Assessing Middle School Students Need for a School Counselor

Michele R. Schmalzel
Siena Heights University

Keywords: middle school students, counselors, family, depression, bullying


School counselors provide a range of services to students and can be particularly beneficial to middle school students, who are in a period of adjustment and change (Maples et al., 2005). These students may deal with difficulties such as family and or social problems, depression, and bullying. Thirty-five middle school students in a private Catholic school were surveyed to determine their feelings about school counselors. (The school currently does not have a school counselor.) In this study I examined whether students would be interested in having a school counselor available to them and what benefits they believed a school counselor could provide. The students surveyed have little experience with, or knowledge of, school counselors. Results showed the students have an interest in a school counselor and would be willing to see a counselor. Students also demonstrate an awareness that fellow students could benefit from a school counselor. 


Middle school is a time of great growth and possible turmoil for adolescents, which is why it is important to investigate school systems and how they shape the experiences and learning for students (Maples et al., 2005). The Catholic schools located in a Midwestern town in Michigan recently underwent a restructuring that resulted in a new middle for students in grades 5-8. Previously, there were three separate Catholic elementary schools located within a mile of each other, with each school housing kindergarten through 8th grade. The structure is now closer to that of a traditional middle school, and unfortunately, like many middle schools in the United States, the new middle school does not have a school counselor. The last decade has seen a drop in the number of middle schools with counselors, with only approximately half offering on-site counselors (Slade, 2003). It seems that school counselors would be beneficial, especially in a middle school environment. Middle school students encounter a range of difficulties in their lives, and this is a time when they may experience personal problems or conflict, including issues with family or friends. For instance, coping with divorce is an especially difficult for children this age (Cohen, 2002). Middle school students may also experience feelings of depression or conflicts at school, with bullying remaining an issue in schools today (Newman-Carlson & Horne, 2004). In this study I will examine the topics of family and social issues, depression, and bullying and how they relate to middle school students. I will use an essentialist/realist approach to understand how Catholic middle school students feel about school counselors and whether or not these students are open to discussing problems with counselors. The purpose in finding this information is to explore the need for school counselors in middle schools in order to provide feedback to the students, parents, and administrators of this community.

Literature Review

Issues with Family and Friends

It is believed that students in middle school are in a period of transition, that this period of time can contribute to traumatic issues with family and friends, and that a school counselor can assist students in dealing with their emotions (Maples et al., 2005). Middle school is a period of time when children begin to realize their own identity, apart from family, which can often cause frustration for the adolescent (Cicognani & Zani, 2010). These challenges may be experienced differently for females and males, as attaining autonomy can cause females a higher level of distress since they typically value closeness with family more than males do. During this time, it is also common for conflict within the family unit to peak.

An especially difficult situation for a middle school student is divorce. According to Cohen (2002), children this age may benefit immensely from extended counseling. Typically, children experience a need for counseling before the actual divorce, during the period of marital separation, and for counseling after the divorce, as a child may feel ongoing loss throughout this period of time (Cohen, 2002). According to Cohen, middle school children dealing with a parental divorce may experience a range of emotions and outcomes that can hinder their academic performance, such as depression, moodiness, anger, and decreased self-esteem. Furthermore, many children this age also feel a great amount of guilt and have a belief that the divorce is their fault. School counselors can play a crucial role in intervening in the lives of the students and can help to minimize negative outcomes.

Peers become especially important during middle school, and friendships play a central role in a middle school student's life. These students rely heavily on impressions and opinions of friends and peers (Akos & Levitt, 2002). Although there are gender differences in the types and quality of friendships during this period (Underwood & Rosen, 2009), all students may have difficulties as a result of conflict with friends. Additionally, according to Underwood and Rosen, girls and boys begin to interact more in grades six and seven, setting the stage for new friendships and relationships. This may introduce the potential for new kinds of rejection, disappointment, and frustration.


Divorce and conflicts with family and friends are not the only causes of depression in middle school students. Adolescence is an unstable period of development, with major physical, emotional, and hormonal changes (Maples et al., 2005). Middle school specifically is a challenging time, due to students experiencing new environments, new teachers, and possibly new sources of conflict. Unfortunately, a possible, albeit extreme, outcome of these circumstances is suicide. According to Maples et al., youth suicide risk factors are very different from adult suicide, and it is imperative that school counselors have the ability to recognize warning signs and take action. School counselors also have the ability to implement preventative programs as well as postvention programs to assist the grieving process when a tragedy occurs (Maples et al., 2005). Postvention programs take place following a tragedy, and certain considerations are taken into account in a postvention following suicide. For example, counselors consider the fact that, although there is one suicide, there can be many victims, and counselors can provide counseling and support. School counselors may also be aware of, and trained to follow, specific postvention guidelines set up by the American Association of Suicidology (Maples et al., 2005). The postvention program is also important to deter additional suicides, which sometimes occur following an initial tragedy.

