The School Counselor and the Principal: Keys to Successful Collaboration

image by Mary Franz

by Nathaniel Greene and Paula Stewart

The school counselor and the principal hold prominent positions within the school organization. While the principal is viewed as the primary administrator, the school counselor is often viewed as part of the administrative or leadership team. They both focus their efforts on securing a safe and appropriate education for all students; however, their perspectives regarding decision-making and approaches to problem solving can vary widely. While the principal tends to take a wider, organizational focus when approaching a decision, the school counselor approaches decisions based on individual students or small groups. Given their often close working relationship and shared instructional goals, it is natural that the principal and the school counselor would have a strong desire and mutual interest in working towards the development of a collaborative relationship.

Given their often close working relationship and shared instructional goals, it is natural that the principal and the school counselor would have a strong desire and mutual interest in working towards the development of a collaborative relationship.

In practice, this can be much harder than it appears. The different paradigms from which each operates can create a gap in understanding between principal and counselor. This is particularly true regarding issues of student confidentiality (Kimber & Campbell, 2014). Additionally, mounting responsibilities and shrinking budgets often cause principals to assign to school counselors clerical and administrative duties that inhibit their ability to provide regular counseling services (Dahir, Burnham, Stone, & Cobb, 2010). This misuse of the counselor’s time has the potential to further widen any gap that exists between the school counselor and the principal. Instead, what is necessary is a shared understanding of the specific roles and responsibilities of each position and the development of a collaborative ethical and decision-making model that allows the principal and the school counselor to combine their unique perspectives as they face school challenges. In this article, we explore the individual roles of both the school counselor and the principal, identify potential problems that can occur in their professional relationship, describe the positive benefits of a collaborative relationship, and, finally, discuss six key factors necessary to construct a successful collaborative relationship.

The Role of the School Counselor

The school counselor’s role, according to Dahir et al. (2010), is to provide services to students that will ensure students at all levels “achieve the maximum benefit from the school experience” (p. 288). Huey (1987) points out that school counselors have to meet the needs of many different stakeholders, including students, parents, community members, teachers, and administrators. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model prescribes school counseling programs that are data driven, promote and enhance learning for all students, and are based on academic, career, and personal/social development standards (American School Counselor Association, 2012). According to the ASCA, to be effective a school counselor must collaborate with administrators, teachers and staff, families, and the community. Although collaboration is crucial for the school counselor, isolation in the role of the school counselor is common, especially at the elementary level, or in rural areas where there may be only one counselor in the school (Bardhoshi & Duncan, 2009).

The ASCA National Model outlines four components of a comprehensive school counseling program: foundation, management, delivery, and accountability. “Foundation” refers to the counselor’s establishment of a comprehensive school counseling program in his or her school based on the ASCA National Model and the school’s needs and priorities, focused on student outcomes, and developed in consultation with building administrators. “Management” involves the use of data to establish priorities and demonstrate efficacy. “Delivery” is the most visible aspect of the school counselor’s role. It involves both direct and indirect services to students, including individual student planning, responsive service, implementation of school-wide guidance curriculum, collaboration with other educators and families, and referrals. “Accountability” is the assessment of the school counseling program in order to determine its impact on student outcomes. Within the National Model, the ASCA clearly defines the activities that are appropriate for school counselors to carry out in schools.

Janson, Militello, and Kosine (2008) suggest that the role of the professional school counselor must include leadership, advocacy, and systemic change. The school counselor is in a unique position to provide connections among students’ teachers and between teachers and administrators, and to join home and school in order to maximize student success (Dahir et al., 2010). School counselors use this position to proactively plan for school-wide and individual student needs.

The Role of the School Principal

The last several decades have been witness to a shifting landscape in the world of educational administration, specifically with regard to the role of the school principal. A general trend towards decentralization in decision-making and school-based management has placed a greater emphasis on the principal’s responsibilities (Friedman, 2002). What was once viewed as a managerial position has expanded to encompass far more than simply organizational management. School principals today are expected to fill the role of the transformational leader, using leadership skills to inspire their followers to move beyond motives of self-interest. Leithwood and Jantzi (2000) note six specific dimensions associated with this role: building school vision and goals; providing intellectual stimulation; offering individualized support; symbolizing professional practices and values; demonstrating high-performance expectations; and developing structures to foster participation in school decisions (p. 113). The authors point out that the principal must continue to fulfill the managerial functions associated with staffing, instructional support, and the monitoring of school activities.

A general trend towards decentralization in decision-making and school-based management has placed a greater emphasis on the principal’s responsibilities (Friedman, 2002).

The role of the principal and its associated responsibilities thus can be conceptualized as three categories or “hats” worn by the principal. The first is that of professional educator (or instructional leader). It is in this capacity that the principal must direct the overall instructional mission and goals of the school organization. This is accomplished by modeling appropriate instructional practices and behaviors, completing regular staff observations and reviews, and providing time and resources for effective professional development. The second hat worn by the principal is that of charismatic leader. In this capacity, the principal works to engage the whole school organization with a collective mission and vision that focuses on elements of performance, achievement, and community. This can be accomplished through the modeling of positive leadership skills and the application of collective decision-making via distributive leadership practices. The final hat worn by the principal is that of organizational manager. In this capacity, the principal ensures the provision of a safe environment for all stakeholders, oversees financial aspects, implements and directs policy, and manages minor and major crises as they occur.

