Monthly Archives: June 2008

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Angela Kennedy June 15, 2008

Five years ago, Kay Sudekum Trotter arrived at a muddy Texas horse ranch wearing capri pants and sandals and wanting to learn more about equine-assisted therapy. By the end of the afternoon, her cute outfit was dirty, her shoes ruined, but this self-proclaimed city girl had been roped by this nontraditional approach in which horses aid in the counseling process.

Today, Trotter is not only a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist, but a certified equine-assisted counselor with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. In a countryish suburb of Dallas, this American Counseling Association member runs her own equine-assisted counseling practice, Mendin’ Fences, where she provides unique counseling services to children and teenagers with behavioral and mental health issues.

“I’m not the traditional girl who grew up loving horses, so in the past few years, I’ve learned not only what horses can do in a therapeutic setting, but I’ve also had to learn just the basics,” Trotter says. “They still tease me about showing up to the ranch in flip-flops.” Not being a “horse person” has actually proved beneficial when speaking to other counselors about equine therapy, Trotter says, because she can let them know from firsthand experience that they don’t need to be professional wranglers to successfully apply this approach.

As described by Trotter, equine-assisted counseling utilizes horses to increase clients’ awareness of their own thoughts, words and actions. Through counseling, team building and equine activities, clients learn how to recognize dysfunctional patterns of behavior and to define healthy relationships. This is made possible in part by the horses’ innate ability to observe and respond to nonverbal cues. In the counseling process, the horses serve as living mirrors, reflecting clients’ emotional and behavioral states.

“Because horses are prey animals, they have honed their skills to pick up on and read body language,” Trotter explains, adding that horses are much more adept than humans at sensing when something is going on beneath the surface. “If I have an ADHD client come out for a session and he’s bouncing all over, the horse will be leery of the client. The client will learn that if he wants the horse to change, he will have to change his behavior, thoughts and feelings. The horse is that sensitive.”

“The other powerful element within equine therapy is the noticeable shift in control and power within the client,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of work with young people in juvenile detention. Out here on the ranch, the head of the gang is no longer in control because he’s now face-to-face with a 1,500-pound animal. You don’t have that shift with other animal-assisted therapy.”

Trotter says she has experienced some profound breakthroughs with teens in the juvenile court system while working with horses. “I have some of the most wonderful sessions with these juveniles because they don’t realize they are in counseling,” she says. “By the time these kids come to me, they are familiar with court-appointed therapy and traditional, four-wall counseling sessions. They can give you all the textbook answers. But you get them outside in this different setting, and they don’t realize what I’m doing. They tell me everything, and it’s so genuine.”

In forging a bond with the horses, Trotter says, clients identify their negative behaviors and learn positive communication and problem-solving skills to handle frustrations, challenges and fears.

Horsing around

There are different ways to have clients interact with and relate to a horse, Trotter says.

  • Tactile and touching: Includes grooming or giving the horse a massage. Interacting with such large animals empowers the client while increasing self-esteem and self-confidence. The rhythmic motion of grooming can also be soothing and calming for both the horse and client.
  • Verbal: The way the client speaks to the horse can reveal how the individual relates to other people.
  • Riding and ground work: Leading the horse from the ground or in the saddle can provide insight into a client’s sense of power or helplessness.

Because of the large size of the horses, Trotter doesn’t feel comfortable counseling children younger than 8. She believes, however, that equine therapy is compatible or appropriate with most diagnosed issues. With clients who aren’t as activity-focused, such as some individuals with autism, Trotter instead helps them face their fears by building a relationship with the horse.

Trotter prefers to have clients perform activities on the ground rather than in the saddle. This ground work usually includes a series of tasks, challenges or simple grooming methods to help the client form a bond with the horse. As these activities transpire, Trotter works side-by-side with the clients to provide insight and help process feelings.

The ground-based activities also help clients formulate solutions to problems. The activities can be difficult, requiring clients to be creative and think outside the box. Through these activities, Trotter helps clients explore what skills were needed to accomplish the task with the horse. She can then prompt clients to think about whether they have similar problems occurring in their personal lives and consider if the solution that proved successful in working with the horse might work for the client outside the ranch as well. Following are two examples of equine activities Trotter uses in therapy.

Life’s Little Obstacles

This activity challenges participants to get a horse to walk or jump over a PVC pole placed in the arena. The pole can represent any challenge that the group or individual is facing.

“It doesn’t sound too difficult until we tell them the rules of the activity,” Trotter says. “No physical touching of the horse, no halters or lead ropes, no bribing with food and no verbal communication with each other. The use of a horse provides great metaphors to children, and the process of trying to accomplish this goal ends up leading to some intense discussions and insights. They really have to think about it and be creative, but there’s no one correct way to accomplish the task.”

Temptation Alley

This activity involves two participants. An alleyway with varying widths and turns is filled with hay, grain, obstacles and other items that are potentially attractive or discomfiting to the horse. The participants must lead their horse through the alleyway without allowing the horse to eat anything, leave the alleyway or knock anything over. Each client must hold the very end of a lead rope with only one hand while also staying on the outside of the alleyway.

“In this activity, the horse becomes a metaphor for temptations that the clients are facing, such as addictions, gang pressure or eating disorders,” Trotter says. “The processing that follows this activity can take many different directions. One might be where the participants focused — on the horse, the other person, the distractions or the goal — and what effects this had on the horse.”

