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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue A ::: October 2002

Who Helps the Helpers? Supporting Counselors in Adult Basic Education

by Cathy Coleman
When I was asked to write an article about supporting the role of counselors in adult basic education (ABE) programs, my first thoughts were about my own experiences with school counselors. My most striking memory of a counselor in a guidance position dates from a meeting I had at the end of my time in college. When I sat in my college advisor's office that day, I was looking for more than advice on how to write a resume. I was looking for support in determining my next steps, practical information about my career options, and, perhaps more than anything else, a good "listening to." Professor Jones provided me with what I needed. Her guidance and willingness to listen were valuable and necessary resources for me as a student.

What does this have to do with the field of adult basic education (ABE)? Some adult education programs employ counselors, occasionally called "learning support specialists." They are often the first people adult learners meet in programs. They can set the tone of a new learner's experience of ABE. How are their professional development and support needs met so that they can be as effective with adult learners as Dr. Jones was with me? What are the challenges inherent in the role of counselors in an ABE program? In what ways can they be supported? These are the questions I hope to address in this article.

Role Definition

One of the first challenges for counselors is defining their role: "What exactly is it that I am supposed to do?" In discussions with eight counselors from around the country, this question stood out as crucial. The role of counselor differs from program to program, as my conversations revealed. "I help students with whatever problems they have that get in the way of their learning," says a counselor from a Massachusetts school system-based evening program. Another counselor, from a community college ABE program, describes her job as giving people the TABE or the BEST [placement tests] when they come in, and letting teachers know who is in which class. Yet another described her work as keeping track of students' goals and maintaining records of what goals they have accomplished. One counselor is responsible for all the aforementioned tasks: "My job as a counselor is to make sure that our program is doing all it can to make coming to class possible for each student. That takes in a lot of territory from correct placement in the first place to helping them get housing, food stamps, or a job."

Problems arise when the role is not well articulated within a program. A program director explains: "The ideal role of the counselor is to support students, to get into the classroom and find out what the issues are, to find out why people are leaving and follow up with them, to bring in speakers on special topics which are about supporting the students. Unfortunately, that isn't always the way it works. In the past what has happened is the counselor does everything. In a large program like this one, with several smaller sites, the counselor had to do all the administrative work as well as all the counseling. There were so many hats for the person who was the counselor. That role is in transition now and is closer to what we had envisioned as ideal where support of the student is the focus."

Not only do counselors get confused by these myriad hats; students do, too. They aren't always sure what the counselor's main role is or what issues they should talk about with the counselor. This seems especially true for programs in which counselors are also teachers and in programs where the counselor is also doing much of the administrative work. "It's hard to balance it all-being the counselor and the resource person, being the nitty gritty detail person, and being the stern follow-upper person," says a Massachusetts counselor. "It's a real mix of different kinds of skills."

Clarifying a counselor's role may be the easiest form of support a program can offer a counselor. In Massachusetts, attempts have been made to help clarify the role of counselor and to provide support for it. In the early 1990s, focus groups for counselors were formed, facilitated by the System for Adult Basic Education Support (SABES). According to Cathy Gannon, facilitator of the Central SABES counselor sharing group, these groups examined the role of counselors in programs, looked at what was initially required in the 1990 mandate for counseling to be included in programs funded by the Massachusetts Department of Education, and sought ways to support counselors in performing their jobs.

A 1994 report entitled "Learner Support Services: Adult Basic Education Counseling Focus Group: Final Report," recommended a change of job title from the vague term "counselor" to the more specific descriptor "Learner Support Specialist." The report defined the purpose of counseling in adult basic education as "providing learners with support services that will assist them in successfully meeting their educational goals" and listed these tasks as part of the job:

This year, a group of counselors in southeastern Massachusetts, facilitated by Southeast SABES, is re-visiting this list. They believe that the National Reporting System requirements for follow-up on student goal attainment and measurement of educational gain that meet validity and reliability standards have led to an increased emphasis on the role of counselor in programs. By the end of this summer, they hope to have a newly revised definition as well as set of resources for ABE counselors. The Counseling Sharing Group of Southeast MA is also discussing and studying areas such as transitioning General Educational Development (GED) students into community college settings and increasing student retention. According to Betty Vermette, the facilitator of the group, "These were needs that came up in a survey we did last year. Many of the topics that people listed fell under the counselor role: recruitment, student retention, the intake process, goal setting, placement, transitioning to college, etc. Based on this, we initiated the Southeast Working Group for Educational Counselors." In revisiting the definition of the role of counselor, this group hopes to help counselors deal with the issue of lack of clarity.

Lack of Time

When people are unclear on their role within an organization, they can easily fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people, leaving little time to do much of anything very well. Lack of time to do adequately all of the various tasks of both a counseling nature and often of a more administrative nature was cited as a challenge by some of the counselors with whom I spoke. One counselor puts it this way, "This year, the director has a person who can help with the data entry and with making calls to people on the waiting list. That has helped a lot. It took some of the pressure off. I used to spend most of my time doing that. It didn't leave much time to do more of the real counseling."

She now feels that she can be more proactive. "Now I can look at next year and set my own goals about how to improve things. I have time for planning." She also comments on role definition: "I know what I have to do; I know what I want to do, and I know how to do it." She talked to me at length about her ideas for developing an orientation for new students, developing resources on transitions from the GED program to college, and increasing her own information about what resources are available in the community for adult learners.

Following up with students on attendance takes time. Record keeping takes time. Giving intake and scoring assessment tests is time consuming as well. Counselors can devote all or most of their time to keeping up with this work. When program directors are able shift some of the more administrative aspects of the job away from counselors, they feel less pressure in terms of time. One counselor I spoke with describes herself as "so relieved" when some of the administrative duties of her job were shifted to other staff. "It leaves me more time to get to know the students, to make sure I'm available to help them, to do more of the counseling I think I should be doing."

EFF as a Support

One support that many counselors may not initially consider comes from Equipped for the Future (EFF), a project of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) that is a standards-based reform initiative. It aims to improve the quality of the adult literacy system and build the capacity of the system to assist adults more effectively in accomplishing their goals in life. It looks at what adults need to know and to be able to do in order to function in their roles as community members, family members, and workers.

Carolyn Beirs, GED program manager at Family Learning in the school district of Greenville County, South Carolina, explains: "As with most educational programs, [in ours,] lack of time, funds and staff offer major challenges. Most of the family literacy programs I've visited don't have trained counselors on site, but collaborate with the local Mental Health Department for referrals and, in some cases, bimonthly classroom visits centered around issues of concern: stress, time management, domestic violence, to name a few." Using EFF as a guide, her program's staff developed a new intake process that provides counselors and teachers with increased opportunities for conversation with new students. They talk with students about their goals and the people in their lives who provide them with supports, both emotional and practical, such as transportation and child care. They developed an interview form, she says, "to slow down the enrollment process and take time to have dialogue with individual parents and talk about goals, support, obstacles, etc. before they enroll. Teachers were encouraged to use the EFF standard ŽTake Responsibility for Learning' during orientation." Prior to this, intakes were done over the phone or in brief face-to-face meetings, with placement testing and enrollment happening on the same day. Carolyn stated, "EFF is for all adults, which I feel is a concept that is often understated. Consequently, I feel counselors might consider looking at the Framework tools to enhance the work they do with adult learners. The standards ŽListen Actively' and ŽObserve Critically' along with the four ŽInterpersonal Skills' seem the most likely support."

Building Relationships

One of the most interesting challenges that counselors in ABE settings face is how to build relationships with learners. Learners spend most of their time with their teachers. They tend to go to their teachers first with questions, issues, and problems. Counselors need to be proactive in "marketing" their services. They need to let learners know that they are available for them. Two counselors talked about this. "It can be hard as the students sometimes see you as the lady who does the testing but they don't necessarily think that you are there to talk to about problems you are having in class or problems you have getting to class consistently, for example. You have to make sure you're visible." One counselor told me that she tries to be available informally at break times, before classes start, and after classes start. This gives her the opportunity to know the students a little better and to let them know she is there.

