6 Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Have a child heading into high school soon? Here are 6 pieces of sound advice from a guidance counselor at one of the top high public schools in the country — who happens to be my sister-in-law, Liz Stanley. I shared this first in 2008, back when my Liz was working at a high school on the East Coast, and before my kids were old enough for high school, or even middle school. Now that I have some solid experience with kids in high school, I can confirm how good these tips are.

Here’s what Liz says:

I just had my first child almost 3 months ago and love being a mother and being with my baby. I’m grateful for this time away from work so we can bond.

Before the baby, I was working as a high school counselor, and coaching the girls lacrosse team, in a really good New Jersey school for the last three years. I miss it a lot. One thing I love about my job as a guidance counselor is the ability in my position to see and understand the school district as a whole. I’ve been able to appreciate this more and more as I’ve realized how this information can serve me when my own kids are in high school. I know some of you don’t have teens yet (obviously, neither do I) but here are my “notes to self” — just in you want to file them away.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Get involved in the school in some capacity.

Duh, right? But really, make it a priority, and it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. It can be as simple as joining an advisory board or attending PTA meetings on a regular basis. Your voice is important. It’s your child’s education for goodness sake.

Having a good relationship with the counselor is a big advantage.

I recognize that if I was a gym teacher I would probably say “Having a good trusting relationship with the gym teacher is key” and I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but growing up, my high school counselor happened to be a close family friend. So of course, all of my siblings and both my parents had no hesitation asking him for advice and direction. And it was really helpful. As I entered the same career, I was surprised to find that many high schoolers barely know their counselor and that many parents are hesitant to ‘bother’ their kids’ counselor.

I say do it. Bother away. But bother nicely of course — your aim is to make the counselor a friend and ally. They are truly trained to help and support your student. If you are tight with the counselor you’ll likely get an invaluable perspective into the school and studentbody and your child’s place in all of it — a perspective that teachers (and the students themselves) aren’t able to offer.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Empower your teen.

As tempting as it may be to call the teacher or school administrator for every question, it’s much more important for a high school student to be an advocate for themselves and learn from their mistakes. It’s important for them to communicate effectively face to face (not just through i/m or Facebook), how to work with authority figures, and how to pick themselves up when they fall. If you find yourself hovering, try chanting this sentence daily: Helicopter parenting for a high school student is detrimental to that needed growth. So relax. Back off a bit.

Don’t be scared to get your kid psychological help.

There are many outstanding therapists that work well with teenagers and understand their needs and issues — possibly better than you do. It’s okay to admit you want help offering your teen the emotional support they need and can’t always ask for. Don’t let pride get in the way. This is another time your school counselor can be invaluable — ask her to help you find a fantastic therapist. Counselors hear all the feedback and will have the low-down on which therapists will work well with your teen’s specific needs.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

When it’s time for the college admission trek, get as much help and guidance from the counselor as you can.

In many schools, 75% of the job description for a counselor is all about helping kids get into college. And I’m sure you’ve heard: the process is getting so complicated it can be more than overwhelming — just the admission terminology alone will make your head spin. Your counselor can help your child choose the right schools to apply to — schools that are appropriate and realistic. Plus, they can walk you through the application process itself (think: testing, essays, interviews, paperwork, etc). Use their expert knowledge. In my opinion, there’s no need to hire anyone private. (I’m not even joking. A big east coast thing is to hire someone to help you through the college application process. I say, use the free counselor and save your money for tuition.)

Special Education.

I have so much to say on this that it should probably be a separate post — but the bottom line is do your research and communicate with your child. There are so many legal issues involved that the school special ed department can’t always be as straight forward as you might expect. Understanding different levels of accommodations and what it will mean for your child’s future is so important. The difference between a regular education class with an additional special education teacher in the room vs. a small class of just special education students is huge. Do your best to show your child to how to be a self advocate, to be well versed in their disability/disorder and the services they need. From what I’ve seen, over-accommodation throughout their k-12 doesn’t prepare them for the real world where you don’t get ‘extra time’ or ‘teacher notes’ to complete a business report at their future job.

There are a million other things in my head, but these are the big ones I hope to remember. In fact, mom, if you’re reading this, will you please email me these notes when my new baby starts 9th grade. . .


Thank you so much, Liz! I really appreciate this encouragement and advice.

What’s your take, Dear Readers? A decade ago, many of you were like Liz and me, and having your kids in high school probably seemed far away. And now, I’m guessing some of you have high school graduates! (Me too. These photos are from my daughter Maude’s graduation in June.)

What do you think of Liz’s advice? What would you add to her list? Are you nervous about your kids heading to high school? If yes, what worries you the most?

27 thoughts on “6 Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor”

  1. It is so refreshing, Liz, to hear anew about the importance of parent involvement. I think our schools–both public and private–could really do more work to include parents in their day-to-day activities. Thanks for reminding us all!

  2. Thank you so much for posting about this! I love hearing about the importance of a parent being involved with their child’s education…but I never considered how important a counselor could be! Thank you thank you!

  3. Wow, excellent insight and advice. Its not often you get the inside scoop like that. I remember being in high school, it wasn’t cool to talk to the school counselor, but I could have used help with college apps, if my parents had a good relationship with the counselor, I’m sure it could have help in lots of areas. Very good! Thanks!

  4. I mostly agree with what Liz says. From personal experience I’m a little wary of asking the school counselor for recommendations for therapists unless my child’s mental health issues require accommodations at school. In my family, we’ve had several cases of school counselors sharing information about a student’s mental health with other staff, other students, and other parents in ways we felt were inappropriate. We’ve since learned that in some instances confidentiality for school counselors is more of an ethics issue rather than a legal issue. For me, depending on the nature of my school community, my relationship to the counselor, and the nature of the assistance my child needs, I would probably first talk to my child’s doctor.

    1. Our experiences have been similar. Also, in a public school where each counselor is responsible for around 650 students, we can’t really count on the counselor having time to actually know our students. In fact, our kids have gotten really bad advice about what classes count for a-g requirements from their counselor and now doublecheck everything he tells them. I know counselors are often overburdened in our local schools; maybe things are better elsewhere?

    2. A counselor sharing ANY info about your child with other kids or parents, let alone mental health issues, is so incredibly unethical I would consider it incompetence. I’ve been a school counselor for 25+ years and would encourage you to make your principal aware that this is happening. If this happened to my child I would be livid. Im sorry that this happened to you, it goes against everything we stand for

  5. As a former teacher, wife of a teacher, and part time after school drama club advisor, I love this post. None of my kids are in high school yet, but I spend a LOT of time with them. I just wanted to piggyback on the topic of letting kids be responsible, because I think it is really key. In most schools there is some sort of digital radebook where both parents and students can check their grades and homework assignment scores. It is so tempting for parents to hover over their kids about these assessments, and even to take it upon themselves to contact the teacher to figure out “what can be done to bring up my child’s grade.” By all means, parents should be aware of where their students are academically. However, please teach your children how to contact teachers themselves and fix their grade problems themselves. Like Liz said, it’s truly detrimental to rob children of that opportunity to learn self management. Also, pleas don’t force kids to do certain extracurriculars or academic courses in the expectation that they are necessary for getting into college. I wish I had never taken Calculus because I didn’t need it and it brought my GPA down when I struggles with it. My math teacher husband agrees.

  6. Many thanks for the marvelous photos of Maude’s graduation. Such
    a beautiful new graduate! I’ve had both good and bad experiences in my
    history of being involved with my children’s public school education.
    Public School Politics are as complicated and frustrating as all “Politics ”
    are in many areas.

  7. I’m actually a college academic advisor (at a large, public institution) and I’d say much of this applies at the college level also. In particular, getting involved, getting to know your advisor and making a point to see that person regularly, and also for parents to yes be involved but also to empower. So many students have never so much as made their own doctor/dentist/other appointment of any kind before. Something simple as encouraging/teaching kids this kind of responsibility can go a really long way in breaking through the perceived barriers and hesitation they feel in reaciout and establishing relationships with staff/professionals who can provide so many suggestions and connections acroythe board.

  8. How am I supposed to be tight with the counselor and also not hover and let my student deal? When should I be the one to call the counselor?

  9. Just the post I needed! My bright and sociable son is starting high-school in a few weeks. I’m definitely more nervous than he is! I have been thinking a lot about how to balance being an advocate, and at the same time, letting him learn to advocate for himself. My son has Tourette Syndrome Plus. He is very bright and has so many strengths, he just happens to have a few challenges too. It will be a fine balance to educate his school and new teachers on his uniqueness while taking a step back and letting him figure how he will present himself to the world. It is a time for learning from your mistakes, but this is scary because it can impact your future if you don’t get into a good college.
    I think the best tip you have here is getting to know the counsellor. We did not have counsellors available in middle school. This will be a great resource! Thank you!

  10. You’ve included some wonderful advice, and I also enjoyed reading the comments. As a high school teacher, I’d like to share a couple of observations and tips. Because of privacy rules, I often don’t know things about my students that I feel would be helpful for me to know. I always appreciate it when a parent writes me an email at the beginning of the year to fill me in about their child. Don’t assume that the administration or the guidance counselors will tell the teachers that your son or daughter struggles with anxiety and depression or that your son or daughter is dyslexic or that your son or daughter just lost their beloved grandmother. People are always surprised to find out that in some schools (ours) teachers aren’t automatically filled in on these details.

    These letters don’t ask for special favors, they simply explain challenges a student might face. I also appreciate notes during the year when a student might be struggling. Last Spring I got an email from a mom whose son had been rejected from his top 5 colleges and she wanted his teachers to understand his depressed demeanor. I was so glad to receive this note, as I had been wondering why he had seemed to lose interest in my class. (Happy ending: He got into his top choice off the waiting list.)

    There is a huge difference between connecting with teachers and counselors and being a — for lack of a better phrase — pain in the neck. The parent who teachers complain about is the type of parent who reacts to every grade that is put in the grade book. This parent constantly makes excuses for her son or frequently asks for special treatment for his daughter. Nothing drives me crazier than a note from a parent when the student could have made a personal connection with me. “Johnny has a cold and is home today, could you please send him his assignment?” Johnny is 17 and going to college next year; he is probably on his Twitter feed while his mom writes me that note. Johnny could have written me himself!

    I’m a mom, too. And I know there were times when I could have been accused of being a bit too “helicopterish” with my three children. I know firsthand that it’s hard to strike the balance between being involved and letting go. Good luck to all of you parents of teens out there! It’s a wonderful, if sometimes challenging, age. Don’t blink…your kids will be out of high school before you know it!

  11. Thanks for this article, Gabby. As a counselor myself (though in a middle school) it’s right on!

    On a side/educational note–we’re now called ‘school’ counselors not ‘guidance’ counselors…for lots of reasons but the main one being initially guidance counselors were brought in to schools to introduce students to careers/colleges/trades. Now, our role is much more encompassing and includes academic, emotional, and social support (the latter two take up much more of my time). I think it’s a stigma we’re trying to remove (though I’m still convincing admin and teachers at our school to use the term “school” counselor).

    1. I was reading through all of these posts thinking, “everyone, please stop using the term ‘guidance’. It’s outdated and inaccurate”. A battle we fight everyday, and is getting better.

  12. Thank you so much for posting this! My oldest is now heading into middle school (grades 6-8 where we are). What would you say applies to the middle school age and what differs?

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  14. I graduated from high school five years ago, and I wish I had a guidance counselor like Liz! Unfortunately, I was not impressed by the guidance counselor we had at my high school, and neither were my parents or siblings. He was just not very helpful, assumed that because I was a good student and had an older brother that I would not need help with figuring out the college application process, and never once asked me about myself outside of “What classes do you want to take? Have you finished your college application?”. I actually had a better relationship and got more help from his secretary (thankfully, she had worked under him for many years and knew her stuff well!). I would note- if you have a guidance/school counselor you’re not comfortable talking to about mental health needs, you might also try the school nurse. In many cases, they will also be aware of mental health issues and resources in your community and can probably point you towards the help you need for your child.

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