Monthly Archives: August 2006

The rhythm of emotion

Mark Reiser August 10, 2006

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will appear in the May 2006 issue of Counseling Today.

You, my friend, are a true musician. Without an instrument in hand, you make music without even realizing it. For we are all, by our very nature, drummers. We clap when impressed. We tap our feet when hearing a favorite song. We bounce a pencil on a desk when nervous. We pace our breathing when stressed.

No doubt, rhythm is an integral part of everyday life. As drummer Mickey Hart noted in an interview with Maclean’s, “Rhythm … is the one common denominator we have. We’re rhythm animals.” Whether it’s the steady pounding of our heartbeat or the synchronized firing of neurons in our brain, we are driven by rhythm. In essence, the drum is nature’s universal instrument.

This universality is evident when we peer into our past. Since ancient times, indigenous cultures have used drums in religious ceremonies, healing rituals, tribal celebrations and communal expression. Too often we seem to forget the lessons that our ancestors can teach us. But this ancestral legacy — the healing power of the drum — is being rediscovered the world over. In particular, it is gradually being embraced by the therapeutic community. In fact, drum therapy is currently being used with an astounding variety of clients, from adult sexual offenders to autistic children. Drums are providing a way for clients of all kinds to express themselves, connect with others and heal from within.

My friend the drum

While I am eager to jump into the scores of ways in which people are using drum therapy — and why it is working — I am first compelled to address my own history with this topic. Admittedly, I was not drawn to the drums 10 years ago by therapeutic goals. But just the same, I have reaped profound emotional rewards from my experience on a drum kit.

As a teenager, I was enamored with some of the “masters” of rock drumming: Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Neil Peart. Gradually, I became obsessed. When listening to music, the drums became the only instrument that I heard. Naturally, this fueled my desire to pick up the sticks. A few years ago, I finally found the courage to buy a trap kit (snare drum, toms, bass drum, cymbals, etc.). Thus far, my relationship with the drums has been nothing short of magical.

The drums have provided me with my most effective outlet for stress relief. Whether I’m nervous, angry or bored, I consistently feel lighter and happier after a session on my kit. Whenever I feel exhausted from stress, a light bulb immediately comes on, and I say, “Ooh, I know why I feel like this — it’s been too long since my last jam session.” So I drum. Afterward, I have far more energy, motivation and optimism.

The benefits do not stop there, because the drums also serve as my emotional barometer. On days when I feel down, I play with a slow tempo. When I’m frustrated, my improvisational skills are diminished; my drumming sounds sloppy and forced. When I’m happy, I play louder and cleaner. But regardless of my initial mood, I frequently play until I find a steady rhythm and until I feel revived and energized. In short, drums are my therapy.

Drum therapy, you say?

I am hardly unique in realizing the profoundly therapeutic power of the drum. In fact, drums are becoming more commonplace in the world of counseling. But how are they being used and with whom? Let’s explore how a special musical instrument can be so cathartic.

We’ll start with Doug, an autistic adult with severe sensory impairments. Doug was 40 years old, virtually deaf and mute, and had severe vision impairment. To experience the benefits of therapy, Doug needed a voice — a way to interact both with himself and others. Enter the drum.

Doug’s therapist, Lawrence Keats, chose to set up a series of four drum stations, each one designed to explore different facets of cognition, emotion and both inter- and intrapersonal communication. As he described in his article, “Doug: The Rhythm in His World,” Keats named each station, with titles ranging from “Hello” to “What’s New?” Doug delighted in these exercises in percussion, often laughing and dancing with unbridled joy.

The various stations served as windows into Doug’s world. As Keats noted, “Doug’s choice of drums, combination of sonorities and the dynamic level at which he played were very often indicative of his emotional state at the time.” Hmmm … that sounds oddly familiar to how I use the drums. Parallel to my own experience, Doug created unique and dynamic patterns on days when he was in high spirits. He was disjointed and withdrawn on the drums when he was worried or anxious. That was invaluable information for the counselor, especially given that Doug could not express those emotions verbally.

Doug also gained a new social consciousness through the drums. On the fourth drum station, “Let’s Jam,” Doug once invited his friend Grace for an impromptu jam session. During that time, Keats noted that the three of them were transformed into a “spirited trio of creativity and laughter.” It became evident to Keats that Doug was able to “experience the unique feeling that one gets from entertainment with a fellow musician — even more special for Doug considering his hearing impairment.” In time, Doug’s skills on the drums grew tremendously, as did his interpersonal communication with the outside world. In short, the drums provided a way for Doug to know himself and reach out to his external world.

Like individuals with autism, Alzheimer’s patients are another population that experiences severe communicative impairments. Conny Tomaino of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function uses drums extensively in therapy. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “I found a new way to interact with those who do not engage with others and are not aware of their environment.” Eric Hall, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said, “Drum therapy gets them to participate in life once again. … There is some type of power in the rhythm that promotes cognitive function.” This “power” that Hall references is a topic of research. Drums truly do affect the brain in a profound way (I’ll address this research next month). But for now, let’s continue dipping into the world of therapeutic possibilities with the drum.