Success stories

Trotter recently began working with a third-grader who exhibited behavioral problems and poor social skills associated with pervasive developmental disorders and dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects motor coordination. At school, he displayed severe anxiety and oppositional behavior and threatened others. The boy had struggled with these problems for more than six years, and his mother told Trotter that her son had a hard time establishing friendships. He was usually left to play by himself.

After only a few sessions working with the horses, his behavior and social skills have improved significantly. The mother told Trotter that her son recently had his first play date, which lasted more than two hours without incident. He was invited to come back and play again whenever he wanted. “This shows us that this client is taking what he has learned (with the horses) and is using it in his everyday life,” Trotter says.

Debra Bond is Trotter’s business partner and a fellow licensed professional counselor at the ranch. One of her biggest success stories involves a young boy recently diagnosed as bipolar. In one of the beginning sessions at the ranch, he and another boy were partnered in a group session and asked to groom the horse. “The horse just wasn’t having it,” Bond says. “He kept on acting like he was going to kick or bite, though he didn’t. We were keeping a close watch.”

Bond needed to determine which boy the horse was reacting to, so she had them approach the horse individually. The horse reacted negatively to the boy diagnosed with bipolar. “That gave me the opportunity to ask him what he thought was going on with the horse. Why was the horse acting that way?” she says. “The boy just kind of rolled his eyes and said, ‘I don’t know.’ I pressed a bit harder, and he told me that the horse just didn’t like him. I asked him to think about that and why this horse might not like him. He left and came back the next session and said to me, ‘The horse doesn’t like me because I don’t like me.’ He was 9 years old! When I think about that kid and how many hours that would have taken in an office setting to get that kind of insight, it just amazes me that it came that quickly. Once that child admitted that, he had no problem with the horse. They were congruent, and we saw all kinds of positive changes with him. That sticks out as the most dramatic example, but we see pieces of this type of transformation all the time.”

During her eight years of leading equine-assisted counseling, Bond has worked with children and adolescents who have presented with a variety of issues, but she thinks the approach might have the most profound impact on children with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder similar to a high-functioning form of autism.

“(These clients) tend to come out of their shell,” she observes. “The barn environment is something so different from what they are familiar with at home or at school. It introduces them to a whole new set of stimuli, and because they are drawn to the animal, they learn to adapt more quickly.” With this population, she notes, the therapy is less about mental health treatment and more about skills training and general improvement. “It may be romanticizing it a bit,” Bond says, “but I think the connection between these kids and the horses is something very powerful for both the horse and the child. It’s a very deep link made on an emotional level.”

More evidence

While working on her dissertation at the University of North Texas, Trotter discovered in her research that equine-assisted counseling can be as effective as traditional clinical therapy or, in some cases, even more beneficial. She compared the experiences of children and teens in a 12-week equine-assisted therapy program with those who remained in a classroom setting for traditional guidance counseling. “We had over 205 volunteers, and 164 actually completed the study,” Trotter says. “The students were in grades third through eighth with all different kinds of issues, from ADHD and autism to just being socially inept to being incest survivors.”

Teachers, school counselors and parents referred the children and adolescents. The students were then assigned, by grade level, to one of two weekly therapeutic interventions: either two-hour sessions of equine-assisted group counseling held in a ranch setting or one-hour sessions of curriculum school-based group guidance in a classroom setting. According to Trotter, the study showed that equine-assisted counseling resulted in increased positive behaviors and decreased undesirable behaviors in clients.

“We discovered that both modalities were clinically significant, but the equine (therapy portion of the study) showed clinical significance in seven different areas that the in-school therapy didn’t,” she says. “Overall, the equine study showed improvement in 19 areas and the in-school only in five areas.”

Trotter used two assessment tools in the study, the Behavioral Assessment System for Children—Parent Rating Scale and the Self-Rating Scale, along with the Animal Assisted Therapy—Psychosocial Social Form. “I chose the BASC checklist because that has assessments that I could give to both the parent and the child/client,” she explains. “I had done a lot of play therapy research prior to that, and we never included the client. I thought it was important to know what the child felt about it, not just his mom and dad. With the AAT-PSF, I was able to run repeated measures, and it could tell me where I had significant changes between the sessions.” She was then able to refer to her notes and see exactly what they had done during those sessions that proved so effective.

A copy of “The Efficacy of Equine-Assisted Group Counseling With At-Risk Children and Adolescents” is available for download (for a fee) from Trotter’s website at

EPIC workshops

“Back in 2005, when I attempted to research empirical data from previous studies on the effectiveness of EAC (equine-assisted counseling), to my surprise, there wasn’t any,” Trotter says. “There was plenty of anecdotal evidence, but I could find no significant scientific research supporting the validity of using horses as an adjunct to traditional talk therapy. That discovery made me even more committed to conducting clinical trials. Now, with the evidence, I want to put this valuable adjunct to traditional therapy into the hands of other counselors.”

To do so, she has created EPIC (Equine Partners in Counseling) training. With Bond’s help, Trotter will be conducting two workshops on the ranch in June: “What Is Equine-Assisted Counseling?” and “Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders With EAC.” Each session is $75 and worth three continuing education units.

The first session provides counselors with the basics for effective assessment and intervention with both group and individual clients. Examples of equine-assisted counseling activities will be presented. The second session provides an overview of autism spectrum disorders and examines how equine-assisted counseling can positively affect psychological, physiological and social aspects for this population.

