Ethical Tips For School Counselors

Here are some basic ethical tips for school counselors. There's a lot to know and remember, so having the bottom lines summarized is a good thing. This list of 13 items was posted on but the comments (in italics) are mine.

1. Act in the best interests of the student clients at all times. Act in good faith and in the absence of malice.

This is the ultimate bottom line, and the reason we’re here – students’ needs and best interests come first. I always heard it said, but for a long time I didn’t know it was actually stated in the Ethical Standards for School Counselors. It’s a good thing to know in case you find yourself in a situation where someone tries to tell you that the school’s needs, parents’ needs, district’s needs, or someone else’s needs come first. No, they don’t.

2. Inform student clients of possible limitations on the counseling relationship prior to the beginning of the relationship.

I suggest that you find out your district’s specific, written confidentiality policies, and post them two or three different places in your office. You may also want to have students sign and date a statement or a form indicating that they’ve been told the limits of confidentiality from the beginning. Or better yet, make sure a copy of the statement is in the student handbook, and incorporate a policy at your school that parents and students must read and sign the student handbook each year. This may sound unnecessary and over the top, but it can save your job or your credibility in a pinch.

3. Increase awareness of personal values, attitudes and beliefs; refer when personal characteristics hinder effectiveness.

These could be values, attitudes, and beliefs about culture, ethnicity, family, religion, sexual orientation, work, time, independence, language, abilities and disabilities, or any kind of personal judgment about what’s right or wrong, or what you believe people “should” or “shouldn’t” do, say, think, feel, or believe. Knowing your own personal biases is extremely valuable, because ethically, you aren’t allowed impose your biases on students or parents. Sometimes these biases are subtle, but they can still make a big difference in the way you do your job.

4. Actively attempt to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients with whom you work, including your own cultural/ethnic/racial identity and its impact on your values and beliefs about the counseling process.

There are a lot of good ways to learn about the diversity of your students. Along with whatever diversity classes you may have taken during your counselor training, you can also ask respectful questions of your students, go to local or regional cultural events, attend workshops and trainings, and just spend time talking with and observing your students outside your office.

5. Function within the boundaries of personal competence. Be aware of personal skill levels and limitations.

Ethically, there are various job duties and tasks that you need specific training for before you take them on as your responsibilities, even if you’re assigned by your administrator to do them. Writing 504 plans and administering certain tests are two examples, and there are many more. Be assertive about asking for (and even insisting on) adequate training before you take them on. If you make a significant mistake in these areas, you could put your job and your certification at risk.

6. Be able to fully explain why you do what you do. A theoretical rationale should undergird counseling strategies and interventions.

This is good advice whether you need to explain your actions or choices to your supervisor, a colleague or faculty member, a parent or student, or in court. Being able to explain without becoming defensive or sarcastic is a much needed personal and professional skill.

7. Encourage family involvement, where possible, when working with minors in sensitive areas that might be controversial.

Even though most of what students say to you is confidential, finding the balance between honoring that confidentiality and encouraging parents to become involved can be a challenge. If you can maintain student confidentiality but still be supportive to the parents and help them be involved in positive ways, everyone will benefit.

8. Follow written job descriptions. Be sure what you are doing is defined as an appropriate function in your work setting.

I would encourage you to request a copy of your job description, and file it in your office where you can find it if you need it. If there isn’t a specific job description, spend your first semester or year at your job asking lots of questions and running things by your supervisor. You may want to take notes in those meetings and keep them as documentation in case you’re questioned about why you took a certain action. Document who told you what, and when.

9. Read and adhere to the ethical standards of your profession. Keep copies of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors on hand, review them periodically and act accordingly.

As boring and stodgy as this sounds, it’s really a good idea. If you have a copy of the current Ethical Standards, and someone asks you to do something unethical, you can pull out the written standards and point to your exact concern. If you need to justify a decision you’ve made, you can say, “Here’s the guideline I was following when I decided that.”