Can drums help a person overcome trauma? That’s precisely what Helen Zador of Canada discovered. Zador had a history of being abused, including being the victim of a brutal gang rape when she was in her 20s. As she noted to interviewer B.D. Johnson, “At first just looking at the drums aroused a fear. … They’re phallic in shape … the sound is primal, deep in your body.” When she first attempted to play the drums, the experience brought back vivid physical memories of the trauma, and tears filled her eyes. But over time, she was gradually able to confront her fear, and the drums gave her a means of overcoming the pain. Zador now works as a massage therapist and, fittingly, her worktable is surrounded by a variety of percussion instruments.

Counseling with the drum

Lou Farley, a licensed professional counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association, also surrounds himself with percussion instruments. Farley has been playing the drums for more than 10 years. He has received both formal training and private lessons in percussion and currently works with native healers in the Laramie, Wyo., area. Farley often uses percussion to supplement talk therapy in his private practice, both in individual and group sessions. In fact, Farley asserts that drums can be a valuable component in all four main stages of therapy (assessment, treatment planning, treatment and evaluation of treatment).

Farley provided an example of how he might utilize drums in working with a highly resistant adolescent. Let’s say the young boy indicated a fondness for percussion. Farley would drop a drum in front of him and ask him to play for five minutes. The way the child plays the drums can reveal a huge piece of his inner world. If the child plays with constricted hands and a regular, safe pattern, this might suggest he is scared and nervous and that he finds comfort in order. He may not feel comfortable taking the lead. Farley would then reflect these personal qualities back to the client, and the two of them could process how these qualities affect his social relationships.

One possible intervention is having the client play “sloppy drums” for five minutes. Farley and the child would then process how this feels, with Farley further encouraging the client to take a risk and loosen up. Next, Farley might play drums along with him, providing a small sense of order, while illustrating to the client that a lack of perfect order doesn’t mean his world will fall apart; letting go is OK. Six months later, Farley might again see how the client plays the drums, using this as a litmus test for the efficacy of treatment.

Percussive healing: From intrapersonal to interpersonal

The efficacy of drums as a counseling tool is not restricted to individuals. In fact, couples and groups can also reap the benefits. This is precisely what Robert Friedman, author of The Healing Power of the Drum, is finding in his own practice. Friedman helps couples find new avenues of discussion via the drum. According to an interview with Michelle Cook, Friedman seeks to enable his clients to become more “synchronized with their personal rhythms.”

How about the utility of percussion for group therapy? Percussion can be a means of group communication, just as tribal cultures have used it for millennia. In fact, you may be surprised at some of the specific populations benefiting from this form of group counseling. For example, Dalena Watson found that drum therapy groups could allow sexual offenders to process and regulate intense emotions. Similarly, Vaughn Kaser has discovered that such groups can help pedophiles gain kinesthetic awareness and control. Drum therapy has also enhanced the social skills of student groups and has facilitated improvements in communication, behavior and cooperation among angry adolescents.

But one of the most innovative applications of group drum therapy has occurred at a pair of clinical mental health centers in Kansas City, where severely mentally ill patients were trained to become performing musicians. An anthropologist, a social worker and two professional musicians initiated a drum therapy program for a diverse group of patients who were struggling with severe disorders such as manic depression, schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. According to Jeffrey Longhofer and Jerry Floersch, the facilitators chose to teach the group the African “Dagbama” tradition, which is polyrhythmic and quite different from anything in Western culture. Patients were told right away that they would have the chance to become legitimate musicians. Imagine the empowerment that went along with that assurance!

The group practiced together and, over time, they became more proficient. Each person had a unique part in the production, yet each was allowed to contribute to a meaningful whole. Inclusion is a crucial healing factor for individuals whose illnesses so often are an exclusionary factor. In time, their self-esteem skyrocketed and their interpersonal skills flourished. They gained both a sense of accomplishment and identity within a group.

The story does not stop there. Throughout the musical training, the facilitators had planned to allow these patients to take their performances into the community. And perform they did. In essence, these concerts gave the patients not only a meaningful way to contribute to society but a context within which they could reintegrate themselves into the society they might someday rejoin. Indeed, this experience offered an incredible source of empowerment for this population, while perhaps unexpectedly providing a viable path to a new vocation.

Mark Reiser will receive his master’s degree in counselor education from the University of Wyoming in May. He also teaches for the Department of Physics and Astronomy on the side, and will be enrolling in the doctoral program in counselor education next year. Contact him at

No time to play

Angela Kennedy

What if you had to work eight hours without a break? No mid-morning second cup of coffee. No idle chitchat around the water cooler about what happened on Lost last night. No five-minute mental vacation in the afternoon. Just work.

Call the union! Hit the picket line! Take this job and (you know the rest).

That’s exactly what many schools are asking of their students, eliminating recess as a scheduled part of the school day. Last year, the National Parent Teacher Association partnered with the Cartoon Network to launch Rescuing Recess, a campaign to get parents, teachers, children’s advocates and even kids to help ensure that recess still gets its due time somewhere between reading, writing and arithmetic.

