Grade Level Differences

One common question people ask when they're considering school counseling as a profession is how the job differs at different grade levels.

This is an overview, and the accuracy of this information will vary by location, including variations in individual schools within the same district. When you're interviewing for a school counseling position, please ask lots of specific questions so you can get a sense of what you will be dealing with at your particular school.

Elementary (Usually K-6 or K-8)

In most cases, you'll be seeing kids with “real” issues, meaning abuse, grief and loss, severe family issues, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and other deep issues, along with the more day-to-day issues of gossip, arguments with friends, difficulties with teachers, etc.

If your school is in a lower socioeconomic area, you may hear graphic stories about relatives in jail, no electricity or refrigerator, etc. If your school is in a higher socioeconomic area, you may see many kids who are on medication, in denial, unaware of feelings, and you may need to deal diplomatically with an occasional set of parents who bring their attorney to a school conference.

At this level, you will often be the only counselor serving an entire school, or more than one school. In this case, please seek out a supportive administrator and/or a district mentor, and don’t forget to connect with your school nurse.

One great thing about working with elementary students is that you will often have plenty of autonomy, and be able to schedule your own day, especially if you're the only counselor. If you enjoy working with younger students, and you want to be creative and chart your own course, this may be the place for you.

Middle School/Junior High (Usually Grades 7-8 or 6-8)

See all of the topics listed under Elementary Level, and add in the issues of wildly fluctuating hormones, middle school drama, boyfriend/girlfriend and sexual issues, body image issues, and increasing numbers of students who are dealing with self-injury and experimenting with various substances.

You may still be the only counselor at the school, or you may serve one grade level, depending on the number of students at your school.

One of the great things about working with middle school students is the ability to connect and be present for them during this important phase of their lives. Middle school students are often mature enough for some sophisticated conversation and great ideas, and still youthful enough to be enthusiastic and fun.

High School (Grades 9-12 or 10-12)

At the high school level, you will most likely be doing significantly more academic guidance than personal counseling, although this depends on the specific school and district. You may be the lone counselor in a smaller school, but if you’re in a large city, you will more likely be one of several guidance counselors in a bigger school.

Your students will be dealing with all of the same issues as the younger students, but your focus may be more on scheduling, career exploration, college information, and other more academic topics. If you enjoy the personal counseling aspect of the job, I would encourage you to ask the person you interview with how much personal counseling can be done, and in what forms (individual, groups, classroom presentations, etc.).

One of the great things about working with high school students is getting to be pro-active and helping them prepare for life after high school. If you like to look ahead and help students work toward their dreams, this may be the place for you.

Community College

At this level you will deal with adults of all ages and from all backgrounds. If you are an academic advisor, you will deal with scheduling, graduation plans, and possibly career and scholarship information (some schools have specific career specialists).

If you are a counselor, you will deal with many of the same personal issues that students of all ages are dealing with, plus students’ legal and financial difficulties, marital stresses, adults transitioning back into the classroom, child care questions, and a variety of other difficulties that surface in daily life.

On a community college campus, you will be one of several counselors, and will generally see students for only a few sessions before referring them to appropriate community agencies. Also, as a community college counselor, you will most likely do a combination of in-office counseling and classroom teaching of personal growth classes such as assertiveness training, communication skills, etc.

One of the great things about working with community college students is that because they are over 18, you rarely have to call parents or authorities about anything. This leaves you freer to have open conversations about real life issues, and to help fine tune students' plans for the future.

Each level of school counseling has its pros and cons, but if you're interested in the profession, there's room for a wide variety of skills and interests on the counselor's part. My strongest encouragement to you is to work with the students you enjoy most. They can tell when you understand and enjoy them, and it's a win-win situation.

Go to the next page, "Questions to Ask in an Interview."

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