Voice Recognition

KSBA News Article

In Conversation With ... Heather Bushelman

Heather Bushelman

Kentucky School Advocate
October 2022

Q. Before you joined KDE in December, you taught elementary school and then became a school counselor for 14 years. Why did you want to be a school counselor?  

I taught math and it was a passion. As a teacher, I always wanted to do what was best for kids. I realized though that I had a knack for helping students who had behavior challenges or mental health needs. As a school counselor, I could help kids in a very different way.

Q. Could you talk about your role as comprehensive school counseling program coordinator for KDE?

In my new role, I do presentations around the state and nation and help other counselors and educators by talking about things that might work for them. I help counselors build their skills and start with a comprehensive program based on our Kentucky Framework for School Counseling. I love to see the different strengths they possess and encourage them to then collaborate with other counselors.

Q. When people hear school counselor, they might sometimes picture a guidance counselor from their time in school, when counselors were tasked with record keeping, testing duties or other administrative work. The role of school counselor is much broader. Can you describe it?

School counselors have three domains – academics; social/emotional; and college and career. They have to be experts in those three areas. We proactively plan large group class instruction, small groups and individual skills to be able to counsel kids based on their needs and assets. We also are very data driven. Everything that counselors should be doing for a comprehensive program is based on data, whether it is data about academic needs or on social-emotional needs or college and career.

We are working hard to get everyone to call us school counselors instead of guidance counselors. I tell counselors if you have guidance counselor anywhere on your social media or in your offices, get it off and if you can’t, duct tape over it.

Q. Have most schools changed the role that school counselors play?

. It has started to shift in the past five years and there’s momentum. Legislators have helped through legislation they have passed. We’re not quite where we want to be just yet. Part of my role is to encourage superintendents and districts, when they do hire counselors, to look at the job descriptions for school counselors and make sure they reflect the current standards.

Q. Can the Kentucky Framework for School Counseling help schools move in that direction?

The Kentucky Framework is about four years old and we are updating it this year to add a few components. It shows counselors what they should be doing by standards to have a comprehensive counseling program. It includes a school counselor job description so when districts are shifting from guidance counseling to school counseling, they have a model to look to. At conferences, people from other states ask me about the Kentucky Framework and our legislation. Kentucky is leading some of the way in what we want school counselors to do daily, but we still have a little ways to go with it.

KDE Program Coordinator for Comprehensive School Counseling Heather Bushelman talks with Christian County school counselors at a training focused on building a comprehensive counseling program within a multi-tiered systems of support model. (Provided) 

Q. The recent report from the Office of the State School Security Marshal showed that only 44 percent of schools meet the goal of having one counselor or school-based mental health provider per 250 students. Why is that goal important and what can be done to help these schools meet that goal?A

. I’ve been in schools where I was the counselor for 850 students and 450 students and, in both cases, it was very difficult to keep up. You have to be very creative with your time. As student needs increase, we may have kids who don’t have access to our counselors for their academic; social/emotional or college and career focus. In those cases, counselors have triage – which kids must be seen now, which can wait a day or two. It can be a safety risk when kids don’t have access to counselors when they need to talk about unsafe situations happening at home or school.

Q. Are schools finding ways to meet the goal?

Some districts are using ESSER funds to get more people hired. Some may hire one or two school counselors and a mental health therapist to be in a school or split among several schools. They may hire a social worker. Some might use community resources, for example, contracting with a company to provide therapists.

Q. When it comes to school safety, the focus tends to be on school resource officers and building security measures. But counselors and mental health professionals can make schools safer too. How do they impact school safety?

We are very proactive and can help staff be proactive as well. We help staff look for red flags – behaviors, things students might draw, write or search for on Chromebooks, for example. Usually, counselors do an annual training on that topic. Most school counselors help staff, telling them to let the counselor know when they see red flags so they can all work together to make sure that student is safe.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge and concern you’re hearing from school counselors across the state?

Taking care of our educators and administrators and our kids. They are all struggling. A lot more students are in crisis. They’ve experienced trauma, because of COVID, the tornadoes, the floods. Our counselors are experts and know how we truly help those students and educators function and understand those feelings and thoughts and how we can build resilience and help each other be in those collaborative relationships together.

Q. Social emotional learning (SEL) has come under attack from some groups. So could you explain why SEL is important in schools today?

Social emotional learning is how we act, how we behave, our emotions, problem solving, goal setting skills that students and even adults struggle with. Self-awareness is knowing who you are, what you are good at. And self-management is about how to cope with stresses to get through the school day, to take this test, to get through a workday. Part of self-management is goal setting. Do kids have hope, what do they want do outside of high school and postsecondary, based on their skills, strengths and talents? Do they have social awareness and know what a healthy relationship is? Do they know how to argue respectfully? What is conflict resolution, how do you handle conflict? What character traits do you bring to different relationships and do kids understand their purpose? All these skills help students build resilience throughout life. Research shows the value of SEL. More kids will graduate high school, have jobs longer, flourish and have fewer at risk behaviors because they understand where they fit in and how to deal with things when life gets hard. Social emotional learning is so much more than soft skills. It is in everything we do as adults that some kids struggle with. Whenever I do SEL trainings about it, one things I show is that if you Google “employability skills,” 95% of them are based on SEL skills.

Q. How can school board members support a strong school counseling program in their districts?

The first thing would be to look at what their school counselors are doing. Are they being called school counselors? The name is a big difference. From there, they should look at what the district is asking the counselors to do and how many there are. Is the district getting close to the recommended ratio? If not, have other school-based mental health professionals been hired? The message and advocacy coming from the school board is going to make a huge difference. Having the board ask, “What does our legislation say for the use of a counselor’s time and is that being followed?” And remembering that within the Kentucky Framework, there is a school counselor job description to use. Every bit of research tells us behavior issues, mental health, stress levels, anxiety, depression are increasing in our kids. Who better to help those students than our school counselors? And are we giving them time to help those kids and giving our kids access to them. If we’re just doing what we’ve always done, that’s not going to help our kids right now.

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