According to, more than 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated or greatly shortened students’ playtime. Due to budget cuts, lack of supervisory staff and an increased focus on academic standards and test scores, millions of American children no longer scamper across the schoolyard to play dodge ball, hot potato or freeze tag. But school counselors agree that recess is more than just “free time.” They claim it’s a necessary outlet for children to develop emotionally, cognitively, socially and – of growing concern, since one out of five children is now obese – physically.

“I’ve been arguing for years that play is a critical component to childhood,” says Christopher Sink, an expert in child development and a counselor educator at Seattle Pacific University. “The research is contrary to what (schools) are doing. I think the reason why they are cutting recess is that they want more instructional time. They are not educating the whole child anymor, they are looking simply for test scores.”

American Counseling Association President Marie A. Wakefield agrees that schools should have a holistic approach to student education and development. “I advocate for those activities that bring balance to the mental, physical, emotional and social growth of children,” says Wakefield, who has been working in education as a school counselor, teacher and administrator for more than 28 years. “I believe that play can be a powerful tool for promoting group leadership skills. It not only heightens the energy level – a valuable, limitless resource – but it promotes enthusiasm, group approval, acceptance, creativity, teamwork, adventure, challenge and personal satisfaction.”

Sink, a member of ACA, is strongly opposed to the idea of eliminating recess from schools. If anything, he thinks the time dedicated to recess should be increased. “Play and imitation play – all the things kids do on the playground, especially elementary-school-age children – facilitate cognitive development,” he says. “It not only facilitates cognitive judgment but also the development of language. So play is critical to cognitive, social and psychosocial development.” He adds that school counselors need to advocate for unstructured playtime and should be prepared to present research in support of the effort. Sink suggests counselors who know that their schools may be considering the elimination of recess hold an in-service for faculty, staff and administration on the importance of play, not just recess.

“One of the other problems is that when you give kids choices, they may end up sitting in a computer lab instead of interacting with one another,” Sink says. “The key is to have kids play – actual play – whether it be organized sports or hopscotch or having toys out for them to play with. That’s how they learn rule development, taking turns and basic social skills – by negotiating and working with each other.”

Mary Pat McCartney, an elementary school counselor at Bristow Run Elementary School in Prince William County, Va., agrees. For more than 18 years, she has watched children interact on the playground. But in 2005, the county reduced recess time at its schools from 25 minutes to 15 minutes. McCartney says there was a noticeable change both in the students themselves and in their ability to stay focused.

“It’s hard for them to stay ’on’ and stay working without a break,” says McCartney, a member of the American School Counselor Association, a division of ACA. “Recess is a chance for them to release. Developmentally, it’s inappropriate to eliminate or shorten it. Kids need to be able to run around, be active and get their juices flowing. They need that physical activity.”

Additionally, there are other benefits to recess, McCartney says. For instance, many teachers use recess to encourage students to pay attention down the homestretch. “There are very few incentives for us to use in school,” she points out, “and a lot of times (recess) does a really good job of motivating kids to finish their work or to stay focused for a few minutes longer to grasp a concept. Then they can have some release time.” During the final push before state testing last spring, McCartney says she also used recess to keep her students on track. “I’ve used it as successfully with a chart with a point system where students would earn points for being on time, having their homework finished or having good behavior in the cafeteria,” she explains. “And when they earned so many points, I would take them out for an extra recess. The kids really appreciated it that extra time, and the teachers appreciated the help, too.”

McCartney also sees recess as an opportunity for children to build self-esteem and confidence. “There are some kids who may not be real successful in math or social studies, but they get outside and they can hit a ball or shoot a basket and it gives them an opportunity to shine where maybe they weren’t shining in the building,” she says. “That helps them feel better about themselves – something that they can do well – and it helps when the other kids in the class see this student do something well.”

School counselors can also use recess as a diagnostic tool by watching what is happening on the playground. They can observe which students are playing together and if an individual student is isolated or bullied. McCartney utilizes this tactic to get a feel for her students’ social development.

“Seeing students interact really gives you a different picture than any other time,” she says. “The classroom is structured and the lunchroom is structured and even the hall, but when they are out on their own and it’s free play outside, that really is an opportunity for everybody to find a place socially – or not. As a school counselor, I can get a pulse for what’s going on with the kids, and I know if I need to check in on a particular student.”

Both McCartney and Sink agree that school counselors should be on the forefront of this debate, promoting the importance of unstructured playtime. The Rescuing Recess website lists talking points that school counselors and other student advocates can use to support recess policies. Here are a few:


  • Research shows that attention requires periodic novelty: The brain needs downtime to recycle chemicals that are crucial for long-term memory formation.
  • Children learn more effectively when their efforts are distributed over time rather than concentrated in longer periods.
  • Play is an active form of learning that unites the mind, body and spirit. Until at least the age of 9, children’s learning occurs best when the whole self is involved. The senses of smell, touch and taste and the sense of motion through space are powerful modes of learning.
  • A study found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had recess, with hyperactive children among those benifiting most. Psychologists have found that children, especially boys, are more restless and show less concentration when their normal recess period is delayed.


