Canadian school Counsellors are stretched thin – and it’s our students that suffer

By: Meghan Collie, Courtesy of Global News, published September 24, 2019

This is the second story in a four-part series about the transition between high school and “the real world” — whether that’s college, university, the workforce or something completely different. Failure To Launch examines the gaps in Canada’s education system. Read Part 1 here.

Lily, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, constantly wishes she could be in three places at once. 

The school counsellor in Newfoundland services three different secondary schools in the province. This equates to roughly 500 different students at a time — a system that requires lots of planning, co-ordination and communication on her part. 

“I wish I could pause time for everyone else, keep working and then unpause them so my preparation… didn’t cut into the time and energy I have to spend on young people,” she said.

She’s often asked to help with career planning, but whether she has time to facilitate that in any robust way depends on whether or not there are other, more pressing issues at hand.

“Individual counselling sessions occupy a lot of my time, as well as the co-ordination of services with outside groups and agencies,” she explained. “My psychoeducational assessment reporting is [also] very time-consuming.” 

From navigating the labyrinth of online application portals to writing personal statements of experience and applying for financial aid, preparing to leave high school can be an extremely demanding process. Most students can’t do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to, experts say. 

According to the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), school counsellors have a role to play — but more often than not, they feel stretched and pulled in several directions, often away from career counselling. In the long run, this is hurting our students and their futures.

The role of a school counsellor

The CCPA says a core task of school counsellors is to support students’ career development. This is in addition to supporting personal, social and educational development, as well as promoting mental health and well-being. 

When a counsellor has the time and energy to perform these duties effectively, research shows that students are more successful.

A 2013 study found that group counselling interventions by a school counsellor significantly improved the organizational skills, time management skills and motivation to succeed in Grade 9 and 10 students, which improved achievement overall. 

In 2011, researchers found that high school students who have at least one interaction with their school counsellor are significantly more likely to apply to post-secondary schools than those who didn’t have any contact. A 2014 study determined that adding one more counsellor to a given high school can increase student enrollment in four-year post-secondary programs by 10 per cent.

A counsellor’s ability to perform effectively can be impacted by the number of students they are assigned, and that’s when the complicated topic of student-to-school counsellor ratio comes in. 

The optimal ratio is up for debate, according to CCPA School Counsellors Chapter president Lisa Cheyne-Zanyk.

Some Canadian provinces and territories recommend their own ratio to their school boards, but the CCPA has yet to make a nationwide recommendation. This is partly because needs vary drastically across regions, Cheyne-Zanyk said. 

“A ratio could impede things when the need might be higher than that ratio,” she said. “Demand is high across the board, but it balloons when a school is located in a low-income area or a remote community.

In contrast, the American School Counsellor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio no higher than 250 students to one counsellor per school to ensure needs are met. 

Experts say there aren’t enough counsellors across Canada

The province-by-province data on student-to-counsellor ratios is sparse — and that’s a problem the CCPA is actively working to fix.

“Because it isn’t handled at a federal level, it’s really hard to give clear feedback,” Cheyne-Zanyk said. “It makes it difficult to advocate on a national level.”

However, a 2018 report by the independent research organization People for Education offers a glimpse into Ontario, one of the country’s most densely populated provinces. 

The survey found that among Ontario secondary schools with school counsellors, the average student-to-counsellor ratio is 396:1. In 10 per cent of schools, the average is 826:1. 

The government provides funding to school boards for teachers and counsellors through the Grants for Student Needs (GSN), the Ontario Ministry of Education said in a statement to Global News. Last year, the province added $46 million to the fund. 

The Pupil Foundation Grant — which accounts for about half the GSN — funds “2.6 guidance teacher/counsellors per 1,000 students in grades seven to 12,” the statement noted. “This recognizes the need for greater support at the secondary level as students prepare for post-secondary student success and career opportunities.”  

Ultimately, how these funds are used is up to each individual school board.

“School boards are responsible for making decisions about funding for staffing and program delivery as they think best meets the needs of all their students,” the ministry added. “Flexibility in resource allocation remains with boards because they are in the best position to identify local needs when setting budget priorities.”

Cheyne-Zanyk believes the story of having a lack of resources is similar across the country. 

“There’s definitely a struggle to try to meet the needs of our kids. We’re trying to teach teachers to have more therapeutic intervention response […] and support families and provide psychoeducation to them as well,” she said.

The impact on students

Global News interviewed several students across the country for this series, and many spoke to the lack of counsellors at their schools — the impacts of which became extremely evident in the way they talked about career planning. 

Dalraj Singh Gill, a student at the University of Toronto, never sought advice from his high school counsellors because he didn’t see them as “advice-givers.” 

“I had it in my mind… [that they] fixed your courses and that was it,” he said. “So if you wanted to drop something or if you wanted to add something, you would go to the school counsellors.” 

In deciding what he wanted to do next, Singh Gill instead reached out to friends and family for help.

Similarly, Julianna Dipasquale, 18, relied on her peers, her parents and the internet instead of her school counsellors. She just started her first year at Toronto’s Ryerson University in September. 

“I felt like it was pretty independent,” she said. “The university fair… was actually super helpful, but other than that, I just found my own things through the internet. The internet was a huge, huge, huge part of it.” 

Charlotte Elek, another Toronto student who recently went through the process, was shown how to use the Ontario application system by her school counsellor. However, when Elek asked for advice on how to apply to institutions in France — where she holds citizenship — her counsellor was stumped. 

“I actually had to go to the French consulate for advice,” she said. “Mostly I did the whole thing by myself.”  

The need for crisis management often outweighs proactive approaches

Increasingly, school counsellors across Canada are asked to provide frontline support during times of crisis — a responsibility that can pull them away from career planning and other areas of student development.

“One thing that is common, however, is the school counsellor’s role in ‘triage’ for its school,” Trent Langdon said in an interview with Canadian School Counsellor. He’s a teacher and school counsellor, and the former president of the School Counsellors Chapter of the CCPA. 

“[Counsellors] are responsible for comprehensive assessment procedures (psychoeducational testing), counselling, family supports, crisis response, management and consultation of student support services, schoolwide school programming and student issues as they emerge.”

And times of crisis among teens are seemingly becoming more frequent. 

Mental illness is a major issue for youth 15 to 24. The 2016 census data found that the demographic has the highest rates of mood disorders, and suicide remains the second leading cause of death. 

Hospital emergency room visits and in-patient hospitalizations for mental health problems among children and youth increased by 50 per cent between 2008-09 and 2016, according to the Auditor General of Ontario. 

The 2016 census also found that approximately 21 per cent of Canadian teens are also trying illicit substances while in high school. In fact, opioid-related hospitalization rates are the fastest rising among youth aged 15 to 24.

Rena Klisouris, a secondary school counsellor in Montreal and president of the Quebec Counselling Association, says roughly 95 per cent of her time is spent dealing with mental health issues.

“Career counselling is a very small part of my job,” said Klisouris, who has worked in education for 10 years. “But that may not be true of all school counsellors… This might just be the way my school board defines what a school counsellor does.”

She thinks the lack of time she spends on career development could be hurting overall student success.

“If we could even have some time just to teach students how to use the career software that we have,” she said, adding that there are several career development programs online, but counsellors don’t have the time to show students how to use them. 

Given that she and the other counsellor can’t be a resource for career planning, she worries students have no one to turn to. 

“There are courses that students can take where teachers can insert some content about career development, but I don’t believe there’s an across-the-board curriculum. It’s really up to individual teachers,” she said.

Klisouris is comforted by the fact that high school students in Quebec typically attend a cégep prior to going to university or college. Cégep is an acronym from the French term Collège d’enseignement general et professionnel, which means general and professional teaching college in English.

Most programs are based on high-level technical knowledge in a particular field, and Klisouris thinks the system is a great way to help students learn more about themselves. 

“The reality is that most students go into cégep, they choose a program, but most of them will change the program by the time it’s finished,” she said. 

“Or maybe they do an additional program, come in for a two-year university program and then switch to a three-year technical program… so they end up spending five years in cégep and not going to university at all.” 

Cégep offers students extra time to decide what they want to do next, and it often saves them time and money in the long-run. 

School counsellors need more support

The positive impact a school counsellor can have on their school system is tough to quantify, argues Dr. Bonnie Watt director of the Centre for Research for Teacher Education and Development at the University of Alberta. That’s a problem for funding.

“I couldn’t actually say… how much those day-to-day interactions — if they were so lucky to have a counsellor in school every day — impact students,” she said. 

“We need to be able to see beyond just the numbers on a piece of paper” when it comes time to allocating funds at every level — and the responsibility isn’t only on each Ministry of Education, either. 

Although education is under provincial jurisdiction, Watt said school districts decide how to divide funding they receive from the government.

“This means the administrators at the local level need to be able to see the importance of [school counsellors] as well.”

In Watt’s opinion, school counsellors have the unique opportunity to work with each individual student to “grow and foster clear boundaries for appropriate and healthy living in that school space.”

Once a counsellor is able to do this, a student can begin to feel safe and appreciated.

“Then they will have the opportunity to think beyond trying to survive in school,” she said.

Preparing kids for the future is a long, tedious process. If counsellors aren’t given robust support, they won’t be able to help students in any tangible way, ultimately leaving them to their own devices. 

In an ideal world, Watt said counsellors would be able to “walk with those youth to help them be whole human beings.