“The sessions are hands-on,” says Trotter, an approved provider of continuing education. “Like any experiential expressive art, as a counselor, it’s important for you to first experience it as a client before you lead others on that journey.” More information about the classes is available at

A distinct culture

By David L. Fenell June 14, 2008

On Sept. 11, 2007, the Global War on Terrorism entered its sixth year. As of February 2007, more than 1.5 million U.S. warriors had been deployed to the combat zone. According to the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment, more than 500,000 warriors have served two combat tours, and 70,000 have served three or more tours. At the present time, there are more than 154,000 U.S. troops in Kuwait and Iraq, 26,000 troops in Afghanistan, 1,500 troops in Kosovo, 1,700 troops in the Horn of Africa and 600 troops in the Sinai.

The high operational tempo and frequent and multiple deployments required to fight the Global War on Terrorism have placed unprecedented levels of stress on this nation’s warriors and their families. As of February 2007, 700,000 U.S. children had a least one parent deployed to a combat zone. According to recent reports, one out of every five troops returning from combat deployments reported Soldierssome type of behavioral health problem such as anxiety, depression, marital problems, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. There is a critical need for professional counselors and other mental health professionals to provide services to these warriors and their families.

To provide competent care to returning warriors, mental health professionals should have appropriate training, personal qualities and specialized counseling skills. To be most helpful to military clients, counselors should apply the multicultural counseling competencies developed by members of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and endorsed by the American Counseling Association. By viewing the military as a distinct culture and developing interventions based on the recommendations contained in the multicultural standards, counselors can increase their ability to help their military clients.

Because the U.S. military is a highly diverse organization composed of members of various races, ethnic groups, religions and cultures, not all counseling professionals agree that it constitutes a unique culture. But although there is cultural, religious and ethnic diversity within the military, the military is a culture in its own right. When warriors are asked about their ethnicity, it is not uncommon to hear the response “We are all green” from members of the Army and Marine Corps or “We are all blue” from those in the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. These service members have chosen to acculturate to the military, but they do not relinquish their individual ethnic, cultural and gender identities. Each has voluntarily elected to be part of a culture of warriors charged with defending the freedoms of citizens of the United States.

The military culture is further identified by three key documents. All military service members swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, when they take the oath of office. They learn what is required of them in combat by adhering to the Military Code of Conduct and abide by a unique set of laws and regulations defined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Because the military is a unique culture, its members are best served by counselors who are prepared to employ multicultural counseling competencies.

The multicultural counseling competencies provide a useful model to support counselors in developing the qualities needed to provide effective counseling services to members of the military culture. There are three major multicultural competencies in this model. The first is the counselor’s self-awareness and recognition of personal assumptions, values and biases. The second is the counselor’s ability to understand and appreciate the worldview of the military client. The third is the counselor’s ability to develop and implement appropriate intervention strategies and techniques for military clients.

Counselor self-awareness and adaptability

The counselor, based on his or her own life experiences, family roles, culture and ethnicity, brings assumptions, values and biases about the military to the counseling session. Counselors who have not had frequent contact with military personnel may hold perceptions and biases about the military culture and its members that hinder development of an effective counseling relationship. The effective counselor should be actively involved in the process of becoming aware of his or her assumptions about human behavior, values, biases and preconceived notions as they relate to military service and military clients.

The military, like other cultures, has been stereotyped. Effective counselors will examine their stereotypes about the military and develop the knowledge and skills needed to ensure these biases do not adversely impact the counseling process. If the military client detects counselor incongruence about the military, the client won’t return. Counselors must be genuine about their beliefs and values without letting those beliefs and values negatively affect their ability to demonstrate respect and understanding of the military client’s worldview.

Ability to understand and join the client’s worldview

The worldview of the military client is based on the individual’s cultural experiences before entering the military, coupled with the enculturation process that takes place in basic and advanced military training. The military client’s worldview is defined as the way he or she views self, social relationships, human nature and political, educational and economic positions. These views are shared by others in the military culture.

To join with the worldview of military clients, counselors need to recognize several common values shared by military personnel, including:

  • Always maintain physical fitness.
  • Train hard before deployment to reduce casualties.
  • Never abandon your fellow warriors in combat.
  • The mission and the unit always come before the individual.
  • Never show weakness to fellow warriors or to the enemy.

The stigma associated with mental health treatment in the military, especially in the Marine Corps and the Army, is real. Despite efforts by senior military leaders to remove the stigma, the military cultural norm of not wanting to appear weak and vulnerable to fellow warriors persists. This prevents many warriors from seeking counseling services, especially those offered on the military installation, where confidentiality may not be guaranteed. This reality provides an opportunity for civilian counselors to be the mental health care providers of choice for warriors who want discrete and confidential services that will not be reported back to the military unit.

The effective counselor understands how the military culture can inform the client’s thoughts, actions, feelings, values, beliefs and assumptions about human behavior. The counselor must be able to communicate a nonjudgmental understanding of the client’s worldview. If the counselor cannot honestly convey an understanding and respect for the client’s military service, the client is unlikely to return. Effective understanding of the client’s worldview does not mean the counselor must share — or even pretend to share — that worldview. Rather, the counselor should be able to communicate acceptance of the client’s worldview as legitimate, although different from the counselor’s worldview.

Military clients do not assume that counselors’ attitudes, beliefs and values will be similar to their own. In fact, many warriors stereotype civilian counselors as holding liberal personal and political values and being opposed to military efforts in the war on terrorism. Moreover, many warriors believe counselors will make negative judgments about military service. Counselors should keep these client concerns in mind as the counseling relationship is initiated. If the counselor can communicate unconditional positive regard for the military client, the probability of the counseling being successful is enhanced.

