3 Parts for a Purposeful First Counseling Session 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Easy steps to level up your first session.

I love the first counseling session with a new student. You get to introduce yourself as an encouraging, safe adult that is going to help and support them. It's the place that you establish norms, build rapport, and involve the student in their own growth. That's a pretty incredible day's work.

Until I realized, I was mostly just using the first counseling session to introduce myself, tell them what my job was and ask a few questions. My first sessions were not climbing that aspirational mountain I had in my head. Worse, it was costing me valuable time with students down the line because I had not set the stage I should have set in the first session.

I don't like when I find myself doing a task without knowing the purpose or losing valuable time. So I asked myself, "What did I want that first session to accomplish?".

I wanted it to: 

  1. Build rapport
  2. Create a safe, predictable place
  3. Encourage student involvement in their progress in counseling

1. Build Rapport

A key to your interventions being effective is establishing a rapport on which you will build a relationship. I definitely have rushed this part and dealt with five subsequent sessions with a reluctant middle schooler. In 6 weeks, I had accomplished little because I didn't start with a solid foundation.

I promise this isn't tough and you likely already do this. Now, I want you to do it with purpose.

Break out your best get to know you game. My favorite was always Jenga paired with get-to-know-you questions. You can download these Get-to-Know-You Questions or write them on the blocks.

This or that questions (e.g., beach or pool, sharks or bears) are great ways to get students to engage and open up in a way that is low-stakes. You can also check out this Get to Know You Card Game.

I love using dual interviews with students to not only build rapport but also establish that there is a back and forth to our relationship. This also helps set any boundaries about what I will and won't share with students. You can take the get to know you questions or use questions that are more personal and take turns asking each other.

2. Create a Safe, Predictable Space

A safe and predictable space can be created with a discussion of the (in)consistency of sessions and confidentiality.

If your job is anything like mine was, interruptions to sessions and rescheduling are a frequent occurrence. During my first meeting with students, I let them know when we will meet each week and what the structure of the sessions will be like. Then I drop in the unfortunate news that sometimes my day doesn't go as planned and our sessions get unpredictably put on the chopping block until I can reschedule them. This small preview about disruptions can head off a student feeling anxious or disengage if you miss a session.

I also cover confidentiality and its limits. Consider not only ethical practice of reporting harm that could or is taking place but also your school and state policies. Minors do not always have the same level of confidentiality and that can change with age. In my previous positions, school counseling was an intervention service like reading. Students who received counseling intervention were discussed at meetings, parents were updated about progress, and classroom strategies were discussed with teachers. It is essential from the beginning that the student knows what will and will not be discussed with others and why.

3. Encourage Student Involvement

Students should be partners in counseling, even our youngest ones. In the first counseling session, make sure students know why they are coming to counseling and the purpose of the activities. Ask yourself, is it something that they want to work on or something everyone else wants them to work on? In that first session, work with students to set goals they are motivated to meet. How can you involve students more in their own treatment plan?

What do you include in your first counseling session with students? 

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.
  • a good sharing and help me for facing the world of counelling… next week i be able to do the session with my client.. btw i’m a student and a counselor to be (:

  • hello…thanks..the article had been great help for me..would love to always be in track…to get more info..in the counselling…sector

  • I saw the SMART checklist as I was going through Pinterest looking for suggestions on what to ask my counselor during a first session, and how to set goals for working together. Although I will modify this for my situation, I find the SMART strategy questions are very transferable to other areas when goal setting is needed. Thank you for a great starting point.

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