Tips for School Counselors: The Art of Saying No

**Just to clarify…this article is not about refusing requests. Rather, it’s about finding a way to say “yes” in a way that benefits the majority in your counseling program.**

School counselors are trained to help people. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, PTO members, and community organizations require our time and efforts.

While it’s an honor to support others, we can’t do it all and in order to save our sanity (and meet the needs of our students), we must know how to say “no” to some requests without upsetting stakeholders.

Just to clarify, “saying no” comes in many different forms. It may take the traditional form of turning down a request or the “no” may come in the form of trying reform practices that go against the best interests of your students.

Several states, including mine, have gotten away with tenure and that may make you feel uneasy about saying no. However, school counselors are charged with advocating for children above everything. That is why it’s imperative that you master the art of “saying no” while strengthening professional relationships.

How School Counselors Can Say No While Strengthing Professional Relationships #schoolcounseling

I feel like I’m in a unique position to speak to the “Fine Art of Saying No.” Actually, I feel that my ability to say no while strengthening professional relationships is one of my biggest strengths (next to winning over oppositional people <- more about that later).

My professional background has afforded me with many opportunities to sharpen my ability to address issues with mutually beneficial outcomes. For those of you who have worked in the protective services/foster care/residential areas know that there are oodles of stakeholders that want different things and they all expect you to deliver.

School counselors are put in the same position by providing services to students, teachers, parents, principals, the community, etc. The reality: there is only so much of one person to go around.

The truth is: I still have to say, “no” a lot.

I cover 3 buildings (tons of kids)…I’m only in each building 1-2 days a week and when I am in the building my students, teachers, parents, etc. tend to think that I’m “available” to do whatever might pop up or they think because I’m not tied down to a classroom that I can take on their various pet projects (breakfast club, lunch groups of their choosing, various charity projects, PD that they think would be a good idea, etc.).

“Ahhhh, no!”

Well, I don’t say it like that of course! I guess I technically could, but I wouldn’t really look like a team player and I would be burning bridges faster than I could build them. It takes a while to build up a good reputation as a school counselor. This is especially true when you’re only part-time in a building.

I can’t risk rubbing people the wrong way, but then I can’t possibly say yes to everything either. Hence, the need to be able to say no in a way that is beneficial for you and the other party.

Step 1: Understand Your Role as the School Counselor

School counselors are not the “catch-all” for any tasks that need to be done or issues that need to be addressed. If you haven’t already experienced this phenomenon, you will.

Try not to look at requests that go against best practices or (GASP!) those that would be considered unethical as an affront to you or the school counseling profession. It’s hard not to take it personally, but in my experience, it’s (usually) not personal…it’s a lack of understanding….even if you believe their request isn’t due to lack of understanding, treat it like it is.

It’s vital that we keep our cool. Taking things personally, only clouds our judgment.

On the flip side, approach the situation as an opportunity to educate stakeholders about the role of the school counselor. If requests go against American School Counseling Association guidelines for a comprehensive school counseling program (including ethical standards) use the opportunity to strengthen the official role of the school counselor.

Establishing the boundaries of the school counselor’s role has the added benefit of reducing future requests.

In some situations, counselors and teachers are asked to perform nonprofessional duties (bus lot, lunchroom, recess monitoring, etc.). If this is the culture of your school you have a few options.

  • Advocate best practices as discussed above.
  • Show your admins what they are missing out on or in essence what you have to say no to when you aren’t able to function as a counselor. Principals may be more agreeable to release you from lunch duty in exchange for lunch bunch groups…especially if you target a population that will save them time in the long run.
  • Use the time to bond with your students – keep a deck of What Would You Do cards in your pocket to engage conversation, role model appropriate conversation skills (or table manners if you can eat your lunch with them too!), show them how to approach others at recess, and teach them games that don’t require a lot of athletic skill (I like PIG and Around the World).

Step 2: Know Thyself

Know what you can manage. Ask yourself a few quick questions to access your ability to handle additional projects and responsibilities.

How’s your schedule forecast? Do you have the time available? Are you able to make time? Be sure to check ahead and leave some margin for error.

Example: I have my divorce groups right after conferences and they go until Christmas break. I am also organizing our Angel Tree project during this time. I cannot take on any new projects during this 7-8 week period unless one of my administrators releases me of my Angel Tree responsibilities.

Step 3: Seek to Understand the Other Person’s Point of View (Entirely)

The role of educators has changed tremendously in the past 20 years. Educational policies, practices, and attitudes have waxed and waned to the point that the pendulum is has swung from one extreme to the next and now it’s back again.

This creates a bit of a “We’ve seen this all before. It didn’t last, so why bother.” attitude.

Another big change has been the ever-increasing use of technology. When I started my current job 8 years ago, some of my teachers didn’t check their email for months…now they’re required to have a class webpage and upload their lessons on various platforms. Talk about a learning curve!

If you take the time to really understand the cause of their resistance, you might discover a mutually beneficial compromise.

Example: Let’s take a look at teachers who are reluctant to try interventions because it resembles something they have done in the past. Dig into their experience (it really is a goldmine!) find out what worked/what didn’t.

Try to address their skepticism by incorporating elements to address their concern(s) -> teacher reluctant to implement classroom token or chart system -> teacher states that they didn’t have time to write comments every period -> develop a chart that requires the least amount of time in a handy spot (checkbox charts on a clipboard by the back door or backpack area works great at the elementary level).

Teachers like easy and they are much more likely to buy-in if you can save them time and while meeting the needs of their student.

Refusal to buy into programming/interventions or the email that says, “I can’t access your online survey can I have a paper copy” are situations when it is vital for a school Counselor to say, “No.”

Step 4: Accentuate the Positive

Acknowledge what they have done well – even if it’s a “Thanks for reaching out to me, I know it was difficult.” or maybe an, “I’m glad we have to opportunity to meet to work out a plan to meet (insert child’s name) needs.

People want to feel valued. When you make them feel that their efforts are valued they will be much more willing to meet you halfway. Take it a step further. Make them feel like a valuable part of the team that is working on addressing a shared task. They will have more buy-in and the chances that they will be more likely to commit to the plan.

BE CAREFUL: You MUST make sure that your praise is genuine. This isn’t a “fake it till ya make it” kind of a thing. People identify that as false flattery and the statement, “Flattery will get you nowhere.” is true. You will be seen as disingenuous and they will disregard much of what you have to say.

Step 5: Think (and Move Toward) Win-Win

If you have to say no to a request, try to find something that you can say yes to. The other party might not get exactly what they want, but a mutually beneficial compromise can benefit all those involved.

Step 6: Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Let stakeholders know that the process is on-going. Reassure them that you aren’t going to put the lion’s share of the work on their shoulders.

Outline your role. Include how you will help them address their concerns and establish a timeline to revisit the plan to make any needed adjustments.

Most people will try something new if they know that we can review what worked/what didn’t work in 4-6 weeks. 4-6 weeks is much more manageable than committing to 9 months of something that may or may not be successful.

I hope you are able to put some of the tips I have shared with you to good use. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!





3 responses to “Tips for School Counselors: The Art of Saying No”

  1. Candy Avatar

    Hi! What do you suggest when you advocate and educate about the role and the response from administrators is “that is just what they teach you in graduate school” and “that is not the real world”. How do you approach a situation where you are beating a dead horse and administrators just don’t WANT to understand nor do they care.

    1. Heather Thomas Avatar

      Hi Candy!

      Unfortunately, there is a difference between what is recommended by ASCA and the reality of life. I cover 3 buildings and 1,500 students. There isn’t money for another counselor so that is something I need to make work. However, I continue to advocate about what I do and all of the things I could do. Admins need to understand that if they limit you then you won’t be able to provide a comprehensive guidance program.

      My advice is to start small, if you are able to. Conduct a needs assessment and try to implement something that will help teachers and administrators (maybe something related to behavior or attendance). If admins know that you can save them and the teachers from having to deal with issues then they are usually more likely to give you the support to do other things.

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