If you like to help others to live their best lives and are eager to work with children, you might have a tough time choosing between a family therapy degree and a school counseling degree. As either a school counselor or a marriage and family therapist, working with children would be an important part of your job. You typically need a master’s degree to work in either one of these roles. However, there are differences not only between the coursework you would take as part of these degree programs but also, after you graduate, between the focus of your counseling efforts and the work environments in which you are most likely to find employment.

What Is the Difference Between a Marriage and Family Therapy Degree and a School Counseling Degree

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Curriculum Differences

Marriage and family therapists employ therapeutic methods like psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy to help improve interpersonal relationships. To develop these skills, they need to earn a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Marriage, Couples and Family Counseling, Master of Science (M.S.) in Marriage/Family Counseling, Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Couples, Marriage and Family Counseling or similar graduate-level degree. The curriculum of a marriage and family therapy program often includes classes in counseling theory and techniques, psychotherapy, psychopathology, couples counseling, multicultural counseling, group theory and counseling techniques, addictions and family systems, human growth and development and family development. Students of these programs learn how relationships work, the impact of relationships and relationship problems on mental and emotional disorders and the practices of counseling individuals, couples and family units, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

School counselors pursue a graduate degree specific to school counseling, such as the Master of Science (M.S.) in School Counseling, Master of Arts (M.A.) in School Counseling or Master of Education (M.Ed.) in School Counseling degree. As an aspiring school counselor, you will develop the skills to counsel students in individual and group settings, plan and implement programs within your school, improve students’ academic development and work in conjunction with parents and school staff, the BLS reported. There is some overlap in the coursework required for school counselors and marriage and family therapists. Students in a school counseling program still study counseling theory and skills, human development and multicultural counseling practices. However, they will typically take courses not found in a marriage and family therapy program, including counseling in school settings, career development and counseling and the principles of learning and behavior modification.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs recognizes nearly 50 currently accredited degree programs in marriage, couples and family counseling and 260 currently accredited master’s degree programs in school counseling.

Focus on Relationships vs. Academic Development

When they work with children, family therapists and school counselors approach problems from different viewpoints. Marriage and family therapists are primarily concerned with relationships. When they work with kids, they may look for ways to improve communication between children and their parents or siblings and to find ways to resolve harmful patterns of behavior and promote more functional family dynamics. A school counselor is more likely to focus on the development of a child’s academic and social skills as well as life skills like time-management and decision-making skills. A school counselor may address family problems and dynamics, just as a marriage and family therapist may offer solutions to help improve academic or social problems, but these areas are not the counselor’s main area of focus.

It might surprise you to learn that marriage and family therapists spend half of their time working with individuals, as opposed to couples and families. Even when they are working with one person, therapists consider the impact of family relationships on that individual.

Work environments for school counselors and MFTs

Differences in Work Environment

One important factor that distinguishes marriage and family therapist from school therapists is work environment. As you might expect, the number-one industry of employment for school counselors is public and private elementary and secondary schools. About 44 percent of all school and career counselors work for schools, according to the BLS. Another 34 percent find jobs in college settings, with 10 percent working in healthcare and social assistance and four percent working in other educational services. As a school counselor, you will likely have an office within the school’s administration wing, where you will meet with individual students and small groups. You may be responsible for administrative duties when you aren’t counseling students.

Among marriage and family therapists, 28 percent of jobs fall into the category of the individual and family services industry. About 15 percent of marriage and family therapists work in outpatient care centers, 14 percent in health practitioners’ officers and 13 percent for state government entities, the BLS reported.

If you want a career that could lead to self-employment, marriage and family therapist has a slight edge over school counselor. Self-employment in private practice accounts for eight percent of marriage and family therapists, compared to three percent of school counselors.

Related Resources

How Do I Become a Marriage and Family Therapist?

What Can I Do With a Degree in School Counseling?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a School Counselor?