Skills to meet the needs of military clients

The effective multicultural counselor should develop a set of specific skills to work within the military culture. While members of the military culture share common values and beliefs, it is a mistake to view military clients in a monolithic fashion. As is the case in any cultural group, there are as many differences among individuals within the group as there are differences between cultural groups.

The effective counselor needs to use basic relationship and communication skills such as accurate reflections of content and feelings and accurate summarizations of important aspects of the military client’s disclosures. In addition, the skilled counselor will deliver congruent verbal and nonverbal messages to the client. The effective multicultural counselor will encourage the military client to teach the counselor about the military culture and the important problems, values and traditions that are part of the client’s life. In response, the counselor will ensure the military client knows that the messages have been clearly received by accurately reflecting the content and associated feelings communicated in the message. When military clients feel understood, heard and respected by the counselor, they are more likely to deepen the counseling process by taking interpersonal risks and delving into the significant issues that have brought them to counseling.

The counselor should be equipped to employ a variety of interventions. As a rule, the stereotype of military clients being uncomfortable disclosing sad or scared feelings is often accurate. Therefore, the counselor may want to begin the counseling process using cognitive and behavioral interventions. As the counseling relationship is strengthened and as trust builds, the counselor may then move to a discussion of the client’s feelings. The counselor must be proficient in interventions that focus on thoughts, feelings and actions and be able to discern which approach to apply in various circumstances.

In addition, the military culture has a language of its own. The effective counselor will take the time to learn as much about the language of the military as possible. When clarification is needed, the counselor should be comfortable asking the client to explain a term or acronym. This technique empowers the client, strengthens the therapeutic relationship and adds to the counselor’s knowledge base of military culture.

Effective counselors have skills in consultation and are open to seeking assistance (with client permission) from experts with specific knowledge about a client concern. The counselor uses the knowledge gained from the consultation to enhance the effectiveness of the counseling session. Additionally, effective counselors are able to employ assessment instruments and are aware of cultural influences that may impact the test results. For example, military personnel applying for special assignments are required to complete a battery of psychological assessments. In the zero-defect world of the military culture, warriors are less likely to admit weaknesses and vulnerabilities that most people in the civilian culture would likely acknowledge. Counselors must be aware of this tendency to underreport weaknesses and vulnerabilities when interpreting test results.

There is a significant demand for well-qualified, multiculturally competent counselors to provide services to military personnel. The demand will only grow as the war on terrorism continues. Professional counselors will be successful in working with military clients if they have an understanding of the military culture and utilize the three major multicultural competencies identified by AMCD and endorsed by ACA.



David L. Fenell is a professor in the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Department of Counseling and Human Services and a colonel (retired) in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps Reserve. He chairs the ACA Special Committee on Military and Veteran Affairs. Contact him at

Letters to the editor:


Helping clients find happiness

Mike Hovancsek

Back when I was in my 20s, I knew a guy named Roger who hung wallpaper for a living. The one thing I remember about Roger is that he was always happy. I would often see him on worksites, zipping around with a bounce in his step, singing gleefully under his breath and generally annoying everyone around him with his positive outlook.

I felt puzzled by Roger. I knew that if I had to hang wallpaper six days a week, I would be pretty miserable. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could possibly get any joy from working at such a mind-numbing job.

Eventually, I decided I was going to figure out what made Roger tick. So I asked him, “If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?”

Without any hesitation Roger answered, “I would go to Hawaii … and hang wallpaper!”

“But how would you even know you were in Hawaii?” I protested. “You would be stuck inside looking at wallpaper all day.”

“But I would be in Hawaii,” Roger said with a tone that fell somewhere between pity and disbelief. In that moment, I realized Roger was as confused by my ignorance as I was by his happiness.

My conversation with Roger reminded me that I shouldn’t judge other people’s happiness according to the things that make me happy. This was when I began to realize that happiness is a complex and highly personal issue.

As Americans, we spend a lot of time worrying about whether we are happy and whether we are happy enough. There are reasons to be wary of this pursuit. As the 19th century philosopher John Stewart Mill once said, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Certainly, as counselors, we can think of examples of people who harmed their lives by recklessly seeking happiness. Our waiting rooms are full of people who have tangled themselves into addiction, debt and unhealthy relationships in the search for happiness.

The reality is that as human beings, we are blessed with a wide range of emotions that serve us in many ways. We need to experience a variety of emotions to efficiently store information, retrieve information and respond properly to our environment. In fact, discontent is a wonderful motivator. Would we seek out food if we didn’t get hungry? Would we seek out more knowledge if we were content with the knowledge we already had? The truth is, if we were happy all the time, we would stop growing, learning and striving for our own self-preservation.

In his Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx warns that in a capitalist society, people can become willingly enslaved by the pursuit of material comforts. He hypothesized that people would work long hours to make money so they could pay off all their material goods, effectively becoming slaves to their own debts. In a day and age when the average American works more hours than previous generations while also carrying thousands of dollars in credit card debt, it is hard to ignore Marx’s point.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagines a world in which perfect happiness is maintained through a regimen of behavioral control, genetic engineering, intense training and a synthetic drug called Soma. While Huxley’s book is fiction, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to modern life, in which the news is loaded with celebrity scandals and we are encouraged to pursue pharmaceutical answers to our common problems.

