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School Counseling and Dual Relationships Among Staff

ethics

Our Ethical Standards for School Counselors have been updated for 2016, becoming much more specific in certain areas.  One area I’d like to point out is regarding dual relationships and managing boundaries — not just with students, but with school staff.

According to the American School Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2016), school counselors are to avoid dual relationships beyond the professional level with school personnel, parents/guardians and students’ other family members when these relationships might infringe on the integrity of the school counselor/student relationship (A.5.c).

You don’t find ethical tenets like this for teachers and other educators, but for counselors, it is more specific on the importance of keeping our relationships with staff professional.  This can present some challenges as you might have guessed, especially with building positive relationships with staff and feeling connected to the school.  Boundaries have to be continuously monitored as we manage multiple relationships among staff, students, and parents.  I’ve come across some great writing on this titled, Dual Relationships in Counseling by Gerald Corey, EdD, and Barbara Herlihy, PhD, which was written in the early 90’s, and I find it to be very relevant today.

“Emphasis on the preventative aspects of the school counselor’s role has increased in the past decade.  Preventative intervention frequently assume an acceptance of the school counselor as “one of us” by other staff members.  One important way to be accepted in such a manner is to engage in the same day-to-day activities in which other staff engage.  Unfortunately, many of these activities jeopardize the counseling role of the school counselor.  A critical issue for school counselor, then, is to gain acceptance by staff and at the same time not engage in roles that jeopardize counseling relationships with students.”

Gaining acceptance while not jeopardizing our counseling relationships with students is a challenge, especially for new programs.  The feeling of “one of us” can sometimes be elusive for school counselors.  School counselors may at times feel isolated among staff members, as we don’t clearly fit into the role of teacher or administrator.  We then may feel a need to “fit-in” in order to be accepted — resorting to open sharing with staff members.  

“Teachers who are accustomed to the open sharing that occurs among colleagues may resent that the counselor, in his or her new role, has a different perspective on student concerns and seems less forthcoming with certain kinds of information due to the need to protect student confidentiality.  These transitional difficulties can probably best be resolved through open communication in which the counselor clearly defines his or her new role.”

I’ve definitely experienced frustration and resentment from staff due to the fact that I could not disclose information a teacher may have wanted, or even if I had a completely different perspective on the matter.  At times, this can be perceived as unhelpful to staff, not understanding that our primary responsibility is to the student, with confidentiality being a hallmark of our profession.

School counselors often hear multiple perspectives on a single situation.  We can hear different perspectives from students, teachers, parents, administrators, other students, etc… — while at the same time maintaining neutrality and being diplomatic — showing an ability to deal with people in a sensitive and effective way.

“School counselors, then, at the outset of each school year need to clearly and publicly state their roles to school personnel as well as to students. When staff and students alike realize the counselor’s unique role in the school, then the counselor is much more likely to be able to avoid dual relationships that adversely affect counseling relationships with students. At the same time the school counselor can be accepted as “family” by staff by taking on additional duties that do not create the potential for inappropriate dual role relationships, such as working in the concession stand or running after school parent groups. By engaging in activities such as these, counselors can demonstrate to teachers and other staff that they too are carrying their load.”

This can take time.  Just stating our role once at the beginning of the year often isn’t enough.  This is an ongoing process that can grow consistently each year as our role becomes more established.  Showing up at events and lending a hand, and taking on additional duties is a great suggestion — building more rapport among staff members while not jeopardizing student/counselor relationships.

“Counselors need to assume a proactive stance in establishing their professional identity and they need to resist the pressures to be all things to all people. It is up to the counselors to decide on their priorities and then do the work of letting people know of their professional functions. They can help others appreciate their professional role by making personal appearances. It helps to talk to parent groups, to go into classrooms and talk to the students and to meet in groups with teachers and administrators. Counselors might consider that if they do not define their own identity as professionals, other groups such as administrators will define their work roles for them.”

This can be an ongoing, annual practice as school counselors find themselves continuously expressing their role to fellow educators.  It really is up to us.  If school counselors are not the ones to advocate for our profession and our role, it will be defined for us by someone else.  Whether or not a dual relationship with staff infringes upon the the student/counselor relationship has to be examined utilizing our judgment, and when necessary, our ethical decision-making model, and ethical principles of beneficence, autonomy, non-maleficence, loyalty, and justice.

Here’s a link to the 2016 ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors

What are your thoughts and experiences?  I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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