Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Have a child heading into high school soon? Here are 6 pieces of sound advice from a guidance counselor at one of the top high public schools in the country — who happens to be my sister-in-law, Liz Stanley. I shared this first in 2008, back when my Liz was working at a high school on the East Coast, and before my kids were old enough for high school, or even middle school. Now that I have some solid experience with kids in high school, I can confirm how good these tips are.

Here’s what Liz says:

I just had my first child almost 3 months ago and love being a mother and being with my baby. I’m grateful for this time away from work so we can bond.

Before the baby, I was working as a high school counselor, and coaching the girls lacrosse team, in a really good New Jersey school for the last three years. I miss it a lot. One thing I love about my job as a guidance counselor is the ability in my position to see and understand the school district as a whole. I’ve been able to appreciate this more and more as I’ve realized how this information can serve me when my own kids are in high school. I know some of you don’t have teens yet (obviously, neither do I) but here are my “notes to self” — just in you want to file them away.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Get involved in the school in some capacity.

Duh, right? But really, make it a priority, and it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. It can be as simple as joining an advisory board or attending PTA meetings on a regular basis. Your voice is important. It’s your child’s education for goodness sake.

Having a good relationship with the counselor is a big advantage.

I recognize that if I was a gym teacher I would probably say “Having a good trusting relationship with the gym teacher is key” and I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but growing up, my high school counselor happened to be a close family friend. So of course, all of my siblings and both my parents had no hesitation asking him for advice and direction. And it was really helpful. As I entered the same career, I was surprised to find that many high schoolers barely know their counselor and that many parents are hesitant to ‘bother’ their kids’ counselor.

I say do it. Bother away. But bother nicely of course — your aim is to make the counselor a friend and ally. They are truly trained to help and support your student. If you are tight with the counselor you’ll likely get an invaluable perspective into the school and studentbody and your child’s place in all of it — a perspective that teachers (and the students themselves) aren’t able to offer.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

Empower your teen.

As tempting as it may be to call the teacher or school administrator for every question, it’s much more important for a high school student to be an advocate for themselves and learn from their mistakes. It’s important for them to communicate effectively face to face (not just through i/m or Facebook), how to work with authority figures, and how to pick themselves up when they fall. If you find yourself hovering, try chanting this sentence daily: Helicopter parenting for a high school student is detrimental to that needed growth. So relax. Back off a bit.

Don’t be scared to get your kid psychological help.

There are many outstanding therapists that work well with teenagers and understand their needs and issues — possibly better than you do. It’s okay to admit you want help offering your teen the emotional support they need and can’t always ask for. Don’t let pride get in the way. This is another time your school counselor can be invaluable — ask her to help you find a fantastic therapist. Counselors hear all the feedback and will have the low-down on which therapists will work well with your teen’s specific needs.

Six Pieces of Advice from a Top High School Guidance Counselor

When it’s time for the college admission trek, get as much help and guidance from the counselor as you can.

In many schools, 75% of the job description for a counselor is all about helping kids get into college. And I’m sure you’ve heard: the process is getting so complicated it can be more than overwhelming — just the admission terminology alone will make your head spin. Your counselor can help your child choose the right schools to apply to — schools that are appropriate and realistic. Plus, they can walk you through the application process itself (think: testing, essays, interviews, paperwork, etc). Use their expert knowledge. In my opinion, there’s no need to hire anyone private. (I’m not even joking. A big east coast thing is to hire someone to help you through the college application process. I say, use the free counselor and save your money for tuition.)

Special Education.

I have so much to say on this that it should probably be a separate post — but the bottom line is do your research and communicate with your child. There are so many legal issues involved that the school special ed department can’t always be as straight forward as you might expect. Understanding different levels of accommodations and what it will mean for your child’s future is so important. The difference between a regular education class with an additional special education teacher in the room vs. a small class of just special education students is huge. Do your best to show your child to how to be a self advocate, to be well versed in their disability/disorder and the services they need. From what I’ve seen, over-accommodation throughout their k-12 doesn’t prepare them for the real world where you don’t get ‘extra time’ or ‘teacher notes’ to complete a business report at their future job.

There are a million other things in my head, but these are the big ones I hope to remember. In fact, mom, if you’re reading this, will you please email me these notes when my new baby starts 9th grade. . .


Thank you so much, Liz! I really appreciate this encouragement and advice.

What’s your take, Dear Readers? A decade ago, many of you were like Liz and me, and having your kids in high school probably seemed far away. And now, I’m guessing some of you have high school graduates! (Me too. These photos are from my daughter Maude’s graduation in June.)

What do you think of Liz’s advice? What would you add to her list? Are you nervous about your kids heading to high school? If yes, what worries you the most?