School counselors must always be aware of ethical standards in their work. Any type of counseling profession involves ethics, but the fact that school counselors are working with minors and during crucial stages in their emotional and mental development makes being aware of ethical standards and issues even more important.
Ethical issues in school counseling can be complex. The American School Counselor Association provides a detailed explanation of ethical standards on its web site. This overview of ethical issues in school counseling explores some common situations school counselors might face.
1. Confidentiality and Its Limits
School counselors need to develop trusting relationships with students, and an understanding of confidentiality in communications and discussions helps built that trust. However, school counselors are sometimes obligated to break that confidentiality under circumstances where the law or professional ethics require it. They may also breach confidentiality to parents or appropriate third parties in instances where it would ultimately be in the best interests of the student or when they are required to do so by law. For instance, if a student is threatening to harm him- or herself, the parents and/or medical authorities may have to be notified.
School counselors can use informed consent to set guidelines with their students. They can discuss their legal and ethical obligations and help the student and their parents understand the limits of confidentiality in their relationship.
2. Keep a Professional Distance
School counselors’ relationships with students should always remain within the context of the counselor’s professional abilities. Since students are minors who may not always understand relationship boundaries, the burden is on counselors to act professionally and ethically, and explain those boundaries where necessary.
Romantic relationships with students are a serious breach of ethical standards, regardless of whether they are illegal according to state law and/or the student’s age.
3. Respect Differences in Cultural Values and Traditions
An increasingly diverse U.S. population equals an increasingly diverse student population. School counselors need to be aware of their own cultural biases and values to avoid imposing them on their students. They should develop an understanding of how social and economic inequalities as well as gender, cultural and racial biases impact students and their families.
4. Provide Equal Access to Opportunities and Support
School counselors should ensure that each student in their charge has equal access to the counseling services they need. Some students will require greater attention, but counselors should not use the needs of others or their personal preferences for certain students to prevent them from serving all students at their level of need.
5. Be Aware of Dual Relationships
School counselors should be mindful of relationships that could compromise their objectivity and impair their ability to serve students fairly — such as counseling children of close friends or romantic partners. If such relationships are unavoidable, counselors should take extra steps to maintain their objectivity. Documenting their work or even agreeing to supervision are two examples of the extras steps a counselor may take.
Preparing for a successful career guiding students requires a comprehensive understanding of ethical issues in school counseling. The online Master of Education in School Counseling at Our Lady of the Lake University integrates and encourages the highest levels of professionalism and ethics through its curriculum and the experiences of its faculty members.