Saturday / June 22

How to Refer Students to School Counselors

Whether you like it or not, whether you are prepared or not, stu­dents will seek you out for help in making decisions about everything from accepting a party invitation to what classes they should take. They ask for help in sorting out values and evaluating the ethics of the social situations they face. They come to share the events that take place in their lives: a new dog, frustration over a poor grade, rejected friendship, a death in the family, an uncertain future. They turn to you with all manner of questions.

Students are required to deal with a constant battery of new challenges, at each developmental stage, many of which feel beyond what they can manage comfortably. They also face life stresses due to individual circumstances. Unlike adults who have at our disposal an array of coping mechanisms that include greater mastery of our environment, more choices, even prescription medications, our students are often at the mercy of things beyond their control.

Many of us do not have the time, rarely have private space, and often lack advanced training needed to engage in ongoing counseling sessions. Sometimes, it happens that although we want to be helpful to students, our authority role prevents us from developing the kind of relationship that school counselors and other helping professionals are perfectly positioned and trained to create. We know that students will benefit from seeing someone else, but we also do not want to feel like we are deserting them when help is most needed.

Making a Referral

Even in those cases when you are fairly certain that the nature of the problems are within the scope of what you can handle, you will still want to get the helping process moving with an expert. Meanwhile, we need to continue to support students so that they feel our concern, caring, and commitment.

The act of making a referral thus requires a great deal of tact and skill to increase the like­lihood that help will take place. While making a referral is not an easy, the following suggestions will guide you.

First, let your student know:

  • You feel they would benefit from seeing a professional trained in the helping process. (Your preparation/training has been different—as an instructional/academic leader in the classroom).
  • You have applied some basic listening and responding skills so that the student has a good experience in a counseling-type relationship. (This way the person will be more amenable to continuing such a relationship with a professional.)
  • Since a good relationship has been built and maintained with you, it’s very likely the person will be able to develop a good relationship with another caring adult.
  • Your support will continue in other ways.


  • Share with the student how counseling works with reasonable expectations and goals for what counseling can and cannot do.
  • Help the student identify the school counselor, psychologist, social worker or other helping professional.
  • Ask for a commitment from the child to do something about his or her situation.
  • Reassure the student you have his/her best interests at heart.


  • Make consistent efforts to follow up to make sure help was sought as promised and check in with the student’s progress.

Once your attention is drawn to a child who appears to be exhibiting evidence of underlying difficulties in need of more help than you can provide, you can refer the student to an expert and maintain your role as teacher in the student-teacher relationship. You also use one of the best counseling skills: encouragement. This is a deliberate and intentional effort on your part to foster hope in those who are in need. You communicate, in effect, that you have complete confidence that the student will be able to regain a sense of balance, develop an optimistic state of mind, and do well in the future. Furthermore, you intend to be there along the way. Sometimes, your support is all that you have to give and that support can lead to positive change.

For more on relationship skills, see Counseling Skills for Teachers and The Teacher’s Journey: The Human Dimensions.

Written by

Ellen Kottler, Ed.S., has been a teacher for over 30 years in public and private schools, alternative schools, adult education programs, and universities. She has worked in inner-city schools as well as in suburban and rural settings. She was a curriculum specialist in charge of secondary social studies and law-related education for one of the country’s largest school districts. Ellen is the author or coauthor of several books for educators, including Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year, On Being a Teacher, Secrets to Success for Beginning Elementary School Teachers, Counseling Skills for Teachers, English Language Learners in Your Classroom: Strategies That Work, Secrets to Success for Science Teachers, Students Who Drive You Crazy: Succeeding with Resistant, Unmotivated, and Otherwise Difficult Young People, and The Teacher’s Journey.

She teaches secondary education and supervises intern teachers at California State University, Fullerton.

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