Is There a Problem?

The role of the professional school counselor has been hampered by unclear definition and a lack of clear identity over the last several decades. In addition, societal issues, education reform, and ever-changing student needs have contributed to confusion as to the appropriate roles and responsibilities of school counselors in schools (Bardhoshi & Duncan, 2009). School counselors, referred to in the past as “guidance counselors,” have historically been associated with high schools, providing college counseling and scheduling services to students, with other duties determined by building principals (Dahir et al., 2010). Professional school counselors and the ASCA have focused in recent years on more clearly defining the school counselor’s role, moving beyond the traditionally defined guidance counselor to an educational professional who provides comprehensive school counseling services for students K–12.

While school counselors frequently work directly with individual students via the counseling services they provide, the principal rarely has the same opportunity to interact one-on-one with students. The sheer size and scope of the principal’s role can be characterized by a sense of overwhelming responsibility, informational perplexity, and emotional anxiety (Whitaker, 1999). Additionally, principals occupy a highly visible role within the school and associated community, giving rise to external assumptions and expectations of professional and personal behavior. School administrators have described their role as a “fishbowl existence,” in which everything they do is scrutinized by the public (Fowler, 1991; Howard & Mallory, 2008). Their highly visible position can result in a lost sense of self-identity (Daresh & Male, 2000) and has led some administrators to describe feelings of isolation and loneliness, even when surrounded by other people (Jones, 1994). The stress associated with the role of the principal can lead to burnout (Friedman, 2002) and may be one explanation for high principal turnover.

Given the sometimes vague and/or unclear role expectations districts have for school counselors and the overwhelming role responsibilities and budget constraints that can accompany the position of the principal, it is no wonder many school principals have turned to school counselors to perform a host of non-counseling duties. Unfortunately, the assignment of clerical and administrative work, particularly regarding the scheduling processes and standardized test administration, to school counselors inhibits actual counseling duties (Dahir et al., 2010; Zalaquett, 2005/2012). Additionally, principals and school counselors can find themselves at odds over issues of confidentiality (Kimber & Campbell, 2014). The perspective of the school counselor is often focused on the needs of individual students, while the principal tends to take a much wider, organizational perspective of the school. Given their individualized, student-centered perspectives, school counselors are more likely to place a higher priority on student confidentiality than are principals, who may view confidentiality as a barrier to the school community’s safety. A 2010 study of the relationships revealed the need to strengthen the relationships between school counselors and principals (Dahir et al., 2010). Building an effective and successful collaborative relationship between school counselors and principals may do much to alleviate the problems faced by both of these educational professionals.

The Benefits of Collaboration between Principals and Counselors

Research over the past decade has shown specific benefits can be realized through an effective collaborative relationship between school counselors and principals. By working closely together, both the school counselor and the principal can gain a better understanding of the other’s perspective regarding the mission and vision of the school. In particular, a collaborative relationship can provide the principal with insight into the nature and appropriate responsibilities of the school counselor. Working closely together, it may be possible to find solutions that enable principals to remove clerical and administrative duties currently performed by school counselors, allowing them to focus more of their time on counseling-related tasks.

School counselors would also be able to lend their unique perspective to the principal, offering particular insight into alleviating the professional challenges faced by the school organization. As Niebuhr, Niebuhr, & Cleveland (1999) pointed out, principals and counselors bring very different perspectives to situations, and a collaborative relationship would allow these two professionals to create novel solutions to problems facing both the school organization and smaller groups of students. This collaborative model would enable the principal and counselor to recognize the ethical and professional responsibilities of their respective positions (Kimber & Campbell, 2014; Williams & Wehrman 2010).

The strength of a collaborative relationship goes beyond benefits for the principal and the counselor, with real, tangible benefits for the organization as a whole. In their 2010 study, Dahir et al. found that collaboration between principals and school counselors resulted in more effective delivery of services. A collaborative relationship between the principal and the school counselor can bring meaningful and effective change to several areas, including the development of the school mission and vision, the encouragement of high aspirations in and for students, the development of course enrollment patterns that encourage greater student equity, the reliance on appropriate data sources and data analysis, and the professional development of staff (Stone & Clark, 2001). Ultimately, a collaborative relationship between principal and counselor can bring greater understanding of their individual roles and perspectives, develop new insights when facing organizational challenges, and provide tangible benefits that can further the success of the school organization and its various stakeholders.

The Key Factors to Successful Collaboration

Developing a successful collaborative relationship takes effort and hard work from both the school counselor and the principal. The following six key factors have been gathered together to form a model for building a successful collaborative relationship that can benefit both the school counselor and the principal:

  1. An understanding of and respect for the professional roles and ethical responsibilities that accompany each position. By working to develop an understanding of the other person’s unique position within the school, both the school counselor and the principal can approach the decision-making process with a shared understanding built from the unique perspectives and paradigms that accompany their respective roles. By working together to collaboratively solve problems, the principal can draw from the school counselor’s individualized, student-centered perspective, while the counselor is able to draw from the principal’s larger, organizational perspective. By giving each of these perspectives a voice in the decision-making process, it is more likely that problems and challenges will be attacked with the most appropriate solution for all stakeholders involved.
  2. Principals’ knowledge about the ASCA National Model and how it guides the day-to-day work of counselors in schools. School counselors must be able to advocate for their role and profession with their principal. According to Leuwerke, Walker, and Shi (2009), half the principals in their study had no exposure to the ASCA National Model. The study showed that when principals were familiar with the ASCA National Model, the amount of a school counselor’s time used for appropriate school counseling activities increased. School counselors need to take the time to educate their principals about the ASCA National Model, work with the principal to align the school counseling program with school improvement goals, and negotiate appropriate responsibilities and duties.
  3. Time and resource allocation for school counseling professional development. According to Kimber and Campbell (2014), a gap exists between what school counselors are expected to do in many schools and how the ASCA defines the role of the school counselor. This is due in part to the pressure principals may be under from increasing student needs and decreasing budgets. Although schools will not likely be able to entirely avoid budget and schedule issues that impact school counseling programs, the effectiveness of school counselors is, at least in part, determined by the administration’s support (Chata & Loesch, 2007). School counselors need to advocate for the time and resources they need to be able to provide student-focused and system-wide services. Counselors should work with principals to reduce the number of duties they are required to do that are not consistent with the ASCA National Model (such as clerical tasks and test administration).
  4. Development of a shared school mission and vision that use data-driven action research to ensure high standards and equity for all students. As part of the school leadership team, school counselors work with administrators to define and refine the school’s vision, mission, and goals (Janson et al., 2008). An effective school counseling program is aligned with the school’s mission and goals for school improvement and has been developed with the support and input of the principal. Effective school counselors use both formal and informal sources of data to inform their efforts to promote student success (Dahir et al., 2010). In schools where a strong collaborative relationship exists between the principal and the school counselor, both share important information on a regular basis and utilize data to inform decision-making (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009).
  5. Positive support for appropriate and effective school counseling and guidance programs. One of the key factors to making a collaborative relationship work is the feeling of mutual support for one another. The school counselor can demonstrate support for the principal by supporting the various decisions that the principal makes. However, beyond providing their input and working collaboratively with the principal, school counselors have no direct control over the principal’s position within the school hierarchy. On the other hand, as the primary administrator, the principal often does have direct control over the position of the school counselor. Thus, showing support for the school counselor means more than just lending support to the decisions the school counselor makes. To fully provide support for the school counselor’s position, the principal must be willing to support effective school counseling and guidance programs (Vaught, 1995) and lend support to the mission of counseling within the school organization. Through collaboration, the principal and the school counselor can work together to find the most appropriate and effective ways to provide and support counseling services that benefit all students.
  6. Clear, identified pathways for frequent communication between the principal and the school counselor that allow for trust and collaboration. One of the most important keys to any collaborative relationship is communication. The principal’s support of the school counselor and his or her role within the school is critical, but in order to make it work there must be frequent opportunities for trust and communication (Ponec & Brock, 2000). This could mean setting up timely check-ins with one another, ensuring that a significant amount of time does not pass without communicating. It also means building up a level of trust within their communication so that both the principal and the school counselor feel they can speak honestly and professionally with one another. A high level of trust can benefit both parties. Through communication, the principal is able to speak openly with the school counselor about challenges that are facing the school, thereby eliciting a new perspective on how to approach novel solutions. For school counselors, developing open and honest communication can help them to speak directly with principals regarding necessary counseling services for the student population and the required resources, time, and support for providing the services. Finally, open and honest communication built on trust can help both professionals deal with the ethical boundaries surrounding student confidentiality. This can provide solid ground for the school counselor to explain what types of information can and cannot be shared and provide a basis for the principal to trust that the school counselor will share necessary information when the immediate safety of students or the school organization is at risk. Ultimately, by developing mutual trust in one another through open and honest communication, both the school counselor and the principal can learn to rely on one another through their shared goals for student success and equity.


Principals and school counselors have much in common. Both roles require advanced training, extensive internships, and a background in education (Dahir et al., 2010). While principals and counselors both serve the whole school population, principals tend to focus on system-wide issues, and counselors on the welfare of individual students (Kimber & Campbell, 2014). With improved communication, increased understanding of mutual roles and responsibilities, and strengthened trust and respect, principals and professional school counselors can collaborate in ways that reduce stress while improving school climate and increasing student achievement.

Nathaniel Greene is a science teacher at The Founders Academy and an educational leadership doctoral candidate at Southern New Hampshire University. Paula Stewart is an adjunct faculty member in School Counseling at Keene State College.


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