-counseling duties, and under-resourced schools and communities (Lambie et al., 2019), may have greatly impacted their ability to meaningfully help students in high need of mental health support.

Literature Review

Students and COVID-19–Related Distress
     From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars predicted that disruptions to schooling, COVID-19–related stress, family conflict, and frequent media exposure to the pandemic would amplify mental health problems in children and youth (Imran et al., 2020). Empirical studies published in 2020 and 2021 have substantiated this concern, with findings indicating that COVID-19 restrictions adversely affected youth in multiple ways, including the development of unhealthy eating habits, increased screen time, reduced physical activity, sleep disturbances, academic delays, social problems, and an overall escalation in mental health concerns (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021). The preponderance of research focused on adolescents, particularly as extended time in social isolation disrupted their developmental reliance on peer interactions for social and emotional support (Imran et al., 2020). Multiple studies found that not feeling connected to friends, high social media usage, and general COVID-19–related fears were associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021).

Although less is known about the impact of COVID-19 on younger children, evidence is emerging to indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs; Bryant et al., 2020). From a developmental perspective, children are less able to communicate and process their thoughts and feelings and are greatly affected by the emotional state of their caregivers (Zimmer-Gembeck & Skinner, 2011). Thus, exposure to parental anxieties related to housing, food, and economic insecurity likely exerted a destabilizing effect on children during the stay-at-home mandate and beyond (Imran et al., 2020). Further, children in poverty may be particularly vulnerable to an amplification of ACEs due to their families being disproportionately impacted by economic hardships and family mortality during the pandemic (Bryant et al., 2020).

Students’ Mental Health Pre-Pandemic
     The COVID-19 pandemic increased intra-family adversity, which has long-term implications for the well-being of children and adolescents (CDC, 2022). However, in pre–COVID-19 times, with the rise in school shootings and teen suicide, the mental health of K–12 populations had already become a public health concern. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six children aged 6–17 experienced a mental health disorder (Whitney & Peterson, 2019). Since reentry following COVID-19 shutdowns, indicators suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened children’s mental health (CDC, 2022; Karaman et al., 2021), with widespread reports of student learning gaps, chronic absenteeism, declines in social skills, and increased behavior problems (CDC, 2022; Patterson, 2022). Further, previous research on children’s responses to a variety of traumatic events has found that children and adolescents can develop long-term mental illness following a traumatic experience, which is unlikely to abate without intervention (Udwin et al., 2000). For youth, the experience of mental health problems increases their risk factors in other areas, such as a decline in academic performance, poor decision-making, drug use, and high-risk sexual behaviors (CDC, 2022). In this regard, the responsiveness of schools to flex their organizational resources to address the psychological changes in their student body seems instrumental in assuaging the long-term effects of COVID-related trauma and the mitigation of adverse educational outcomes (Savitz-Romer et al., 2021).

School Counselors’ Role in Provision of Mental Health Services
     Schools have long been discussed as a primary access point for mental health services, given that children spend much of their day in school, and children and adolescents in need of mental health care are more likely to receive assistance in a school as opposed to a clinical setting (Lambie et al., 2019). Conversations about students’ access to mental health care in school settings segue to the role of school counselors and students’ access to school counseling services. School counselors are the most accessible mental health care professionals in schools, with 80.7% of schools employing full-time or part-time school counselors (Lambie et al., 2019). By contrast, only 66.5% employ a school psychologist, and 41.5% employ a school social worker (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016). Further, school counselors are trained in crisis prevention and responsive services, including individual and group counseling; consultation with administrators, teachers, parents, and professionals; and coordination of services within a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS; Pincus et al., 2020).

Evidence to support school counselors’ work in times of crisis comes from multiple sources. Salloum and Overstreet (2008) found that a school counselor–led small group implemented after Hurricane Katrina improved PTSD symptoms among elementary school students. Similarly, Udwin and colleagues (2000) found that students who received psychological support at school following a national crisis experienced a reduction in PTSD symptomology. Additionally, scholars have proposed that school counselors utilize their skill set in assessment to administer universal mental health screenings to identify students at greater risk of having or developing mental health concerns (Lambie et al., 2019; Pincus et al., 2020).

Barriers School Counselors Face in the Provision of Services
     Although school counselors have the training and skills necessary to assist students transitioning back to school from a disruption like COVID-19, they face multiple barriers to their work. Most notably, they struggle with unmanageable caseloads. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends that counselor-to-student ratios not exceed 1:250 (ASCA, 2019). Yet, the average ratio in the United States is 1:455, with Tennessee experiencing an average ratio of 1:450 (Patel & Clinedinst, 2021). Research indicates that large school counselor caseloads adversely affect student outcomes, insofar as attendance, graduation, and disciplinary problems are more prevalent in schools with high school counselor caseloads (Parzych et al., 2019). Unfortunately, minority students in under-resourced schools are disproportionately impacted by high counselor ratios (Whitney & Peterson, 2019) and are more likely to experience adverse educational outcomes, as well as unmet mental health needs (Kaffenberger & O’Rorke-Trigiani, 2013). These findings raise concern for students whose mental health and academics have declined since the emergence of COVID-19 who attend schools with overstretched counselors struggling to meet the needs of their student body. This study was conducted in part to explore if caseload correlates to school counselors’ perceived ability to attend to students’ COVID-related problems and if differences were more pronounced in schools with lower socioeconomic status (SES).

In addition to ratios, ASCA recommends that school counselors spend 80% of their time providing direct and indirect services to students. Program elements within direct service include curriculum delivery, individual student planning, and responsive services. Indirect services include referrals to other agencies and programs within and outside the school system and consultation and collaboration with stakeholders, particularly for crisis response (ASCA, 2019). Researchers have documented the favorable effects on student academics and behaviors when school counselors follow these national guidelines for time and role allocations (Cholewa et al., 2015). Nonetheless, school counselors are often assigned non-counseling duties by their campus and district administrators (Gysbers & Henderson, 2012), preventing them from fulfilling their appropriate roles. These duties include test coordination, record keeping, attendance monitoring, substitute teaching, and student discipline (ASCA, 2019). Data indicate that non-counseling duties may be more problematic at the secondary level, with high school counselors over-reporting non-counseling duties, when compared to elementary school counselors (Chandler et al., 2018). Geographic differences have also been documented, with rural school counselors reporting higher levels of non-counseling duties in comparison to urban school counselors (Chandler et al., 2018). In the current study, we were curious to understand the impact of non-counseling duties on school counselors’ response to students’ COVID-19 concerns and to explore the intersection of counselor responsiveness to COVID-19 by non-counseling duties, grade level, and geographic region (e.g., urban, suburban, rural), respectively.

School Responses to COVID-19 in Tennessee
     In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tennessee’s governor ordered all Tennessee public schools closed from March 20 until March 31, 2020, and extended this closure through the end of the 2019–2020 school year. To complete the school year outside of the physical educational space, districts created their own plans to address student learning, often dependent on available technology and resources (Tennessee Office of the Governor, 2020). Districts made decisions for returning in the fall 2020 semester based on guidelines from the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE), which included social distancing, smaller class size, assigned seats, and alternating in-person days with distance learning (Tennessee DOE, 2020). To provide further context to our survey responses, in 2019, the state DOE (Tennessee State Board of Education, 2017) updated its school counseling policy and standards to require school counselors to spend 80% of their time in direct service to students, a specification consistent with the ASCA National Model for allocation of school counselor time. Although the policy stated counselor ratios should not exceed 1:500 in elementary and 1:350 in secondary schools, this specification falls short of the ASCA 1:250 recommendation. Further, because of the state funding formula that permits school districts to hire administrators in lieu of school counselors, depending on school needs, we expected many of the school counselors would have caseloads that exceeded DOE policy.

Purpose of Study
     School counselors are uniquely positioned to assist students with their mental health, including COVID-19–related concerns, in a school context (Pincus et al., 2020). Yet, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, school counseling programs were frequently under-equipped to meet the magnitude of students’ mental health needs (DeKruyf et al., 2013). This study was conducted to understand, from the perspective of school counselors in Tennessee, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 upon students’ mental health, examine strategies they have deployed to assist students, and discover barriers encountered in providing care to meet their students’ needs. Because poor mental health manifests in a plethora of academic, behavior, and social skill adjustment issues for children and adolescents (CDC, 2022), we also examined school counselors’ perceptions of changes in those domains from pre-pandemic to current times. Given documented patterns of variability in school counselor programs, we also investigated school counselors’ perceived barriers to assisting students by location, SES, and assigned non-counseling duties. To address the aim of the study, we posited three related research questions (RQs):

RQ1: How has COVID-19 affected students’ mental health, academics, and social skills in Tennessee? What issues presented the greatest concern, and how did interventions differ by grade level (elementary, middle, or high school)?
RQ2: What interventions do school counselors in Tennessee use to assist students with their COVID-19–related concerns, and how do interventions differ by grade level (elementary, middle, or high school)?
RQ3: What barriers do school counselors in Tennessee report as interfering with their ability to address students’ COVID-19 concerns? Do reported barriers differ by grade level (elementary, middle, or high), location (urban, suburban, or rural), socioeconomic status, non-counseling duties, size of caseload (small, medium, or large), or following the state guideline for spending 80% of the time in student services?



Study Design and Instrumentation
     Given the absence of research examining school counselors’ perspectives of how the pandemic has affected student mental health, their response to students’ COVID-19 issues, and barriers encountered in their efforts, we employed an exploratory research design. Exploratory designs are used when there is limited prior research to warrant the examination of a directional hypothesis (Swedberg, 2020). Within the framework of an exploratory design, we developed a non-standardized instrument to answer the three research questions. Although this constitutes a limitation of the study, we endeavored to address validity concerns by following the principles of the tailored design method of survey research (Dillman, 2007). Prior to constructing the survey, we reviewed the extant literature on students’ COVID-19–related issues, school counselors’ roles, and professional issues, in addition to conducting a focus group (N = 7) with school counselors and school counseling supervisors from across the state in which the study was conducted to explore their perceptions in changes to student functioning, strategies they have deployed to assist students, and obstacles they have encountered. Focus group data were used to inform the development of survey items and ensure the instrument covered relevant content. For example, the focus group provided expert insight into the non-counseling duties that are frequently assigned to counselors in the state, as well as the nature of students’ psychological, academic, and behavioral problems witnessed since the onset of COVID-19. Before launching the survey, we piloted the survey with 19 school counselors in Tennessee to elicit feedback about the flow and coverage of the survey. Based on their responses, we added an item addressing universal intervention and edited language on multiple items to align with state-specific terminology (e.g., “MTSS coordination” was expanded to “RTI2B/MTSS/PBIS coordinator” to reflect more state-recognized school counselor titles when operating in these capacities).

The final survey consisted of 64 items in predominantly binary, checkbox, and Likert scale formats. Demographic items were informed by categories outlined by the U.S. Census, the Tennessee DOE, and inclusive practices for data collection (Fernandez et al., 2016). Twenty-one items gathered demographic data related to school counselor characteristics (e.g., age, race, gender), counseling program variables (e.g., caseload, division of time, non-counseling duties, fair-share responsibilities), and school variables (e.g., school level, Title I status, location, staffing patterns). SES was measured using a school’s designated Title I status, with response categories of “yes,” “no,” and “unsure.” Likewise, to determine if school counselors dedicated 80% of their time to direct service, we created a multiple-choice item with the options of “yes,” “no,” and “unsure.” A concise description of the state guidelines was embedded into the survey to promote accurate responses to this item. We gathered data on counselors’ perspectives of their students’ current functioning in areas of mental health, academics, social skills, and behaviors through multiple-choice items with a 5-point range of “much better” to “much worse.” For each area of functioning, school counselors were required to indicate the areas of concern via a checkbox item. Additionally, checkbox items were used to identify school counselors’ strategies to assist students, barriers encountered, and needed resources. As noted, these response categories were based on extant literature and expert input.

Cronbach’s alphas were computed to determine the reliability of the survey items in indicating overall post–COVID-19 functioning of students according to school counselors. These values indicate that these four areas were moderately related with acceptable consistency (α = .653). When making additional comparisons among the four constructs, two areas—behavior and social skills—were found to be more consistent (α = .705; Sheperis et al., 2020). Further, reliability scores likely reflect the exploratory design, which requested participants respond to conceptually related but not converging constructs (e.g., academics, mental health, social skills, and behavior). For example, a change in student academics would not necessarily signify a change in student mental health and vice versa. Thus, participant responses would not necessarily be uniform across items measuring students’ mental health, academics, and social skills, and overall instrument consistency would not be affected in turn.

     We recruited a state-level sample of professional school counselors employed in K–12 public schools in Tennessee. Following the pilot study, in December 2021, we recruited participants through an anonymous Qualtrics link utilizing multiple platforms: the state school counselor association’s listserv, social media, respondent referrals, and dissemination via school counseling supervisors. Participants were eligible to complete the survey if they were currently employed in a K–12 public school in Tennessee. Upon examination of our survey data, we found 276 total responses with 220 complete for a completion rate of 79.7%. Because the survey was distributed through the above-mentioned methods, we were unable to calculate the response rate without knowing how many of the approximately 2,000 public school counselors in Tennessee received the survey. Upon further examination of the survey respondents, we removed one school counseling supervisor; four school counselors whose students were remote/hybrid; and eight school counselors in private, charter, or alternative schools to maintain focus on the experiences of traditional public school counselors working with students in person during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for a final sample of 207 participants. An examination of the respondents’ demographics revealed a sample that was predominantly female and White/Caucasian and worked in Title I, suburban, or rural elementary schools. The sample’s mean years serving as a school counselor was 11.7 (SD = 7.5), with mean years at current school of 6.8 (SD = 6.4). See Table 1 for more demographic information. For analysis purposes, we divided the school counselors into three groups by the size of their reported caseload. These categories were informed by a national study of school counselor ratios (National Association of College Admission Counselors, 2019) and consisted of ratios in the range of small (1:100–1:300; 14.0%, n = 29), medium (1:301–1:550; 69.6%, n = 144), and large (1:551 and higher; 15.0%, n = 31).

Table 1
Demographic Characteristics of the Sample

Characteristic n %
     18–24 years   3  1.4
     25–44 years 99 47.8
     45–64 years          102 49.3
     65 years plus   3   1.4
     Black/African American 17  8.2
     Latinx/Hispanic   1  0.5
     White/Caucasian          183 88.4
     American Indian/Alaskan Native   1   0.5
     Other   5   2.4
     Female 192 92.8
     Male   15   7.2

Note. N = 207.

Data Analysis
     We ran a post hoc power analysis using the G*Power statistical software to determine if our sample size was sufficient at the .80 power level with α = .05 and found that a minimum sample size of 100 was required for our analyses. Given our sample size of 207 participants, the power analysis indicated that our sample size was sufficient (Faul et al., 2007). We utilized SPSS version 26 to calculate the following analyses for this study: (a) descriptive statistics; (b) Fisher’s exact test for two dichotomous nominal variables; (c) an extension of Fisher’s exact test, the Freeman-Halton exact test, for one dichotomous nominal variable and one nominal variable with three levels; and (d) point-biserial correlation analysis for one nominal variable and one interval variable (Frey, 2018). We also examined effect size to determine practical importance using the following levels for examining nominal data (Rea & Parker, 1992), precedence for which has been established by complementary studies in educational research (K. Erickson & Quick, 2017; Kotrlik et al., 2011): negligible [0, .1), weak [.1, .2), moderate [.2, .4), relatively strong [.4, .6), strong [.6, .8), and very strong [.8, 1.0). Phi (ϕ) indicates the effect size for the exact tests, and the correlation is the effect size for the point-biserial correlation. We only included statistical analyses that resulted in moderate associations or higher. Three school counselors (1.4%) who reported caseloads that were unusually small (< 100) and outside our specified caseload parameters were removed from the analysis. Additionally, we excluded school counselors who indicated “unsure” in the categories of location (rural, suburban, urban), Title I status, and adherence to state policy for direct service to students. See Table 2 for school characteristics.


Research Question 1
     RQ1 examined school counselors’ perspectives of the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health, academics, and social skills as well as variation by grade level (elementary, middle, or high school). When asked about the mental health changes they have witnessed in their students post–COVID-19 pandemic, 93.7% (n = 194) of school counselors reported negative changes with 42.5% (n = 88) reporting “much worse” and 51.2% (n = 106) reporting “somewhat worse” changes. Specifically, school counselors reported issues regarding anxiety (92.8%, n = 192), depression (77.3%, n = 160), family dysfunction (71.0%, n = 147), COVID-19–related grief and loss (63.8%, n = 132), technology addiction (52.7%, n = 109), suicidality (50.7%, n = 105), fear of COVID-19 (49.8%, n = 103), substance use issues (21.7%, n = 45), and other issues (12.6%, n = 26) such as separation anxiety, self-harm, and anger. The Freeman-Halton exact test revealed a significant relationship between grade level (n = 183) and depression (p < .001, ϕ = .301) with a moderate positive association, suicidality (p < .001, ϕ = .499) with a relatively strong positive association, and substance use (p < .001, ϕ = .583) with a relatively strong positive association. For depression, 90.0% (n = 54) of high school counselors and 85.7% (n = 36) of middle school counselors reported this issue as compared to 63.0% (n = 51) of elementary school counselors. For suicidality, 76.2% (n = 32) of middle school counselors and 71.7% (n = 43) of high school counselors reported this concern as compared to 23.5% (n = 19) of elementary school counselors. For substance use, 58.3% (n = 35) of high school counselors and 20.0% (n = 8) of middle school counselors reported this concern as compared to 1.2% (n = 1) of elementary school counselors. All other mental health concerns were not significant with grade level.

When queried regarding academic changes post–COVID-19, 90.3% (n = 187) of school counselors reported negative changes to students’ academics with 35.3% (n = 73) reporting “much worse” and 55.1% (n = 114) reporting “somewhat worse” changes. School counselors reported an overall decline across all subjects (80.7%, n = 167). Additionally, school counselors reported non-cognitive factors regarding lack of motivation (84.1%, n = 174), lack of parental support during the school day (75.4%, n = 156), attention issues (71.0%, n = 147), poor mental health (64.7%, n = 134), sleep deprivation (41.1%, n = 85), limited technology during virtual learning (33.3%, n = 69), lack of space to work at home during virtual learning (30.4%, n = 63), poor physical health (17.9%, n = 37), and other (3.9%, n = 8). The Freeman-Halton exact test revealed a significant relationship between grade level (n = 183) and lack of motivation (p = .001, ϕ = .265), poor mental health (p = .001, ϕ = .269), and attention issues (p = .009, ϕ = .232), all with positive moderate associations. For lack of motivation, 96.7% (n = 58) of high school counselors and 88.1% (n = 37) of middle school counselors reported this issue as compared to 75.3% (n = 61) of elementary school counselors. For poor mental health, 78.3% (n = 47) of high school counselors and 69.0% (n = 29) of middle school counselors reported this outcome as compared with 49.4% (n = 40) of elementary school counselors. For attention issues, 79.0% (n = 64) of elementary school counselors and 73.8% (n = 31) of middle school counselors reported concerns as compared to 55.0% (n =33) of high school counselors.

Table 2
School/Program Characteristics

Characteristic n %
     Urban 31 15.0
     Suburban 95 45.9
     Rural 72 34.8
     Unsure  9   4.3
Title I Status
     Yes        121 58.5
     No          57 27.5
     Unsure          29 14.0
Grade Level
     Elementary 81 39.1
     Middle 42 20.3
     High 60 29.0
     Other 24 11.6
Follows 80% Direct Service Guideline
     Yes         112 54.1
     No 65 31.4
     Unsure           30 14.5
School Counselor-to-Student Ratio (caseload)
     1:1–1:300 29 14.0
     1:301–1:550          144 69.6
     1:551 and higher 31 15.0
     Other   3   1.4

Note. N = 207

When asked about behavioral changes, 87.4% (n = 181) of school counselors reported negative changes to behaviors with 30.4% (n = 63) reporting “much worse” and 57.0% (n = 118) reporting “moderately worse” changes. Comparably, when asked about social skills changes, 87.0% (n = 180) of school counselors reported negative changes to students’ social skills with 36.2% (n = 75) reporting “much worse” and 50.7% (n = 105) reporting “moderately worse” changes. Specifically, school counselors reported trouble socializing with peers (84.1%, n = 174), absence of social flexibility (58.0 %, n = 120), increase of physical aggression (55.1%, n = 114), increase in relational aggression (50.7%, n = 105), increase in cyberbullying (23.7%, n = 49), increase in bullying (19.3%, n = 40), and other (8.2%, n = 17) such as issues with conflict resolution and preference for technology. The Freeman-Halton exact test revealed a significant relationship between grade level (n = 183) and cyberbullying (p = .003, ϕ = .255), with a moderate positive association with 42.9% (n = 18) of middle school counselors, 23.3% (n = 14) of high school counselors, and 14.8% (n = 12) of elementary school counselors reporting an increase in this area. All other social skills changes were not significant with grade level.

Research Question 2
     RQ2 examined the interventions that school counselors used in assisting students with their COVID-19–related concerns and if this differed by grade level. School counselors reported the various supports that they provided to their students who struggled with COVID-19–related issues, including individual counseling (95.7%, n = 198), consultation with parents/teachers (85.5%, n = 177), referrals (80.7%, n = 167), collaboration with other school-based helpers (77.3%, n = 160), coping skills instruction (71.5%, n = 148), group counseling (44.0%, n = 91), universal health screenings (17.9%, n = 37), and other interventions (4.3%, n = 9) such as food programs, holiday donation programs, peer support, and academic support meetings. We used the Freeman-Halton exact test to examine the relationship between grade level (n = 183) and these supports and found that small group counseling (p < .001, ϕ = .405) and coping skills instruction (p = .028, ϕ = .200) were significant, both with moderate positive association. For small group counseling, 63.0% (n = 51) of elementary school counselors and 45.2% (n = 19) of middle school counselors provided this support as compared to 16.7% (n = 10) of high school counselors. For coping skills instruction, 77.8% (n = 63) of elementary school counselors and 71.4% (n = 30) of middle school counselors reported this intervention as compared to 56.7% (n = 34) of high school counselors.

Research Question 3
     RQ3 examined the barriers school counselors encountered in their ability to provide services and if this differed by grade level, SES, location, number of non-counseling duties, caseload size, and following the state guideline to spend 80% of time providing student services. When asked if they had encountered barriers to assisting their students with their COVID-19–related needs, 54.6% (n = 113) of school counselors reported that they had experienced barriers, and 45.4% (n = 94) reported that they had not. For those counselors who answered “yes,” barriers included: high caseload (44.4%, n = 92), number of non-counseling duties (20.3%, n = 42), lack of administrator support (12.1%, n = 25),  being included on master schedule for guidance classes (10.1%, n = 21), lack of training to address COVID-19 needs (8.2%, n = 17), too much time coordinating the MTSS program (7.7%, n = 16), and other reasons (9.7%, n = 20). Examples of other reasons include students’ attendance, lack of resources (both space and personnel), and focus on academics over mental health. Of note, 47.3% (n = 98) of school counselors reported an increase in non-counseling duties since COVID-19, ranging from a substantial to a slight increase.

We used the Freeman-Halton exact test to examine the aforementioned barriers by grade level (n = 183) and found that being on the master schedule (p < .001, ϕ = .297) was significant with moderate positive association with 19.8% (n = 16) of elementary school counselors reporting this task as compared to 2.4 % (n = 1) of middle school counselors and 1.7% (n = 1) of high school counselors. We used point-biserial correlation analysis to examine how the number of new post–COVID-19 non-counseling duties related to the perceived barriers to providing services to students and found this to be significant (rpb = .211, p = .002) with a positive moderate association. School counselors who reported barriers to providing services had been allocated more non-counseling duties since the pandemic (n = 113, M = 1.22, SD = 1.49) than those who did not report barriers (n = 94, M = .66, SD = 1.04). We used a Freeman-Halton exact test to examine the specific barriers by caseload (n = 204) and found school counselors with a high caseload reported significantly more difficulty in addressing students’ COVID-19–related needs (p < .001, ϕ = .284), with a moderate positive association for large (58.1%, n =18) and medium (47.2%, n = 68) caseloads, as compared to those with a small (10.4%, n = 3) caseload. Investigating the state DOE guideline for 80% of time in service to students (n = 177), excluding those who were unsure, revealed that 63.3% (n = 112) followed the guideline and 36.7% did not (n = 65). We used a Fisher’s exact test to examine the relationship between following the 80% guideline and specific barriers and found that reporting too many non-counseling duties (p < .001, ϕ = -.358) was significant, with a moderate negative association for those who did not follow the guideline (41.5%, n = 27) in comparison to those who did follow the 80% guideline (10.7%, n = 12). All other barriers were not significant with grade level, SES, location, number of non-counseling duties, caseload size, and following the 80% state guideline. We used a Fisher’s exact test to examine SES by Title I (n = 178) classification and found that it was not significant with any of the barriers.


Our results render a disturbing picture of students’ post–COVID-19 mental health functioning and school counselors’ perceived ability to effectively meet their students’ needs since a return to in-person learning, as reported by this sample of 207 school counselors in Tennessee. For RQ1, over 93% of our respondents indicated that their students’ mental health had worsened, with anxiety and depression identified as the most pronounced psychological concern, followed by family dysfunction, grief, technology addiction, and suicidality. These results confirm our predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic would exert a harmful impact on the mental health of children and adolescents (Bryant et al., 2020; Cénat & Dalexis, 2020). Depression and suicidality were significant concerns for middle and high school counselors, and substance abuse was significant at the high school level. The reported spike in diagnosable mental health problems by secondary school counselors aligns with research indicating that half of all mental health and substance use disorders begin at 14 (Quinn et al., 2016). The CDC recently reported that depression, substance abuse, and suicide have increased among adult populations since COVID-19, with young adults presenting the most significant risk (Czeisler et al., 2020). Our results provide preliminary evidence indicating that COVID-19–related trends have similarly impacted adolescents. Further, given the relationship between ACEs and substance misuse (CDC, 2022; Quinn et al., 2016), it may be reasonable to conjecture that an increase in family dysfunction, grief, fear of COVID-19, and severance of social relationships underscored a rise in substance use problems, particularly among high school students.

In addition to mental health, student academics notably declined according to school counselors in Tennessee, with 90.3% of participants reporting negative changes to students’ academics. Previous research attributed students’ COVID-19 pandemic–related academic issues to the vagaries of online instruction, a lack of parental supervision, inadequate technology, and limited workspace, among other factors (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021). Our results aligned with these findings by explicitly connecting delays in students’ academic progress to psychological factors. Of note, we found a significant relationship between grade level, lack of motivation, poor mental health, and attention issues, with middle and high school counselors reporting greater concerns in the areas of motivation and mental health, and elementary and middle school counselors identifying attention problems as the greatest concern. The developmental onset of mental health disorders (Lambie et al., 2019) likely accounts for increased student mental health problems reported by middle and high school counselors. However, motivation and attentional issues across the grades were problematic, and because both are symptomatic of depression and anxiety, they raise a red flag for the mental health of all K–12 students in Tennessee.

Alongside academics, 87.0% of school counselors reported negative changes in students’ social skills and 87.4% reported worsened behaviors among students, with trouble socializing with peers, absence of social flexibility, and an increase in physical and relational aggression being the most pronounced problems. Declines in students’ ability to get along with peers may be uniquely linked to social isolation during lockdown (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021); however, of great concern is the increase in all forms of bullying, with cyberbullying being particularly problematic in middle school. Youth aggression is a long-term consequence of ACEs and has implications for overall school safety, with victimization and perpetration both positively associated with school violence (Forster et al., 2020).

RQ2 investigated what interventions school counselors used to assist students with their COVID-19–related concerns and examined interventions by grade level. The preponderance of school counselors relied on individual counseling (95.7%), consultation (85.5%), referrals (80.7%), collaboration with other school-based helpers (77.3%), and coping skills instruction (71.5%), all of which are consistent with crisis-level supports. Nonetheless, only 44% of the sample, primarily elementary school counselors, had used small group counseling, despite its proven efficacy with children exposed to trauma (Salloum & Overstreet, 2008). The underutilization of group work at the high school level presents a concern, given that group work provides context for peer support and social learning, both considered critical therapeutic factors for adolescents (Gysbers & Henderson, 2012). Nonetheless, this finding resonates with previous results that high school counselors are more apt to assume administrative roles in place of the provision of direct student services (Chandler et al., 2018). Universal assessment has been proffered as an efficient and empirically grounded method for the early identification of at-risk students in need of COVID-19–related interventions (A. Erickson & Abel, 2013; Karaman et al., 2021; Pincus et al., 2020). Unfortunately, only 17.9% of the sample reported administering universal mental health screeners, a finding aligned with other studies that indicate schools have resisted adopting mental health screeners because of inadequate resources and related concerns about following up with students identified as being at risk (Burns & Rapee, 2022).

For RQ3, we explored the school counselors’ perspectives of the barriers they have encountered in assisting their students with their COVID-19 concerns. The proliferation of barriers reported by school counselors (high caseload, non-counseling duties, lack of administrator support, being on the master schedule for guidance classes, and a lack of training) verifies our concern that school counselors in Tennessee did not receive the support instrumental to their ability to provide effective student services at this critical time. Our state-level findings resonate with studies conducted in other states that indicate school counselors’ non-counseling duties increased during the pandemic while administrator support declined (Savitz-Romer et al., 2021). Other studies have also drawn attention to widespread staffing shortages associated with COVID-related absences and a reduced pool of substitute teachers (Patterson, 2022). Although we did not examine staff resources explicitly, with almost 50% of our Tennessee sample witnessing an increase in their non-counseling duties, it would be reasonable to infer that campus administrators are deploying school counselors to triage critical gaps in staffing patterns. Interestingly, despite a widespread increase in non-counseling duties post–COVID-19, only 20.3% of counselors reported non-counseling duties as a barrier to providing care. The discrepancy between these two results may be indicative of the phenomenon of role diffusion in school counseling, a problem that emerges when school counselors begin to integrate non-counseling duties as part of their accepted role and thus do not perceive them as antithetical to their professional identity (Astramovich et al., 2013). Furthermore, neither SES (Title I) nor location (rural, suburban, urban) were significant with barriers, and although this could reflect our relatively small sample, it could also be indicative of staff shortages adversely affecting the role of school counselors across all settings, regardless of the school’s demographic status.

The most notable barrier reported by respondents was a large caseload. School counselors with large and medium-sized caseloads reported more barriers and were less likely to follow the 80% guideline. Thus, those students who were negatively impacted by large counselor caseloads before COVID-19 faced further obstacles in accessing their school counseling services despite an overall increase in their mental health and academic needs. Further, elementary school counselors listed on the master schedule for guidance classes faced additional barriers to addressing their students’ needs outside of their prevention-focused (Tier 1) activities. Classroom guidance is considered helpful in elementary school for building social skills and study habits; however, when counselors are placed on the master schedule, it can impact their ability to provide responsive student services (Gysbers & Henderson, 2012) which seemed to be the case with our respondents.

Implications for Professional Advocacy
     The results of this study illustrate a decline in student functioning, pronounced in the area of mental health, and have implications for school counselor advocacy in the areas of policy and practice. Advocating for policy change takes time and is beyond the individual efforts of school counselors, who are often beholden to their principal’s limited understanding of school counselors’ appropriate role and function (Lancaster & Reiner, 2022) and subsumed by untenable caseloads in under-resourced schools (Lambie et al., 2019). We, therefore, assert that advocacy is the professional imperative for all vested school counseling professionals (state counseling associations, school counselor educators, school counseling supervisors, and school counselors), all of whom could be working in tandem to advance the profession.

At the policy level, state and national counseling associations should reconsider the important role school counselors play in supporting students’ mental well-being and re-examine policies that delineate the appropriate use of school counselors’ time. Currently, the state school counseling model (Tennessee Policy 5.103) mirrors the national model (ASCA, 2019), perennially focusing on school counselors’ role in supporting student academics and delimiting their counseling role to prevention services, crisis counseling, and referrals to other mental health professionals. For state and national counseling associations, positioning school counselors as primarily focused on student academics demonstrated their value during the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB; 2001) era, which prioritized unidimensional outcome measures of student success, particularly in math and reading (Savitz-Romer, 2019). However, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced NCLB in 2015 and emphasizes more holistic aspects of student development and school climate. Many scholars argue that the ESSA (2015) combined with the rise in mental health issues has created a policy window for school counselors, led by their state and national professional associations (Savitz-Romer, 2019), to focus on the non-cognitive aspects that undergird healthy student development and to reclaim mental health as a domain central to school counselor practice (Lambie et al., 2019).

Redefining school counselors’ role in terms of mental health would require them to receive more clinical supervision (Lambie et al., 2019). In comparison to counselors in clinical settings, school counselors receive little to no supervision for their clinical efforts, which affects their clinical identity and weakens their counseling skills over time (Lancaster & Reiner, 2022). To address this gap, symbiotic partnerships could be formed with counselor education programs, particularly those that offer doctoral degrees in counselor education and supervision, to provide clinical supervision to local school counselors. Progress in this area may be forthcoming in the state, as institutions of higher education that operate school counseling, school psychology, and school social work programs have been invited to apply for grants funded through COVID-19 relief funding to support student internships in high-need schools. In addition, funds are available to support clinical supervision experiences that extend beyond students’ graduate training programs (Tennessee DOE, 2023).

MTSS programs also offer a promising prevention and intervention framework for meeting students’ comprehensive needs, including mental health, and align to both state and national school counseling models (Goodman-Scott et al., 2019). Further, the Tennessee DOE (2018) has developed a resource guide based on a tiered model for supporting students’ differential mental health needs, which school counselors could efficiently implement within their existing MTSS programs. Of note, within the Tennessee model, Tier 1 mental health practices build a foundation for mental wellness for all students. Advanced supports at Tiers 2 and 3 provide students who are at risk because of behavioral and/or mental health concerns with access to small groups and mental health interventions. One dimension of the state’s tiered mental health model is universal screening to identify students with internalizing behavioral disorders. Although few counselors in this study utilized universal screening, we recommend school counselors and their supervisors leverage the preexisting Tennessee DOE guidelines to petition their districts to adopt universal mental health screening.

Although the state mandated reduced counselor ratios in 2017 (Policy 5.103.), the funding formula allowed for uneven adoption of this policy (Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, n.d.), and target ratios fell short of national recommendations (ASCA, 2019). Thus, a function of this research was to utilize results in policy contexts to advocate for ratio realignments. In partnership with the state school counselor association, we produced a one-page results summary, written in simple language, to disseminate to state politicians to illuminate the acuity of mental health issues faced by K–12 students and proposed a solution through increased school counselor access. An advocacy effort led by the state association resulted in proposed legislation TN HB0364/SB0348, which would require one licensed full-time professional school counselor position for every 250 students and is currently advancing through the state Senate and House committees. A significant takeaway from this study is the importance and potency of coordinated partnerships between researchers, state counseling associations, and school counselors—an alliance that could be replicated in other states by school counselor stakeholders to advocate for the profession.

     The generalizability of these findings is limited because of the use of a state-level sample and a non-standardized, self-report survey. First, self-report surveys are sensitive to respondents’ tendency to rate themselves more favorably. Thus, it would be reasonable to conjecture that school counselors overestimated their adherence to the state guideline to spend 80% of their time in service to students and underreported their non-counseling duties. Second, although the items were informed by previous research on the psychological issues faced by children and adolescents during COVID-19 (Ellis et al., 2020; Karaman et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021) and those factors that affect school counselors’ ability to provide direct services (Kaffenberger & O’Rorke-Trigiani, 2013; Parzych et al., 2019; Whitney & Peterson, 2019), the use of an ad hoc survey precluded us from performing more robust analyses (e.g., regression analysis). Third, because we only gathered data on students’ mental health issues and academic functioning post–COVID-19 pandemic, we have no benchmark data of students’ pre–COVID-19 functioning with which to make objective comparisons.

Fourth, although the sample was large enough to find some significant results, it was a small percentage of the state’s total population of public school counselors, which is estimated to be over 2,000. A larger sample would have increased the generalizability of findings and impacted the significance levels and practical importance of the results. Fifth, our sample lacks racial and gender diversity; however, it does align with the state’s overall population of educators (Tennessee DOE, 2021). Finally, regarding data analysis, interpreting correlations on a small population sample needs to be performed cautiously because of the possibility of sampling error. Additionally, point-biserial correlation can be impacted by the dichotomous nature of one of the variables, which constrains the variability of the results (Hinkle et al., 2002). Nonetheless, correlational analyses of ordinal and nominal variables in small-scale research are consistent with our exploratory design, and the results provide evidence that the variables examined share some type of relationship and provide direction for future research.

Future Research
     Given that we conducted this study in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and have utilized data and policy to advocate for expanded student access to school counseling services in Tennessee, this study design could be replicated by future researchers in the event that another pandemic or crisis of similar scale affects K–12 populations. Nonetheless, our exploratory design is an inherent limitation with the preponderance of our findings based on correlational analysis of largely non-parametric data. Future studies could explore dimensions of students’ mental health utilizing student data from empirical inventories. Rather than relying on school counselor perception data, researchers could use results from universal screenings, such as the Behavior Assessment System for Children-3rd edition (BASC-3), to better understand the nature of student issues and examine differential risk by demographic factors (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity), which could be used to inform evidence-based interventions with at-risk and high-risk populations. Further, researchers could employ quasi-experimental designs to assess outcomes of school counselor-led interventions, such as small groups, with students who have scored as being at risk based on universal screening. Studies of this nature can help build a case for the efficacy of school counselors and, in turn, protect them from role misallocation. Qualitative research could also be conducted in those schools in which school counselors implement a universal screening, intervention, and referral system to glean an implementation blueprint practical to other school counselors within and outside the state.


With elevated rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and bullying, it is reasonable to conjecture that students in Tennessee have experienced COVID-19–related trauma, which according to research is unlikely to abate without intervention (CDC, 2022; Savitz-Romer et al., 2021). Although our state-level respondents indicated that they provided services consistent with crisis counseling (e.g., individual counseling, group counseling, consultation, and referrals), almost 50% of the counselors had been burdened with additional non-counseling duties, which could reduce their capacity to work with students at different levels of risk. Large caseload was a significant barrier, leaving counselors struggling to provide an appropriate level of care. This finding raises considerable concern about the risk faced by students who have experienced deterioration in their mental health and academics since the onset of COVID-19, yet attend schools in Tennessee with elevated school counselor-to-student caseloads. Nationally and at the state level, school counselors are the most prevalent mental health professionals in schools and are trained in crisis response (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). Unfortunately, Tennessee school counselors appear to be facing barriers in the provision of student services related to high caseload and non-counseling duties, which presents cause for professional advocacy within the state and beyond.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.


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Chloe Lancaster, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of South Florida. Michelle W. Brasfield, EdD, LPSC, is an assistant professor at the University of Memphis. Correspondence may be addressed to Chloe Lancaster, 422 E. Fowler Ave, EDU 105, Tampa, FL 33620,

Serving Students in Foster Care: Implications and Interventions for School Counselors

Hannah Brinser, Addy Wissel


Students in foster care frequently experience barriers that influence their personal, social, and academic success. These challenges may include trauma, abuse, neglect, and loss—all of which influence a student’s ability to be successful in school. Combined with these experiences, students in foster care lack the same access to resources and support as their peers. To this end, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their unique position within the school community to effectively serve and address the complex needs of students in foster care. This paper addresses the current research, presenting problems, implications, and interventions school counselors can utilize when working with this population.

Keywords: students, foster care, school counseling, support, interventions


In 2017, there were a total of 442,995 children and youth in the foster care system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). Given the number of these students in schools and communities, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their position within the school system to identify, respond to, and advocate for the needs of students in foster care to ensure equity and access in all areas. Although all students need positive relationships and stability to be successful, students in foster care often lack the same access to support, resources, and opportunities as their peers (McKellar & Cowen, 2011; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). These barriers and challenges contribute to gaps in achievement, relationships, and skills for these students (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Compared to their peers, students in foster care are more likely to be absent from school, repeat a grade, and change schools (Cutuli et al., 2013; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017; Unrau et al., 2012), which ultimately impacts their ability to establish and maintain relationships. Additionally, students in foster care are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, over three times as likely to receive special education services, and over 20% less likely to graduate from high school (National Working Group for Foster Care and Education [NWGFCE], 2018).

When it comes to higher education, students in foster care are less likely to enroll in college preparatory classes, attend college, and obtain a 4-year degree when compared to their peers (Kirk et al., 2013; Unrau et al., 2012). Research suggests that as little as 3%–10.8% of youth previously in foster care attain a 4-year degree, compared to the national college completion rate of 32.5% (NWGFCE, 2018). However, it is important for school counselors to realize that between 70%–84% of students in foster care desire going to college (Courtney et al., 2010; NWGFCE, 2018). Although students in foster care feel motivated to attend and complete college, academic achievement can easily become another barrier. On average, students in foster care receive both lower ACT scores and high school GPAs and perform lower on standardized tests compared to their peers—all of which influence one’s admission to college (O’Malley et al., 2015; Unrau et al., 2012).

Unfortunately, it is also common for students in foster care to experience other challenges that influence their success in school, such as trauma. Trauma can include abuse; neglect; and the loss of family members, friends, and communities (Scherr, 2014). Without adequate support, trauma can impact a student’s executive functioning and memory, ultimately affecting their ability to learn (Avery & Freundlich, 2009). Additionally, separation from family members, disrupted relationships, and frequent transitions lead to an increased risk for difficulties in expressing and regulating emotions, tolerating ambiguity, and problem-solving (O’Malley et al., 2015; Unrau et al., 2012). These interrelated and complex factors contribute to the achievement gap experienced by students in foster care as evidenced by lower academic achievement and less engagement in school (Pecora et al., 2006; Unrau et al., 2012).

Importance of Serving This Population


When considering interventions to support students in foster care, it is important to explore what they believe will be helpful for their growth and success. It is likely that the majority of students in foster care already feel a lack of control over what occurs in their lives (Scherr, 2014). Therefore, this is an opportunity to encourage student involvement while increasing student self-efficacy. Clemens et al. (2017) found that students in foster care emphasize the importance of having opportunities to connect with others in similar situations, learning practical skills, and implementing different strategies to better their lives. To provide a sense of normalcy and belonging, school counselors can advocate for interventions that promote connectedness and engagement with other students (Unrau et al., 2012).

Removing barriers, improving access to services, maintaining enrollment, improving attendance, and facilitating academic progress is critical in promoting success for students in foster care (Gilligan, 2007). Therefore, school counselors should be aware of the barriers related to access that exist for students in foster care and should be intentional in taking steps to remove any inequities. Working proactively and using a strengths-based approach that acknowledges the skills, strengths, and resiliency of students are ways in which school counselors can effectively meet the needs of students in foster care (Gilligan, 2007; Scherr, 2014). To illustrate, a strengths-based approach can be utilized with students who have anxious attachment patterns by acknowledging their ability to care for others, rather than focusing on the negative aspects of their attachment behaviors (e.g., being too “needy”). Although it can be easy to focus on the behaviors and disruptions that occur, school counselors have the opportunity to instead focus on these students’ accomplishments, strengths, and dreams. Ultimately, it is evident that students in foster care face many challenges that influence their ability to be successful. In an effort to address this need, the following section outlines interventions for school counselors to use when working with students in foster care.


School Climate
Positive school relationships are an essential part of school climate and can serve as a protective factor for students experiencing adversity (Furlong et al., 2011; O’Malley et al., 2015). Therefore, focusing on school climate may be an effective approach in supporting students in foster care, as positive school relationships can also help close achievement gaps between these students and their peers (Clemens et al., 2017). For example, positive school climate decreases rates of disruptive behaviors, truancy, fights, and suspensions at school (Hopson & Lee, 2011). In addition, Voight et al. (2013) found that students’ positive school climate perceptions also contributed to academic achievement as indicated by state standardized test scores. School counselors can enhance school climate by allowing student voices, utilizing empowerment strategies, implementing evidence-based programs, providing adult mentoring (O’Malley et al., 2015), and working to create a positive peer culture (Bergin & Bergin, 2009).

School Culture
It is particularly important to pay attention to school culture, as these shared norms, beliefs, and behaviors affect perceptions of school climate (MacNeil et al., 2009). To create a positive school culture, Ziomek-Daigle et al. (2016) recommended that school counselors implement interventions using a multi-tiered system of supports. For example, providing classroom lessons on topics such as kindness, empathy, and acceptance are Tier 1 interventions that work to cultivate a positive school culture (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). Additionally, school culture can be influenced by creating shared values and expectations for students throughout the school community (MacNeil et al., 2009). For example, school counselors can utilize empowerment strategies when teaching students in foster care to advocate for themselves and find autonomy in meeting their needs. The school counselor might say, “Last week, you worked so hard at learning to use ‘I statements’ when expressing your needs and feelings to others! In class, I even saw that you raised your hand to ask for a break when you started to get overwhelmed in math. How might you use similar skills to advocate for yourself when you get frustrated in social studies?” In this way, the school counselor is improving school culture by creating a shared expectation among students, teachers, and staff.

Educational Experiences
Moreover, school counselors can enhance school climate by facilitating enriching educational experiences that contribute to academic success (Gilligan, 2007). To ensure that students in the foster care system receive the same educational experiences as their peers, school counselors can screen, monitor, plan, communicate, and collaborate with other stakeholders (e.g., teachers, administration, staff, and foster families) to ensure equity and access for students in foster care (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Educating stakeholders about working with students in foster care can encourage inclusive assignments, promote an understanding of potential responses and reactions from students, and decrease negative behavioral perceptions (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Additionally, including students in decisions about their education, where they attend school, and the support they receive can increase their self-efficacy, goal development, and self-advocacy skills (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). This intentionality can also help them feel welcome, respected, and important—all of which increase their school connection.

Collaborating With Stakeholders
     School counselors should plan to accommodate and work with students who may enter school in the middle of the year, as 34% of students in foster care experience five or more school changes by the time they reach the age of 18 (NWGFCE, 2018). When these students arrive at school, it is important that school counselors welcome them, explain classroom and school procedures, show them around the school, and facilitate connections with other students (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). From the beginning, school counselors can prioritize involving the foster family by calling to welcome them, answering any questions they have, providing them with helpful information (e.g., teacher contact information), and following up with them after a few weeks. For example, packets can be sent home with students so foster families have access to any relevant documents or previous newsletters containing helpful information (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Additionally, it may be beneficial for school counselors to invite the foster family to meet with them in person to create a stronger foster family and school partnership. Furthermore, incomplete student records can have a significant effect on academic services for students in foster care. Therefore, school counselors should work diligently with other school districts to retrieve and maintain these records (McKellar & Cowen, 2011).

