Counseling Today, Features

Opening school doors to MFTs

Angela Kennedy January 14, 2008

For more than a decade, marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in Connecticut have advocated to be included as part of in-house student mental health services teams at schools. Last year, they achieved their goal when Connecticut quietly became the first state in the nation to pass legislation certifying MFTs to work in school settings. Counseling professionals on both sides of the debate view this action as a landmark change and believe it could have major implications on the future practice of school counseling.

Currently, the Connecticut State Board of Education is reviewing proposed regulations to provide standards and stipulations in order for MFTs to be certified. The regulation draft states that for an MFT to receive an initial educator certificate to serve as a school marriage and family therapist, the applicant must meet the following requirements:

  • Be a licensed MFT
  • Have a written request from the employing agent (school board)
  • Hold a bachelor’s degree from an approved institution
  • Hold a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from an accredited institution (Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education)

Furthermore, applicants must have completed graduate course work in the following areas:

  • Child and adolescent development
  • Learning theories
  • School-based systems theory
  • Federal and state education laws (such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act)
  • 300 hours of school-based marriage and family therapy practicum

After the State Board of Education declares its intent to adopt the regulations, the regulations will be sent to the Office of Policy and Management and the Governor’s Office for approval. After approval, notice of a 30-day comment period will be published in the Connecticut Law Journal, and public hearings will be held. The public will be encouraged to submit written comments on the proposed regulations. After the public hearings, the comments will be reviewed and the regulations modified, as appropriate.

The proposed regulations will then be presented to the state board for adoption on or before May 7. Upon adoption, the regulations will be submitted to the Office of the Attorney General for a determination of legal sufficiency and, if approved, will be sent to the Legislative Regulations Review Committee and the Office of Fiscal Analysis. After approval, the regulations would become effective upon filing with the Secretary of State.

Headed in the ‘wrong’ direction?

In the view of Bob Schmidt, a retired school counselor and past president of the Connecticut Counseling Association, the ball was dropped when the Connecticut School Counselor Association broke away from CCA in 2006 and appointed its own lobbyist. “They just took no action against it. I’m not sure why,” he says. “They couldn’t possibly think it was a good idea.” At press time, e-mails asking the CSCA president and president-elect for comment had received no response.

Schmidt is worried that adding MFTs to the mix will only serve to confuse the public even more about the role of school counselors. “There has always been this perception that school counselors are less than counselors, that they are not as prepared, that they are not as versatile, and that really bothers me,” he says. “Most administrators don’t realize that school counselors have almost identical clinical skills as other counselors. They (school counselors) are just as qualified.”

Schmidt is also concerned that allowing MFTs in schools will push school counselors back into the role of “guidance counselors,” limiting their responsibilities to working with students on college applications and administrative tasks. “(School) counselors are already burdened with administrating and scheduling state tests. This will only make matters worse,” he says. “It pushes school counselors in a direction that they were slowing moving toward, but fighting against.”

Likewise, Schmidt is troubled over the future of the school counseling profession. He says many school counseling graduates feel increasingly frustrated that they are not being given more opportunity to provide actual counseling in schools. “The message that always came from the American Counseling Association is that we are counselors first,” he explains. “I don’t hear that message coming from the American School Counselor Association. It’s very frustrating to me. I’ve seen the importance of staying united. In retrospect, I think that maybe if (CCA’s) school counseling division had stayed with us and we had kept our lobbyists together, maybe this would not have happened.”

While state regulations in the law will require MFTs hired to work in school settings to complete additional training and course work, many of the regulations do not have to be met until 2014.

“If an MFT wants to work in a school, all they have to do is have written documentation from the school system and agree to take some educational courses,” says Schmidt, who doesn’t believe that adding a few courses will provide MFTs with a school counselor’s “inside” perspective. “I know I am protective of school counseling positions, but bottom line is that we are serving the kids, and their needs come first.”

Adding the certification for MFTs to work in schools will likely have the greatest impact at the elementary level, where school counseling positions in Connecticut are already few and far between, Schmidt says. According to him, only one in approximately every four towns in the state has a school counselor.

“I think it is good that the Department of Education is considering MFTs to work in school arenas, but I am concerned that the actual LPC credential is being overlooked by the Department of Education,” says CCA Legislative Chair Diane Tobin, a licensed professional counselor. “Is MFT a specialty within the LPC? No, I don’t believe it should be considered this way.”

Tobin says CCA is looking to push legislation that would revamp eligibility for professional counselor licensure so that professionals in other disciplines, such as licensed clinical social workers and licensed marriage and family therapists, would not be able to hold both licenses simultaneously. “As LPCs, we cannot come under their umbrella as LCSWs and LMFTs,” she says. “It does seem that LPCs are almost being forced to draw a line in the sand to be noticed as a separate entity. LPCs specialize in counseling, which may come in many facets and settings.”

