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Critical incidents in the development of supportive principals: facilitating school counselor--principal relationships.

The qualitative study in this article explores critical incidents that may facilitate the support a principal provides for a school counseling program. Through structured interviews, supportive principals are asked to reflect on their prior experiences with school counselors, their educational exposure to school counseling, and their recommendations for school counselors. Results suggest that by demonstrating effective leadership and systemic interactions, school counselors can foster relationships with principals that can help them expand their roles and their programs.


Principals are undeniably school leaders (Henderson, 1999), and in most schools, they have the power both to initiate and to stop change, determining the definition and direction of the school's counseling program (Amatea & Clark, 2005). As school counselors strive to implement the ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005), principals have the power to shape both the timing and the outcome of that effort (Amatea & Clark). This power can even shape the professional identity formation of the school counselor; in a study examining induction into the school counseling profession, Matthes (1992) found that, due to the isolation of the counselor "without the support of a colleague with similar preparation and perspective" (p. 248), principals became the primary referent group. In the context of this administrative referent group, it is easy to see why "principals frequently assign school counselors non-counseling duties (such as discipline and keeping attendance records) that detract from a comprehensive program of counseling services in school settings" (Barret & Schmidt, 1986).

Zalaquett (2005) summarized the importance of principals in the selection, retention, and definition of school counselors in their schools, describing the roles of principals and school counselors as "natural partners who should complement one another in the task of serving students and form a partnership based on knowledge, trust, and positive regard for what each professional does" (p. 456). It is not surprising that literature describing leadership strategies for school counselors calls for the involvement of principals (Dollarhide, 2003; Meyers, 2005; Murray, 1995a, 1995b).

To be successful, leadership strategies are based on understanding the relationships between principals and counselors. While it is expected that both professions value the successful education of children, each profession focuses on different ways to accomplish this goal as manifestation of the profession's values (Shoffner & Williamson, 2000). Kaplan (1995) elaborated on these differences, stating that counselors encourage positive classroom climate while principals work to establish a safe and orderly learning environment. Counselors look at the causes and issues that lead to negative behavior; principals look at the effects. Principals may view counselors' attempts to assist students as enabling, instead of teaching personal responsibility. Although many principals do seem to understand the role of the school counselor, there is still some evidence of dissonance in the literature (Beale, 1995; Beale & McCay, 2001).

Research on principals' perceptions of school counseling is mixed. Examining the characteristics of a principal who supported the school counseling program, Vaught (1995) found understanding, respect, cooperation, openness, consideration, communication, and support. Similarly, Ponec and Brock (2000) found that the counselor-principal relationship in an exemplary elementary counseling program included mutual trust and clear communication, and they highlighted that supportive counselor-principal relationships required continual maintenance.

In examining roles of school counselors, a 1998 study involving middle school counselors suggested that principals tended to view counselors as administrators (Remley & Albright, 1998). In 2001, a study of graduate students in a school administration program rated ASCA-defined counseling and noncounseling activities accurately (Fitch, Newby, Ballestero, & Marshall, 2001). In a 2005 study, Zalaquett found that the elementary principals surveyed indicated that counselors should spend more time in individual and small group counseling, classroom guidance, consulting, crisis counseling, coordinating community services, and academic and career advising--all activities supported by ASCA (2005). Suggesting that differences in principals' expectations evolve from differences in perceived needs at different educational levels, a study of elementary and high school counselors and principals indicated that principals and counselors rated ASCA National Standards in similar ways, but more than 80% of the high school principals identified administrative tasks (registration, scheduling, and testing) as appropriate (Perusse, Goodnough, Donegan, & Jones, 2004). In a study that focused on the roles that principals desire of school counselors, Amatea and Clark (2005) found that principals' expectations mirrored the four distinct historical roles of school counselors, suggesting that perceptions of the school counselor's role might reflect the prevailing role definition popular when the principal was trained.