  • Children permitted to play freely with peers develop skills for seeing things through another person’s point of view – cooperating, helping, sharing and solving problems.
  • The playful aspects of recess activities, which include choice, spontaneity, social interaction, creative use of time and problem solving, provide children with a rich context that fosters development in multiple aspects. Play gives children a chance to learn, consolidate and practice skills necessary for further growth and learning.
  • Much of what children do during recess, including making choices, developing rules for play and learning to resolve conflicts to keep the game going, involves the development of social skills.


  • Can physical education class be substituted for recess? The National Association for Sport and Physical Education says “No.” P.E. provides a “sequential instructional program” related to physical activity and performance, while recess provides unstructured playtime where children “have choices, develop rules for play … and practice or use skills developed in physical education.”
  • Studies reported that children who lead sedentary lifestyles suffer increased health risks.
  • Physical activity improves general circulation, increases blood flow to the brain and raises levels of norepinephrine and endorphins – all of which may reduce stress, improve mood, induce a calming effect after exercise and perhaps, as a result, improve achievement.

The Rescuing Recess website offers a three-prong approach – “Kids Get Involved,” “Parents and Teachers Get Informed” and “Everybody Gets Animated” – that provides action-oriented information as well as tool kits and volunteer information.

“The campaign to rescue recess by having parents, teachers and students involved is a good way to ensure that everyone understands the benefits of an activity that affects the well-being of children physically, mentally, emotionally and socially,” Wakefield says.

School counselors might want to check out the Rescuing Recess website and give kids a break.

A relational-cultural approach to building unity and vision: Part II

Dana L. Comstock, Judy Daniels and Michael D’Andrea

This article is the second in a four-part series that explores Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) and its relevance for the work which counselors do in the field. In this month’s column, we build on the issues addressed in the first part of the series by exploring several concepts central to RCT. The concepts will provide a theoretical basis that can expand counselors’ understanding of some of the key issues that are important to address in fostering revolutionary changes in the fields of counseling and psychology in general and the American Counseling Association in particular.

The first column examined how mutual empathy and connections and disconnections, as defined in RCT, impact human development. One of the primary goals of this article is to define additional RCT terms and concepts, such as the “central relational paradox,” “controlling and relational images” and “blocks to authentic relating.”

In discussing the impact that blocks to authentic relating have on people’s lives, we examine some of the ways in which various organizations, including ACA, inadvertently promote such blocks. These unintentional blocks foster exclusionary practices that undermine the full participation of individuals from marginalized and devalued groups in organizational settings. Finally, we briefly examine how RCT concepts can be used in overcoming obstacles as counselors work to create more relational and socially just practices in organizations such as ACA.

Behind the central relational paradox

The foundation of RCT, which is supported by a growing body of research, including empirical studies in neurobiology, is built upon the idea that human beings yearn for connection in all their respective developmental and relational contexts. RCT also acknowledges that in spite of our yearnings for connection, we all exercise strategies of disconnection, which is a central consideration of RCT. The tendency for people to manifest various connections and disconnections in the face of their yearning at different points in their lives is referred to as the “central relational paradox.”

The strategies people use in exercising different types of connections and disconnections with others are unique to each of us. The factors that influence people’s efforts to formulate connections and the strategies employed when disconnecting with others are influenced by a host of factors, including an individual’s converging background, familial patterns, identity markers and history of trauma, to name a few.

Disconnecting strategies can range from emotional withdrawal to physical violence to simply censoring the feelings people try to share in interpersonal interactions. While all organizations are impacted by the types of connections and disconnections individuals manifest toward one another, very few organizations utilize RCT concepts, which are intentionally aimed at promoting mutuality and authentic interactions. This column recognizes that the central relational paradox (disconnecting in spite of yearning for relationship) represents adaptive strategies that are manifested in the lives of all individuals, both inside and outside of organizational settings. We therefore emphasize the need to create greater opportunities for authentic connections and mutual empathy in a world that continues to operate from culturally stratified, exclusionary and oppressive practices. The continued perpetuation of these forms of stratification, exclusion and oppression – in our contemporary society in general and organizational settings in particular – foster what RCT theorists refer to as “power-over dynamics.”

Examining power-over relational constructs

RCT theorists assert that “power-over relational dynamics” are commonly reflected in most of the interactions we have with other people. This includes interactions with our clients, colleagues, mentors, professors, students, supervisors and leaders in our professional organizations. These power-over relational dynamics make it difficult and risky for persons in subordinate positions to express their authentic feelings about the nature of their interactions in individual, counseling and organizational settings.

While it is challenging for dominant persons in power-over positions to listen and be responsive to the thoughts, feelings and needs expressed by individuals in subordinate positions, responsiveness is essential to building relationships that reflect the mutual empathy and authenticity which are foundational to RCT. Unfortunately, many persons in dominant positions in organizational settings, much like dominant groups in the larger culture, are often unresponsive to persons in marginalized groups and backgrounds. This lack of responsivity leads to different forms of shaming and silencing. Such silencing and shaming commonly represents the dominant person’s resistance to change and an effort to maintain a particular “image” that preserves perceived levels of power within the status quo.