Americans have certainly sought out their own version of Huxley’s Soma. In his 2008 book, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation, Charles Barber reminds us that in 2006, the United States made up 66 percent of the global antidepressant market.

Why study happiness?

With all of those arguments in mind, why should we bother to study happiness? One reason is because its opposite, depression, is taking an increasingly heavy toll on society. As Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, “Depression is now 10 times as prevalent as it was in 1960, and it strikes at a much younger age.”

A 2001 report in Health and Medicine Week concluded that depression affects an estimated 17 million people in the United States each year. According to a 1996 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from suicide remains higher than for Alzheimer’s, chronic liver disease, homicide, arteriosclerosis or hypertension.

Depression also has a significant economic impact. Consider the following.

  • According to a 2004 World Health Organization study, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people between the ages of 15 and 44.
  • A 2001 article in The Wall Street Journal concluded that depression among workers in the United States costs businesses about $70 billion annually in medical expenditures, lost productivity and related costs.
  • A 1999 National Institute of Mental Health report concluded that $11 billion a year is lost as a result of workers who were less productive or made mistakes due to depression.

Recognizing the need for the study of happiness and healthy adjustment, Seligman pushed for the development of positive psychology. This is a massive shift in thinking. The field of psychology had spent much of the previous 100 years focusing on the things that were wrong with people. Sigmund Freud, for example, once stated that the best that can be hoped for in life is “the transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness.” For those who want more than “common unhappiness,” there is positive psychology.

People are surprisingly inaccurate at predicting their own happiness. In his 2007 book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert reports that we tend to make judgments about the future based on our current feelings and that we fail to take into account our ability to adjust. For example, we may predict that life would no longer be worth living if we were to become quadriplegic. Research suggests this conclusion is quite inaccurate. According to Seligman, “Of people with extreme quadriplegia, 84 percent consider their life to be average or above average.”

We also tend to assume that various things will make us happy even though research suggests that, in reality, they do not. For example, we may think we would be happy if we had more money. But Seligman reminds us, “Mounting over the last 40 years in every wealthy country on the globe, there has been a startling increase in depression.” He also cites studies which found that people who win the lottery tend to have a brief burst of happiness for an average of three months before returning to the baseline of happiness they experienced before winning the lottery.

Indeed, research has failed to show a significant correlation between happiness and material wealth once individuals reach a point where they have a place to live and a little something to eat. Similarly, research has been unable to find a correlation between happiness and attractiveness, happiness and health or happiness and popularity.

One important finding in positive psychology research: We often neglect the things in life that truly make us happy in the quest for things that we think will make us happy. We may, for example, neglect our family and friends to focus on getting a promotion at work. Soon after receiving the promotion, however, we return to the emotions we had prior to the promotion.

Everyday happiness

So, what actually makes people happy? Clients can use several different practices to find happiness in their everyday lives.

Have a sense of control
Daniel Nettle points out that people who have a strong sense of control in their lives report a significantly higher level of happiness than people who have a poor sense of control. As a result, clients are likely to benefit from shifting their focus away from the things they cannot control (for example, the behavior of other people or things that happened in the past) and toward things they can control (for example, changing their own behavior in a way that is likely to improve a bad situation). I often describe this to clients as shifting from a “victim” role to a “survivor” role.

Savor the small pleasures in everyday life
As Gilbert reminds us, “We are served more by frequency of happy events than by intensity of happy events.” This suggests that we don’t need to win the lottery to be happy; we just need to enjoy a lot of small pleasures in everyday life. Counselors might challenge their clients to write a list of simple, healthy pleasures in their lives and encourage them to commit to spending time being mindful with a few of those pleasures every day.

Practice positive cognitions
In Hamlet, Shakespeare writes, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Indeed, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with cognitive therapy knows that the cognitions we choose to interpret our world have a profound effect on how we feel and act.

“Optimistic people tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable and specific to one situation,” according to Seligman. “Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do and are uncontrollable.” So encourage your clients to focus on the transient, controllable and situation-specific elements of their problems.

Recognize problems as opportunities for growth
Tal Ben-Shahar encourages his students to “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” I find myself using this phrase with clients on a regular basis. It challenges them to think about each problem as a learning tool rather than as proof that the world is a terrible place. When prompted, clients can almost always cite examples of past difficulties that have helped them to learn and grow. Recognizing this, they can view their current problems as one more opportunity for learning and growth.

Focus on gratitude
I often encourage clients to create a gratitude journal. I challenge them to spend a few evenings each week documenting things for which they are grateful in their lives. Once there is a journal to fill, clients will often go through their lives looking for things they can include. This exercise can change their perspective significantly.

Have a sense of attachment to others
In The American Paradox, David Myers states, “There are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one’s best friend.” Clients can commit to spending more time with the people who are important to them. When clients report that they are not close to anyone, I suggest they write down a list of their interests. Then we look for the social manifestations of those interests. For example, if a person likes to read, he may want to join a book club. If a person likes animals, she can volunteer at the local animal shelter.

This principle extends to the larger community as well. In their 1998 article “Social Well-being,” Corey Lee M. Keyes and Shane Lopez reported that the degree to which a person is engaged in society is positively correlated with measures of happiness, generativity, optimism, life satisfaction and a sense of safety in one’s environment.

Have a sense of attachment to the universe
People tend to report more happiness when they have a sense of meaning and connection in their lives, whether it is their spirituality or through a secular sense of connection to humanity. As a result, clients are likely to benefit from redirecting their focus toward their own spiritual or humanist values.