The challenge for school counselors, given the administrative power differential between the two professions, is to understand, appreciate, and frame these differences in ways that enlighten principals and enable them to become proponents of school counseling programs, no matter what the educational level or when the principal was trained (Murray, 1995b). Fitch et al. (2001) suggested training school counselors to collaborate with principals, to be assertive, and to acknowledge administrative support of quality school counseling programs. Additionally, Meyers (2005) recommended that school counselors develop leadership skills and personal partnerships with their principals by developing empathy, building respect, and sharing information. Similarly, Murray (1995b) suggested a two-part strategy to establish better working relationships with the school administration: developing a clear definition of the counselor's role and maintaining open communication. But these strategies are one-sided without understanding principals. How do principals develop positive attitudes toward school counseling and school counselors? From the principal's perspective, are these strategies successful in developing positive leadership that will facilitate the counselor's development of a comprehensive school counseling program (ASCA, 2005)?

Some insights into how perspectives and attitudes develop can be found in the literature exploring critical incidents. Defined as "situations, events, or experiences that [the respondent] believed had the greatest impact on her/his development" (Scott, 2004, p. 1681) and a "positive or negative experience recognized by the student as significant because of its influence on the student's development" (Furr & Carroll, 2003, p. 483), these incidents serve as nodal points in development as perceived by the individual (Fukuyama, 1994). Furthermore, "critical incidents have the potential to shape both our present behavior and our future destiny, as well as possibly even reshape our past" (Cormier, 1988, p. 131). Used in many studies to understand counselor development (Cormier; Furr & Carroll; Scott), supervision (Rabinowitz, Heppner,& Roehlke, 1986), and multicultural supervision (Fukuyama), critical incidents provide a phenomenological understanding of how individuals attribute meaning to various learning experiences. Examining principals' memories of and learning about school counselors/counseling could help school counselors understand what experiences predispose a principal to value and support school counseling.

Because there is no literature that describes those critical incidents that shape a principal's perspectives of the school counselor's role, all prior contacts could be considered critical. It could be hypothesized, however, that a principal may have experienced a critical incident during contact with school counselors in a variety of contexts: direct or indirect contact with a counselor during K-12 education, having a course or lecture about school counseling during undergraduate or graduate education, or having direct or indirect contact with a counselor as a professional (based on social learning theory; Bandura, 2004). Reflections about those prior contacts, present perspectives on the value of school counseling, and future-oriented advice to counselors could add contextual information to aid in understanding how the principal has used that critical incident to organize his or her thoughts about the role of school counselors.

Knowing that certain critical incidents might be hypothesized, there is value in understanding which of these contacts between school counselors and principals result in significant learning about school counseling. Knowledge about these critical incidents could yield implications both for the practice of comprehensive school counseling programs and for school counselor education and development. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to survey principals who are known to be supportive of school counseling to ascertain the critical incidents they identify as meaningful and significant in their appreciation of school counseling. Additional specific questions posed to supportive principals could provide firsthand suggestions for school counselors as they move toward program transformation.


A structured phenomenological interview methodology was used for this study (Measor, 1985; Spradley, 1979). Though the researchers brought an established research focus (i.e., what are the critical incidents that result in a principal's appreciation for and support of school counseling), the open-ended questions used in a phenomenological interview approach allow respondents to disclose their experiences without the mitigating influence of the interviewer. The respondent reflects on preestablished and uniform questions, without the inclusion of follow-up responses that might connote approval or disapproval (Heppner, Kivlighan, & Wampold, 1999). This qualitative methodology was chosen by the researchers because of the need to collect, analyze, and report the findings in an objective manner even given the a priori research question that inspired this study.


The goal was to elicit responses from "exemplary" principals. This was operationally defined as principals who (a) had been awarded by their state ASCA organization for their support of school counseling, (b) were principal of one of the eight national Recognized ASCA Model Programs (RAMPs), or (c) were recognized by ASCA members as exemplary as evidenced by their support of a comprehensive school counseling program. To sample this population, names of exemplary principals were requested from three pools of respondents: (a) principals named by the presidents of the 50 state ASCA organizations as those honored by the state organization, (b) principals of the eight national RAMPs, and (c) principals nominated by members of the ASCA listserv as supportive of their comprehensive school counseling program. After at least two requests for names for each pool, 9 principals' names were secured from the state ASCA presidents, of whom 5 principals responded; 7 names were secured from the Internet site of each RAMP school, of whom 2 responded; and 45 names were secured from the ASCA listserv, of whom 12 responded. In total, 61 individuals were invited to participate in the study; follow-up requests were made to those who did not respond after the first invitation. Of this sample, responses were received from 19 individuals, representing a 31% response rate.

