TLC – Trust and Authentic Engagement Pt. 1: “A Restorative Approach to Student-Counselor Trust”

A girl talks with a counselor
Image via The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth

Current realities that school counselors face make it extremely difficult for them to build sufficient rapport and trust with students, making the goal of authentic engagement seem unattainable.

Fundamental recommendations to build a baseline of rapport can be helpful, but how can school counselors move deeper to meaningfully connect with students while navigating the demands of competing expectations of students and their families?

In Part 1 of our 2-part “Trust and Engagement” series, we will introduce strategies to help school counselors restore student trust where it would not evolve naturally – especially in diverse school environments.

No Shared Understanding of Expectations = No Trust

In 2015, Megan Holland conducted a study that demonstrated the connection between student and counselor distrust and a lack of shared understanding about expectations and roles: Who should be doing what to ensure that students succeed? School counselors can get caught in a clash of expectations that vary dramatically depending on whether a student’s family has a history of attending college or not. Specially,

  • Families who have attended college have an understanding of the opportunities available to students, as well as familiarity with the rigorous college admissions process. Parents and students are typically proactively involved, take initiative to keep things moving, and expect counselors to support their goals throughout the process. 
  • Families who have not attended college are often unaware of the opportunities available to students and lack understanding of the financial aid and admissions application processes. Because of this, parents may not know how to advocate for their children or set expectations for them to be proactive in seeking the help of counselors in the process.

So how can counselors’ interactions make room to restore and build trust with students?

  1. See and value all students – highlight and support all career options and pathways, without making some seem less desirable than others. Restore dignity in the pursuit of all vocations. By focusing on student goals, interests, and skills, counselors can identify if students may be more suited for trade school, military service, or community college. Counselors who validate and support all options for the diverse range of interests and skills are more likely to gain student trust.
  • Verbalize support for lofty student aspirations, whatever the background of the student. Restore the right of every student to dream big. Students from all backgrounds can be high performers in school and may aspire to do things that no one in their family has yet attempted. These students often want – even need – their school counselor to verbalize support for them. Students often just need one voice to affirm that they have potential and that their effort to pursue their goals and dreams are worthwhile. The school counselor may not have hours to spend with each student but becoming that one voice of affirmation can be a significant trust-building (and life-giving) act.
  • Ask what’s missing. Restore awareness of the possibility that the problem is not lack of character or motivation. Lack of follow-through may be simply because students are anxious and unaware about how to proceed into a future that no one in their family has ever attempted. Counselors who recognize that student backgrounds could be inhibiting their awareness or initiative can gain student and parent trust by helping these families connect the dots that they don’t know exist.

Student trust can be restored when students feel meaningfully supported. Of course, meaningful, sustainable support for students from less-educated backgrounds presents unique challenges.

Part 2 of “Trust and Authentic Engagement” will explore how ongoing, open trust conversations with students can help student trust continue to evolve in ways that make expectations livable for the counselors as well.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting. For more information, go to:

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

Connect With Your Community

Subscribe to stay informed!

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.