Considering both sides

Considering that he is both a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified school counselor, Tony Crespi brings a unique point of view to the debate. A professor of psychology at the University of Hartford, Crespi believes that with licensure now regulated in most states, marriage and family therapy has slowly evolved from being a practice or specialty within counseling to its own profession. Because of that, he says, the new certification allowing MFTs to work in schools will be on par with those issued to school counselors or school psychologists.

But while he understands that many children in schools have mental health problems or complications surrounding their home life, Crespi doesn’t support allowing MFTs to take the place of school psychologists or school counselors. “Now (Connecticut has) school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers and MFTs,” he points out. “Are MFTs going to have the proper training to transition to work in the schools? My concern is that we make the appropriate standards to ensure that they are acculturated in what it means to work in a school.”

Crespi draws a comparison to the medical field. If someone is having a heart attack, he says, that person would want to see a cardiologist, not a gynecologist. “All physicians have the same license but, obviously, there is a huge difference between the board certifications,” he says. “If a doctor wants to change specialties, then they go back and do a great deal of additional training and study. In our state, to be an LPC doesn’t (automatically) mean one can be certified as a school counselor, for similar reasons.” While acknowledging there is some overlap in all counseling-related fields, Crespi finds the differences too significant to overlook.

Having been on both sides, Crespi says his major issue with Connecticut’s decision is that MFTs do not possess the training or experience to deal with school-related issues such as special education or school ethics. “The purpose of certification and licensure is to protect the public, not the profession,” he says. “It’s not about keeping out another profession, but ensuring the public that people are properly trained. Schools, for me, are not a place to practice, but a way of practice. School counseling is much more difficult than clinical practice because of the legalities surrounding parental privilege and rights.”

Crespi also voices concern that placing greater focus on mental health during the school day might result in creating a different set of problems. “The purpose of school is education,” he says. “If a student has a 10 a.m. therapy session every day, right before their English class, they may not be able to focus on their schoolwork after the session. If this goes on for a couple of years, consequently, they may not be reading on the level they should. That’s now a new problem. We don’t want to substitute one problem for another.” He adds that it will be very important for MFTs not to disrupt students’ schedules and learning.

American School Counselor Association President Eric Sparks doesn’t think that Connecticut’s decision should result in a turf war or any panic. He views MFTs working in school settings as another cog in the wheel to help students succeed.

“My initial reaction to it is that it could be a good collaboration and be very beneficial to student achievement. Being able to have additional staff at school to support students could be a great team approach,” he says. “If it were having MFTs instead of school counselors, then that would be a problem. But as I was reading the description of the guidelines (in the law), it seems that they are determining the differences between the roles, where the roles could overlap and making sure the roles and responsibilities of all the student services folks are well defined.”

Sparks adds that it’s imperative for school counselors to clearly define their role within the school system and establish a comprehensive school counselor program. “The role of school counselors is that we are educators with school counseling training. If the counselors are not defining their role, then they find themselves dealing with more of an administrative role,” he says. “Marriage and family therapists are providing a different type of approach and a different type of service to students.”

Although Sparks sees a benefit to having MFTs in schools, he admits some concern that providing therapy sessions during the school day could interfere with students’ education. He thinks the sessions might best be handled after school hours.

But overall, Sparks does not view the additional school mental health professionals as a threat to school counselors. “I don’t see it changing the role of the school counseling, because the school counselor is focused on guidance, curriculum in the classroom, goal setting and student planning — which isn’t what the MFTs will be doing,” he says. “Our focus is more educational, and they would be focused on family issues. However, having MFTs complete additional course work or training on school systems is going to be critical. Understanding the culture of school and how teachers, administrators and counselors work together can be difficult for someone who has not worked in that setting.”

Licensed as a psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Connecticut, Ralph Cohen has worked both in school settings and private practice. He was a strong supporter of the legislation and believes having professionals who specialize in family systems working in schools makes good sense.

“Children bring whatever is in their head into the classroom. Whatever is going on at home or on the street comes into the class with them,” he says. “There is a polarization between families and schools. Schools tend to see the family as antagonistic. It’s a game of tug of war with the child in the middle.” Cohen would like to make the schools more family-friendly, so both sides will feel they are on the same team and working together in the best interests of the child.

“It will be difficult for an MFT to get this certification,” Cohen says. “They have to jump through a lot of hoops. We aren’t talking about a lot of people willing to do this. They have to demonstrate they have the skills. They have to go back and get more course work and complete a school-specific practicum offered by an MFT program. The people who really feel strongly that they have a role within schools and are willing to go the extra mile will be the people who will be certified. It’s not going to be an open floodgate of MFTs wanting to work in schools.”

He adds that this move isn’t about MFTs struggling to define their identity as either a specialty or a stand-alone profession. “Marriage and family therapy has been a profession with master’s programs since the seventies,” Cohen says. “There are epistemological differences between family therapy, based in systems theory, and counseling, which is based on more of the traditional psychological and behavioral models. Our school systems just aren’t working the way they are now. We need a new idea on how to deal with kids coming into schools and playing out their family battles in the hallways, and to do that, we have to get to the source of the problem.”