Demographic information of the sampled school principals was limited to the grade level(s) of the school at which the principal served, gender, and state of employment, to ensure that this study represented a nationwide pool. The respondents' schools included five high schools, five middle schools, six elementary schools, one K-8 school, one K-12 school, and one alternative school. Respondents included 8 men and 11 women, and represented the West (n = 3), Midwest (n = 6), Southwest (n = 2), South (n = 2), and Northeast (n = 6).

The Instrument: Structured Interview Questions

The structured interview questions developed for the purpose of this study resulted from a thorough review of the literature examining principal-counselor relationships to hypothesize possible critical incidents. The structured interview questions were designed to elicit these incidents in an open-ended format to facilitate depth and meaningful responses. Prior to the interviews, the researchers reevaluated the structured interview questions to ensure that they met the needs of the research inquiry and were not written in a leading or influential manner. After that review, a practicing principal provided feedback on the instrument staring that the terms were clear, the questions would elicit the desired information, and the instrument would not be perceived as too long. The nine questions asked are listed in Appendix A.

The principals sampled for this study were given the choice to respond to the interview questions either by e-mail or by a phone conversation with one of the researchers. Though the researchers conceded that the data might be influenced by this manner of data collection, both response options proved to be viable for participants, given the demands on a school principal's schedule. The e-mail option was selected based on Granello and Wheaton's (2004) contention that e-mail surveys may increase participation and quality data by allowing more time for reflection and response, reduced response time, and greater respondent acceptance. Fourteen respondents chose this option. The phone interview option was selected by 5 respondents, and this option allowed for greater depth of detail to be recorded. During the course of the phone interviews, no additional statements were added to the original structured interview questions, to ensure objectivity, to deter influenced responses, and to provide uniformity in data collection.


To ascertain what critical incidents influence school principals who have been identified as demonstrating support for comprehensive school counseling programs, the researchers collected and analyzed qualitative data based upon research-focused structured interview questions. For those principals named by presidents of state ASCA organizations, names were solicited via e-mails directly to the 50 state ASCA organization presidents. For the RAMP principals, the Internet was used to obtain the principals' names. For the principals named by school counselors, names were solicited via the ASCA general listserv. Two requests for names were made to each source, yielding 61 names of exemplary principals.

The researchers contacted the identified exemplary principals in a preliminary e-mall inviting each to participate in an interview-based research study. With that invitation, principals received the structured interview questions; they were given the choice to respond via e-mail or to schedule a time for a phone interview with one of the researchers. Follow-up invitations were e-mailed to each principal 3 weeks after the initial invitation to encourage participation.

In the case of the phone interviews (n = 5), each conducted by the lead author, the researcher asked each of the preestablished questions and took notes, checking with the respondent for accuracy. These notes then were transcribed and sent to the respondent for amendment and/or verification before inclusion in the data pool. Those principals who responded by writing (n = 14) e-mailed their responses directly to the principal investigator of this study.


To analyze the data, the responses were first read and coded for themes individually by each of the researchers. The researchers then read and compared the codes of the other researchers and jointly established preliminary thematic codes. During the preliminary and secondary analyses of data, transcripts were examined and recoded as themes emerged, and the researchers repeatedly returned to the original data to ensure that the themes aligned with responses. To examine the resulting themes for consistency and validity, the themes were compared with the literature; when it was determined that the themes were consistent with existing research, analysis continued. At this point, questions that yielded themes that were duplicated in other questions were collapsed to provide greater focus and clarity of results. Because each response may have included multiple discrete responses (termed data points), the results of this study are presented in terms of data points, not respondents.

As the third facet of triangulation and to further ensure validity of the themes, the researchers invited an expert outside reader to consider both the original transcripts from the interviews and the coded themes developed by the researchers. The outside reader added a unique perspective valuable to the study: He has served as a school principal for 28 years, possesses an advanced degree in clinical psychology, holds an LPC license, and practices counseling in addition to his duties as a principal. This outside reader validated the findings of the research team by rereading all responses, coding them independently, then cross-checking the coding of the research team. After collaborative discussion among all readers, 100% inter-rater agreement was achieved.


