Differences Between a School Counselor and a School Psychologist

School counselors and school psychologists are both integral components of an educational team. They both provide critical services to students that facilitate their growth, development, and improved mental health.

But how counselors and psychologists go about doing this is different. These differences are the focus of this guide.

If you want to become a school counselor or school psychologist, this guide will help you determine which career best suits your skills and interests.

School Counselor Vs. School Psychologist

A school counselor focuses on helping students with academic achievement, career development, and personal or social issues. Meanwhile, a school psychologist uses their understanding of psychology to evaluate students’ mental health, learning abilities, and provide therapeutic support for emotional and behavioral issues.

It’s easy to be confused about the roles of school counselors and school psychologists. On the surface, they appear to be generally the same job.

For example, both professions require advanced training in mental health. Both professions also require workers to have the appropriate certification to work in schools. Moreover, there is some overlap in job duties – though there are more differences than similarities.

Let’s explore some of the biggest differences between school counselors and psychologists to develop a better understanding of what these careers are all about!

Differences in Working

The first difference between these careers is the scope of work. School counselors are generally responsible for providing services to part or all of the school’s student body, while school psychologists typically work with targeted groups of students.

For example, let’s assume you work in a high school with 750 students. A school of that size would probably have two school counselors, each assigned half the student population (e.g., one counselor works with students whose last name begins with A-M, and the other works with students whose last name begins with N-Z).

A school of this size might have just one school psychologist, though. But because school psychologists work specifically with small groups of students, there isn’t a need to have more than one psychologist on staff.

This brings us to the second major difference between these careers: the services provided. On the one hand, school counselors provide a wide range of services to students. This might include guidance counseling, mental health counseling, and college or career counseling. On the other hand, school psychologists usually provide mental health care to students who qualify for special education services.

So, using our high school example, a school counselor might meet with an incoming freshman student to discuss the requirements to graduate from high school. Using those requirements as a guideline, a school counselor would advise the student about the courses they need to take each year to stay on track to graduate.

Then, as that student reaches the end of high school, a school counselor might help that same student identify colleges to attend, apply for scholarships, and register to take college entrance exams. Between those points, a school counselor would be available to that student for academic advisement, individual mental health counseling, and group counseling as well.

Now let’s assume our freshman student is on an individualized education plan (IEP) because they have autism. A school psychologist would be assigned to work with the student to help them adapt to the high school’s academic and social environment.

For example, a school psychologist might meet with the student each day to work on social skills training. They would also periodically meet with the student’s teachers to give them tools for helping the child succeed in class.

Since the student has an IEP, a school psychologist would be an important part of the special education team that ensures the child has the appropriate support to be successful in school.

Yet another difference between these careers is that school counselors are typically responsible for developing and implementing school-wide programs that benefit all students. For example, as a school counselor in an elementary school, you might be asked to develop a program to raise awareness about bullying that encourages students to be kind.

To implement this program, you would go into individual classrooms and, with the help of classroom teachers, deliver your anti-bullying curriculum. You might do this as a series of lessons that utilize play and hands-on activities to illustrate the benefits of kindness.

School psychologists typically don’t perform these activities. For example, rather than developing a school-wide campaign about bullying, a school psychologist might meet with individual students who have been bullied to assess their mental and emotional health.

Likewise, a school psychologist might have a one-on-one session with a student that is a repeat bullying offender to help them work through the reasons they pick on other students. As part of this intervention, a school psychologist would likely meet with the student’s parents or guardians to give them strategies for helping their child behave more appropriately.

Lastly, though school counselors and school psychologists provide mental health services to students, each addresses different types of needs. School counselors generally work with kids with less severe mental health needs – a student with test anxiety, a student with body image issues, or a student that’s depressed, to name a few examples. School psychologists typically work with students with more severe mental health needs, such as mood, personality, and psychotic disorders.

Moreover, where school counselors might provide basic, short-term counseling to students with mental health needs, school psychologists are much more deeply involved with testing, assessment, diagnosis, and long-term treatment.

Differences in Work Environment

School counselors and school psychologists obviously both work in academic environments, but some distinct differences make their work experiences unique.

School counselors work in an office setting where they can see students individually and in small groups. They might have “office hours,” during which they’re available for students to drop by and discuss academic, social, emotional, or behavioral health issues. Counselors also tend to have time built into the day to consult with teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders.

School psychologists also work in an office setting, but as noted above, they have a targeted clientele, so their office hours usually don’t involve allowing students to drop by. Instead, school psychologists might spend part of their day in closed-door sessions with students or parents, another part of their day in special education classrooms working directly with students, and another part of the day conducting assessments on students in a testing environment.

Another difference in the work environment is that school counselors work exclusively in school settings, while some school psychologists might work in schools and off-campus locations. For example, you might work part-time for a local school district as a school psychologist and have a private practice. In private practice, you offer the same services you do in school but to paying clients.

For example, a family whose child exhibits symptoms of schizophrenia might hire you to assess their child, develop interventions to address their mental health needs, and devise a plan for home-based schooling or tutoring until the child is stable enough to attend school.

Remember, too, that the scope of clientele for school counselors and school psychologists is much different, which impacts their work environments. On the one hand, school counselors are much more likely to be out of their offices and in classrooms working with large groups of students. On the other hand, school psychologists tend to spend more time in one-on-one or small group situations in an office or special education classroom setting.

Differences in Education

School counselors and school psychologists share a common feature in that both must have a master’s degree or higher. Likewise, both professionals must complete required supervised practice prior to getting a certification or licensure needed to work in schools.

However, the type of graduate degree needed differs between the two. School counselors most commonly get a master’s degree in school counseling. School psychologists typically get a master’s degree in school psychology. Both programs are usually anywhere from 48 credits to more than 60 credits and often take two or three years to complete.

In many cases, though, school psychologists have doctoral degrees, whereas school counselors usually don’t. School psychologists can get a doctorate in a variety of fields, including school psychology and educational psychology. In some cases, school psychologists have an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree.

As noted earlier, some school psychologists work outside of the school setting. To do so requires that they have a doctoral degree. Additionally, school psychologists working outside the school setting must have a license to practice and the relevant certification needed to work in schools.

Speaking of certification, the requirements for school counseling and school psychology certifications are controlled at the state level. As such, these requirements vary from one state to the next.

These certification requires school counselors to complete their master’s program from an accredited college or university that includes a practicum and internship experience in a K-12 setting. Additionally, school counselors must pass a state or national exam to qualify for certification.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) also offers national certification for school psychologists. To qualify, you must complete a 60-credit school psychology master’s degree with practicum and internship components. You must also pass the PRAXIS exam.

Can a School Counselor Become a School Psychologist?

Yes, a school counselor can become a school psychologist, but it requires extensive training. Since a school counseling graduate program has a different focus than one in school psychology, you would need to complete the relevant school psychology training – including practicum and internship requirements – to be eligible for certification as a school psychologist.

Which is Better? A School Counselor or a School Psychologist?

In some cases, a school counselor is a better option, while in others, a school psychologist is better. It simply depends on the situation.

For example, let’s say you are a high school senior interested in attending a technical college to become a mechanic. Let’s also say you are unsure what you need to do to apply to technical colleges. In this case, you would see a school counselor because a central part of their job is helping students apply to colleges, find scholarships, and so forth.

Now let’s assume that you are a high school senior with Asperger’s syndrome, and you are anxious about going to college. You might meet with a school psychologist who can help you devise coping strategies to manage your anxiety and offer insights into managing the symptoms of Asperger’s in the high-stress college environment.

These examples illustrate how school counselors and psychologists provide different student services. One is not better than the other. Instead, the best professional to help you is the one that more closely aligns with your specific needs.

If you are interested in becoming a school counselor or school psychologist, the same principle applies – one is not better than the other. The best option for you is the one that most closely aligns with your interests, abilities, and professional goals.

If you want to work with a wide range of students on a variety of academic, social, and emotional issues, becoming a school counselor is the more appropriate choice. Additionally, if you enjoy college prep, career counseling, and developing school-wide academic and social programs, school counseling is for you.

But if you are more interested in working with special needs students and students with mental health needs, school psychology is a more appropriate calling. If psychological assessments, psychological testing, and long-term psychological treatments interest you, school psychology is also the better fit.

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