Interview with a Professor: Empowering Florida’s School Counselors

With Covid-19, with the protests and all the racial incidents we have right now, with schools being closed and pushed to reopen, we’re definitely going to need school counselors doing the things they’re trained to do, which is supporting the academic, social, personal, and mental health needs of children.

Ann Shillingford-Butler, PhD, Associate Professor of Counselor Education, University of Central Florida (UCF)

Something is broken in America’s schools. In the last 18 years, there have been more victims of school shootings than in the entire 20th century combined. No other nation has anything remotely resembling this problem. Empowering school counselors is one of the ways to start fixing it.

“Because of an increase in community violence and school shootings, different school districts and states have pushed for more social-emotional training in schools,” says Ann Shillingford-Butler, PhD, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida (UCF). “School counselors have been at the forefront in implementing those types of lessons.”

School counselors are trained to support the academic, social, personal, emotional, and career needs of K-12 children. They do this through individual counseling sessions, group counseling sessions, classroom engagement, teacher consultations, and school-wide programming. With a holistic, individualized, and empathetic approach, they teach students how to be more self-aware and how to make better decisions. These are crucial skills in managing students’ mental health.

Meet the Expert: Ann Shillingford-Butler, PhD

Dr. M. Ann Shillingford-Butler is an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida (UCF), where she also serves as coordinator of the counselor education PhD program. She received her master of education in guidance and counseling from Bowie State University, and her PhD in counselor education from UCF.

Prior to joining academia, Dr. Shillingford-Butler accrued several years of professional experience as a school counselor in Maryland and Florida. Her current interests focus on exploring ways of deconstructing the educational, social, and health disparities among marginalized communities. She also serves as coordinator for the UCF National Holmes Scholar program (NHS), a mentoring program that supports students from underrepresented groups in higher education. Her co-edited book, The Journey Unraveled: College and Career Readiness of African American Students, was published in 2015.

Dr. Shillingford-Butler graciously answered our questions about the role and enduring importance of school counselors in Florida.

What Do School Counselors in Florida Do?

After a major school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the state’s action plan called for increased mental health initiatives, including required access to dedicated mental health counselors for students at every school in the state. But school counselors, who are trained in delivering exactly this kind of service, are not being utilized to the full extent of their ability.

“School counselors are pulled in so many different directions,” Dr. Shillingford-Butler says. “There’s often a disconnect between the expected role and the actual role of school counselors.”

Too often, school counselors are viewed by school systems as all-position athletes. When the administration is stretched, it’s school counselors who are called upon to cover for them. They end up taking on administrative roles and disciplinary roles, reducing their ability to provide direct services to students and their families.

Refocusing the Role of School Counselors

In a 2017 survey, a majority of school counselors, 78 percent, reported that they spend either too little or far too little time on providing direct services to students. Instead, they’re tasked with indirect services such as scheduling, test coordination, attendance verification, and meeting coordination. To combat this, the Florida School Counselor Association (FSCA) and the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) are advocating to standardize a rule that school counselors should spend at least 80 percent of their time on direct engagement. But Florida’s school systems and administrators have been slow to implement this standard.

School Counselor vs Guidance Counselor

Part of the problem is qualitative and lies in a relic of the past. A 2019 article in the Journal of School-Based Counseling Policy and Evaluation identified that school counselors are not being empowered to provide the mental health services they’re trained in, partly because they’re being asked to fulfill the duties of another role—those of a guidance counselor—instead. School counselors in Florida face the challenge of educating school systems, administrators, and the general public on their professional title—and how their expertise has shifted from mere academic and career guidance to that of a comprehensive school counselor.

“We need people to recognize the important role that school counselors play,” Dr. Shillingford-Butler says. “Instead of school counselors spending much of their time performing indirect tasks such as scheduling, why not have them use their skills to really support children and work on emotional wellness, psychological functioning, and students’ overall mental wellbeing?”

The High Demand for School Counselors in Florida

The other part of the problem is quantitative: Florida needs more school counselors. In 2017, the state’s ratio of school counselors to students was 1 to 477, according to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). Between 2005 and 2015, school enrollment has gone up 4 percent in Florida, while the number of counselors working in those schools has gone down 4 percent. There are approximately 200 schools in Florida without a single school counselor. This gap comes at the detriment of student performance and wellbeing.

The Enduring Importance of School Counselors

School counselors are expertly qualified to deliver Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programming that more than 213 controlled studies indicate improves students’ academic achievement and positive social behavior while reducing conduct problems and emotional distress. School counselors have been found to significantly increase students’ academic achievements, and significantly lower misbehavior, with further research showing that the effects of an additional school counselor are twice as large as adding an additional teacher to reduce classroom size.

“Teachers play a significant role in covering a lot of those social-emotional, mental health, and psychological needs of children, but that is not their primary role,” Dr. Shillingford-Butler says. “Without a school counselor, students don’t have that consistency; they don’t have that role model; they don’t have that person who is significantly trained in helping them in making positive decisions, in learning how to regulate their emotions appropriately.”

Mental health and social-emotional learning shouldn’t be an afterthought, but a major focus. That’s why school counselors undergo such rigorous education, training, and certification. At the UCF graduate program in school counseling, students undergo a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship, both of which are supervised, on top of their coursework.

“Within society, there are so many needs that children have,” Dr. Shillingford-Butler says. “The training school counselors receive needs to be comprehensive. We want our counselors to be well-rounded, to address the holistic nature of who children are—not just academics, not just mental health.”

Youth aggression holds no single personality type, physical characteristic, or mental health diagnosis. But violent episodes that appear to come without warning may actually have had early warning indicators if observers are trained to spot them and treat them. School counselors are. It’s one of many benefits they can bring to Florida’s schools if allowed to practice to the full extent of their training. And, at least in the near-term, the need for empowered school counselors is only going to increase.

“With Covid-19, with the protests and all the racial incidents we have right now, with schools being closed and pushed to reopen, we’re definitely going to need school counselors doing the things they’re trained to do, which is supporting the academic, social, personal, and mental health needs of children,” Dr. Shillingford-Butler says. “We need to take school counselors and put them in the positions they are most needed, and that is at the forefront, with the children.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog


Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2020, he’s written extensively about how counselors and other behavioral health professionals are working to address the nation’s mental health and substance use crises, with a particular focus on community-driven and interdisciplinary approaches. His articles have included detailed interviews with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Counseling Association (ACA), the American Mental Health Counselor Association (AMHCA), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).