RCT suggests that anytime we consciously or unconsciously operate from a power-over “image,” we move out of connection with others. In doing so, people diminish their ability to realize new and transformational connections with others – connections rooted in mutual empathy and authenticity.

This dynamic plays out not only in familial interactions, friendships and client-counselor relationships but in organizational settings as well. In a broader context, RCT theorists point out that organizational growth requires the sort of courage, dialogue and constructive conflict resolution that promotes mutual empathy and interpersonal authenticity. In turn, this diminishes the power-over dynamics that underlie many of the disconnections that characterize organizational life.

RCT emphasizes that the degree of courage and safety one experiences when interacting with others in organizational settings is directly related to how much power or mutuality one experiences or expects in relationships with others. RCT theorists also note that it takes a certain type of courage and vulnerability for people to authentically express their thoughts, feelings and needs in organizational settings. This is especially true when “controlling images” are played out in interactions that maintain dominant-subordinate relational dynamics.

Controlling images

Numerous multicultural theorists, including Peggy McIntosh, bell hooks and Patricia Hill-Collins, have influenced RCT. In her book Black Feminist Thought (2000), Hill-Collins describes the notion of “controlling images,” particularly as they impact African-American women.

She suggests that the dominant cultural-racial group in the United States promotes “stereotypical images” that are used to control Black women and justify various forms of oppression related to sexism and racism. RCT posits that controlling images are utilized to perpetuate the oppression of persons in marginalized and devalued groups by maintaining power-over dynamics both in society and in organizations.

From an RCT perspective, these controlling images covertly operate to maintain and normalize the oppressive nature of cultural and social stratification that persists in our nation. Controlling images distort relational possibilities by:

  • Limiting individuals’ perceptions of who they are and what they can become in the world
  • Diminishing people’s capacity to interact in mutually empathic and authentic ways with others, especially those who are in power-over positions

RCT resists the constricting nature of controlling images and strives to stimulate more positive, healthy and egalitarian relational images and interactions in organizational settings. RCT can be used as a model for organizational transformation as persons in dominant and subordinate positions are encouraged to examine the impact that controlling images have within their specific organization. This, in turn, can help organizations learn new ways to implement intervention strategies that are intentionally aimed at nurturing mutual empathy and social inclusion.

Professional organizations such as ACA could begin this empowering collective endeavor by making time for persons in dominant and subordinate positions to:

  • Examine the different ways that power-over dynamics are perpetuated in the organization
  • Identify the different types of controlling images that help to maintain these power-over dynamics
  • Explore new ways of operating that will ameliorate the sources of resistance and disconnection, leading to new, more vibrant and more authentic relationships within ACA

What ACA can do to support RCT concepts

Counselors have a responsibility, as change agents, to promote positive changes in professional organizations such as ACA. This can be accomplished, in part, by encouraging all members of ACA to participate in the creation of a new vision for this important professional organization. As RCT advocates, we suggest the counseling profession needs a vision that is much more inclusive and holistic and includes an explicitly stated commitment to promoting multicultural counseling and social justice advocacy competencies.

The creation of such a vision needs to be guided by a heightened sense of mutual empathy and authentic interaction between all this organization’s members and leaders – and especially among those members who feel excluded from many of the decision-making processes that characterize ACA.

We further suggest that efforts to promote a greater sense of inclusion be facilitated by leaders who intentionally strive to eliminate power-over dynamics that emerge from controlling images.

ACA has a unique opportunity to take its commitment for cultural inclusivity to new organizational heights. It can use many of the RCT concepts discussed in both this column and the previous column as guidelines to create a new and more unified vision for the counseling profession.

By implementing organizational development strategies rooted in RCT concepts, ACA can serve as a model for other large professional organizations. All these organizations would benefit from effectively promoting the types of mutually empathic and authentic interpersonal interactions that lead to more democratic, inclusive and transformational changes.

Fundamentally, this would require ACA leaders to create a space in which the voices of persons who feel excluded from much of the politics and policy-making processes that characterize our professional organization could be heard. These persons should be included in future vision-building and organizational policy development processes.

ACA leaders would do well to think about implementing new RCT organizational development strategies that foster greater levels of inclusivity, mutual empathy and authenticity. These strategies should be implemented now and in preparation for the 2007 ACA Convention in Detroit, where thousands of counselors will gather to discuss the challenges we face as a professional group.

Several RCT and multicultural-social justice counseling advocates met recently with ACA President Marie Wakefield and ACA President-Elect Brian Canfield to discuss many of the ideas presented in this column. This resulted in exploring some of the practical things that could be done at the 2007 and 2008 ACA conventions to address the power-over dynamics fueled by controlling images. These images unintentionally promote exclusionary organizational practices that are not in the long-term interest of any large professional organization.

Both Marie Wakefield and Brian Canfield are to be commended for demonstrating an open-mindedness to exploring an RCT-multicultural-social justice approach to organizational development during this initial meeting. Future discussions are being planned to see how the concepts presented in this column, as well as other multicultural-social justice constructs, could be useful in building a new vision for the counseling profession and promoting a greater level of inclusivity and vibrancy in ACA.

