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How to Become a School Counselor

There are several core requirements for those aiming to become school counselors. They include earning a master’s degree in school counseling, completing two years of supervised internship experience in schools, and passing a state board licensing exam. Many states have provisions that count teaching experience toward the internship requirements, and four states require licensed school counselors to also hold a teaching certificate.

What is School Counseling?

School counselors are trained and licensed by the state to work in schools, offering various types of counseling services to children, adolescents, and young adults. Their primary mission is to help young people succeed academically, and to assist students in overcoming social and behavioral impediments to their personal development. Because schools are their main work environment, school counselors learn about the educational system, study theories of teaching, and receive training in the ethical practice of psychotherapy. This requires a specialized curriculum that combines traditional courses in education and counseling with on-site work experience in schools.

How to Become a Licensed School Counselor

The standard path to becoming a school counselor involves completing a master’s in school counseling program, followed by two-years (roughly 3,000 hours) of supervised work experience in the public school system. Most states then require school counselors to pass an exam before formal licensure. However, it is important to note that formal licensure in school counseling may only be necessary for those who work in the public school system. School counselors who work at private K-12 schools, and at private colleges and universities may only be required to be licensed professional counselors (LPCs) or licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCCs) depending on the job requirements and the regulations in that state.

While there are several paths to becoming a school counselor, they all begin with earning a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university. An undergraduate degree in education is not necessary, although majoring in education, counseling, psychology, or a related area of study may be helpful. The most direct route from a bachelor’s degree to a career in school counseling is a master’s in school counseling program. These programs are designed to prepare students for eventual licensure through courses in the core subject areas and proficiencies that states require for school counselor education.

Master’s in school counseling programs, which are often housed in schools and departments of education, typically follow curricular guidelines outlined by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and/or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), two organizations that offer voluntary accreditation to school counseling programs. Both organizations require that accredited master’s in school counseling programs include a practicum and/or internship, which may help students begin the process of accumulating supervised work hours for licensure.

Most states have a provision that allows licensed teachers who have completed a master’s in counseling program, even if it is not a master’s in school counseling program, to apply for licensure in school counseling. Typically, professional counselors who have met state requirements to become an LPC can work as school counselors at private institutions. That work experience may also count toward formal licensure as a school counselor, depending on the state. Students should note that four states (Arizona, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Rhode Island) require public school counselors to hold a teaching certificate/license as well.

Steps to Becoming a Licensed School Counselor

  1. Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program at a regionally accredited college/university.
  2. Take introductory undergraduate courses in education, psychology, and/or counseling.
  3. Research the licensing requirements in the state in which you intend to seek licensure.
  4. Obtain a teaching certificate if your state requires it and you wish to work in public schools.
  5. Earn a master’s degree in school counseling, or complete a master’s in counseling program that includes a practicum and/or internship in a school setting.
  6. Apply for provisional/conditional/temporary licensure as a school counselor in the states that have or require this option.
  7. Complete two years of supervised work experience in a school setting.
  8. Pass the state licensing exam for school counselors, and submit a criminal background check in the states that require one.

School Counseling Internships and Practicums

Master’s program practicums and internships are an integral part of formal training in school counseling. States like Alabama, for example, require a practicum to be part of master’s in school counseling program. Even in states without such a requirement, master’s in school counseling programs typically include a practicum and internship component totaling 600-700 hours of in-the-field experience. However, internship requirements vary significantly by state, especially for master’s in school counseling program graduates who already have some teaching experience. Some states, for example, may require a certain number of post-graduate hours working with gifted or special-needs students. Others may mandate that a proportion of the supervised work experience be spent with specific grade levels.

Most states have some form of exemption for licensed teachers who have worked for at least a year in the public school system. For example, Connecticut offers two options: the completion of 30 months of teaching, or a full-time, ten-month supervised school counseling internship. While there is a fair amount of variance in these work-study requirements, the National Board for Certified Counselors, which offers National Certified School Counselor certifications and provides testing services to some states, recommends 3,000 hours, or two years of internship experience.

Additional Licensing Requirements for School Counselors

Most states require school counselors to pass an exam before formal licensure. Three of the common school counseling exams are the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators exam; the Praxis School Guidance and Counseling test; and the PLACE Examination: School Counseling and Guidance Specialty. Some states, like Georgia, have their own exam. Other states, like Alaska, do not require an exam. As part of the licensure process, many states require school counselors to undergo a formal criminal background check. Once these requirements are fulfilled, school counselors are licensed to practice in that state, which may also make them eligible for licensure in other states that have reciprocity agreements.

Elementary School and High School/Secondary School Counseling

In most states, the education, training, and licensure requirements for school counselors do not vary by grade level. Clinical counselors who attain licensure in school counseling are generally eligible to provide counseling services to students in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12). Thus, the process for becoming an elementary school counselor is essentially the same as the process for becoming a high school or secondary school counselor in most states and vice versa, as are the basic requirements for licensure. In fact, there are currently only five states – Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Pennsylvania – that have separate certifications for elementary and secondary school counselors.

Counselors who work with elementary school children are typically certified for kindergarten through 6th or 7th grade, while secondary school counselors are certified for 6th, 7th, or 8th through 12th grade. The primary difference in training for elementary school counselors versus secondary school counselors involves internship hours, which are typically spent training with students in either elementary schools or secondary schools.

For more information on state policies regarding school counseling, refer to the American Counseling Association’s Guide to State Laws and Regulations on Professional School Counseling.

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