Bullies at school. Problems at home. Slipping grades. College applications. Wouldn't it be great if there was a customer service agent for your school, available anytime and designated to help parents, students, and teachers work together to have a successful school experience? Well, there is: your school counselor.

A school counselor wears many hats. Not only does he help students identify and pursue interests in careers and higher education, but he's also responsible for the social, emotional, and academic well-being of his students. In addition to group and individual counseling, the school counselor can address everything from study skills and college applications to bullying and peer pressure. According to Paul D. Houston, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators, “Good counselors affirm students’ possibilities to them, create options for them and give them a sense of possible direction."

At least, that's what a school counselor is supposed to do. The problem is that the American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor to student ration of 1:250. But "1:500 is pretty average,” says Brenda Melton, a school counselor in San Antonio and a former president of the ASCA. So, while a counselor is there to listen to your family's needs, it's likely that she's also spread pretty thin.

When it comes time to address a problem at school, here's what you should keep in mind:

  • Set up a time to speak privately. Brenda Melton suggests that parents call ahead to schedule a meeting, and “set a priority on it, casual to urgent.” That way, counselors can address the most pressing problems first. While many school counselors will respond to emails, she recommends meeting face to face over putting problems in print. “It's much better to speak privately,” she says.
  • Don't run away from the problem. Melton discourages parents from moving their children to a different school instead of confronting an issue head-on. “You're never going to have an insulated space,” she points out, and says that kids need to learn to work through their problems. “How are we going to teach kids to cope with behaviors and problems if we don't address them?” she asks.
  • If you still feel that your concerns aren't being addressed even after consulting the school counselor, you may need to try a different avenue. “The next step is to go the administration – the Assistant Principal or Principal,” says Melton. But parents should think of the school counselor as the first step in navigating the complicated waters of social, emotional, and academic matters.

School counselors usually have a Master's degree in counseling or a related field, and despite the fact that they work for the school, they're committed to playing a supporting role for parents with concerns. “We're very much the buffer,” says Melton. “The parent is more likely to talk to a counselor if they feel like they have someone who's neutral.” Although she says that today's top concerns are under-achievement, bullying, and peer pressure, a parent should feel free to consult their school's counselor about any issue that they feel is affecting their child's learning experience. The bottom line? Says Melton, "Counselors are the customer service agents for the school.” So don't be afraid to use them.