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My perception of the school counselor’s role in special education is that it largely mirrors the role embodied for all students, but with some added considerations and collaborations for the special needs student. My understanding is that a school counselor should be available to all students for personal, ethical, academic, career, and social advice; to listen to a student’s point of view; to deal with any mental health issues that may arise for a student; to help a student prepare for transitions; to advocate for a student in a given situation, and to whatever degree possible, teach the student to advocate for himself.
A counselor must be committed to helping all students reach their full potential; but for students with disabilities and other special needs, a school counselor needs to accomplish this in the face of extra challenges. These tasks and trials are not limited to those presented by the varying disabilities of a child, but include the demands of satisfying the administrative and legal requirements of a counselor serving students with special needs. Today’s school counselor is likely to be involved in a student’s individualized education program (IEP) when one is warranted. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s Office for Exceptional Children, at least one of the IEP team members needs to be an individual who has knowledge or special expertise regarding the child.
This person is in addition to the child’s regular and special education teachers, a principal/assistant principal or other senior staff member, the parents, the school psychologist, and the child (if appropriate) required to participate on the team. The school counselor, at the discretion of the parent or the school district, may be included as a member of the IEP team if they have special insight regarding the child. A school counselor will work as part of a multidisciplinary team within the school and community in aligning and providing services for the special needs student. Without yet having been exposed to a practicum or internship experience as a school counselor, I perceive this piece of the workload to be potentially delicate and complex.
A parent may have a viewpoint divergent from that which is covered in the Evaluation Team Report (ETR), resulting in an extended identification process. School staff members may have contrasting opinions as to whether a child is in need of special education and an IEP, or just accommodations covered under a 504 Plan. The bottom line is that the identification team must work collaboratively, with a lack of ego, in assessing and determining what measures are in the best interests of helping the child to be successful in school.
It seems that the most difficult aspect of a school counselor’s job is to find a balance in managing so many responsibilities in each given day. Responding to the unique challenges of special needs students can both intensify and complement the workload. I think much can be gained professionally, personally, and emotionally by embracing that responsibility. A good counselor should teach the special education students attending her school about resiliency, inner strength, positive identity, and a sense of purpose. In the general terms of the professional school counselor’s role, I believe that the most valuable services to be provided in the special education realm are:
• Individual Student Planning – communicate high expectations and help disabled students establish personal goals for each school year and their future success. Familiarize oneself with the varying learning styles of the students who have disabilities, and work consultatively with teachers to improve their performance behaviorally and academically. Be a staunch advocate for these students and their post-secondary options; help create opportunities for them.
• Responsive Services – implement prevention and/or intervention activities like individual and group counseling, provide referrals, facilitate better peer relations, and advocate for them. Conduct needs assessments to identify potential systematic, programmatic, and attitudinal areas for change in order to create positive environments for their learning. Assist teachers in staying on top of 504 and IEP accommodations/interventions, being prepared to troubleshoot if certain measures are not enabling student to perform optimally.
• School Guidance Curriculum – developing and delivering a curriculum of structured lessons to help each identified student achieve desired social and academic outcomes. A counselor could implement a student development curriculum aimed to improve typical students’ understanding of and sensitivity to their special needs’ peers.