School counselors support the academic achievement and personal development of students through comprehensive school counseling programs (CSCP) that are invaluable in creating a community of care. However, there are often barriers to implementation of such programs.
As a doctoral candidate at Samford University’s Orlean Beeson School of Education, Daniel Birdsong, assistant professor of counseling at the University of Montevallo, sought to explore how counselors overcome these barriers in his dissertation.
Birdsong studied the schools in Alabama that had recently received the state’s first Alabama School Counseling Program of Distinction Award, which included three elementary schools and two middle schools, in his dissertation “Principal and Counselor Support for Comprehensive Counseling Program Implementation in Alabama.”
“These schools demonstrate exemplary implementation of the Alabama State Counseling Plan as well as the American School Counseling Association National Model and these schools provide evidence that they’re implementing their programs to fidelity,” said Birdsong. “Not only that, but they’re providing evidence that student outcomes improved, like student attendance, student achievement and reduction of student discipline incidences, so these schools represented, in my mind, an objective standard of excellence.”
While researchers have explored principal perceptions of the role of the school counselor and the principal-school counselor relationship, no known studies have examined administrator and school counseling perceptions and experiences regarding program implementation and support.
Barriers to implementation can include counselors assuming non-counseling duties like coordinating state testing or additional duties such as lunch duty and bus duty. Birdsong wanted to know how school counselors overcome these challenges and what strategies they employ to implement their programs at an exemplary level.
Birdsong employed a mixed-methods research design to collect both quantitative survey data and more focused qualitative interview data. He sent all of the principals and counselors an adaptation of the “Assessment of School Counselor Needs for Professional Development” survey (Dahir & Stone, 2014). It focused on four different areas of perception: the role of the school counselor, the activities that the school counselor participates in, the priorities of the school counseling program and the expectations of the counselor.
“I looked to see if there were any statistically significant differences between administrators and counselors in any of their perceptions and there were none,” said Birdsong. “There were none on the overall subscales and there wasn’t even a single item on the 66-question survey that indicated significant differences, so that was good to see.”
For the second phase of his study, Birdsong conducted individual interviews with approximately half of the survey respondents. Four themes essential to program support and implementation emerged from the qualitative interview results: (1) advocacy, (2) collaboration among administrators, counselors and other stakeholders, (3) a supportive principal-school counselor relationship and (4) use of data.
“My research findings brought out a lot of things that I know as a practitioner from my own experiences and it affirmed the struggles, but it also affirmed the opportunities and the things we can do in order to move the profession forward,” said Birdsong.
According to Mary Yakimowski, educational leadership professor at Samford and Birdsong’s dissertation chair, Birdsong learned new techniques and procedures that helped generate overarching themes which “allowed for comparisons between participant groups, including tests for statistical significance, and illustrated participants' lived experiences implementing and supporting school counseling programs.”
Implications of the research included the need for enhanced communication and collaboration among school administrators, counselors and other constituents. The study also suggested future avenues of research.
“My goal and my hope is that the findings from the study will help inform school counselors’ approaches in how they implement their programs and also help to advocate for different support and more collaboration with other stakeholders,” said Birdsong. “If counselors can use some of these research findings to change the way they approach things with their principal or how they use data more effectively then that has the potential to not only improve what they do at their local level but to improve overall their students’ success.”