10 Tasks Elementary School Counselors Can Do to Prepare for Back to School

And just like that, we’re in Back to School season! In my district, we returned in July, and now that I’m back, I’ve been working steadily through my to-do list to prepare my school counseling program not only for the first day of school, but also for Open House (before school starts), the first semester, and the entire year. Laying a strong, organized foundation now will help things flow more easily as situations arise throughout the year.

  1. REFLECTION AND DATA REVIEW: In the back of my counselor planner, I keep a few running lists for reflection. What worked well over the past year? What are my goals for this year? Knowing my goals will help me with program and curriculum planning. Reviewing last year’s data, end-of-year student surveys, printing a needs assessment to give to teachers, and reviewing my 5th graders’ exit interviews are great ways to collect information for program planning each year. I also revisit my school counseling mission statement each year.
  2. CREATING A FUNCTIONAL AND INVITING COUNSELING SPACE: Summer workdays are a great time to set up your counseling space so that you can hit the ground running when the teachers return. In my district, teachers and counselors are required to work 3 summer workdays before the official teacher workweek, so I use this time to ready my space so that it is both functional for me and inviting/comfortable for students. This is when I design and hang my bulletin boards, unpack all my counseling gear, prep resources that need to be laminated, organize books and materials (themed tubs and books by color), and set up my desk. I use a variety of tried-and-true, functional resources I’ve purchased on TPT and also some I’ve created that double as colorful decor. I’ve used a variety of seating through the years, from beanbag chairs to plush spots on the floor, to papasan chairs, but a round table is always a must for my groups. I also like to keep my desk in a place where it’s not between me and my student.
  3. ORGANIZING A DOCUMENTATION SYSTEM: Before I begin working with students, I set up my database so that I am ready to document my services, whether direct or indirect. I have always used NoteCounselor to log my time. The creator, Mandy Chambers, is actually a school counselor in my town! Being able to quickly generate reports on my daily/monthly/yearly time expenditures has helped me advocate for my program. I also use it to document the date and time of my meetings with students, whether in the classroom, group counseling, or individual counseling sessions. (I actually use an older version of NoteCounselor through Microsoft Access, but there is a newer web version as well.) Each year I begin a new password-protected database and upload the names of every student in my caseload before the school year begins. (I can always add new students as they come.)
  4. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Inevitably, your district will have professional development meetings and opportunities during your first few days back. Use this time to keep an open mind about how to implement these ideas into your program. I’m excited to be implementing Responsive Classroom this year! At the same time, consider opportunities for professional development offered in your state and on a national level, from your local and state counseling chapters, to ASCA. Going to conferences keeps your program current and an added bonus — you can collect points toward recertification for your license. I appreciate the hours I can also count toward my national board certification. I look forward to these conferences to network and collaborate with counselors from all over my state each year! It’s also a nice change-of-pace from my day-to-day routine and gives me just a tiny break from my 3 precious little boys at home.
  5. SMALL TASKS: Schedule time to complete small tasks, from looking over any duties, committees, and specific assignments you have, to completing health modules, signing up for trainings (Mandt, Mental Health First Aid, etc.), or other tasks to keep your license current and fulfill your commitments as an educator. I update my website with current information and resources.
  6. SCHEDULE: I rely heavily on my school counselor planner to manage my personal and professional schedules. As soon as I have access, I transfer important dates into my planner: all committee meetings , all faculty meetings, all scheduled spirit days, and my own events (such as Veterans Day luncheon, Career Day, and Donuts with Grownups). My school uses a shared Google calendar so that everything is available and there are no surprises. This is also the time I look over the specialist schedule, as I am in the rotation teaching academic, career, and emotional/social lessons. Some years I am in the rotation, and some years I am out, but either way I make sure I have time in the classroom to educate my students about my program, the role of a school counselor, and preventative skills and strategies.
  7. PREPPING FOR BACK TO SCHOOL AND/OR OPEN HOUSE: School-wide events are a great time to advocate for your program and be visible to your students and families. My school creates a theme each year for Open House, when students arrive to meet their teachers and complete a scavenger hunt to meet the specialists. I always make sure I am included on the scavenger hunt and am listed using the correct title of “School Counselor.” This year, I am setting up a booth in our main foyer to meet as many families as possible! I’ve created a fun bulletin board and am using a spinner and conversation cubes to keep it engaging for students. I also have a New Student Welcome Letter I update and print for all parents outlining my counseling program and mission statement. Advocacy is key!
  8. BUDGET: Throughout the year in the back of my planner, I keep a running wishlist of resources I’m interested in purchasing for my program. In May, I place an order through my school and beginning in July, I can purchase additional resources, so this list is helpful to know how to best budget my counselor allotments. Consider where you might have a budget to spend, whether it is provided by your school, district, or PTO/PTA. Once you know your budget, prioritize the resources you need the most, from books to games to curriculum. In the past, I’ve written grants and even attended a summer-long class to acquire additional resources and technology for my classroom.
  9. ORGANIZING YOUR SCHOOL COUNSELOR RESOURCES: Full disclosure — I color-code *most* of my books. I started this with my kids’ bookcases at home and absolutely loved the look of it. But I also organize very specific counseling books by theme into labeled resource tubs, such as Grief & Loss, Family Changes, and Anxiety & Worry. I have a basket of fidgets I keep on my table, any water/sensory toys stay out on my windowsill, and art supplies are usually put away until needed.
  10. CURRICULUM PLANNING: Using the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success, I map out my curriculum for the year. I do this before teachers return so that I can dedicate my undivided attention to the task. Then I begin to focus on my first several lessons for each of the grade levels I teach, beginning with an initial lesson about the role of a school counselor and how they can reach out for help. I also use this time to establish classroom routines, expectations, and we do fun icebreakers! My lessons are currently 45 minutes, once every 12 days in a rotation. I make sure that my class rosters are printed and ready with medical notes and other needs listed so that I can keep track of my classes and student attendance and so that I can work on learning their names from Day 1!

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but I find having these tasks completed before the first day of school frees me up to remain visible those first few days, checking in on new students and greeting students as they arrive instead of scrambling in my office prepping for whatever the day may bring. I can connect more readily with teachers while also feeling prepared for my classroom lessons and crises that will inevitably arise.

Oh, and a good cup of coffee also goes a long way, too! 😉

What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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