Along with planning, school counselors can provide all stakeholders with evidence-based information to effectively serve and address the needs of students in foster care (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). With this purpose in mind, school counselors can provide training to stakeholders on topics such as reflective listening, creating secure attachments, recognizing and responding to feelings and behaviors, and setting limits and boundaries (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). Informed stakeholders can more effectively support and respond to the unique needs of students in foster care, and in turn, students may be more successful in managing their emotions and behaviors (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). This awareness can also strengthen relationships that promote school success (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). Additionally, school counselors can be proactive in collaborating with stakeholders to create structured and supportive classroom environments where students in foster care feel safe while learning. For example, working with teachers to modify assignments that have the potential to be triggering (e.g., family-based assignments) is essential in promoting student–teacher relationships and academic achievement (C. Mitchell, 2010; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017).

     Students in foster care often experience triggers at school, whether it is from an assignment (e.g., family-based assignments), a topic discussed in class, or a community event that seems to be exclusively for biological parents (West et al., 2014). When these experiences occur, students in foster care do not always have the ability to self-regulate and utilize healthy coping skills (West et al., 2014). For this reason, it is essential to not only advocate for inclusive assignments and events but to also help students effectively manage their triggers so they can be academically and relationally successful. Additionally, it may be helpful to provide stakeholders with information about why certain activities lack inclusivity for students in foster care and offer possible alternatives or modifications for these experiences. To illustrate, events such as “Muffins with Moms” and “Donuts with Dads” can be altered for inclusivity by expanding the population to include anyone in the student’s support system (e.g., “Floats with Friends” or “Popcorn with Important People”).

Additionally, an assignment about creating a family tree could be modified for inclusivity by focusing on the diversity of family structures. C. Mitchell (2010) offers the alternative of creating “The Rooted Family Tree,” in which the roots represent one’s birth family, the student as the trunk, and the foster or adoptive family filling in the branches. Similarly, “The Family Houses Diagram” utilizes houses instead of trees to allow for multiple places of living and the option to form a connection between birth, foster, or other family types (C. Mitchell, 2010). Another common assignment given in schools is to bring a baby picture to share with the class. This lacks inclusivity for students in foster care, as they might not have these pictures or there may be difficult memories attached to them. Additionally, this puts the student in the painful position of having to explain why they do not have these pictures (C. Mitchell, 2010). As a result, C. Mitchell (2010) recommends framing the assignment as a choice: Bring a picture of yourself as a baby or at a younger age, on a vacation or holiday, or engaging in any activity that you enjoy.

Knowing how to cultivate secure attachments with students in foster care is especially relevant for stakeholders, as positive student–adult relationships can influence other relationships in the student’s life by altering their internal working model (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Sabol & Pianta, 2012). Although it can be difficult to create and maintain secure relationships with students who experience insecure attachment (Bergin & Bergin, 2009), stakeholders have the opportunity to fill in attachment gaps that may exist for students in foster care. Secure attachment is related to higher grades and standardized test scores, increased emotion regulation, and higher self-efficacy (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013). Moreover, students with insecure attachment tend to show less curiosity (Granot & Mayseless, 2001), have poorer quality friendships, and exhibit behavior problems (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013).

Importantly, attachment to teachers, rather than just biological parents, is linked to school success (O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Sabol & Pianta, 2012). When students have healthy relationships with their teachers and perceive them as supportive, they show greater interest and engagement in school, which leads to improvements in academic achievement (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013). Additionally, students who experience insecure attachment crave positive, warm, and trusting relationships but often lack the skills to create them. For this reason, stakeholders can help nurture secure relationships by being genuine, maintaining high expectations, and providing as much choice and autonomy as possible (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). Furthermore, noticing when these students are not at school, or when they return after an absence, can help them know they are valued and cared for.

To advocate, school counselors can help stakeholders understand why students with insecure attachment are behaving and reacting in certain ways, while also helping staff to respond in ways that disconfirm students’ insecure working models (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). In this way, staff can show that students’ particular beliefs about relationships with others may not always be true. To illustrate, not asking for help in the classroom, ignoring the teacher, or denying the need for assistance could be a manifestation of an insecure avoidant attachment style (Golding et al., 2013). This student does not want to become close or show vulnerability, as they fear that the teacher will reject or separate from them (e.g., their internal working model). For these students, it can be easier to not ask for help or engage in classroom projects at all than risk the hurt of rejection (Golding et al., 2013). A teacher who misunderstands this might believe they are unable to adequately support the student. As a result, they may stop trying to help, which confirms the student’s internal working model of fear and rejection. Instead, the teacher can disconfirm this student’s internal working model by providing reassurance of their consistency and availability (Golding et al., 2013). For example, the teacher conveying that they want to help, while also asking how they can help, offers healthy choice and autonomy. Encouraging small changes in how stakeholders respond to students in foster care provides a space for positive and secure relationships to develop.

Skill Development and Addressing Unique Experiences
Behavior Management, Emotion Regulation, and Social Skills
     Difficulties in behavior management, emotion regulation, and social skills are common among students in the foster care system, as they lack control over many events that occur in their lives (Octoman et al., 2014; Scherr, 2014). These students’ unique and complex experiences can impact their ability to appropriately manage their emotions, behaviors, and interactions with others. Unfortunately, these extreme emotions and behaviors often result in several different placements, the loss of relationships, and the loss of school and community connections (Octoman et al., 2014).

Given this information, school counselors can contribute to student success by collaborating with stakeholders to communicate appropriate behavior, identify boundaries, and explicitly state expectations. Providing behavioral support, management, and individual attention can help students engage in positive behaviors that facilitate their success at school and in the classroom (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Additionally, working with students to identify and manage emotions decreases externalizing behaviors, reduces stress levels, and improves relationships. Likewise, providing education about control, acceptance, coping skills, and distress tolerance are applicable emotion regulation interventions to utilize with students in foster care (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). Groups and interventions on topics such as social skills, problem-solving, making and keeping friends, and appropriate behaviors can help students develop healthy interpersonal relationships (Scherr, 2014; Zins & Elias, 2007).

Grief and Loss
Additionally, it is crucial that school counselors intentionally address the unique and complex experiences of students in foster care. For example, these students often experience non-death losses that go unacknowledged, including the loss of parents, siblings, friends, and communities (M. B. Mitchell, 2018). These losses may involve a lack of clarity and create confusion about a loved one’s physical or psychological presence, commonly referred to as ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999; Lee & Whiting, 2007). To illustrate, being separated from one’s family and placed into foster care can generate grief and loss reactions, including confusion, isolation, distress, uncertainty, helplessness, denial, extreme behaviors, and guilt (Lee & Whiting, 2007; M. B. Mitchell & Kuczynski, 2010). Disenfranchised grief occurs when others disregard and do not acknowledge a loss (Doka, 1989; M. B. Mitchell, 2018). Unfortunately, it is common for the child welfare system and society to ignore experiences of grief and loss in foster care (M. B. Mitchell, 2018; M. B. Mitchell & Kuczynski, 2010).

In an effort to address this, school counselors can begin by identifying, acknowledging, and validating losses that are not caused by death but produce many similar grief responses (M. B. Mitchell, 2016, 2018). Additionally, school counselors can educate stakeholders about ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief, as it is important for the entire school community to have an understanding about manifestations of grief and loss when working with these students (e.g., internalizing and externalizing). In general, school counselors can advocate for students in foster care by validating their experiences, equipping them with education and resources, helping others understand why their experiences embody grief and loss, and acknowledging the inherent confusion involved in their unique situations (Lee & Whiting, 2007).

Accessing School and Community Resources
School Engagement
     Students involved in their school community through extracurricular activities, leadership, and positions of responsibility often experience more motivation and engagement in learning (Gilligan, 2007). Additionally, such engagement is beneficial in creating a sense of normalcy, belonging, and community with other students. Unfortunately, these opportunities can seem limited to students in the foster care system because of cost, timing, and transportation barriers (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Therefore, it is critical that school counselors collaborate, advocate, and act to remove these barriers, as engagement in the school community can result in academic, social, and behavioral improvements (Scherr, 2014). School counselors can facilitate this involvement and engagement in the school community by collaborating with other stakeholders to provide opportunities. For example, encouraging and assisting students in foster care to navigate and obtain leadership positions (e.g., student government) will not only improve their engagement in school, but also increase their self-efficacy and sense of belonging within the school community. Additionally, school counselors can collaborate with other professionals (e.g., social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses) to identify and address different areas of support, resources, and opportunities for these students.

Group Counseling
With a national student–school counselor ratio of 455:1 (American School Counselor Association, 2019), group counseling is a promising approach to help school counselors meet the complex needs of students who are in foster care. Additionally, this is an effective way to encourage involvement and connectedness with students who have similar backgrounds, while providing these students with the skills that they need to be successful (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Involvement in group counseling can help create a sense of normalcy, belonging, and community with other students (Alvord & Grados, 2005) and can also result in academic, social, and behavioral improvements (Scherr, 2014).

Hambrick et al. (2016) found that children in foster care experienced improvements in behavior, academics, quality of life, attachment, placement stability, and emotion regulation following their participation in group-based interventions. Although participating in a small group with other students in the foster care system may provide the opportunity to feel understood and less alone, students may also benefit from engaging in group activities with typical peers. For example, students in foster care might participate in a “lunch bunch” group where they eat in community with the school counselor and other like-age peers. In these groups, students can play, learn from watching the interactions of peers, and develop the skills necessary for initiating and maintaining positive peer relationships.

Utilizing a reality therapy approach for group counseling seems particularly beneficial, as it addresses choice, control, and healthy ways of getting one’s needs met—all common issues students in foster care may struggle with (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009; Cameron, 2013; Kress et al., 2019). These components are essential in empowering students to choose how they respond to and face the challenges in their lives (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). In this approach, school counselors can assume the roles of teacher, advocate, and encourager by educating about responsibility, choices, and the importance of meaningful relationships (Kress et al., 2019). Utilizing the WDEP system (i.e., wants, doing, evaluation, and planning) to explore questions, including “What do you want?”, “What are you doing?”, and “Is it working?”, helps students assess if their current behaviors are getting them what they desire, and if they are not, how they can change in healthy ways (Wubbolding, 2011).

Because behavior is intentional, it is beneficial to look at each student’s behavior as an attempt to satisfy their needs (Glasser, 1984, 2000). Additionally, focusing on the here and now is helpful in guiding and educating students about effective and appropriate ways to get their needs met by others (Glasser, 1992, 2000). As many students in foster care have not always had their needs met in the past, they must learn to have their needs met in healthy and effective ways (Octoman et al., 2014). For example, a student who is grabbing and touching other students might be trying to get their need of love and belonging met. In this situation, it would be a helpful learning experience to guide this student to meet this need in a different way, such as asking the peer permission for a hug or setting aside time to spend with them later (Octoman et al., 2014).

When using this approach, school counselors can reframe behavior to emphasize student strengths, identify and celebrate students’ acceptance of choice and responsibility, create anticipation for change, and communicate hope about success (Kress et al., 2019). School counselors can also prioritize rapport building; creating safety through rules, goals, and expectations; and helping students realize that they are not alone in their experiences (Alvord & Grados, 2005; Gladding, 2016; Kress et al., 2019). Other small groups that address issues such as social skills, making and keeping friends, and college and career exploration may also be helpful for students in foster care.

Mentorship Programs
Students in the foster care system experience many transitions and losses, which can result in disruptions to the adult and peer relationships that support educational success. In this way, mentorship programs work to reduce risk and provide protective support to students in foster care (Scherr, 2014). These students value having a mentor who provides support and encouragement on topics related to academics, college, and life (Clemens et al., 2017; Dworsky & Pérez , 2010) and benefit from having a consistent, trustworthy, and non-familial adult in their lives (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). Mentorship programs contribute to fewer behavior referrals, less school mobility, and improved graduation rates (Salazar et al., 2016). Additionally, the accountability of mentorship can motivate students to improve their attendance, achievement, and engagement in school. Given this information, facilitating connectedness and mentorship for these students is crucial in providing them with the support, consistency, and encouragement they need to accomplish their goals.

The Check and Connect Model is evidence-based and targets students who show warning signs of disengaging from school such as poor attendance, behavioral issues, and low grades (Tilbury et al., 2014), all of which are particularly relevant for students in foster care. Potential mentors can be natural (e.g., someone already present and supportive in the student’s life) or someone from the community interested in volunteering (Salazar et al., 2016). Utilizing natural mentors, if available, is beneficial in acknowledging the natural supports that already exist in students’ lives. For example, if a student already has a trusting relationship with a staff member, it is important to utilize this connection to maintain stability. However, if a student is unable to identify any natural mentors, working with volunteers in the community is also an excellent option. Both are impactful in different ways, and the quality of the connection is what is really crucial (Salazar et al., 2016).

It is essential that mentors are consistent, empathetic, authentic, and committed to supporting students in foster care. Mentors not only serve as a relational connection for these students but also help youth expand their social support networks, set goals, explore postsecondary options, and increase involvement in the school community (Salazar et al., 2016). School counselors can work with mentors to monitor student performance variables, such as absences, behavioral referrals, and grades, while helping students solve problems, identify skills, and reach their goals (University of Minnesota, 2019). Mentorship programs should be flexible and tailored to the needs of each student and their mentor, as some pairs might benefit from more or less time to connect (Salazar et al., 2016). Ultimately, these programs can be helpful in providing students in foster care with the connection and support they need to be successful, while also contributing to the development of other secure relationships in their lives (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017).

Community Partnerships
     For students in foster care, it is essential that support extends beyond the school community. To do this, school counselors can establish relationships and collaborate with the student, foster family, school, and foster care system (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). These home–school partnerships are critical in meeting the needs of students in foster care. Additionally, foster families feel more supported when they are involved and their input is valued (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Utilizing and forming plans around academic and behavioral expectations, attendance, flexibility with requirements, and communication with stakeholders can be helpful in promoting success (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Furthermore, tangible and emotional support can act as protective factors and meet the needs of students through the provision of goods and services (Piel et al., 2017). For example, school counselors can create or utilize community-based food and nutrition programs to ensure that basic needs are being met.

Mental Health Services
Equally important, students in foster care often experience difficulties that affect their mental health. Evidence-based treatments such as trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT), behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and parent–child interaction therapy can be adapted for the school setting (Landsverk et al., 2009). These models of counseling are helpful in addressing symptoms, while also promoting healthy behavior and functioning. Combined with this, school counselors can also provide outpatient information to foster families and case workers about local resources and services available to students in foster care. In these cases, it is helpful to collaborate with the designated outpatient counselor to provide the most effective support and generalize learned skills across settings (Landsverk et al., 2009).


Students in foster care experience a number of barriers and challenges that influence their success in school, both academically and socially, as well as in adulthood. In addition, students in foster care lack the same access to resources and support as their peers, which contributes to gaps in academic achievement, relational success, and overall well-being. By enhancing school climate, planning, providing training to stakeholders, and promoting positive educational experiences, students in foster care can receive the foundational support they need to begin learning. Additionally, by utilizing group counseling, implementing mentorship programs, targeting specific behavior, addressing experiences of grief and loss, and accessing community resources, students in foster care can gain the skills they need to be successful in all areas. Despite the many challenges students in foster care face, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their unique position in their schools and communities to advocate for these students, reach them through evidence-based interventions, remove barriers to learning, and ultimately equip them with the tools and skills they need to experience greater success.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Hannah Brinser is a master’s candidate at Gonzaga University. Addy Wissel, PhD, is an associate professor and program director at Gonzaga University. Correspondence may be addressed to Hannah Brinser, 502 E. Boone Ave., Spokane, WA 99258,