The School Counselor's Role in Serving Students with Disabilities
Author(s): Angelica Greiner, Ph.D., and Crystal Hatton, Ph.D.
May 1, 2023
When I reviewed the 2022 revision of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, I noticed the revisions were viewed through an equity lens. What are some practical strategies for addressing diversity, equity and inclusion as I serve all students, including students with disabilities?
School counselors have an ethical obligation to meet the needs of all students, and this includes students with disabilities. These students are members of a marginalized population, so it is imperative that school counselors take an active role in establishing an affirming school environment where students feel safe, included and respected. To foster this learning environment, school counselors must ensure these students aren’t being ostracized or discriminated against due to their ability status. Here are some best practices to ensure you’re considering diversity, equity and inclusion when serving students with disabilities.
- Acknowledge that students with disabilities are often marginalized within the education system due to their ability status and other aspects of their identity (i.e., race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation).
- Use school data to identify students’ needs and identify the disparities that exist within the school environment.
- Ensure that students with disabilities have access to school counseling services.
- Review your school’s policies, procedures, and practices to ensure students with disabilities are not targeted or
- treated unfairly.
- Advocate for equitable access for students to ensure they are included in opportunities to foster their academic, career and social/emotional development (i.e., advanced placement courses, specialized programs).
- Differentiate activities that are used within classroom lessons, group counseling and individual counseling to meet students’ diverse learning needs.
- Collaborate with special education teachers and case managers to develop effective, developmentally appropriate interventions.
- Celebrate students’ strengths and teach them how to self-advocate for their needs and discuss their learning styles with teachers.
- Demonstrate empathy and sensitivity when communicating with students and families about students’ progress and challenges related to academics or behavior.
- Encourage family involvement by navigating language barriers, asking for their input and valuing their opinions and perspectives.
- Understand students’ and parents’ rights under FAPE, IDEA and Section 504, and advocate for them accordingly.
- Cultivate opportunities to recognize and embrace individual differences and similarities.
- Partner with special education teachers and case managers to educate school staff about students’ learning needs and strategies to foster their academic, career and social/emotional development.
Navigating Use of Time
I’m a new school counselor eager to implement a comprehensive school counseling program at my school. During my annual administrative conference, the principal told me I’m in charge of overseeing all 504 plans at the school. The principal also told me I’d be written into 504 plans and individualized education plans (IEPs) to support students with disabilities. I know I have an ethical obligation to serve students with disabilities, but I’m concerned about my ability to also serve all other students as well if I’m tasked with these other duties. How can I work collaboratively with my principal to ensure I’m able to serve all students, including students with disabilities?
The preamble of ASCA’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors indicates that all students have a right to equitable access to a school counseling program that promotes academic, career and social/emotional development and improves student outcomes for all students, including students historically and currently marginalized by the education system. When school counselors are tasked with overseeing 504 plans and written into 504s/IEPs, they are unable to serve all students due to time constraints. Discuss this ethical obligation to serve all students with your administrator. Also discuss how ASCA recommends school counselors spend 80% or more of their time in direct and indirect services to all students and 20% or less of their time in program planning and school support. Additionally, you can share ASCA’s appropriate and inappropriate activities for school counselors document (available at schoolcounselor.org/roles) with your principal to advocate for the appropriate use of your time. Lastly, be sure to complete use-of-time assessments or use the ASCA National Model App (MApp) throughout the school year to determine how much time you spend in each domain. This ensures you have objective data to advocate for your use of time as you aim to serve all students.
In addition to the ASCA Ethical Standards, it’s also important to use ASCA’s position statements to guide your work. The position statements are helpful because they provide a roadmap for school counselors as they navigate through issues, including ASCA’s stance on an issue and school counselors’ specific roles and responsibilities related to that issue.
According to ASCA’s position statement on The School Counselor and Student Mental Health, “School counselors focus their efforts on designing and implementing school counseling programs that promote academic, career and social/emotional success for all students.” Furthermore, the position statement says, “School counselors provide short-term counseling and crisis intervention focused on mental health or situational concerns, such as grief or difficult transitions.” Similarly, ASCA’s position statement on The School Counselor and Students with Disabilities says school counselors’ responsibilities may include, “providing short-term, goal-focused counseling in instances where it is appropriate to include these strategies as a part of the IEP or 504 plan.”
Accordingly, when school counselors are asked to provide long-term counseling/therapy to students through 504 plans and IEPs, it’s critical to ensure the school team understands these requests are beyond the scope of a school counselor and that providing these services limits school counselors’ ability to serve all students. Although school teams may not indicate “therapy” on a 504 plan or IEP, the plan may state, “The school counselor will check in with the student once a week for the entire school year.” A good rule of thumb is anything over six to eight visits with a student becomes a therapeutic relationship. When IEP and 504 teams request school counselors provide long-term counseling, best practice is for school counselors to remind the school team of their role and help the team to come up with a short-term goal based on the student’s needs. When a student isn’t making progress toward the short-term goal, the school counselor can support the student by providing feedback to the 504/IEP team and connecting the family with additional outside resources.
Private Schools and Students with Disabilities
You are a high school counselor at a private school. In addition to implementing a comprehensive school counseling program, you are also tasked with monitoring students’ learning needs and serving on the admissions committee. Through your experience on the admissions committee, you learn some families don’t disclose a student’s diagnosis or existing service plans in the application process for fear of being denied admission. Since your school focuses on college prep and doesn’t modify assignments and assessments for students with learning differences, some admitted students immediately struggle to meet the school’s academic standards. Furthermore, you spend a significant amount of time providing individual counseling to these students to support their academic and social/emotional development. Since you work for a private school, do you have any legal or ethical obligations to students during the admissions process and beyond?
First, it’s important to review your school’s admissions policy to determine the language used regarding admission. For example, some policies state students will not be denied admission based on race, gender, disability status, etc. Understanding the language is advantageous as you consider your obligation to advocate for students with disabilities during the admissions process and beyond.
It is imperative to determine the reason the school is seeking information about a student’s disability status. In public school settings, enrollment applications ask if students have a 504 plan or IEP in place. In such cases, this information is requested to identify students in need of services/accommodations and ensure their proper placement. In the case of private school enrollment, some accommodations and supports may not be available, and options for placement may be limited. However, if you are requesting information regarding the student’s diagnosis, it’s best practice to use it to have a productive conversation with families and other school personnel about the needs and required interventions for students to thrive and meet their full potential in the private school setting.
If private schools receive federal funding, they may not discriminate based on a student’s disability per the Americans with Disabilities Act; the school must provide reasonable accommodations to assist students. Exceptions exist in some states and for religious schools. Thus, it’s imperative to check the school’s affiliation, federal funding status and state/local laws.
School counselors have an ethical obligation to bridge the gaps for students with disabilities and make school environments as inclusive as possible. Therefore, school counselors should be mindful of gatekeeping procedures during the admissions process. Disabilities manifest differently for all students, which is why it’s critical to have meaningful conversations with families during the admissions process. Specifically, ASCA’s Ethical Standards indicate that school counselors should, “Recognize the strengths of students with disabilities as well as their challenges and provide best practices in supporting their academic, career and social/emotional needs.” By having meaningful conversations with families during the admissions process, private school admissions teams and families are able to make an informed decision regarding admission.
There are times when the ASCA Ethical Standards may conflict with state laws and/or private school policies. During these times, follow the law and/or school policy, and then advocate for change.
It’s possible families may be reluctant to disclose a diagnosis because they don’t want it to have an adverse impact on their child during the admissions process. Transparency regarding accommodations and interventions private schools can provide students is also a critical component of the conversations with parents. This helps families make an informed decision about their child’s education.
Angelica Greiner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Liberty University, serves on ASCA’s Ethics Committee and is an ASCA U Legal & Ethical Specialist. Crystal Hatton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Liberty University, serves on ASCA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, and is an ASCA U Legal & Ethical Specialist. If you have questions about school counseling ethics, email firstname.lastname@example.org.