The purpose of this study was to examine the critical incidents that positively affected the responding principals' perspectives on school counseling. Based on data drawn from those principals who have demonstrated exemplary support for the work of school counselors, results have been compiled to represent three domains--prior exposure to school counseling, present perspectives on school counseling, and recommendations for school counseling--and their supporting themes.

Prior Exposure to School Counseling

The first domain reflected the principals' prior exposure to school counseling, within which four topics were explored: experience as a K-12 student with a school counselor, education about school counseling, experience as a principal employing school counselors, and the experience they considered most salient in their appreciation of school counseling. When asked to describe their experience with school counselors while they were K-12 students, responding principals answered within one of four themes.

The first theme is "Little/No Relationship" (n = 11). The following is an example:
 My father was an alcoholic when I was growing
 up. I remember going to the counselor's
 office one day when I was upset by events of
 the previous night at home. I didn't want to
 let the other kids see me crying. The counselor
 asked me what was wrong but when I began
 to tell him he seemed acutely uncomfortable.
 He gave me a pamphlet about AlaTeen and
 sent me back to class. He never followed up
 and I never visited his office again.

The second theme is "Administrative Roles," in which the school counselor served in a role such as registrar or assistant principal (n = 4). An example: "In middle school, the sole counselor worked in a dean's role." The third theme is "College and Career Planning" (n = 3). Example: "In high school, the counselor was there to talk about college. My contact there was minimal." The fourth theme is "Positive Relationship" (n = 2). Example: "I remember my counselors always making me feel good about myself. When I left their office, I always felt very good about how I was and what I was doing. I always appreciated that."

In response to the prompt to describe the type of exposure they had to school counseling in their professional training, four themes emerged from the data, one of which is "No Training" (n = 11), for example: "Don't really remember having any." Another theme is "Workshop/Lecture(s)" (n = 1). Examples included "I've attended professional workshops" and "In graduate school, we had one small training, a lecture, on the roles of each student support profession, such as school psychologist and school counselor." Another theme is "One/Two Class/es" (n = 5), for example: "As a school psychologist, I took two classes in counseling and a practicum; I developed a heavy counseling background." The last theme is "Degree in Counseling" (n = 1), for example: "Since I was trained in my master's with counseling first, of course I had a great deal of experience and exposure."

When prompted to describe experiences as a principal employing school counselors, responses involved five themes. The first theme is "Uneven/ Irregular," both positive and negative (n = 3). An example: "I have been fortunate to have worked with some outstanding school counselors during my 30 years in education.... Of those six counselors, three were truly top-notch, two were average, and one was poor and she eventually lost her job." The second theme is "Counselor Provided Administrative Support," both ASCA-defined activities and non-ASCA-defined activities (n = 4). Example: "Sometimes they are seen as quasi-administrators because they do have a role in IEPs and they are part of the administrative team." The third theme is "Focus on Holistic Student Issues" (n = 9). Example: "My professional experiences with school counselors have been largely positive. Both counselors in our building are child advocates and routinely make decisions based upon what is best for kids [emphasis respondent's]." Fourth is the theme of "School-Wide Focus" (n = 12). Example: "I have this expectation that good counselors know and understand how important they are to the dynamics of the entire school."

The final theme is "Positive and Collegial Experiences," as characterized by open communication and valuable direct services to students (n = 14). The following is an example of this theme:
 As a principal, I make it a rule that school
 counselors are not disciplinarians, and I never
 have school counselors feel they have to fill
 that role.... They deal with the peer-to-peer
 issues and the physical changes of adolescents.
 They are also involved with parent meetings
 and provide the connection to parents, sending
 the message that we're all here to help
 your child. They are also involved with IEP
 meetings.... They are involved in every decision
 in the school.

