Fall 2020

Counselling: An Important Skill for School Principals

As school principals engage in strategic planning initiatives and ask teachers to develop professional growth plans, they should consider adding ‘counselling skill development’ to their own professional growth initiatives. A recent study that involved more than one hundred Canadian school principals and vice-principals indicated that many administrators acknowledge a need for more training to prepare them for the counselling role of school principals. The results of the study illustrated the extent to which administrators are involved in counselling situations with members of the school community and confirmed the need for administrators to have access to training and support. 

The study evolved out of the researcher’s personal curiosity about the importance of creating opportunities for school administrators to develop knowledge and skills in the area of interpersonal counselling. The researcher, who had served for five years as a high school principal, believed that some of the most important work that she did on a daily basis was to talk to a variety of individuals, who were caught in difficult situations. Sometimes, it was a student, who was struggling academically. Sometimes, it was a staff member, who was having an issue with a student or a
co-worker. Workdays of school administrators are often absorbed by individuals that seek support, rather than by managerial tasks that keep things running smoothly. 13% of the principals (n=122) indicated that more than 50% of their normal school days were spent in different counselling situations. Both the nature of the topics reported by participants and the frequency with which participants stated that they were being called upon to employ counselling skills, illustrated that counselling knowledge and skills would be appropriately considered in the growth plans of school administrators. This article will address the need for more research in this area, explain the methodology and results of the study, and confirm the importance of training and support for school administrators, who provide counselling as part of their day-to-day role.

In the Literature

Although participants in this study reported that this is an important issue facing school administrators, an extensive search of the literature revealed only two studies about the counselling roles of the school principal and both were conducted by students as their dissertation research (Balch, 2008; Cleckler, 2010). Balch (2008) conducted a quantitative study that considered whether key counselling skills and administrator demographics could predict school status in Indiana and tested the ability of the survey to identify key counselling skills. Cleckler (2010) sought to establish a relationship between counsellor’s reports of principal effectiveness and the principal’s use of counselling skills. While these studies made a connection between principals’ use of counselling skills and the principals’ effectiveness in their role, neither study explored the counselling roles of the school principal. Therefore, the purpose of this foundational study was to establish how often principals find themselves in a counselling role, and what types of counselling they are doing.


This survey research targeted school principals, working in a variety of contexts, to confirm the importance of the counselling role of
the school principal, to assess the amount of counselling that principals were doing and to record the types of counselling situations that were common in their roles. Participants were recruited nationally through social media and locally via email to school divisions within the researcher’s home province in Canada. A majority of the sample (n=122) resided within the province of the researcher. The survey included 20 multiple-choice questions. 


The findings confirmed the frequency and the depth of the counselling experiences of school administrators. Participants indicated that their counselling role involved students, teachers, and parents. Additionally, the findings illustrated that daily counselling situations and
triage-counselling situations were important considerations.

Counselling with Students

Most principals in the sample indicated that they talked with students about topics that included behaviour (99%), academic performance (93%), issues that arose outside of school (92%), and relationships with other members of the school community (96%). To a lesser degree (66%), principals in the sample were also engaged in discussions regarding students’ future career plans. Qualitative responses gathered in the “other” category indicated that some respondents were involved in discussing heavier topics including suicide, mental health, anxiety, depression, family relationships, abuse, smoking, alcohol, and drug use. This finding illustrates a need for principals to have formal training to ensure that they have the skills to navigate those important conversations.

Counselling with Teachers

Most of the principals in the sample group indicated that they engaged in discussions with teachers about difficulties at work that caused anxiety (90%), difficulties at home that might affect their work (85%), and relationships with other members of the school community (90%). In the “other” section, all six responses suggested that principals were also talking to teachers about mental health issues. Teachers assume important responsibilities in the school community; therefore, administrators need to navigate skillfully through these conversations to promote greater teacher resiliency and stronger school communities.

Counselling with Parents

The item regarding the types of counselling discussions with parents included a high response rate for topics about their child’s behaviour, academic progress, or other anxiety producing issues. Additionally, most principals in the sample responded that they discussed family difficulties with parents that might affect the school or the community and their child as well as parent or child relationships with other members of the school community. Those who responded in the ‘other’ category mentioned mental health, parenting support, and immigration issues.

Daily Counselling

The research findings suggested that counselling was a normal part of the principal’s day-to-day role. Participants estimated the amount of a normal day that they spent counselling members of the school community. 46% of respondents indicated that counselling discussions took up more than 20% of their day. A task that commands this much of the principal’s time, and relates to such important issues, demands that the principal have or develop the skills required to respond appropriately.

Crisis Triage Counselling

The school principal is often required to be a ‘point person’ in times of crisis. The role shifts from counsellor to triage agent, a person who listens and then directs people to counselling or healthcare. 78% of respondents indicated that this happened several times per year. One participant wrote, 

“…it happens much more than a few times a year, there are weeks when I spend the better part of 2-3 days connecting families to social work, outside agencies, counselling, setting up counselling in the school beyond the guidance counsellor, connecting families to school teams, attending and hosting multiple agency
wrap-around meetings for families in crisis, calling CFS [and] any possible agency I can muster.” 

This is a crucial role and one for which many principals are unprepared.


The participants in this study indicated that several times a year they were required to act as a triage counsellor and decide which school and community resources might serve the needs of individuals in crisis. They acknowledged that counselling was a regular part of their daily work and reported that they engaged in counselling discussions with parents, teachers, and students. Furthermore, they described conversations about mental health and other issues that would place the student, teacher, or parent in a vulnerable position. These results call on administrators to add counselling skill acquisition to their professional growth plans. Furthermore, the results indicate a need for school systems to prioritize training and support in this area to ensure that school principals can successfully fulfill their counselling roles. 

Jacqueline Kirk Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Department of Leadership and Educational Administration in the Faculty of Education at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. Jackie will be speaking about the counselling role of the school principal at the Canadian Association of Principals annual conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba in May 2020.

Balch, T. (2008). Identification of key counseling skills for highly effective school administrators (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana.
Cleckler, V. (2010). The relationship between principal effectiveness and the use of counselling skills (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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