The remaining two articles that will complete this four-part series will discuss plans to implement RCT and multicultural-social justice organizational development strategies in ACA in the future.

Note: This article is dedicated to Jean Baker Miller, the founding scholar of Relational-Cultural Theory, who died at her home in Brookline, Mass. on July 30.

Dana L. Comstock, a professor of counseling at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, is the editor of Diversity and Development: Critical Contexts That Shape Our Lives and Relationships, the first RCT-based development text. She is also featured in How Connections Heal: Stories From Relational Cultural Therapy. Direct comments or questions to Judy Daniels ( and Michael D’Andrea ( are professors in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Hawaii. Letters to the editor:

Charter schools: Threat or opportunity?

Jonathan Rollins

“What if a school counselor was in on the ground floor of designing a public school?” asks counselor educator Robert Urofsky. “What would we do with that opportunity?” Those questions, in combination with his interest in the school reform movement and school choice, led Urofsky to examine whether school counselors had a presence in charter schools.

Urofsky, an assistant professor and school counseling program coordinator in the Counselor Education Department at Clemson University, found that little information existed concerning counseling services in charter schools, so he launched his own national survey to get what he calls a “snapshot picture.” Of the 174 charter schools in 28 states that reported data to Urofsky, 44 percent said they employed school counselors. Many of the remaining schools provided an array of different titles (31 in all) to describe the position of school counselor, including teacher, art therapist, academic adviser and so on. “It’s one of those areas where it’s clear that there is an existing misperception of who school counselors are and what they are capable of doing,” says Urofsky, a member of the American School Counselor Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Still, he says it was both gratifying and somewhat surprising to see that a relatively high percentage of charter schools are employing school counselors. Charter schools are oftentimes exempt from the hiring regulations governing traditional public schools. This should raise some concern among counseling professionals that charter schools, which often have tight budgets, will simply elect not to employ counselors. “The school counseling profession really needs to pay attention to charter schools,” Urofsky says. “I don’t think they are going away. I think the numbers are going to continue to grow.”

Charting a growth spurt

According to the U.S. Charter Schools website at, the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. As of the 2004-2005 school year, more than 3,000 charter schools were serving more than 700,000 students nationwide . In 2004, 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had passed charter school laws, and charter schools were operating in 39 states.

As Urofsky explains, charter schools are just one of the alternatives that have emerged since public school reform started gaining traction in the 1980s. Others include private voucher programs, site-based management, magnet schools and home schooling. Some reformers view the U.S. public education system as a monopoly, Urofsky says, because it has complete say over where students attend school, how resources are dispersed, how the curriculum is taught and so on. Reformers also contend that, in general, public education is failing students and that there is little accountability. “One idea that many reformers share is that all the rules and regulations, all the bureaucracy that has grown up around public schools has stifled innovation and creativity,” Urofsky says.

Charter schools may best be described as hybrid public schools. According to the U.S. Charter Schools website, “A charter school is a nonsectarian public school of choice that operates with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools (not including those governing health, safety and civil rights). The ’charter’ establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school’s contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor – usually a state or local school board – to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability.”

As with other alternatives to traditional public education, charter schools have both advocates and critics, pros and cons. But Urofsky points out that they have received support both from those on the left and the right of the political spectrum. From a counseling perspective, he admits that exemptions from certain hiring regulations, combined with high capital costs and limited resources, have most likely resulted in some charter schools choosing not to employ counselors.

But Urofsky also sees the other side of the coin. Thanks in large part to the ASCA National Model and efforts by the Education Trust, he believes a clear and consistent vision for the professional identity of school counselors is emerging. However, he points out that these efforts primarily have focused on traditional public education environments. “Charter schools are a new side to public education,” he says. “I think it would be good to get some representation (for school counselors) in the school reform movement, too.”

Because most charter schools are relatively new and generally much smaller than their traditional public school counterparts, Urofsky believes they offer school counselors a prime opportunity. “With many of the typical organizational constraints removed, this may be the chance for school counselors to get in on the ground floor as these schools develop and show the impact that they can have by designing programs,” he says. “They can demonstrate how comprehensive developmental guidance can best work in a school environment.”

The more manageable student-to-counselor ratios should also be a positive for school counselors, Urofsky says. In addition, many charter schools target specific populations, including at-risk students, students from different cultures, students with specific disabilities or college-bound students, meaning that school counselors could also choose to “specialize.”

Urofsky is currently looking for someone to publish data from his snapshot survey of counseling services in charter schools. The survey focused on demographics, employment information and opinions about the provision of counseling-related services in charter schools. He hopes to follow up that survey by looking at qualitative comparisons between counseling experiences in charter schools and traditional public schools. For more information, contact Urofsky at

Stephanie London, MaST Community Charter School, Philadelphia

After four years of working at a traditional public school in Philadelphia – three as a teacher and one as a counselor – Stephanie London decided she had to make a change. “I just felt tired,” she says. “It felt like there was a crisis there every day. There was so much stress. I liked working with the city families, but I knew I was headed for burnout.”