When asked directly what experience(s) they credited with their appreciation of school counseling, only two responses reflected on the background of the principal: "My background as a school psychologist gave me an appreciation of counselors" and "With my background as a coach, principal, and teacher, I have a 'whole child' perspective." The rest of the responses were stated in terms of the counselors' impact on and/or relationships with parents, students, administration, and the entire school as witnessed by the principal. The theme of "Counselor's Role with Parents" was addressed by 7 respondents. For example: "The counselor listens and listens to the needs of parents and helps them focus on the solveable [sic] issues and helps with a plan of action." The theme of "Counselor's Role with Students" was addressed by 10 respondents, as in the following examples:
 Experiences with the issues of death and dying
 on a school campus. Through some very tragic
 times as a principal I discovered that the
 issues of death and dying are not addressed by
 district folks. Only the counselors (at our
 school and other schools) rallied to help in
 times of immense hardships.

 I have seen counselors save a child, because
 they were not afraid to reach out to a troubled
 child. This happens on a regular basis; it happens
 all the time.

The theme of "Counselor's Role with Administration" was addressed by 3 respondents. For example:
 Seeing the impact of that counselor, as a first-year
 teacher, she was so involved. As a program
 coordinator, I teamed with her because
 we both wanted what was best for students.
 Then, I saw how our principal worked with
 her, utilizing her as part of the administrative
 team. I got to see her interaction with the
 principal and what she did for the school and
 the teachers.

The final theme of "Counselor's Role in Entire School" was described by 7 respondents, as in the following example: "She literally touches every program in this school--curricular and otherwise."

Present Perspectives on School Counseling

The second domain explored principals' current descriptors of and the value of professional school counselors. In terms of current descriptors, the five words that the respondent used to describe an exemplary school counselor were grouped into three main themes. The first theme, "Systemic Interactions," consisted of two subthemes. The first subtheme was leadership and the ability to see the big picture of education (n = 7). For example: "Sees big picture," "Anticipates issues," "She understands her role as the heart of the school." The second subtheme was building strong working relationships with students (n = 9)--for example: "Understands children," "Child-centered," "A safe place for kids"--and colleagues (n = 12), for example, "She's there for the staff."

The second theme was conceptualized as "Professional Behaviors and Style" (n = 15), which included universally valued work behaviors such as "hard worker," "reliable," and "team player." The third theme, "Professional Qualities," also consisted of three subthemes. The first subtheme involved person-approach descriptors that highlighted counselors' interpersonal attractiveness and approachability (n = 30), such as "inviting," "caring," and "empathic." The second subtheme involved counselor skill descriptors that highlighted counselors' trustworthiness (n = 19), such as "professional," "knowledgeable," and "expert." The final subtheme consisted of task-approach descriptors that highlighted how counselors engage in their work (n = 10), such as "problem solver," "innovative," "resourceful," and "energetic."

When asked to describe the value the respondent sees in having a professional school counselor in the school, responses were grouped into four themes. In the first theme, "Value to Students" (n = 49), respondents used descriptors such as "Proactive in kids' social/emotional and academic issues" and "Safe, caring, positive person in children's fives." The second theme, "Value to Principal" (n = 11), included statements such as "Partners with me" and "Confronts me when I'm wrong; they help me see all sides and advocate for kids and families so that I have all the information I need when I make a decision."

The third theme, "Value to Stakeholders (Parents, Teachers, and Staff)" (n = 19), included "Mediate or advocate between home and school," "Confidential resource and support," and "They are aware of and work with parents and staff on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and then work up from there with the kids." The fourth theme, "Value to School Community" (n = 9), included statements such as "Supports school mission," "Sees the big picture," and "A professional counselor not only addresses student needs; a great counselor also keeps tabs on total school climate, adult interaction, and emotional intelligence."

Principals' Recommendations for Practicing School Counselors

The final domain reflected recommendations that these supportive principals offered for practicing school counselors. When asked, "How can school counselors improve the work they do?" respondents' input was coded into five themes. The first theme found was "Positive Work Style" (n = 20), high-lighting professional behaviors such as "visibility," "work conviction," "consistency," "student-focused," and "proactive." The second theme was "Continual Professional Development" (n = 5), which included advice to attend workshops, remain updated on state and national expectations, and keep current on student and administrative issues. The third theme was "Advocacy" (n = 11), in which respondents highlighted the importance of advocating for self and the profession of school counseling, as in this example:
 School counselors need to advocate for themselves.
 They need to make sure principals
 know that they do a variety of things: They
 counsel kids with issues, they work on transitions,
 they do problem solving with kids and
 families. They need to focus on what they do
 well and promote that, not focus on what they
 won't do.

