May 25, 2024
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School-Based Counseling and Private Therapy for Your Child

With the new school year coming around the corner, this is an opportune time to discuss two common forms of child services: school-based counseling and private therapy. Should I take my child to a private therapist, or is it possible for school staff to provide adequate counseling? Can school-based counselors really help my child, or will my child be better off with a private therapist? I regularly hear parents asking me various versions of these questions.

As a school psychologist, I’ve worked in various New Jersey public school districts and functioned as a licensed psychologist in private practice. My professional experiences in both settings have allowed me to understand these two options for care. I’ve come to appreciate how both, working together, contribute to helping your child.

To begin, one must distinguish the credentials of the providers. Most commonly, types of staff providing school-based counseling include school social workers, licensed clinical social workers, school psychologists and licensed psychologists. These school professionals may or may not be licensed mental health professionals who have the training that allows them to work in private practice.

Private practice providers are licensed mental health professionals. They have met the schooling requirements, gained the post-graduate clinical hours required to obtain a license, have taken a licensing exam and of course have a license to practice privately. While some private therapists have prior knowledge about how school systems function, others may not. If some of the concerns for your child revolve around school, it is always a good idea to ask the potential private therapist about his/her knowledge of school systems and experience in helping implement various school-based accommodations.

Another issue to understand is the services delivered in both settings. In school settings, the counseling topics frequently discussed are school related. Put otherwise, school staff members are experts in school-related issues. They are invested in students’ academic futures, and consequently focus primarily on how your child’s academic or mental health concerns impact school performance. School staff members tend to have background knowledge of different accommodations that can help level the playing field, which allow your child to succeed. Some accommodations include extended time on assignments, preferential seating, in-class tactics to ease anxiety and many more. Nevertheless, it is not “against the rules” for your child to discuss concerns unrelated to school with school staff.

In private practice, the focus of services is usually on the presenting concerns, which may or may not be school related. There are many different types of therapies out there (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy) and you have the luxury of picking a clinician with the type of background you think will be best for your child.

Next, it is important to differentiate the consistency of service delivery in both settings. While working in the school system, the phrase, “Man plans and God laughs” frequently comes to mind. Best practice is usually for counseling services to be delivered on a consistent basis (e.g., weekly). For students without an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), weekly counseling services are basically nonexistent. Even for students with IEPs who have documented disabilities, it can be difficult to deliver the consistency of services required in their plan. The reason: School settings are usually hectic in that different situations arising on a moment’s notice can supersede a counseling session. For example, if another student is in crisis, or if an important meeting springs up last minute, counseling sessions tend to be pushed to another time. School funding limits the school’s capacity to hire enough counselors to be able to provide services to all students whenever students need help.

In private practice, there are rarely distractions that take priority over regular and consistent therapy sessions. Setbacks to holding regular therapy sessions tend to be infrequent, and usually relate only to illness, holidays, vacations and maternity leave.

Even though the consistency of receiving school-based counseling services may seem akin to an unreliable friend who sometimes blows you off at the last minute, the benefits are undeniable. School staff members comprise an interdisciplinary team of different professionals with diverse expertise who can coordinate care in the same school setting. A school counselor who is able to speak with a teacher with whom he/she has a prior professional relationship can provide invaluable quality care for your child. Moreover, changes designed to help your child at school can sometimes be made immediately.

Nevertheless, school-based counseling can become a double-edged sword. It has the potential to be wonderful because an interdisciplinary team is caring for your child, and school counselors can address many issues without needing for you to pay for a private therapist. However, school staff also frequently have the authority to impose consequences, and if the counselor imposes or enforces such consequences it may be difficult for a student to really open up to the counselor about his/her thoughts, feelings and behavior. This is an issue because the school-based counselor has multiple roles: as counselor and pseudo-disciplinarian. A common situation is for a teacher to discuss concerns to a counselor about a student’s behavior, leaving it up to the counselor to address these concerns in a way that aligns with the teacher’s agenda.

To seek a private therapist for your child is a tough decision: You need to learn about the capacity of school staff to address your child’s problems, you need to learn about the benefits to be gained by getting a private therapist involved and you need to learn about how the two can work together effectively. And this is where your private therapist is invaluable. He/she can help coordinate care with school staff. In private practice, parents can sign a release form to have their child’s private therapist communicate with school staff. If your private therapist has prior knowledge of school systems, this communication plays an invaluable role in helping your child.


Samantha Schulman, PsyD, NCSP, is a licensed psychologist specializing in both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and practices in Wyckoff, New Jersey. She can be reached at [email protected].

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