She wasn’t very familiar with charter schools when she found out that MaST (Math and Science Technology) Community Charter School was looking for a counselor. After doing some research and talking to a few colleagues, she was a little hesitant to pursue a job at a charter school. Some people said charter schools weren’t stable and didn’t compensate counselors as well as their counterparts in traditional schools.

But realizing that she had to make a change and still wanting to remain a counselor in a city school, London decided to take a chance on the charter school environment. Now entering her second year at MaST, it’s a decision she doesn’t regret.

MaST Community Charter serves grades K-12, with London assigned to the roughly 600 students in grades K-6. She is the school’s only counselor for elementary school students, but MaST is also hiring a middle school counselor who will take over her sixth-grade caseload. In her previous job, London had been the only counselor for approximately 900 students in grades K-8. The smaller caseload at MaST makes it easier for her to develop bonds with the students, London says.

In addition, her former school shared a psychologist with two other schools, and London was responsible for handling all the details related to students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). She also served as the school’s liaison for special education. MaST Community Charter has its own psychologist on staff. While London still participates in IEP meetings at her charter school, she isn’t responsible for writing up the plans.

But that’s not the only difference. “I had these ideas that I wanted to do (at my prior job),” she says, “but I couldn’t get the funding or the time or the parental involvement. I had so much paperwork to do. But here, I get to do the counseling that I was trained to do.”

London teaches a guidance lesson in each class once per week, and she has also been allowed to conduct many schoolwide programs. In her first year, she also held a divorce group, a new student group, an anxiety group, a behavior issues group and a schoolwork/homework group, among others. In addition, she was able to coordinate parents’ nights.

“Coming in, I was surprised at how much support I was able to get here,” she says, “both from the teachers and the principal and financially.” Contrary to some of the most frequently cited drawbacks about working in charter schools, London has found funding more readily available to her at MaST Community Charter. She’s able to get all the supplies she needs for counseling programs without hassle, she says. In addition, her charter school paid for her to attend the ACA Convention in Montréal last spring. And while she could likely make more money in a suburban school based on her two master’s degrees, London says her salary at MaST Community Charter is equal to what she was making at the traditional public school in Philadelphia.

London also believes the charter school environment may be more conducive to effective counseling. Because students and their parents have been allowed to choose the school they prefer, they also tend to feel more invested in the school’s success. (As public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition; according to the U.S. Charter Schools website, most charter schools use a random lottery to choose which students are accepted if they receive more applications than can be accommodated.) “Parents are more involved here,” London says. “They seem more willing to listen to the counselor and work with the school, and the same with the kids.”

London meets regularly with other counselors from charter schools in and around Philadelphia. She’s more aware of the criticisms sometimes leveled at charter schools now than when she first saw the job opening on the website. But based on the conversations she’s had with her counseling colleagues, she thinks her positive experience as a counselor in a charter school is pretty typical. “And a lot of families are going that route,” she says, “so charter schools definitely need counselors.”

Lemuel Graham, South Buffalo Charter School, Buffalo, N.Y.

Unlike Stephanie London, Lemuel Graham can’t draw comparisons between employment in a charter school and working in a traditional public school (although his mother was a public school counselor in Montgomery County, Md.). Now entering his fifth year as a counselor at South Buffalo Charter School, however, he can speak confidently of his charter school experience. He can also speak to Urofsky’s notion that charter schools may offer counselors a “ground floor opportunity” to better exhibit their true value and to design more effective and comprehensive school counseling programs.

Graham began working at South Buffalo Charter during its second year of operation, taking over for another counselor who had gone on maternity leave a few weeks before the close of the year. He noticed quickly that the environment seemed very hospitable to school counselors. The school’s administration allowed and even encouraged counselors to make a difference. “In my school, we’ve been given the opportunity to craft the counseling program the way we want it to be,” says Graham, a member of ACA. “We’ve had principals who have seen what counselors can do and how powerful it can be for the student body.”

South Buffalo Charter has approximately 570 students in grades K-8, with plans to top off at 700. It began with a five-year charter, which has since been renewed. The school emphasizes technology and rigorous academics and buses children in from throughout Buffalo and as far away as 10 miles outside the city limits.

Graham is now the senior member of the school’s three-person counseling team. Even though he tends to work with the older children, Graham says the counselors don’t divide their caseloads according to grade level, preferring instead to “go on the need of the situation.” One of the counselors also serves as a study skills teacher.

The school’s counselors often team up to run groups, Graham says, and also partner with different agencies and community groups to further enhance counseling and developmental activities. In addition, the counseling program uses an animal therapy program in which struggling readers strengthen their skills by reading to a dog because it makes them feel less self-conscious.

The goal of the Connections Program, another initiative launched by the counselors, is to connect the surrounding community with the schoolchildren and vice versa. The counselors bring in people from outside the school to talk with the students. For instance, a judge might discuss why school is important, or members of a “teen reality theater” might dramatize tough situations that students face. The Connections Program also sponsors a career day and takes students on an annual trip to Canisius College so they can see what college is like.

One of the challenges of working in a charter school is that it’s a relatively new environment without many of the standard regulations, Graham says, which means counselors should be prepared to let people know who they are and what their role should be in the school. On the other hand, he says, charter schools seem to allow counselors more freedom to define that role and the role of the counseling program without interference from non-counselors.

Another advantage, at least in Graham’s experience, is the expediency of setting up programs. “We don’t have to jump through too many hoops,” he says. “We’re allowed to be creative and try new things. It’s always a work in progress, and that’s very exciting.” Last year, for instance, the counselors coordinated workshops for parents, one of which discussed discipline and another that covered safe Internet surfing for children.

Graham believes one of the things the charter school’s administration and teachers value most about the counselors is their role as liaisons between the school and the parents. “We (the school counselors) can have a different relationship with the families,” he says. “We can help them understand that we’re on their side and want to work as a team.” The counselors at South Buffalo Charter even make home visits if they have trouble contacting a parent or if it’s difficult for that parent to come to the school.

Graham says the counselors also help teachers at the school bridge some of the things they are doing in the classroom by offering programs on bullying, resiliency, self-esteem, refusal skills, conflict resolution and so on. The charter school also highlights one of its “core values,” such as honesty or respect, each month. The counselors reinforce those core values by doing a lesson on them in the classrooms and the school auditorium. If individual children are having problems with those concepts, Graham says, the counselors pull them out and conduct small groups on those values.

Like London, Graham hasn’t found tight budgets or a lack of resources to be of concern at his charter school. When it comes to funding, the counseling program is allowed to search for its own grants with the assistance of a grant writer who is on staff at the school. South Buffalo Charter also covered the expense of Graham attending the ACA Convention and paid for him to get outside supervision.

Graham acknowledges that some charter schools have had trouble managing their finances (charter schools can have their charters revoked not just for a lack of academic achievement but for poor financial management). However, he says, South Buffalo Charter, which was started by a group of private citizens, has been blessed with a Board of Directors that understands how to run the business side of things.

“My experience in a charter school has been very positive,” Graham says. “It’s been a learning experience in seeing how a school develops, from the curriculum to the needs of the building. It’s allowed me to see something grow from the beginning and have a lot of success.”

Graham says counselors who have additional questions can contact him at or 716.826.7213.

Do counseling and credit cards mix?

Robert J. Walsh and Norman C. Dasenbrook

Do counseling and credit cards mix?

Q: Would it be advantageous to accept credit card payments in my practice?

A: In the past, most health care providers were hesitant to accept credit card payment. Perhaps it was due to a lack of client demand. Also, accepting credit cards for counseling services somehow seemed strange, or else there was lack of knowledge of how to go about it. But today, more and more private practitioners are making credit card payment an option in their practices.

It gives your clients another option to pay for your services, as the use of checkbooks and cash seem to be fading. Moreover, major employers are starting to issue employees debit cards to access their pre-tax dollars contributed to a medical flexible spending account. That way an employee doesn’t have to submit receipts and wait to be reimbursed. We believe this trend will continue, so accepting credit cards would be a good decision.

Accepting credit cards is also advantageous for the counselor. You no longer have to deal with NSF checks (insufficient funds), money is deposited that day, and it helps defray billing costs.

To begin accepting credit cards, you will need to set up a “merchant account.” These accounts can be opened at your local bank or wherever merchant account services are available. But be prepared: These merchant account contracts can be confusing, and prices vary widely. One-year fees can range from $250 to more than $800 for the same services. Costs can include a percentage of the dollar account, item transaction fees, monthly maintenance fees (with a monthly minimum), application and/or membership fees and equipment purchases or leases. So make sure you fully understand all the charges and contract obligations. Ask other counselors in your area what bank or service they use to get the best rates.

Q: American Counseling Association members would like to have a “one-stop” place to access managed care links, billing information, website resources, National Provider Index registration and HIPPA compliance information. Can such a resource be developed?

A: The answer to this question is “YES!” We have just completed the latest update of the list of the 56 largest managed care companies, employee assistance programs and insurance companies. The list includes mailing addresses, phone numbers to provider relations and a direct hyperlink to the provider relations page of each website. Each listing gives information about the number of employees covered, whether national or local, the amount paid to providers and the amount of paperwork.

In most cases a counselor can fill out an application to become a provider online (if credentialing requirements are met and there are openings in the counselor’s market and/or niche). There is also a direct link to the National Provider Identifier, which is now required by Blue Cross/Blue Shield and other insurance companies.

Also included is a link to the Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare. Through CAQH, a counselor can submit a credentialing application that can be accessed by more than 100 insurance and managed health care companies. The links give detailed information about application for NPI and CAQH. A hyperlink to HIPAA is also available.

This one-stop access is provided as a free service to ACA members and is located on the website at You will need to log on first with your member ID or member name and then your password. Call ACA Member Services at 800.347.6647 ext. 222 if you need a password to log on.

We hope this information makes it easier for private practitioners to better serve their clients. We also hope that it will help you make an informed decision on which managed care and insurance companies are best for you to join.

Robert J. Walsh and Norman C. Dasenbrook are co-authors of The Complete Guide to Private Practice for Licensed Mental Health Professionals ( ACA members can e-mail their questions to and access a series of free bulletins on various private practice topics on the ACA website at Letters to the editor: