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Ethics in Counseling in an Education Setting

 |  6 Min Read

School counselors must always be aware of ethical standards in their work, and how to address ethical issues for counselors. Any type of counseling 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 considerations in counseling even more important.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) states, “School counselors face ethical challenges every day. From confidentiality issues to records maintenance, from duty of care to sexual harassment issues, a school counselor’s ethical questions can spring up from every corner.”

As you can see from that statement alone, ethical issues in the school counseling practice can be complex. The ASCA provides a detailed explanation of ethical standards on its website. This school counselor code of ethics explores a list of issues in counseling that professionals might face. Some of those ethical issues include the following.

1. Confidentiality

School counselors need to develop trusting relationships with students. An understanding of confidentiality in communications and discussions helps build that trust. However, school counselors are sometimes obligated to break that confidentiality under circumstances where the law or professional ethics require it.

The ASCA recommends that school counselors “explain the limits of confidentiality in developmentally appropriate terms through multiple methods, such as student handbooks; classroom lessons; verbal notification to individual students; and school counseling department websites, brochures and social media accounts.

School counselors can use informed consent to set guidelines with their students. Informed consent means that permission is granted with an understanding of consequences, which can be tricky with students. The ASCA recognizes that school counselors must be “aware that even though attempts are made to obtain informed consent, it is not always possible.” When needed, school counselors must make decisions on students’ behalf that promote their well being. Counselors should discuss their legal and ethical obligations and help the student and their families understand the limits of confidentiality in their relationship.

For instance, an ethics challenge for school counselors may arise if a student is threatening to harm themselves. In this case, a counselor may have to act in awareness and adherence to ethical codes by notifying the parents and/or medical authorities. In addition to establishing trust with students, a counselor may need to establish professional communication with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The ethical standards at the ASCA state, “Keep information confidential unless legal requirements demand confidential information be revealed or a breach is required to prevent serious and foreseeable harm to the student or others.”

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 explain those boundaries where necessary.

That said, the ASCA does recognize that establishing trust and creditability with students may required developing relationships outside of the school day and school grounds, like attending community events or supporting students in organizations. School counselors should “assess potential risks and benefits prior to extending relationships beyond the school building and school hours” and be sure to document the nature of these interactions.

All interaction with the student should take place outside of personal social media and text and remain within the communication platforms sanctioned by the school. The ASCA also recommends school counselors avoid direct discipline or self-promotion. There is a line between supporting a student and becoming too personal. Stated boundaries are vital to student welfare and professionalism.

3. Respect Differences in Cultural Values and Traditions

An increasingly diverse U.S. population equals an increasingly diverse student population. A school counselor’s code of ethics should encompass the needs of students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. This means that school counselors need to be aware of their cultural biases and values to avoid imposing them on their students.

School counselors should develop an understanding of how social and economic inequalities as well as gender, cultural and racial biases impact students and their families. The ASCA promotes that school counselors “advocate for the equitable right and access to free, appropriate public education for all youth in which students are not stigmatized or isolated based on race, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, language, immigration status,” and more. Gaining a firm understanding of religious holidays, dietary needs, cultural customs, and more can ensure that counselors are prepared to care for all students in their school community.

This respect of cultural differences may require collaboration with families so all students’ needs are met appropriately. In short, school counselors must work hard to ensure that all students are respected for who they are.

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. This can be an ethics challenge for school counselors because students require varying levels of support. 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.

The ASCA suggests school counselors advocate for access to and inclusion in opportunities. These opportunities could be gifted and talented programs, honors classes, or dual enrollment, for example. Counselors should also ensure that no student gets more support than another simply because of their background, relationship to the counselor, or school performance.

Support for each student will look different. Children with certain disabilities will need unique support to access opportunities, for example. Take the time to listen, understand, and continue to learn so that you can best serve students.

5. Be Mindful 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. General ethical standards for school counselors would advise that this situation be avoided, however, that’s not always possible.

If such relationships are unavoidable, counselors should take extra steps to maintain their objectivity, such as documenting their work or even agreeing to supervision. Taking these steps can protect both the student and the counselor while establishing credibility and trust. All students deserve support to succeed, and school counselors must separate their professional role from their personal commitments and relationships to ensure the best outcomes for minors.

Earn Your Master’s in School Counseling

Preparing for a successful career guiding students requires a comprehensive understanding of ethical issues in school counseling practice. 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.

Ranked one of the Top 10 Best Online Master’s in School Counseling programs for 2023 by Forbes, the program will help you establish foundational knowledge including history, program models and school-based collaboration. You’ll develop a contextual understanding of the school counselor’s multifaceted role in areas like family counseling and crisis management. You’ll also explore counseling practice with program creation and evaluation, curriculum design and academic development interventions.

Graduate prepared for the licensed professional counselor exam in many states, including Texas.

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