Choosing a Theoretical Approach

School counselors must be fully cognizant of which theoretical applications or dominant approaches are incorporated in the counseling process. School counselors who are confident in their knowledge, understanding, and application of theory will operate from a perspective that is compatible with their as- sumptions about student development progression, emotional well-being, and school appropriateness. 

The differential effectiveness of various approaches, a familiarity with a broad range of treatment systems (Seligman, 2001), and the melding of one’s own knowledge and experiences in utilizing various theories have resulted in some clinicians choosing an eclectic or integrated approach. Taking an eclectic approach is a challenging choice; approaching treatment in an eclectic manner requires a solid foundation in knowledge and experience. School counselors do not always have the luxury of indefinite periods of time to work from a particular theoretical approach and sometimes choose to draw on more than one approach to work with students.

Counseling is a continuous process, a series of stages that begins with exploration and investigation and terminates at an appropriate time when the client’s (student’s) goals are achieved. The stages are not necessarily sequential or discrete and overlap is common, but they offer a structure to help school counselors evaluate and monitor their level of skill and application of the technique in the counseling process (Carkhuff, 1985; Corey, 2009; Egan, 1994; Gladding, 2012; Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Downing, 1993).

  1. Stage 1: Establishing a Relationship
  2. Stage 2: Setting the Tone in a Counseling Setting Stage 3: Exploring the Issues
  3. Stage 3: Setting Goals
  4. Stage 4: Transitioning to Independence

Establishing a Relationship

A strong relationship with a student is paramount to success in order to gain the commitment and willingness on the part of the student to establish and achieve the agreed-on goals defined by the counseling relationship. Relationship building starts with the initial contact between counselor and student. 

The relationship builds during the exploration of the issues that directly affect the student’s state of mind, well-being, and motivation. The counselor’s level of skill, selection of techniques, and theoretical orientation of the counselor influences the counseling relationship and ultimately the student’s satisfaction and success.

Attending, an important counseling technique in the first stage establishes the working relationship between client and counselee. The effective school counselor knows how to build rapport with students and considers all of the variables that influence a student’s arrival at your door. Attending requires that the school counselor unilaterally focus on the student and avoid distractions and interruptions. Many students have learned to read adults and are highly intuitive and can easily recognize insincerity or lack of interest. Depending on their history and experiences, many students may come to counseling with resistance.

The counseling relationship can be affected by whether or not the student is referred by others or is a self-referral. Teachers and administrators may send a student to the counseling center and inadvertently or pointedly give the student the impression that they are going to see the school counselor for a disciplinary reproach, which creates a position of defensiveness and/or resistance to counseling. A teacher may send a student to seek remediation for problem or apathetic behavior. Appropriate referral approaches can be a staff development topic and increase the likelihood of relationship building and success. As a relationship begins to develop, consider the following:

  • What is the student’s motivation to engage in a counseling process?
  • How does the student view the situation?
  • Is the student open to learning new behaviors, motivated to seek alternative solutions, and willing to make a change?
  • Does the student see how counseling can help?

Students may enter the counseling situation reluctantly or with no desire to change. Engaging students in the process of exploring options to change behavior is a constant challenge. Resistance to change and lack of commitment on the part of students to become engaged in their education are encounters. School counselors need to display unconditional acceptance and understanding to gain the confidence and trust of their young clients (Gladding, 2012). 

Accurately reflecting the students’ feelings and capturing the content of what is shared facilitates the establishment of this trusting relationship. School counselors respond to the student in a manner that helps her or him integrate feelings, behaviors, and thought processing to influence the desired outcome or change.

When counseling is effective, then the school counselor directly affects the student’s ability to maximize the educational process. The intentional counselor can generate multiple alternatives and approach a problem from many vantage points using a multitude of skills and personal qualities while adapting styles to individualistic needs and cultures (Ivey & Ivey, 2014).


Stone, C., & Dahir, C. A. (2015). The transformed school counselor. Cengage Learning.

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