The fourth theme, "Positive Relationship with the Principal" (n = 44), included "Keep the principal informed," "Work together," and the following example:
 Counselors need to be able to challenge principals,
 to be an advocate for kids and families,
 to provide the balance between the rule and
 the individual child.... Let the principal know
 the things he or she needs to know. Share
 what needs to be shared and then, if you have
 to challenge the principal, you know that you
 can rely on that trust to ensure that the relationship

The final theme was "Systemic Connections" (n = 11), which included statements such as "Link to community," "Leadership," "Work on school climate," and "Some principals and counselors focus on just the kids and miss the work they can do to help the teachers and parents who impact kids."


For principals who have been identified as exhibiting exemplary support for school counselors, there is no evidence in this study that K-12 contact or graduate training determines a principal's support. Respondents reported a wide variety of experiences in their prior contact with school counselors in their K-12 education and in their extended training. Rather, the critical incidents that appear to be most determinant of a principal's support for school counseling seemed to derive from the relationships that the school counselor has built with the principal and with the school community.

The most meaningful finding of this study evolved from the descriptions of what, in the respondent's view, was the most salient experience that the respondent credits with his or her appreciation of school counseling. These responses suggest that the critical incidents that determine support from the principal are those in which the principal experiences the value that counselors add to the school in terms of impact on parents, students, administration, and the entire school. This finding suggests a paradigm shift in the way the profession views principal-counselor relationships. The old attitude that "I'm only the school counselor; my principal won't allow me to do that" (role-defining relationship) needs to be replaced with "You know me to be a professional school counselor who does good work with students, parents, and teachers; trust me to show you how much value I can add to this school" (relationship and evidence determine role). The reframe that relationship and evidence of systemic influence determine role is a profound shift from the concept of the role-defining relationship found in reactive service delivery in non-ASCA-related activities.

The influence of strong relationships with administrators and other members of the school community contradicts the old belief that there are fixed roles and expectations for school counselors. What results from this shift is that school counselors empower themselves to create the scope of their influence when they demonstrate the positive effects of their relationships with members within the school and when they demonstrate competence, trustworthiness, and collaborative respect.

Further, as can be seen in the principals' descriptions of the value of exemplary school counselors, these principals emphasized systemic work in which the themes of leadership, collaboration, advocacy, and systemic change (ASCA National Model, 2005) are clear. Principals who support and value school counselors acknowledge that they provide a connection between home and school, and among teachers, administrators, and students, as found in the following examples:
 [The most salient experience is] working with
 this counselor. She clearly has "the X factor"-this
 is someone who sees a child in crisis and
 goes above and beyond the call of duty to see
 this child through the crisis. This is a person
 who helps the child by involving the family,
 teachers, and administrators to make sure the
 child gets through the situation, even obtaining
 outside assistance if needed. This is someone
 who will go the extra mile and doesn't
 stop short. She sees this as a profession, not
 just a job. In order to really help, the counselor
 has to be invasive, has to get into the
 family and the child's environment.

 When I became assistant principal, I really
 came to value what she [the counselor] taught
 me, that school isn't black and white, that to
 be a good administrator we cannot fit kids into
 conventional boxes.... She knew me well
 enough to tell me when I was wrong; she
 knew that rules are important, but she helped
 me to also value individual cases. She taught
 me to be gray within the black-and-white
 structure of the school building. That was the
 greatest gift she gave me--she gave me the
 freedom to allow me to focus on individual
 cases--to see the individual as well as the rule.

These principals appreciate counselors who see the big picture ("sees whole school," "supports school mission"), see students holistically ("answers students' social, emotional, and academic needs"), work for systemic change in the school climate ("leader," "advocate"), and work with all partners in the educational process ("collegial," "collaborative," "resource to teachers and parents"). They function, in essence, as the mortar that binds the bricks of the school building together, cementing students, parents, teachers, and administrators together in the effort to educate children.

Principals desire school counselors who are communicative, systemic in their work, student-focused, and able to take on leadership roles in the school. These relationships and expectations of school counselors are diametrically opposed to many of the non-ASCA roles often associated with the duties of the "traditional" school counselor (ASCA, 2005). Recommendations these principals have for practicing school counselors provide insight into ways that counselors can improve their relationships with all members of the school community, thereby expanding their roles. The respondents indicated that school counselors must maintain high standards in their work behaviors and must remain aware of trends in the profession. They must develop and maintain cohesive relationships with principals and advocate for themselves; doing so could increase an overall awareness and appreciation for school counselors' contributions to students, families, classrooms, and schools. Responding principals also emphasized that school counselors should create and maintain systemic connections, collaborating with parents and colleagues to positively shape the school and community.


There were a number of limitations that must be accounted for in understanding these findings. As is usual with qualitative research, there is a small sample; as respondents were drawn from several sources, homogeneity may be questioned, even though no inconsistencies were detected in the data. E-mail data collection seemed to elicit more brief responses; phone interviews, while no prompting was offered, elicited richer responses with more details. There may have been a gender bias in the response method that respondents selected: Of the 5 phone interviews, 4 were men and 1 was a woman, and of the 14 e-mail responses, 4 were men and 10 were women. (This is contrary to research reported by Granello and Wheaton [2004] that indicated that email communication may be more acceptable for men than for women.) Implications for this are unclear, as no gender-related patterns emerged in the data, but it deserves noting nonetheless. Collapsed categories, while sensible to the researchers, may contain alternative conceptualizations. Demographic information that was not collected, such as size of school and time as a principal, might have expanded the understanding of the results. Finally, as the goal of this study was to understand those experiences resulting in a principal's support of a comprehensive school counseling program as defined by ASCA, no attempts were made to solicit the names of principals from non-ASCA-related sources.


Implications for School Counselors

The insights offered by the exemplary principals sampled in this study can be used by school counselors as a valuable road map for the improvement of their school counseling programs.

First, the data suggest that the counselor-principal relationship has far-reaching influence on the systems that impact school climate and on the nature of the student support roles adopted by a school counselor. Counselors are not powerless to influence the principal's perception of school counseling; on the contrary, establishing a positive relationship with the principal is the most powerful tool at the counselor's disposal. It is through this positive, systemic-affirming relationship that counselors create the critical incident for a principal that can change his or her perceptions about school counseling.

Second, school counselors can examine the responses of these exemplary principals to understand those work attributes that principals value (e.g., communicative, supportive, sincere) and use them to achieve and maintain this positive relation ship. Principals desire certain professional roles, such as problem solver, student advocate, and systemic change agent. Working within the parameters of these expectations ensures that the school counselor is responding to the needs of all people in the system (students, parents, teachers, and administration) in the manner valued by supportive principals.

Third, it is encouraging to note that many of the roles and activities that principals value align with the ASCA National Model, and these findings highlight the need for school counselors to clearly demonstrate their impact on students' education. School counselors must ensure that they, first, create an achievement-focused comprehensive school counseling program and, second, promote the students' achievement through program advocacy and action research. Rather than relying on a positive relationship with the principal, school counselors must document their value as a resource to the entire school community. For example, a school counselor working with academically challenged students can track the successes of these students that occur as a result of their experiences with the school counselor and frame those successes in systemic terms: higher graduation rates, greater connection to the school, and improved school climate. The information compiled by the school counselor should be presented to the principal (and other members of the school community) in such a way to illustrate the value of the school counseling program (Stone & Dahir, 2004).

Fourth, the results of this study highlight a cause for optimism in the advancement and transformation of school counseling programs. Although many of these principals reported negative or neutral experiences with school counselors in their own schooling or as a professional, these principals are now engaged in an "exemplary" relationship with a school counselor. These data suggest that principals' perceptions of and appreciation for school counselors can evolve as counselors empower themselves to expand their roles toward more systemic goals.

Finally, in order to understand the counselor-principal relationship in individual schools, each practitioner may choose to discuss critical incidents with his or her principal. As suggested in Amatea and Clark's (2005) research, principals operate with various internal working models of school counseling, shaping the principal's expectations of the counselor. School counselors might consider a conversation with principals in which to explore those expectations and the following topics: the principals' K-12 contact with school counselors, training in school counseling in their administrative program, and what the principal would define as the most valuable assets that counselors bring to the school.

Implications for Counselor Educators

The first implication for counselor education involves leadership. As school counselors-in-training are taught about the ASCA National Model, counselor educators will be able to use the findings of this study to help new professionals understand the importance of leadership (DeVoss & Andrews, 2006; Dollarhide, 2003; Kouzes & Posner, 1995) and systemic interventions. Knowing that principals value the evidence of systems work in the school can prepare counselors-in-training for both engaging in systemic work and documenting such work. It is through activities with, and documenting the effects on, all systemic partners (students, parents, colleagues in the schools, and colleagues in the community; Dollarhide & Saginak, 2002) that counselors demonstrate their abilities to lead, build collaborative relationships, advocate, and bring about systemic change.

The second implication is an outgrowth of the first; concurrent with teaching the importance of these activities, this study demonstrates that counselor educators must teach consultation and program advocacy skills directly. Based on these results, the skills of leadership, advocacy, collaboration, and consultation may deserve more attention in preparation programs, and when they are taught in ways that highlight their value to administrators, counselors-in-training will enter the profession better equipped to answer the needs of administration as creators/contributors of positive school climate (Fitch et al., 2001). They will possess a common language and value system with administrators that does not include inappropriate administrative tasks (i.e., scheduling, testing, and discipline; ASCA, 2005) but that highlights the special counselor skills that administrators value.

Finally, these findings suggest that counselor educators still need to collaborate with educational leadership faculty to better educate aspiring administrators about the value of professional school counseling (Fitch et al., 2001). Although the respondents of this study represent a small N, their collective experiences with formal training in the value of school counseling is still meager, with 58% (n = 11) of the respondents reporting no training at all. While not a critical incident for this group of exemplary principals, future administrators might benefit from understanding the ASCA National Model and how this model emphasizes the systemic work that administrators value.


Future exploration in this area could include a longitudinal study that tracks the relationships between school counselors and principals, in order to examine any patterns that may be present over time. Additionally, future research may address the way in which the relationships between school counselors and principals affect overall school climate issues. Can the school climate be predicted by examining the principal-counselor relationship, as suggested in this study and Ponec and Brock (2000)? This study has provided thought-provoking themes related to exemplary relationships between school counselors and principals; it could therefore be equally useful to conduct a study of non-exemplary relationships between school counselors and principals, and the way in which this affects overall school climate.

Similar to studying conditions that foster client wellness or healthy school climate, this study attempts to shed light on conditions that foster a principal's support for school counseling and school counselors. Two insights are important to note: first, that the critical incident the respondents noted as most meaningful regarding school counseling involved contact with an exemplary school counselor, and second, that the respondents of this survey described the same valued activities as the themes of the ASCA National Model (2005)--leadership, advocacy, systemic change, and collaboration. This study, therefore, serves as confirmation that counselors who implement the ASCA National Model, and who continue to do their vital work with students, parents, and colleagues in the schools, will help transform not only their programs and schools, but perhaps their principals as well.


Structured Interview Questions

1. What are five words you would use to describe your relationship with your school counselor?

2. What are five words you would use to describe an exemplary school counselor?

3. Describe what value you see in having a professional school counselor in your school.

4. Describe the most salient experience you credit with your appreciation of school counseling/counselors.

5. Describe your personal experience with school counselors during your K-12 education.

6. Describe the exposure you had to school counseling in your professional training.

7. Describe your experience as a principal with school counselors.

8. How can school counselors improve the work they do?

9. What can school counselors do to facilitate the best possible working relationship with their building principal?


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Colette T. Dollarhide is a visiting assistant professor with the Ohio State University, Columbus. E-mail:

Alexanderia T. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

Matthew E. Lemberger is an assistant professor, Division of Counseling & Family Therapy, University of Missouri, St. Louis.
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Author:Lemberger, Matthew E.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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