Counselor resources

Advocating for students: How to approach family meetings

Insights on how counselors can advocate for students and work with parents to meet their common academic goals.

Anukriti Ganesh
August 10, 2022
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3 min

Counselors often find themselves in a unique position of having to reconcile the needs and interests of students with the expectations of their parents, in a way that is both realistic as well as encouraging. 

Here are some tips from four veteran counselors on being a good advocate and recommendations on building a trusting relationship with the parents. 

Conversations: The sooner the better

“Tough conversations need to happen as early as possible. Time makes tough conversations tougher,” says Jeff Neill, Director of College Counseling at Graded - The American School of Sao Paulo. While talking about the overall approach to working with parents, he adds that parents must regard counselors as an authority on guidance, psychology, and admission processing; not just content distributors. 

College counseling requires vigilance in self-education and an expert guide”.

Jeff Neill, Director of College Counseling at Graded - The American School of Sao Paulo

For Johanna Fishbein, Director of University and College Counseling at The American School in Switzerland, transparency is the key. There are multiple sources and channels available to parents, which could be confusing for them. To guide them in the best way possible, college counselors must be established as the trusted source of information.

We include parents in all of our programming, but we tell them that their role is to listen, not lead. So if we have them at a university visit, we say that students will ask the questions. Parents, you are here to listen. And then time is given to them at the end to ask questions.”

Johanna Fishbein, Director of University and College Counseling at The American School In Switzerland

Sheri Neal, High School College Counselor at American School in Japan, on other hand, has learned that it takes time and experience to understand parents’ perspectives. Her overall approach is always to assume that parents' intentions, actions and questions come from a place of love for their child and the best way to navigate through this is to have honest and open conversations with them.

Even for experienced counselors, informing the parents of the realistic prospects their child has could prove to be a difficult conversation. But how you convey it makes a difference. David Girvan, Associate Director of Admissions, Pitzer College underlined the utility of data and how it can be used to have constructive and convincing discussions. “Parents often want the data and facts, so it’s important in providing transparent information about the college and the admissions process,” he adds. 

How to best approach the parents 

The most crucial aspect, in Neill's opinion, is giving your community a chance to get to know you as a counselor and build a meaningful relationship. Keep the parents updated on their child's progress, check in with them frequently, and establish a personal connection by arranging monthly coffee sessions, follow-up emails and personalized newsletters. 

The other thing that most parents look for is reassurance, and they can find that by listening to current undergraduate students talk about their college experiences. In light of this, Fishbein says that it's crucial to get parents to attend alumni fairs so they may hear senior students share their journeys.

I think just encouraging parent engagement in that programming, especially hearing from students, is valuable and it also gives more credibility to the work we are already doing”. 

Johanna Fishbein, Director of University and College Counseling at The American School In Switzerland 

Parents rely a lot on counselors for information. Counselors should make an effort to be as open and honest with the parents as they can be and give them all the information, as and when they need it.

Practices that can assist you in your approach

In order to best help students and parents, counselors must also understand the relationship between the two. Arrange casual coffee meet-ups with no agenda and let them lead the conversation. Attend school events and show your involvement. Parents want to know that you are there for their child and that you care about both the school and the students. 

“As college counselors who are hard pressed for time, we’re very often busy sticking to timelines and deadlines. We often focus too much on delivering programming. While that is necessary, it is also necessary to prioritize relationship building and finding ways and opportunities for parents, in particular, to get to know us and for us to get to know them,” says Neill. 

Counselors, students, and parents must work together as a team for the best outcomes. The two most crucial aspects of advocacy, in Fishbein’s opinion, are making sure that parents and children feel equally heard and supported.

Parents are part of the equation

According to Neal, the application process for colleges is similar to a stool with three legs: the school (represented by a teacher or a college counselor), students and parents. All three legs have to work together to make things work as intended.

“Just remember that it all comes from a place of love, that parents have good intentions,” says Fishbein. Parents’  own college admissions date back to different times; it is perfectly plausible that their personal experiences, or acquaintances in a similar social group may have shaped the way they look at things today. She advocates that as counselors, we need to make an effort to respect their perceptions and address their concerns by allowing them to ask as many questions as they would want to. 

When it comes to the college admission process, it all boils down to empowering students to develop to the best of their ability. Girvan says, "It is about finding ways to make them feel successful about themselves and also knowing that the admission process is a marathon, not a sprint."

We are grateful to Johanna Fishbein, Sheri Neal, David Girvan and Jeff Neill for their insights on improving student advocacy during the International ACAC Conference 2022

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