10. Consult with other professionals (colleagues, supervisors, counselor educators, professional association ethics committee, etc.) Have a readily accessible support network of professionals.

If you’re unsure about a decision or situation, even after consulting the Ethical Standards, consulting with another professional (or better yet, more than one) can help you make an informed decision. It also helps create a sense of team responsibility for the decision, even though you may hold the final responsibility.

11. Join appropriate professional associations. Read association publications and participate in professional development opportunities.

Again, while this may sound stodgy and boring, it’s a good way to keep up with changes, court cases, and helpful trends in school counseling or education as a whole. There are often discounts and other benefits of joining a professional association.

12. Stay up-to-date with laws and current court rulings, particularly those pertaining to counseling with minors.

Joining an association is a good way to do this. The periodic journals or newsletters will generally offer articles and updated information, and you’ll have easy, regular access.

13. Consult with a knowledgeable attorney, when necessary. In questionable cases, seek legal advice prior to initiating action.

Most districts, especially those in larger cities, will have an attorney hired by the district, and you’ll have access to that person if you’re subpoenaed for any reason or come across difficult custody cases, issues with special education law, or something else where ethics and the law meet in your job as a school counselor. You can usually meet with your school district’s attorney for free, and get some advice and input prior to court appearances.

Along with the previous tips, I would also recommend the following:


~ Seek out a mentor (or even better, two mentors), someone at your site or in your school district who’s open to you asking questions on an ongoing basis. Keep a running list of questions as they surface and ask them. And continue to ask them. And continue to ask them.

~ Create healthy and positive relationships with everyone you can – students, certified and classified staff, administrators, parents, local agencies, etc. If you invest the energy up front and have healthy relationships in place, you’ll have fewer challenges when ethical dilemmas do arise.

~ Get familiar with the neighborhood and community where your school is located. Ask your colleagues or supervisor what they believe it’s important for you to know as you work in your particular environment.

~ Get online and bookmark web pages that you’ll need later for reference. In Arizona, you might consider the following: Child Protective Services, The American School Counselor Association, the AZ State Legislature, the AZ Department of Education, and Community Information and Referral. All of these sites are resources for you to draw on when an ethical dilemma presents itself to you.

~ Find out what curriculum and materials are available (anything related to school counseling) at your school or district office, or whether you’re expected to find or create your own. Find out what your colleagues use, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

~ Find out exactly what your school or district expects of you in terms of documentation. If you know this ahead of time, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.


~ Don’t assume anything. Verify everything you can before you take action. The exception is when you need to make a CPS report, because CPS does the investigation. Otherwise, you can save yourself a lot of time and energy if you double check what you’ve been told.

~ Check for written policies and procedures on the issue at hand. Check with a colleague or your supervisor to see how similar issues are usually handled. Know your chain of command and follow those procedures in whatever way you’ve been instructed to do.

~ If you need more information, search for online resources and contact local agencies who may be able to help. Again, avoid reinventing the wheel. Whatever issue you are facing has almost certainly been faced before, and someone has created materials or steps to address it.

~ Be precise and thorough with your documentation when you encounter an ethical dilemma, particularly one that involves alleged abuse, pregnancy or other sexual issues, alcohol or drugs, custody, potential for school violence, harm or potential harm to self or others, or any situation where a parent is particularly angry or volatile.

~ Document times and dates of all conversations in these cases, recommendations you made, etc. Keep your documentation neutral in tone, but be specific. For instance, write, “The student said, ‘I don’t ever want to spend the night at my dad’s house again,’” instead of, “The student doesn’t want to live with his raging, abusive father.”

~ Don’t show your documentation to anyone. Even in court, you can read from your documentation instead of showing it to another person. Typically, once two people have seen any written documentation, it becomes public record and can be accessed by anyone. Follow your school’s guidelines, but keep this in mind.

~ If you don’t know what to do in any situation, talk with your mentors, colleagues, supervisors, and/or administrators before taking any action. Ask questions, and keep asking them.

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