Mentors can support counselors as they develop strategies for building relationships with learners. Central Massachusetts has had a counseling sharing group since 1992. The composition of the group has changed over time, but its focus has remained the same: to give counselors in ABE programs the opportunity to meet and learn from each other, to provide resources to counselors in their work, and to explore ways to improve counseling services to adult learners. This group has explored many methods of support, including:

The mentoring program has been one of the most valuable support services this group has offered. A frequent comment was: "I was feeling lost, but as I started to see how others were dealing with these issues, it helped a lot. Just having one other person who was doing the same job was so helpful!" Several of the counselors I spoke with mentioned the mentoring process as being helpful to them. Mentors considered that it was helpful, stating that it encouraged them to seek out new information and stretch themselves in response to the questions they might get from those they were mentoring.


When do problems go beyond the scope of what should be handled by part-time, nonlicensed counselors in an ABE setting is a difficult question to answer. "It is hard to know sometimes when to refer [people out to other service providers]." This seems especially true when the learners have built a strong and positive relationship with the learning support specialist. It also can become problematic when social services in the community have been cut due to budget cuts or other constraints, leading to long waiting lists for services. One person I spoke with said it would be "so helpful if we had someone who we could run things by a psychologist, whom we could talk to about how to help a student while they are waiting to be assigned a counselor at an agency in the community." Most counselors say that knowing when to refer becomes easier with experience, but the support and advice of other learning support specialists, as is the case in the various sharing groups, were helpful in determining the best approach. Another means of support is to bring in outside speakers from various regional social service providers. This has been a strategy all the Massachusetts counselor sharing groups have used that seems to have been helpful.

In the northeast region of Massachusetts as well as in the Boston area, Michelle Forlizzi has been working with a "Counselor Roundtable." Participants have examined goal setting, assessment, and follow-up with learners (issues driven, in part, by policies of the Massachusetts Department of Education). The roundtable also tries to address professional growth issues. In her role as coordinator, Forlizzi hears about the many barriers faced by counselors. Chief among them are lack of counseling models, lack of counseling hours, supervisory support, and technical assistance. Another is a general lack of knowledge about the systems with which some students interact: Supplemental Security Income, the Department of Transitional Assistance, the Department of Education and Training, among others. Because they see having a clear model of the counseling role as being a key factor in providing quality counseling services to students, the Northeast Counseling Roundtable is currently embarking on a research project to look at one model of counseling and its impact on students in programs. They will look at programs that have a person on staff whose job is only being the counselor and compare these with programs without a staff person whose job is counseling, but who instead follows the "teacher as counselor" model.

Michelle believes that models in which the counselor's duties are divided among teachers create a situation in which counseling roles and responsibilities lack clear definition. The research her group is undertaking may shed some light on the ways in which we need to support the counseling role within the ABE setting.

Wish List

Some supports do exist for counselors in ABE programs, but how can we as a system improve upon them? I asked the counselors with whom I spoke for their wish lists of supports. Many say they wish to be less isolated in their jobs. Counselors in large programs gain a great deal from connecting with their counterpart, "the night counselor" or "the day counselor." Some say it would be very helpful to have available a manual that delineates procedures. Others would love to have a trained therapist they could call on to run things by when they feel overtaxed. Some would like to see more workshops offered on topics of interest to counselors. Most wanted more opportunities to connect and share with their peers in other programs.


Some exciting approaches to counselor support and development are in place around the country, but more needs to be done. And what happens if we are not able to provide the support that counselors in ABE programs need? In this time of budget cuts, is supporting the role of counselor so important? What would have happened if I had not had a Dr. Jones in my experience in college? It's hard to say. Would I have had the support and the resources I needed to leave the relative safety of academia and move forward into a career? Maybe. I was lucky. I had a lot of other things in my favor: strong family support, a new college degree under my belt, and, perhaps more importantly, underneath the fear I had the confidence to ask questions, explore, and believe that I could succeed. If there had been no Dr. Jones, I might still have fared well. I wonder, without the other supports in place, how some of my GED students would have done. For many of us, there is a time when a person in our lives whose support, encouragement, and provision of practical information enable us to achieve our goals. The counselor in an adult learner's life could be that person. As a field we owe counselors the support they need to continue their important role of supporting our learners.

About the Author

Cathy Coleman is the Curriculum & Assessment Coordinator for Central SABES in Massachusetts. She undertakes staff development with teachers and programs on issues of curriculum development, assessment, and the use of the Massachusetts ABE Curriculum Frameworks. She has been teaching GED and pre-GED for 14 years, and was previously a counselor in a transitional living program for adolescent girls and at a program for developmentally delayed adults.


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL