Referrals and Sign-Ins

With large student caseloads that often put school counselors under the water, it is important to create a referral system for consultation and counseling that is effective and efficient for your school counseling program. Having a clear and consistent referral system can help school counselors make the best use of their time.  Over the years, I have observed many different systems in schools for how teachers, students, and parents communicate and make requests to see the school counselor. Scheduling systems, sign in sheets, e-mails, notes in the door, google forms, drop-in, and notes from a teacher are a few. In this blog post I am going to share with you our middle school counseling referral system and explain how it has helped us prioritize tasks and enhance our efficiency.

Basic Tenets 

There are some basic tenets that are important to our counseling team when is comes to a referral system. These tenets drive our systems of referral. If your counseling team is struggling with a consistent referral process I suggest by starting dialogue about the tenets that are important to your team.

  • Open Door Policy.  This does not mean that anyone can walk into our counseling offices at anytime. It means that our doors are open when we are not doing direct services. Direct services means counseling, consultation, collaboration, or individual student planning. This open door policy is important because it sends the message that we are open to supporting our colleagues, parents, and students. A closed door policy could send the message that we are not integral to the total school program.
  • Confidentiality. We do not want other students or parents to know who is signing up to see the school counselor given that we are legally and ethically obligated to keep confidentiality. We all know the lines are blurred, but our referral system should protect the names of students who sign up to see us.
  • Multiple sources of referral. We do not turn down any form of communication to refer a student to us. We will accept any form of a referral. However, we do train all of our staff and students to follow the system so we can respond effectively.
  • Prioritize based on greatest need. Once a referral is made, we value prioritizing based on need and our daily goals.
  • Make appointments with parents. We find it valuable to ask parents to make an appointment with us. While we will all meet and greet a parent, to best serve them we want to be able to give them the adequate amount of time. Drops in are for emergency only or when the parent cannot come back. If a drop in is necessary we set a time limit. We value our time and want to prioritize what is most important- which may not be the parent who just happened to drop in.

Student Referrals 

The most common way a student is referred to me is by the student. Students throughout the day fill out a “self-referral to counselor” card and simply drop it into their grade level envelope located at the desk just outside of the counseling center. The station is monitored by our registrar, who also acts as the school counseling secretary.

On this card students write their name, grade, the date and the time in which they filled out the card. Students also indicate their reason for seeing a counseling and then circle the priority. A simple checklist shows commons reasons a student may come to see the school counselor and students can also indicate “other”. Priority includes “see me anytime this week”, “see me today”, “see me as soon as possible” and “emergency-someone is in danger of being harmed”.  Perceived priority is important because it helps me prioritize who I need to see first. It is important for me to get to the card that is an emergency before someone who wants their schedule changed.

I check the manila envelope throughout the day, possibly every time I leave my office without a student. If a student is experiencing an emergency I train them to tell our secretary if they feel comfortable. They do not have to give details I tell them. They just need to tell her they put a card in the envelope and that it is an emergency. That way my secretary can alert me either in person or in an e-mail, which is another way for me to keep up with what is happening in the moment.

By having students place the referral card into the manilla envelope and having the set-up be monitored by our secretary also ensures confidentiality. I know many schools that continue to use running lists for school counselor signs ups. This contradicts two of our tenets because it does not keep confidentiality and it does not give us any indication of how to best prioritize students. In fact, in the beginning of my career we used this method. I put a stop to it once I realized that students would look up other students on the list who they thought were “snitching” on them. Its middl school!

If a student sees me in the classroom, hallway, or lunchroom and asks to meet with me I always say “Id be happy to. Please fill out a referral card and place it in my envelope”. This puts the responsibility on them. Trust me, if it is important enough they will come talk to me. It is ineffective for me to say yes and then remember to call them down when I am in a completely different mindset at the time they spoke to me. This method weeds out students who may not actually need my services but just wants to say hi, which I can obviously do in the moment I saw them.

Within this system, it is very important to have clear boundaries about when they can sign up to see you. In our school, students can sign up to see the counselor before school, after school, during lunch or their passing period. It can never be an excuse for why they are late or tardy to class. Most teachers will allow students to sign up during class if they have completed their task for the day or their is an indication emotionally or behaviorally that they need my services. Teachers then will sign the students planner to leave the classroom and put in a counselor self-referral card into my envelope. Students are not to wait outside my office. They put the card in the envelope and return to class. This protects valuable instructional time and keeps our office clear. If students were to wait for me they would sometimes be waiting all day depending on my priorities for the day.

Sometimes I have an emotionally distressed child, someone who is having an anxiety/panic attack, seriously suicidal, or another form of emotional outbursts that runs down to my office. In this case, the self-referral process goes out the window. I’m not going to make a child fill out a card. “Excuse me, before you have your melt down would you mind writing down why you want to see me”. Instead I will respond to them immediately and help them deescalate and problem solve. If I am unable to respond to them in that moment because I am with another student or leading a group it is common practice for another counselor or even office staff member to step in and deescalate the child until their school counselor is available. 

Once a student is done in the counseling center and I have fixed them (a joke!) I send the student back to class with a pass.

The one challenge with this method of referral is that students don’t know when they will be meeting with me because I call them down at a time that works for me and the other priorities that students have. This requires me to write a pass to their class for them to exit class to see me. Sometimes it can be very challenging to rely on TAs to deliver these or to walk out of the office and go find them (although secretly I love this!). However, I have found that systems which rely on students remembering when their appointments can also be very ineffective. Often times students do not show up or they come at a different time anyway. This also creates a back log of students waiting outside your office. And it is another recipe for disaster.  I do however, feel that is is challenging for students not to know when their school counselor will call them down- especially for students who have high anxiety. To combat this problem, Ill often send my students with high anxiety a note and a meeting time earlier in the day. That seems to help.

Teacher Referrals 

Teachers are my next most common referral. In my school teachers refer students and send requests through e-mail. Given that I am a Type A personality, I manage my e-mail in box like a perfectionist. It has color codes, task identifiers, and it is always cleaned up. Thus, when I receive an e-mail, I usually see it in between student counseling, groups, etc… I use it as a hourly communication tool. I immediately make a determination of whether the request is (1) emergency, (2) urgent, or (3) a task that can wait. If it is a task that can wait, I flag it in outlook. I then communicate with the teacher my plan of attack. If it is something that can wait I let the teacher know that I would be unable to get to its today but will follow up with them when it is done. If it is an emergency and I need to go to their classroom I let them know “on my way”. If it is an emergency about a student, I communicate with them that I will be meeting with the student. And I communicate with them once I have met with the students. The key here is communicating about a referral or a request with a teacher. They cant read your mind.

Parent Referrals

In my school, parents need to have an appointment to meet with me. Obviously, I will cater to drop ins when necessary but mostly all parents need to make an appointment. The purpose of this is prioritize task and carve out the necessary time for their needs. Parents can make a referral to see me or a request about their child through an e-mail or a phone call. If they drop into the front office the secretary will come inform me. I will either say “I can meet now”, “I will come out and make an appointment with them” or “please take a message and I will call them when I am available”. If I am not reachable at the time, the secretary will take a message anyway. This allows me to find out the purpose for their meeting and carve out the necessary time to meet with them as well as include any other key stakeholders.


Overall, this system has been effective for our school counseling team. It allows us to operate consistently, meet the needs of our students and families, and meet the needs of our staff. Prioritization, confidentiality, making appointments, clear procedures, and other components of our referral system have been key to our success in everyday operations as a school counseling team. If you have any questions or comments please give feedback below. I can also be reached on Instagram and Facebook at @iloveschoolcounseling.

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