Another source of depression in middle school students can result from struggling with a healthy body image. During this time period students begin to find their own independent identity and often compare themselves to an "ideal" image or to their peers (Akos & Levitt, 2002). If students feel that they do not measure up to the ideal image they have in their mind, they may develop an unhealthy body image and have high levels of self-hatred, which may lead to depression, acting out behavior, eating disorders, and poor school performance (Akos & Levitt, 2002). Students in middle school are typically egocentric, believing others are as obsessed with their appearance as they themselves are, which may add to emotional turmoil about body image (Maples et al., 2005).

Students in middle school are experiencing changes in their bodies but at different rates. These changes can also affect body image, especially for girls. According to Natsuaki, Biehl, and Xiaojia (2009), middle school age children who experience early or late pubertal onset may experience elevated levels of depressed feelings, with the highest risk being for early maturing girls. In a study by Lindberg, Grabe, and Hyde (2007), 11-year-old girls who experienced pubertal development often had a higher BMI, experienced more harassment, and felt more body shame. School counselors may be especially helpful in this area with training that provides the skills to identify warning signs of this behavior. They may also have the knowledge necessary to promote healthy attitudes about all body types and help individuals in need seek help.


Bullying remains an issue of concern in schools and can have many detrimental effects. Bullying can cause a student to feel that school is no longer a safe place, which leads to excessive absences (Newman-Carlson, & Horne, 2004). According to Phillips and Cornell, in addition to lowering academic achievement, bullying also causes social and emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety. School counselors are a valuable resource in identifying victims of bullying, especially counselors with specific training; however, identification of victims is not easy. Students are often reluctant to seek help or discuss what is happening to them, and it is unlikely that school staff will even witness bullying (Phillips, & Cornell, 2012).

Schools have traditionally used self-report surveys to assess the degree of bullying that occurs. With this type of anonymous report, schools may learn the prevalence of bullying but not the identity of the victims, so there is no intervention taking place (Phillips, & Cornell, 2012). Often, schools will use peer nominations to identify victims, but there are problems with that method as well, especially because middle school students do not always understand the difference between bullying and other types of peer conflict. School counselors can play an integral role in identifying victims with a method using both peer nominations and counselor interviews. In a study by Phillips and Cornell, counselors reviewed peer nominations and set up interviews with students who received multiple nominations, in order to confirm that bullying was taking place. This method proved to be successful, with results indicating a 43 percent confirmation with 2 or more nominations and 90 percent confirmation with 9 or more nominations.

The Role of a School Counselor

According to Beesey (2004) the school counselor's role has changed along with societal changes, and declining overall school enrollment in the 1970's and 1980's has led to a reduction in the number of school counselors. Today it is estimated that only 50 percent of middle and high schools offer counseling services on site (Slade, 2003). By comparison, more than 90 percent of schools provide hearing and vision testing to students to check for learning impairment; this prioritization of certain medical conditions over others seems to neglect the impact that mental health problems can also have on academic progress (Slade, 2003). Although little is known about what middle school students expect from counseling (Moore & Lent, 2007), it is important to offer services at this age because the middle school setting is better suited for counselors to develop "sustaining personal relationships with students through more traditional comprehensive developmental guidance services" (Beesley, 2004, p. 266). Unlike high school students, middle school students typically are not focused on class choice and college preparation so counselors at this level can develop a more personal relationship, especially in a smaller private school environment.

School counselors have traditionally been expected to work with students in several areas, such as individual counseling, academic growth and career goals, and social skills (Moore & Lent, 2007). Scarborough and Culbreth (2008) list the four fundamental interventions related to a school counseling program, as devised by the American School Counselor Program, as "counseling (individual and small group), curriculum (classroom lessons), consultation (e.g., with teachers, parents, and other professionals), and coordination (the organization and management of regular and special program activities)" (p. 446). Unfortunately, due to the limited resources of school systems, demands and expectations of school counselors have increased (Beesley, 2004), and this may lead to a lack of role definition (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Studies have shown that counselors would prefer to be involved in student interventions where they may provide a positive outcome (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008) and would rather not spend a majority of their time engaging in non-counseling tasks, such as completing evaluations for special education (Slade, 2003).

Middle school counselors can play a crucial role in the lives of students and the benefits of on-site counselors have been shown; however, more effort needs to be made to ensure the continuation of the profession (Slade, 2003). Counselors themselves should utilize training programs to continue their education and also educate school staff and the public about the importance of their role with middle school children (Beesley, 2004). School systems should offer prevention programs to educate students about mental health and the mental health services available to them.

Students in a Catholic school setting face the same challenges as other middle school students but the counseling approach may have a unique advantage due to the inclusion of a religious aspect. In the past, Catholic schools were cautious about counseling programs and focused more on discipline (Murray, Suriano, & Madden, 2003), but they now make use of school counselors who are expected to take on a pastoral role. Catholic school counselors use religious, ethical, and psychological perspectives and strive for positive personal, religious, and academic outcomes. It is important to a Catholic school counselor to include faith, community, and service in the education of students. According to Murray, Suriano, and Madden, "pastoral counselors must take into consideration the social, emotional, religious, moral, and developmental stages that influence each student" (p. 40). Including spirituality in counseling is beneficial because positive religious factors can reduce at-risk behaviors (Smith-Augustine, 2011). Studies have shown that students want to speak about religious issues with their counselors and discussing these issues allows a school counselor another way to assist the students' needs.

 In some ways, Catholic schools may be better suited to assist children in fighting issues such as depression because in discussing religion and faith, counselors can emphasize the construct of hope. Studies have shown that hope has a positive effect on a student's emotional health and well-being (Ashby, Dickinson, Gnilka, & Noble, 2011). Counselors who teach about and encourage the belief in hope can have a significant impact. Ashby et al. showed that hope can lead to adaptive perfectionism, which promotes higher levels of motivation, higher grades, and higher levels of optimism and self-esteem.

The students attending the particular middle school studied do not have a counselor present and I am curious to discover the students' feelings and beliefs about school counselors. These ideas have led me to devise the specific research question, "Do students in the new middle school feel a need for a school counselor, and if a counselor was available to them, would they themselves make use of the service?"



Sixty-two White middle school students (grades 5-8) were given surveys to complete and return (See Appendix). Thirty-five students completed and returned the survey, giving a response rate of 56.5 percent. The average age of participants was 11.7 years, with an age range of 10-14 years. Respondents included 17 boys and 17 girls, with one participant not answering the gender question. Participation breakdown was 10 fifth grade students, 6 sixth grade students, 10 seventh grade students, and 9 eighth grade students. In accordance with the Institutional Review Board, informed consent was obtained from parents or guardians.


Permission slips were handed out to 62 middle school parents and all agreed to their children's participation. Surveys were administered throughout the month of February 2013. Fifty surveys were distributed by hand to parents at school sporting events and 12 surveys were mailed to parents. (Twelve surveys were mailed because the parents were not in attendance at the sporting events.) Participants were instructed to complete the survey on their own. Surveys consisted of 10 closed-ended questions and 2 open-ended questions. The first three questions ask for the participant's age, grade, and gender and the remaining involve the participant's feelings about a school counselor's role and the likelihood that they would use the services. (See Appendix)

Parents and students were asked to return surveys to the author as soon as possible. Surveys were returned to the author in person or by mail. Students were informed that they would be given results of the survey. In order to obtain an acceptable response rate parents were instructed on the purpose of the survey and given adequate time for their children to complete the survey and return it. The response rate obtained was 56.5 percent, which is a good rate ("Response Rates", 2007).       

Data Analysis Plan

An inductive approach to thematic analysis was employed in order to find patterns in the responses to the open ended questions (Braun & Clarke, 2006). I began by reading all of the data several times, searching for patterns and taking notes. Initial codes were formed from all the possibilities, and then I sorted through the codes to decide which themes were occurring. Codes were reviewed again, making sure the extracts fit into the themes and the themes reflected the data. Finally, exact themes were chosen along with the data that was best used to represent a specific theme.

Results of Closed-Ended Questions

Do the students feel a need for a counselor?

Sixteen out of 35 students answered that there had been a time when they felt a need for a counselor or someone to talk to. Nine students replied that they were interested in having a counselor available at school, and 15 answered "I Don't Know." Fourteen students were willing to meet with a counselor on their own and 12 answered "I Don't Know." When asked if they could benefit from having a school counselor, 18 answered yes, 14 replied "I Don't Know," and only 3 said no.

Does a lack of knowledge about school counselors affect answers?

Thirty-one respondents answered "no" when asked if they have attended a school with a counselor. Three were unsure and only 1 responded with a "yes," so most students had never had a school counselor available to them. It's possible that never having exposure to a school counselor led many students to answer questions with "I Don't Know." For instance, when asked if students were interested in having a counselor, 15 of the 34 respondents were unsure. When asked if students would meet with a counselor on their own, 14 answered they would and 12 were unsure. 

Do the students notice a need in other students?

Interestingly, there is a difference between the student's views of need for themselves, compared with need for others. Eighteen students (51.4%) felt they could benefit from having a school counselor, while 27 (77.1%) students replied that other students could benefit. Only 3 students answered no when asked if they could benefit from having a school counselor and no one answered no when asked if other students could benefit. (See Table 1)

Results of Open-Ended Questions

In what ways do the students think school counselors are a benefit?

The overall theme expressed in the student's answers to this question is that school counselors are people to talk to about problems. Twenty-one students (60%) responded that school counselors deal with issues, problems, and troubles and that they would listen to them. Specific responses included: "They would help you tell something you wouldn't tell to anybody else", "If people have problems, they could talk to the counselors and get help", and "School counselors help students by talking to you about your problems and figuring out ways to help." Students also felt counselors could "give good advice."

Many students responded with specific issues for school counselors help. Twenty percent of students mentioned classroom problems, 17 percent cited bullying, 8.6 percent cited discussion of family problems, and 5.7 percent listed social issues. Examples of such responses are: "What to do if they are getting bullied or if they are having trouble in class," "They can help people be more social, and help them feel better about themselves," and "We had a death in the family, and it would have been nice to have someone to talk to." One student responded that school counselors could help students "overcome fears."

What are the particular issues that students would speak to a school counselor about?

When asked if they would speak to a counselor, 60 percent of students responded with a "yes," or with specific issues they would talk about. The types of issues students wished to talk about were classroom problems, family problems, social problems, and bullying. Classroom problems included "struggling in class" and teachers "not understanding" students. "Divorce" and "parents" were examples listed as family concerns. "Problems with friends" and "people gossiping" were social concerns the students expressed, and "bullying" remained a topic of concern for students.


The goal of the current study was to determine how Catholic middle school students felt about school counselors. I was also interested in gaining insight into the student's level of understanding about a school counselor's role. The study demonstrated possible confusion about school counselors, perhaps due to a lack of experience, while also showing a need by the students for a school counselor. Student responses showed an understanding that a counselor is someone they could speak openly and it was expected that students would feel a need to speak to a school counselor about issues unique to their age group. Family problems, such as divorce, were listed by students; according to Cohen (2002), it is important for adolescents to discuss these issues. Past research has shown that social problems are also an issue for middle school students (Underwood & Rosen, 2009), a finding that was supported in our data. As cited by Phillips and Cornell (2012), bullying remained a problem faced by children in this survey. Results showed the ability for students to notice their peers' needs for a school counselor. This ability along with counselors trained in anti-bullying programs could be very beneficial, especially with the implementation of peer nomination programs.


In a time when school budgets are being reduced, leading to fewer school counselors (Slade, 2003), it is imperative that schools take a closer look at the roles of school counselors and the need students have for them. The well-being of children should be a primary focus in society, and children's needs, including emotional and psychological, should be at the forefront. Mental illness and psychological well-being in children need to be addressed now, especially with the rise of violence in schools (Slade, 2003). Thus, schools need to more closely consider the ways in which school counselors can provide middle school children with a number of benefits, including safe, healthy outlets, at a critical time in their development, possibly leading to better adjusted adults.


There are limitations with the current study that could be addressed in future research. The number of students sampled, 35, is relatively small and taken from one small Catholic middle school, where the students have little experience with, or knowledge about, school counselors. Future studies should gather data from a larger number of students, possibly from many schools, including differences between private and public, or religious versus secular, middle schools. Also, it is difficult to know if students in this age group understand the importance of the research and answer with as much information as possible. Therefore, it might be helpful to interview students to ask follow-up questions, in order to better determine the depth of students' understanding. Finally, the study was conducted by a parent of students attending the middle school and who many students know personally. Even though efforts were made to ensure anonymity, this may have caused the students to worry about who would read their answers and therefore affect their responses. Future, larger studies should employ data gatherers with no relationship to the school.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, the current study examined the need for a school counselor in a Catholic middle school. Thirty-five students in the survey showed a need for a counselor but had limited experience with counselors. Past research showed that middle school is a time of change, with students facing issues such as family and social problems, depression, and bullying. Student responses confirmed an interest, and further research is needed to evaluate the topic further.


Akos, P., & Levitt, D. (2002). Promoting healthy body image in middle school. Professional School Counseling, 6(2), 138-144.

Ashby, J., Dickinson, W., Gnilka, P., & Noble, C. (2011). Hope as a mediator and moderator of multidimensional perfectionism and depression in middle school students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 89(2), 131-139.

Beesley, D. (2004). Teachers' perceptions of school counselor effectiveness: Collaborating for student success. Education, 125(2), 259-270.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101.

Cohen, G. (2002). Helping children and families deal with divorce and separation. Pediatrics, 110(5), 1019-1023.

Cicognani, E., & Zani, B. (2010). Conflict styles and outcomes in families with adolescent children. Social Development, 19(2), 427-436.

Lindberg, S., Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. (2007). Gender, pubertal development, and peer sexual harassment predict objectified body consciousness in early adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 17(4), 723-742.

Maples, M., Packman, J., Abney, P., Daugherty, R., Casey, J., & Pirtle, L. (2005). Suicide by teenagers in middle school: A postvention team approach. Journal of Counseling and Development, 83(4), 397-405.

Moore-Thomas, C., & Lent, R. (2007). Middle school students' expectations about counseling. Professional School Counseling, 10(4), 410-418.

Murray, R., Suriano, K., & Madden, J. (2003). Catholic school counseling: From guidance to pastoral care. Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 7(1), 34-52.

Natsuaki, M., Biehl, M., & Xiaojia, G. (2009). Trajectories of depressed mood from early adolescence to young adulthood: The effects of pubertal timing and adolescent dating. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 19(1), 47-74.

Newman-Carlson, D., & Horne, A. M. (2004). Bully busters: A psychoeducational intervention for reducing bullying behavior in middle school students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82(3), 259-267.

Phillips, V., & Cornell, G. G. (2012). Identifying victims of bullying: Use of counselor interviews to confirm peer nominations. Professional School Counseling, 15(3), 123-131.

Response Rates (2007). Retrieved from University of Texas website: http://www.utexas.edu/academic/ctl/assessment/iar/teaching/gather/method/survey-Response rates

Scarborough, J., & Culbreth, J. R. (2008). Examining discrepancies between actual and preferred practice of school counselors. Journal of Counseling and Development, 86(4), 446-459.

Slade, E. P. (2003). The relationship between school characteristics and the availability of mental health and related health services in middle and high schools in the United States. Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 30(4), 382-392.

Smith-Augustine, S. (2011). School counselors' comfort and competence with spirituality issues. Counseling and Values, 55(2), 149-156.

Underwood, M., & Rosen, L. (2009) Gender, peer relations, and challenges for girlfriends and boyfriends coming together in adolescence. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(1), 16-20.

Appendix A

For questions 1-10 please circle your response.

1. Grade:     5        6        7        8

2. Age:        9        10      11      12      13      14      15

3. Gender:   Male   Female

4. Has there ever been a time when you felt you needed a counselor or someone to talk to?

          Yes    No

5. Would you be interested in having a school counselor at St. Mary Middle School?

          Yes    No      I Don't Know

6. If St. Mary Middle School had a school counselor would you meet with them on your own to discuss any issues?

          Yes    No      I Don't Know

7. Have you ever attended a school with a school counselor?

          Yes    No      I Don't Know

8. If so, did you ever meet with the school counselor?

          Yes    No

9. Do you think you could benefit from having a school counselor?

          Yes    No      I Don't Know

10. Do you think other students could benefit from having a school counselor?

          Yes    No      I Don't Know

Please answer questions 11 and 12 in your own words using the back of the paper if needed.

11. In what ways do you think school counselors help students?

12. Is there a particular issue(s) you would speak to a school counselor about?

Appendix B

Table 1. Can Students Benefit From School Counselors?




I Don't Know

Do you think you could benefit from having a school counselor








Do you think other students could benefit from having a school









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