Finding the Right Fit: A Look at Counselling Models at International Schools 

By Robbie Jefferiss
United World College South East Asia, Singapore

Counseling international students on university options is an increasingly complex and challenging role. The breadth and diversity of university choices continues to expand as a steady stream of new opportunities emerge; from new joint global ventures between established universities, to the ever expanding list of programs taught in English throughout Europe. The expertise and depth of knowledge needed to “master” multiple higher education systems, and provide advocacy and support for students and families is often more than a full time job. 

However, the diversity of options that stand before our students, is often matched by the diversity of ‘hats’ we wear at our schools. Depending on the size of your school, you may also be the social emotional counselor, a teacher, IB coordinator, assistant principal, registrar, house parent, homeroom advisor, coach, etc. etc. The breadth  of our experiences and the diversity of our schools is what makes working at international schools fascinating; no two schools or programs are alike. Similarly, the role of college counselor at your school may have emerged from various groundings. It may have grown organically from a teacher’s part time additional role, or perhaps from a British, American, or mixed international foundation, sometimes with various heads of school carrying their own perception of the role. A recent article published by Shaun McElroy in The International Educator has prompted discussions on Facebook and beyond, looking at the various models used at international schools.  So we decided to explore these in more depth with some insight from some experienced counselors who have worked in different models.

The “Comprehensive International School Counselor”

Perhaps one of the more common models, is the one most closely aligned with the American School Counselor model or adapted International School Counselor model, where the counselor takes on the social emotional, academic, and career/college counseling in one busy but holistic role. Following students from grade 9 through grade 12, handling issues big and small, and being the primary point person for all future planning, the counselor has the opportunity to create an ongoing relationship, shepherding students towards a life beyond secondary school that suits their trajectory.

The ‘Split Model’

At other schools, the role is split. The college counselor is dedicated full time solely to the task of college counseling, while the social emotional counseling is handled by another counselor dedicated to that purpose.  A dedicated college counselor may have the time and space to engage students in the process, build programming designed to help students explore their options, and also help students navigate the various systems to which they are applying. The college counselor may consult on, or provide feedback on issues of course choice, career exploration, or internships but remain primarily focused on guiding students towards university. However, the college counselor may be excluded from conversations at the school about the student's' trials and triumphs throughout their high school experience, all of which may be important to their university search and application.

The British, International, and  ‘other’ models 

Still other models exist and adaptations are also not uncommon.  In the traditional British model a Head of Sixth Form may take on the duties of working with students through their final two years to understand the career paths available and then see them through the UCAS process, perhaps supported by the student's tutor or subject teacher.  Smaller schools may adopt multi-tasking role of vice principal / careers advisor where the responsibilities may be pastoral, academic, and career orientated. IB or AP coordinators may also play the role of college counselor, following students through the two years of the IB. Certainly, it is not uncommon for a teacher to have the role of college counselor as an ‘additional duty’ above and beyond their regular role in the classroom.

In the last few years we’ve seen some larger international schools move from a comprehensive model to a ‘split model’. Are these changes driven by ‘market’ forces’ of parents demanding more attention to the university process? Are they driven by board members paying closer attention to the university outcomes, keenly aware of increasing competition in regional markets?  Or are these changes driven by a higher demand for social emotional counselling for stressed out teens, or greater specialisation for counselors working with learning disabilities and behavioral issues?

We asked some experienced counselors who have worked in various models their thoughts on the pros and cons of each. 

Jen Melton- International School of Bangkok

Having worked in 4 different international schools, all with some variation of the comprehensive counseling model, I've come to believe that there is no one perfect model. From a small school with 1-2 high school counselors, to a larger school with 4-6 counselors, every school (even within a city) can be quite different. In some schools, I've had students in my office constantly while at other schools I've had to drag students in to see me. The culture of the school and the host nation play a large role in how counselors are used and accessed.

ISB has been especially committed in the last couple of years to developing a Culture of Care, influenced by the growing research on social and emotional learning. Teachers are also taking a larger role in the day to day lives of students through an advisory program.

Many factors go into what counseling model best serves the needs of students. How do current students access and view the counseling department? Are the needs of all students being met? What are the needs and expectations of parents? What is the focus of the school community? What would enhanced services look like?

In a comprehensive model, what does a high school counselor do when a teacher shows up with a student in obvious distress and at the same time they have back-to-back meetings with parents who have taken the day off of work to meet regarding planning for the college process? At what frequency do events like this happen? Do 9th and 10th grade students feel they can access their counselor during the first semester when the college application season dominates? In a larger school with multiple comprehensive counselors, how is continuity of care determined with a large staff?

During the 2013/14 school year, an additional counseling position was added at ISB to focus solely on the needs of 9th grade students. As a result, students were presented with a far better program in their transition to high school throughout the entire year. ISB will be adjusting again and moving to a separate College Counseling and School Counseling model in August 2017. Counselors have had over a year to plan for this change, interviewing international schools with separate models, meeting with administrators to discuss parameters, hiring a consultant to identify needs of students and parents, visiting some independent schools in the US with separate models, and planning meetings as a department. The decision to change was not one made by counselors and there were concerns over the implementation of the new model. While all ISB HS Counselors are US comprehensively trained "School Counselors", we've been able to have some thoughtful conversations as we prepare to change to a model we haven't worked in before. Our colleagues at other international schools with more of a British model feel their system works too. It's been a year of very interesting dialogue.

Not every school has as many resources, staffing, etc. as a school like ISB. But taking the time to assess the needs and wants of a community and identifying what is working well and what needs adjustment, is best practice.  A key commitment we've made is that both School Counselors and College Counselors will be in the same physical space (this change in model coincides with a major office remodel) and will meet as a team at least once per month. Students in 11th and 12th grades will now have 2 counselors (1 School and 1 College). And students in grades 9 and 10 will now have access to a counselor who won't have a first semester dominated by the college application process. If an 11th or 12th grader feels more comfortable talking to their College Counselor about stress, managing parental expectations, etc., College Counselors will support them. But if a student is fearful of talking to their College Counselor about personal issues (a fear that some in our school community have expressed), then they have access to a School Counselor. Our hope is that access to services for students only increases and that we remove any barriers to provide quality School Counseling and College Counseling to the entire ISB community.

Those of us who will be College Counselors wonder if they'll know students as well as they do now. School Counselors will probably miss out on some of the excitement and anticipation of the college planning process, but not the stress of letter writing season. We haven't been in this model yet, so the realities and possibilities are still ahead of us.  After almost a year of researching and planning, we're looking forward to the journey next school year.


 Peter Loy - American School of the Hague

For a long time, I have been of the opinion that being a school counselor is to have the best job in the school. We deal with the hopes, fears, plans, dreams, and difficulties that one faces in life, and we work, not only with students, but with parents and colleagues, and those in the community as well. Different schools use different models to support students, ranging from having no counselor at all to those who specialize. Is there a “right” model? I don’t think it’s a question of “one model fits all” but rather what works well – or even best - for a specific school community, perhaps even in a specific time.

When I came to my current school twenty years ago, there was a full-time high school counselor for personal counseling (only). I, as the new person, was responsible for the college and university guidance. We were officially split 9/10 for my colleague (with personal counseling 9-12) and 11/12 for the college counselor (working with 9-12 on university guidance). That model worked for the years my colleague and I were together in the office for two reasons – although I enjoyed the personal counseling, he was far better than I in that area. Moreover, he had no interest in college counseling. But together our skill sets complimented each other – and lead to the creation of our school-wide transitions program. What complicated the division of labor at first – and later enhanced it for a while –were the other professional hats that I was also asked to wear. For the first two years, I was also the Dean of Students, as well as guidance counselor. Not surprisingly, the combination of the role of disciplinarian with that of counselor did not work well and could not last. When another colleague took over the Dean’s position, I was then given the position of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Coordinator. At that time, where our programs were smaller and the numbers of students more manageable, the roles dovetailed beautifully. However, when our programs blossomed and our numbers increased dramatically, the workload became overwhelming. So the IB/AP Coordinator went to another colleague as a full-time position with an administrative assistant. So of course, I ended up becoming the Interim High School Principal to cover the principal’s maternity leave – while still maintaining my position of Director of University Guidance! Thank goodness it was only for one semester.

With personnel changes, we recognized the opportunity to move from a Split (9/10 and 11/12) model to a Comprehensive model where we now have 2.6 FTE in the high school guidance office, and have split the alphabet for grades 9-12. We each cover all the aspects of guidance: college/university, career, academic, and personal/social/emotional. With this model we work as a team rather than as specialists, and share ideas in meetings, over lunch, and across the doorways. Our presentations to students and parents are team efforts, and, we have better coverage in case of temporary absence. When someone eventually leaves, there is better continuity in the office across the grade levels. Also, as is the intent of this model, we are able to work with students throughout their high school years at our school. The intent, therefore, is to have a model that is more sustainable for the office/school, as well as beneficial to the students.

My feeling is that different models will work in different schools – and different models may also work in the same school at different times. The key is the quality of the counselors and how well they work together and for the students they serve. If the school gets good counselors on team, the model that is “best” will evolve.


What fits?

Which model is best for your school and for your students? There may not be one right or wrong model and in most cases, we would agree that it depends on your student body, the parent population, the culture in which you work, and the expectations of your head of school or board. Seemingly, at the core of each office, no matter which model is being used, is the desire to support students in all areas of their development, reinforcing the idea that collaboration among stakeholders is essential.  


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