A career as a school counsellor can be incredibly rewarding. If you’re a strong communicator and empathetic listener who instinctively makes people feel comfortable, working as a counsellor in a school setting could be a perfect fit for your skills.
School counsellors – also known as student counsellors – make a lasting positive impact on the next generation by improving students’ emotional and mental wellbeing. Working alongside students to help them overcome developmental, personal and social difficulties, counsellors empower those they work with to navigate challenges and reach their potential.
If you’re passionate about making a tangible difference in young people’s lives, a career as a school counsellor could be for you.
What does a school counsellor do?
School counsellors work with young people of all ages - from kindergarten to high school. They support students to achieve academic success, psychological health and social and emotional wellbeing via psychological counselling, assessment and partnering with specialist intervention services as required.
As a school counsellor, your duties may include:
- Conducting counselling interviews with students to assist with academic, social or emotional problems
- Helping students process their problems, set goals and take action
- Acting as a mediator for interpersonal conflicts
- Helping parents and teachers navigate the learning and behaviour of students
- Discussing the potential for behaviour and attitude change
- Reviewing learning environments to identify areas of improvement, supported by education professionals
- Developing school policies to support student wellbeing
Separate from their work with students, school counsellors collaborate with teachers, families, school leadership teams and other learning and mental health providers to create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments. In this role, they use their expertise to build a school’s capability to promote wellbeing and identify mental health concerns.
What qualifications do school counsellors need?
In Australia, a trained counsellor has usually studied counselling, psychotherapy, psychology or social work at university for 3 to 6 years. Some counsellors may hold a vocational education and training (VET) qualification from a TAFE or RTO.
Although there’s no law that requires someone providing a counselling service to have qualifications or experience, this is expected to change. The 2023 Federal Budget allocated $300,000 to develop a baseline for qualifications, supervision, professional development and oversight of counsellors and psychotherapists.
Today, most Australian school counsellors have completed an undergraduate degree such as a Bachelor of Psychology or Bachelor of Counselling. They also belong to one of the peak bodies for Australian counsellors - the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) or the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA). Both organisations have minimum standards regarding qualifications and experience that members must meet to join.
How to become a school counsellor
Each Australian state and territory has its own eligibility requirements for those wanting to become school counsellors. However, some common steps include:
1. Get qualified
Undertaking a Graduate Diploma in Counselling is a good first step to give you a feel for the profession. It is also an excellent pathway to a Master of Counselling if you choose to continue your studies.
2. Register with your state’s teaching board
Each Australian state and territory has its own teaching board that governs the entry requirements for school counsellors. Some that are common across most states include:
- you’re an Australian or New Zealand citizen (or holding a working visa)
- you hold a teaching degree from a nationally accredited university
- you have a Working with Children Check
- you have a national police check.
For more information about registering with the teaching board in your state, follow the links below:
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- Northern Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
Most of these websites will also include links to current job opportunities for school counsellors in that state.
3. Join a professional association for counsellors
The Australian Counselling Association (ACA) and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) are the two leading professional associations for counsellors. Both organisations provide members with valuable information about the profession and opportunities for professional and career development, allowing you to build your skills surrounded by like-minded counsellors and psychologists.
4. Express your interest
Get in touch with the department of education in your state for further information about local opportunities to become a school counsellor. Some states provide accelerated pathways for specific groups – for example, the NSW Department of Education offers several scholarship and sponsorship programs for those looking to join the profession.
Why is counselling in schools important?
Research has shown that half of all mental health problems we might experience at some point in our lives will have started before age 14, with 75 per cent of issues beginning before age 25. These sobering statistics drive home the importance of school counselling in supporting student mental health and wellbeing.
Building a relationship with a trusted counsellor can profoundly impact a student’s life – both during their time at school and into the future. The knowledge school counsellors impart can help students through difficult times while building resilience and giving them the tools to manage similar challenges throughout their lives.
Counsellors will often take the lead in creating whole-school prevention programs to reduce risk factors that lead to poor mental health. These wellbeing programs might focus on bullying, alcohol and drug education, eating disorders, safe use of social media and more.
This is especially important because young people are less likely than other age groups to seek professional help for mental health challenges. Compounding this situation, across Australia, thousands of people needing mental health support are facing wait lists of more than six months to secure an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist. This means that schools play an increasingly important role in identifying youth mental health concerns, providing appropriate support and referring students to specialist providers as required.
In addition, the pandemic had a significant negative impact on students. School closures, remote learning, cancelled milestone events and social isolation left many children and young people feeling fearful and uncertain about the future. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were substantially elevated in individuals with no pre-existing mental health conditions during 2020-21. Victorian hospitals recorded increased mental health issues in children, including a 90 per cent increase in children with eating disorders, a 10 per cent increase in kids with anxiety and a 12.3 per cent rise in self-harm in 2020 compared to the previous year.
As students have returned to school post lockdowns, school counsellors continue to play an important role for conditions that may have emerged in the pandemic.
Is becoming a school counsellor right for me?
Are you the right fit for the role of school counsellor? Good counsellors can vary in many ways, but some of the attributes they tend to share include:
- Empathy: Good counsellors have honed the ability to listen and respond thoughtfully and compassionately to a range of student issues. They help students deal with everything from academic difficulties to bullying, friendship challenges, family problems and more and have perfected the art of listening and guiding without judgement.
- Communication: If you’re the person friends and family turn to when they’re having a tough time, you probably already have the foundational communication skills you’ll need to work well with students. To connect and build trust with children and young adults, you’ll need sincerity, patience and a sense of humour.
- Leadership skills: As a school counsellor, you must be collaborative and able to smoothly take control of emotional and sometimes traumatic situations. When working with students’ families and school leadership, you must be comfortable advocating for the young people you work with, which may require you to be assertive and even respectfully forceful at times.
- Resilience: As with any type of counselling role, you may be exposed to challenging and upsetting scenarios as a school counsellor. The ability to protect and maintain your own wellbeing while supporting students through crises is a crucial personal characteristic.counsellor
If you have the right skills and passion for the role, you can find a rewarding career in this profession. Some unique benefits of being a school counsellor include:
- Making a difference to children. Working as a school counsellor will see you providing emotional and practical support to help students succeed at school and beyond. It’s a truly unique opportunity to have a tangible impact on young people’s lives.
- Flexibility: Around 50 per cent of school counsellor roles are part-time, giving you the flexibility to choose your own schedule around other commitments.
- Job security: With many students facing behavioural and mental health challenges unable to access support from a psychologist or psychiatrist due to unprecedented demand, schools are strengthening their mental health support structures by hiring more counsellors.
- Work/life balance: School counsellors typically only work during school hours, meaning no night or weekend work. They also have the same holidays as their students.
Kickstart your counselling career with the University of Canberra
Many school counsellors come to the profession as a second (or even third) career – often from another caring profession such as teaching or nursing. If you already hold an undergraduate degree, a Master of Counselling will give you a broad range of career opportunities.
The University of Canberra offers a range of counselling courses online, allowing you to become qualified in as little as eight months:
- Graduate Certificate in Counselling: a introduction to the foundational skills to practise respectful and inclusive counselling.
- Graduate Diploma in Counselling: this qualification extends and expands learners’ counselling skills with practical, in-personal experience, support and feedback from academics.
- Master of Counselling: an postgraduate course comprising research-led content delivered via supported and interactive teaching. The Master of Counselling sees students work closely with clinical supervisors while undertaking placement units that encourage experiential learning.
Guide the way with University of Canberra's online Master of Counselling. Call 1300 471 770 to speak with a Student Enrolment Adviser, or download a brochure from our website.