Be altruistic
Research suggests that altruistic people are more likely to be happy, and happier people are more likely to be altruistic. Challenge clients to find charitable activities that are meaningful to them. This can get them engaged in their communities, give them a sense of purpose and shift their focus away from dwelling on their problems.

It is actually a lot of fun to help clients explore their own positive psychology. Most clients will have good results in a relatively short period of time by working these techniques into their daily lives. These skills are also a great form of self-care for professionals in the mental health field. Have fun!

Mike Hovancsek is an American Counseling Association member who runs a private practice in Stow, Ohio. He also offers presentations and workshops on a variety of subjects. Contact him at

Letters to the editor:

Annual Ethics Committee Student Case Study Competition a success

Shawn Spurgeon and Lynn Linde June 2, 2008

One of the charges of the American Counseling Association Ethics Committee is to educate ACA members about the ACA Code of Ethics. As one way of meeting this task, the Ethics Committee recently held its Fourth Annual Student Case Study Competition. The purpose of the competition was to engage aspiring counseling professionals in the process of becoming aware of, studying and engaging in ethical reflection and decision making.

We were very pleased that 23 teams of master’s students and 10 teams of doctoral students from graduate programs across the country participated in the competition. The team members critically analyzed the hypothetical cases and developed an ethical decision-making plan to respond to the situations presented.

The Ethics Committee members found all the responses very interesting. As anticipated, different teams chose to focus on different aspects of the cases and selected a variety of ethical decision-making models to guide them in developing their responses to the case studies. The Ethics Committee members independently rated responses to the case studies. The members then conferred to review the ratings and selected the top three winning teams of master’s students and doctoral students.

Master’s-level winning teams

First place: University of North Texas. Faculty: Casey Barrio Minton — Team members: Daisy Colin, Lorena Rodriguez Fernandez, David D. Huffman and Kimberlee Tucker

Second place: Oakland University. Faculty: Thomas W. Blume — Team members: Kirsti J. Reeve, Suzanne Sebree and Amy Willett

Third place: Argosy University–Seattle. Faculty: Deidra L. Clay — Team members: Brandin Chapman, Kris Goodman and Karmen Lynn Walker

Doctoral-level winning teams

First place: University of Toledo. Faculty: Nick Piazza — Team members: Tara M. Hill, Christie D. Jenkins, Amber Lange and Megan Mahon

Second place: Old Dominion University. Faculty: Edward Neukrug — Team members: Michael Hauser, Amanda C. Healey, Katherine Moore and Cynthia Walley

Third place: University of Akron. Faculty: Cynthia R. Reynolds — Team members: Kevin P. Feisthamel, Kara Kaelber and Michelle E. Toth

First-place team members were each awarded $75 ACA Bookstore coupons, a letter of recognition and a certificate. Members of the second-place teams received $25 ACA Bookstore coupons, a letter of recognition and a certificate. Third-place team members received a certificate and a letter of recognition. Each of the winning team’s programs also received a letter of recognition that included the names of the winning team members.

In addition, the first-place case study submissions, both at the master’s and doctoral level, were posted on the ACA website at

The ACA Ethics Committee and ACA wish to congratulate the winning teams and their respective graduate programs. The committee also wishes to commend the other participating teams from outstanding graduate programs across the nation.

Other participating master’s teams

Alaska Pacific University
California State University–Fresno
California University of Pennsylvania
Capella University
Drake University
Duquesne University
Eastern Kentucky University
Eastern Mennonite University
Loyola College in Maryland
Lynn University
Neumann College
North Georgia College & State University
Northeastern State University
Oklahoma State University
Oregon State University–Cascades
Southern Illinois University–Carbondale
Stetson University
University of Houston
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh

Other participating doctoral teams

Auburn University
Idaho State University
Kent State University
Texas Tech University
University of Arkansas
University of Central Florida
University of South Carolina

The cases for the competition were developed in consultation with all members of the ACA Ethics Committee: Darlene Daneker, Louis Downs, Jackie Flanagan, Larry Freeman, Sharon Kurpius, Karen McCleskey, Sally Murphy, June Williams and Patrick Wilson. We applaud all of the students for the work they put into their responses.

Again, we thank everyone for their participation and commitment to raising awareness of the ethical standards that are so vital to our profession.

Shawn Spurgeon and Lynn Linde are co-chairs of the ACA Ethics Committee.

True or false: No Child Left Behind is working

Angela Kennedy

Mark Twain once said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

That very sentiment can easily be applied to the No Child Left Behind debate, as many school officials have questioned whether this legislation actually interferes with providing school students a well-rounded and quality curriculum.

Signed into law by President George W. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act significantly changed federal education policy for grades kindergarten through 12. Notably, it requires standardized testing for all students in English and math every year in grades 3 through 8, as well as once in high school. NCLB has put pressure on U.S. primary and secondary schools to improve the academic performance of all students, and many school districts have certainly progressed, but not without many opponents raising an important question: At what cost?

Large numbers of student advocates, including school counselors, have criticized NCLB’s stringent accountability and strict testing requirements, claiming its implementation is too costly, narrows the curriculum and does not take into consideration the unique needs of every student. Proponents of education reform say the legislation has exposed the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students, as well as performance discrepancies between disadvantaged and affluent students.

NCLB is the name given to the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is due to expire this year. As Congress looks to “reauthorize” — extend or revise — the federal statute, school counseling professionals weigh in on what’s working and what needs to change to ensure that, in fact, no child is left behind.

Ted Martinez

“(NCLB’s) overall objective of trying to reach 100 percent proficiency in both reading and math by the year 2014 is not only unrealistic, but impossible to achieve. But I think it’s typical of how politicians think, as opposed to education professionals,” says Ted Martinez, an American Counseling Association member and school counselor with the New London Public School System in Connecticut. “Politicians have to have some end point, so they put 2014.”

“(NCLB) has a strong emphasis on accountability and intense testing. I’m not for or against it, nor argue the merits of whether every grade should be tested, but I think it is unrealistic to subject kids from other countries to these high-stakes tests when they don’t even know the language. It’s really unfair and that’s my biggest concern,” says Martinez, who works with a large population of ELL (English language learner) students in his district.

“You have to be able to speak, read and write the English language if you are going to be able to negotiate your existence in this society. I think 98 percent of them absolutely want to do that. But to subject them to this kind of testing is incredibly frustrating. If you don’t know the language, how are you going to measure something that they don’t even have?”

Martinez adds that, in his opinion, the tests aren’t student friendly, and he doesn’t think that relying solely on test scores for accountability is an adequate gauge of a school’s level of achievement with students. “The question is, do you want these kids to achieve or fail? If you don’t supply them with the resources to acquire the skills that they need, testing them all the time isn’t going to help them learn the English language.”

Carolyn Stone

Carolyn Stone, past president of the American School Counselor Association, a division of ACA, is a school counselor educator at the University of North Florida. She has 22 years of experience in the field of education as a teacher, counselor and supervisor.

“Because I was an educator who was around before NCLB, and because I saw firsthand what happens to students when there is no accountability, I am a very strong supporter of standards for kids. It really holds the educators who are in charge of these young lives and their learning accountable for what happens. That said, high-stakes testing has really done a disservice in many respects to students.”

Stone feels strongly that schools should be allowed to use different forms of assessments for students and that “success” shouldn’t be defined by one test. “We know enough about assessments that we should be able, as a nation, to use different types of assessments and even multiple assessments to determine a student’s grasp and competence within standards. Standards are good, but high-stakes testing is not necessarily (good).”

Paula Stanley

With 16 years of experience as a school counselor educator, ACA member Paula Stanley has a different perspective on the effects of NCLB. In working with her interns at Radford University in Virginia, she has noticed a change in the perceived roles of school counselors in the past few years. So much so, she says, that several individuals have entered the university’s school counseling program only to change their specialty upon realizing that they may not get to work with students in the capacity they had assumed.

“There is just so much paperwork that they feel like they are not able to assist the students adequately, and it’s really not what they went into counseling for. They want to have direct contact with students, and they are finding it really frustrating managing all the paperwork and also trying to fill their role as a counselor, as indicated by the ASCA standards. You have counselors who don’t feel like they have the time to work with students on developmental needs. In most cases, the school counselors are in charge of managing the assessment, managing the success of students over time and working with special needs children. They are already overworked and not able to provide the counseling and services they want to. With NCLB, their role has become even more administrative.”

Interns are also finding it increasingly difficult to meet the required 120 direct service hours per semester for their internship, Stanley notes. “Because NCLB (student test results are) tied to funding, teachers don’t want students to leave the classrooms, so it gets more difficult for counselors to have access to the students who could benefit from their services.” She adds that school counselors really do value students’ academic success just as much as their social development and vocational aspirations, and school counselors are willing to work with teachers and administrations in becoming more accountable.

However, Stanley says, reducing the developmental role of school counselors ultimately works against student success. “The focus is just on making students pass this test, but some of the reasons why students aren’t doing well on the tests are personal or social. They may have feelings of low self-worth or confidence, or they may have problems at home. They come to school with these problems burning inside of them, and it’s hard for them to focus on their schoolwork.” Given the chance and time, school counselors can help these children with coping skills and even encourage parents to get more involved with their child’s academic success, she says.

Stanley admits the data gained from analyzing test scores can be beneficial as a means of proving the vital role of school counselors and their services. However, she says, “Someone with much less than a master’s degree can count out tests. School counselors feel that their skills aren’t being used, and much of the work (associated with administering the tests) can be done by clerical staff. The negative aspects of NCLB do seem to be more prominent in school counselors’ minds.

“It’s really affecting how we train counselors, the choices that students make in their counseling specialty and, ultimately, their choices once they have entered the school counseling profession. It’s affecting all three points of that continuum.”

Christopher Laudo

A school counselor at Salisbury Elementary in Gap, Pa., Christopher Laudo’s perspective is that, although there are serious flaws in how NCLB is written, the legislation has ushered in a great opportunity for innovation and change. “By making the status quo unacceptable, the federal mandates of NCLB have served to create an unparalleled sense of urgency that has resulted in serious efforts to address equity and social justice. For school counselors, it has meant that we can no longer sit on the fence and debate whether we should be running a data-driven program. Because other professionals in the school setting are required to show their impact on student academic success, school counselors must hold themselves to the same standard.” If school counselors fail to demonstrate their impact on student success or take a leadership role in helping to remove systemic barriers to student success, Laudo says, they run the risk of being perceived as unnecessary.

“This switch to more of a systems focus has resulted in having some very powerful conversations with my principal. Through the problem-solving process, as we share data and look to remove barriers to learning, we have formed an even stronger alliance. Before NCLB, such conversations might have been too uncomfortable or awkward to have. Now, thanks to NCLB, they are a necessary part of the growth process of the school.”

Eric Sparks

Serving the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina for more than 13 years, ASCA President Eric Sparks says he has witnessed several positive aspects of NCLB. “It’s helped us to focus on data and look to see which students are being successful and which students need help. It really fits in well with the ASCA model in terms of using data to identify students who aren’t being successful academically or behaviorally. In that respect, it has helped school counselors show how they are contributing to the overall goals of the schools.”

Sparks adds that there are some major dilemmas surrounding NCLB, the biggest being funding — or the lack thereof. “There are issues on how the formula is set up in terms of how schools are evaluated, so that has been a challenge to some of the schools.” He says many schools don’t think they have the resources they need to help all students achieve and meet the NCLB standards. He also notes that the number of subgroups as defined in NCLB, which takes into account minority students, English as a second language and socioeconomic status, can vary greatly between schools. “We have schools that range from four or five subgroups all the way up to 24 to 25 subgroups. The intent of NCLB is good in that you are looking at all of your students and making sure that all are progressing toward academic achievement, but keeping up with all the subgroups can be challenging for schools.”

On the other hand, “The focus on data has really helped us to move from making decisions on what we think is best for students to making decisions that are based on the outcome data.” Sparks adds that the data are essential when determining what is actually working to benefit student success. “We can look at the data and rethink our efforts and refocus our activities and programs.”

The temptation for elementary and intermediate schools is to concentrate on the curriculum covered in the standardized tests (“teaching the test”) and ignore other areas such as the arts, sciences and social studies, Sparks acknowledges. “We hear anecdotally, from teachers, counselors and administrators from around the country, that those areas aren’t being emphasized as much as they have been in the past because more resources go toward language arts and math. That could have a negative impact on students in the long run if schools don’t take measures to counteract that. If we aren’t providing activities for students to participate in the arts, we are really missing out on opportunities to help the development of the overall student. Students who do participate in the arts, there’s research that shows they do better in other areas, like math and language.” He adds that nurturing talent and encouraging students in extracurricular ventures promotes self-confidence and provides balance.

“We do hear also that the level of stress on students has increased. We are hearing that from teachers and counselors alike. As school counselors are working on their plans and programs for their schools, a lot of times they are adding in additional emphasis on ways to cope with stress, anxiety and providing workshops on test-taking skills. (But) while there are a lot of challenges to NCLB, before NCLB, it was easy to just look at school data as a whole and not really dig in and see who isn’t being successful. Now we can help more students achieve in school.”

Delores Curry

A high school counselor at Bloomington High School in California, Delores Curry says it’s important for school counselors to advocate for themselves to be included in the rewriting/

reauthorization of NCLB as a necessary component in student achievement. “One of the concerns we have as the school counseling profession is making sure that when the legislation talks about ‘school personnel,’ school counselors are included within that group. As with any policy or legislation that must be followed, there’s always going to be those who are happy and those who are not.”

Overall, she believes NCLB has helped ensure that schools are making services and programs available to both subgroups of students and individual students who are struggling to meet NCLB standards. “With NCLB, you are identifying students and catching students that may have been tossed to the wayside before.”

Organizations grade NCLB

According to the ASCA position statement on high-stakes testing, “High-stakes tests can penalize schools and students for factors over which they have no control, such as socioeconomic influences, naturally occurring yearly fluctuations or a student’s state of readiness to perform on the day of the test. The scores resulting from high-stakes tests do not take into account important factors such as a school’s adequacy of educational funding, lack of standardization of the test’s administration, interpretation and scoring, potential errors in scoring or barriers to student performance. The testing results do not necessarily indicate student learning.”

While ASCA supports the use of standardized tests as one of many measures of student and school achievement and success, it rejects the use of high-stakes tests or any other single measurement instrument. According to ASCA’s position statement, “The professional school counselor encourages multiple measures when life-influencing decisions are being made.”

In a recent survey conducted by Teachers Network, more than 5,600 public school teachers from all 50 states were questioned on the effectiveness of NCLB and its impact on schools. Only 37 percent found standardized testing “somewhat useful.” Less than 1 percent agreed that it was an effective way to evaluate the quality of schools.

ACA Assistant Director of Public Policy and Legislation Chris Campbell says that, although not optimum, NCLB was a good start to education reform. “(ACA) strongly supports the main purpose of NCLB: to afford all children an equal opportunity to receive a quality education and, in doing so, to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers,” Campbell says. “ACA believes that highly qualified teachers are critical to student achievement. However, if children are not physically and mentally prepared to learn, the best classroom instruction will not produce the desired results.”

Work on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (i.e., NCLB) is picking up speed, according to Campbell. In August, the House Education Committee released a preliminary proposal to reauthorize ESEA. Following release of the draft language, ACA joined other education groups in submitting comments. The House Education Committee’s draft legislation would maintain requirements that states continue to assess students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and in high school. However, the draft legislation would also authorize states to use new methods of tracking progress toward subject proficiency goals required to be met by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

According to congressional staff, the Education committees in both the House and Senate were preparing to mark up their bills to reauthorize the legislation as early as the week of Oct. 22. While it was anticipated that a bill might be introduced on the floor of the House in early November, consideration of an ESEA reauthorization bill in the Senate was not expected until early next year.

For more details on the reauthorization process, read Washington Update on page 11. To monitor continuing updates on NCLB reauthorization proceedings, visit