School Counselor Shortage: How it affects your children

Published: Apr. 29, 2019 at 5:59 PM CDT
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From career advice to tricky social situations, to traumatic events or mental health issues - school counselors are meant to develop relationships with all students. But when counselors are forced to work with larger student populations, some of those connections and services are sacrificed.

"If they have really giant caseloads, they can't address those types of skills for all students in a way that will be most beneficial for students in improving their achievement, attendance, and behavior," says Eric Sparks, EdD, CAE, with the American School Counselor Association.

Schools are seeing a rise in students' mental health needs, but they aren't set up to keep up. Experts say there should be one school counselor for every 250 students - but on average, Minnesota schools have one counselor for every 582 kids.

One service that is impacted when school counselors are overburdened is addressing students' mental heath growth and needs. Experts say early interventions are critical to supporting students' social and emotional needs, but without enough counselors - those problems may go undetected or treatment may be delayed.

"They are seeing more students who have additional needs beyond those regular developmental needs in terms of those soft skills and workplace skills," Sparks says.

Sparks says the top issues counselors are currently seeing are anxiety and depression. Untreated anxiety disorders can make students two times as likely to drop out of school or repeat a grade, while depression can come across as anger - leading to behavior referrals or disciplinary measures.

Counselors may also have to cut back on their time in the classroom, depriving students of lessons like conflict resolution and communication that can help them develop the skills businesses are looking for.

"The business community, the community as a whole, are looking for those types of skills from students. And we hear so much that they're not able to find employees or folks that have the kind of skills that they need to be ready to go into a position or a career," says Sparks.

And the problem is being felt here in our area. A Moorhead teacher i spoke with says the current student to counselor ratio is abysmal.

In Moorhead Public Schools, the school that comes the closest to reaching the 250:1 ratio is Moorhead High School - which has about 463 students per counselor. After that, the numbers keep going up. Dorothy Dodds has the highest number of students per counselor in the district, with one counselor for 727 students.

When asked why there is such a shortage of school counselors, Sparks says the most common reason is funding.

There is a new opportunity for Minnesota's school counselor situation to improve. Governor Walz's new budget invests $17 million for school safety measures - which can be used to add more school counselors.

Meanwhile, this issue isn't only in Minnesota. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only three states have the correct ratio of counselors to students - Montana, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The average ratio of students to school counselors across the country is 460:1.