First Counseling Session: 5 Must Dos 

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

I loved the first counseling session with a new student. You get to introduce yourself as an encouraging, safe adult who will help and support them. It's where you establish norms, build rapport, and involve students in their growth. That's an incredible day's work.

I used the first counseling session to introduce myself, explain counseling, and ask a few questions. I was leaving so much potential on the table. Worse, it was costing me valuable time with students down the line because I didn't set the stage in the first session.

I don't like when I find myself doing something without thinking about the purpose. So I asked myself, "What did I want that first session to accomplish?".

I wanted it to: 

  1. Introduce counseling and your role
  2. Create a safe and predictable space
  3. Build rapport
  4. Understand the student's perspective and needs
  5. Encourage involvement in goals and progress

1. Introduce Your Role & Counseling

Your first session is a time to explain the role of the counselor and how counseling can help them. Consider creating a simple script that covers all the significant points. You won't be reading it, but it will help you fine-tune what you want to cover and how you want to explain it.

What a counselor does: My job is a little bit like being a helper or a guide. Sometimes we have feelings or situations that can be tough to handle alone. It could be about friends, schoolwork, family, or feelings inside us. And that's where I come in. I'm here to help you talk about those things, understand them better, and come up with ideas on how to handle them. Like a guide helps people find their way, I help you navigate your feelings and problems. Does that make sense? 

2. Create a Safe & Predictable Space

To create a safe counseling space, you have to set the expectations for how things will go. There are many ways to do this, but there are three must dos:

  • Discuss confidentiality and it's limits
  • Preview scheduling changes
  • Show how sessions will typically run


You likely know the spiel: "I have to tell someone if I think you might hurt yourself or someone else or if someone is hurting you." That is a good starting place.

Also, consider your state's legal policies. Minors often have different levels of confidentiality than an adult.

In my previous positions, school counseling was an intervention service like reading. Students who received counseling were discussed at meetings, parents were updated about progress, and classroom strategies were discussed with teachers. From the beginning, the student must know what will and will not be shared with others and why.

If I was going to share something with teachers or parents, I informed the student beforehand so they weren't surprised.

Schedule Changes

If your job is anything like mine, your schedule can change last minute. During my first meeting with a student, I let them know when we would meet each week and the structure of the sessions. Then I drop in the unfortunate news that sometimes my day doesn't go as planned, and I may have to reschedule our meeting. This preview can help students understand and not feel anxious or disengaged.

Session Structure

You may be more of a check-in and chat counselor, but having a predictable structure or flow to your sessions can be super helpful. For example: 

  • Check- In: Feelings Chart
  • Warm-Up: What a counselor does sort
  • Activity: Intake prompts game
  • Exit Ticket: ASK ticket about counseling
  • Cool Down: Deep Breathing
visual schedule for counseling

3. Build Rapport

A key to your effective counseling is a solid relationship. Rushing this part is guaranteeing that you will have a reluctant student who is not fully engaged. 

Building a rapport isn't tough and you likely already do it well. 

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. When the student interviews you, it helps set any boundaries about what you will and won't share with students. You can take the get-to-know-you questions or use more personal questions and take turns asking each other.

In this first session resource, I included an intake form and cards with prompts you could use. 

Counseling Intake Forms and Question Cards

4. Understand Their Needs

A critical part of the first session involves understanding the student's needs and perspective. This is a great time to find out what they want to work on. You can weave this into the get-to-know-you activity or intake prompts. 

Another option would be to use a goal exploration activity where the student can brainstorm the different types of things they want to learn or improve.

Counseling Goal Exploration

5. 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?

Involving them in setting goals for counseling can give them some agency in their progress.

Counseling Goal Breakdown

What do you include in your first counseling session? Comment below!

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First Counseling Session Activities

First Counseling Session

The first counseling session is perfect for building rapport, understanding the student's perspective, and creating a safe and predictable space. Build a strong first session and get students started on the right foot!

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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.

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  1. 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 (:

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

  3. 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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