Monthly Archives: April 2009

Serving up ethics advice with a smile

Jonathan Rollins April 14, 2009

Clark Kent would famously step into a phone booth and emerge as Superman. Paul Fornell sometimes found a more modest costume change helpful in his line of work as a counselor. When situations grew tense, Fornell would reach into his briefcase or desk drawer for a secret weapon — his clown nose. “Humor is very important in my life,” he says. “If I can’t find some way to make light of a situation appropriately, then I know I’m in big trouble.”

It might seem somewhat ironic then that Fornell, whose personalized license plate once read “GUFFAW,” is also an expert on the very serious subject of counseling ethics. In January, the 30-year counseling veteran joined the American Counseling Association as its director of ethics and professional standards. In his new position, Fornell provides ACA members with free, confidential consultations.

“ACA’s ethics consultations are one of the most valued of all our services because they allow members to consult with an experienced professional counselor on the particular issue facing them at the moment,” explains ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan. “Ethical dilemmas presented by clients, supervisees, students and our peers have different twists that can be quite complicated. It is therefore helpful to be able to sort through the options with an expert. Even if the scenario is pretty cut-and-dried, it is helpful to receive confirmation that we are going in the right direction and doing the right thing.”

Kaplan says Fornell is a natural fit as director of ethics and professional standards. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Paul’s caliber here at ACA,” Kaplan says. “He is first and foremost a practicing counselor, so he brings an extensive practitioner background from a wide variety of settings, including schools, colleges and private practice. He is a National Certified Counselor, Master Career Counselor and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, so he draws from an extensive array of practical situations in his consultations. He is also extremely knowledgeable about counseling ethics and the ACA Code of Ethics. Add to that the fact that Paul has held many ACA leadership positions focusing on licensure and other professional standards issues, and you have the perfect person for the position.”

While Fornell likes nothing better than to entice a smile or laugh out of anyone who crosses his path, providing ethics consultations to ACA members fulfills another one of his passions. “Helping people problem solve really gets my juices flowing,” he says. “I love this organization (ACA), and at this point in my career, I’m hoping that I have some wisdom and experience that I can share appropriately with our members.”

Kaplan acknowledges that Fornell’s broad-based experience, along with his natural desire and ability to relate to others, made him an appealing choice to head up ethics and professional standards at ACA. “When members call Paul, they will be talking to someone who understands their world and has the extensive experience and knowledge necessary to assist them with whatever ethics, licensure or other professional standards need they may have,” Kaplan says.

Fornell joined ACA (then the American Personnel and Guidance Association) in 1980 and is a life member. Among other leadership positions, he has served as president of the American College Counseling Association, the New Mexico Counseling Association and the California Counseling Association. He was integral in getting the counselor licensure law passed in New Mexico (he holds the second Clinical Mental Health Counselor license ever issued in that state) and has worked as a counselor in diverse settings ranging from rural New Mexico to inner city Chicago. Fornell began his career as a special education teacher, during which time he realized he could have a more substantial impact working with people one-on-one. He decided to pursue a degree in counseling only after engaging in the therapy process himself as a client (he believes this is a beneficial step for all counselors to take). Fornell has spent the majority of his 30-year counseling career in college counseling centers, including the last decade in the career development center at California State University, Long Beach. He has also been a private practitioner and worked as a counselor at an all-Navajo school.

In his new position at ACA, Fornell typically handles 10 to 15 calls per day from members seeking consultation about ethical dilemmas or professional standards issues. All too often, these counselors are already in “crisis mode” by the time they call, and while Fornell is invested in helping them as best he can, he emphasizes that ACA members should not view the consultation services only as a last-ditch option. There is no shame, Fornell says, in counselors admitting that they don’t have all the answers and seeking help as part of regular practice. The real danger comes when counselors sequester themselves and rely solely on their own perspective, he says.

“Every day offers a challenge if you’re a professional counselor, particularly if you’re working alone in private practice or as a solo school counselor,” he says.

“No matter how professionally skilled you are, you’re human, and ethical situations will naturally arise for all counselors. How often does an otherwise bright, competent counselor screw up because of a blind spot? We’ve all got them, even the greatest therapists in the world.”

Any counselor questioning his or her decision making or handling of specific situations should “stop the chatter in your skull,” Fornell says, and call ACA for free consultation. “If you even have the thought,” he says, “pick up the phone. It doesn’t matter. What’s the worst that can happen? Almost 100 percent of the time, it’s a good thing you called. If you’re smart enough to pick up the phone and ask for help, that’s a sign of strength. You’re being the consummate professional.”

When ACA members contact him, Fornell says, they can expect the consultation to be “peer-to-peer, practitioner-to-practitioner — a true collaborative effort.” While he provides his professional opinion on the appropriate behavior to follow in each individual situation based on the ACA Code of Ethics, one of Fornell’s main goals is to get each caller to consider a single question: What is your next step going to be?

“Ethics should flow naturally from your education, your training and your professional experience,” Fornell says. “If you know what your values are and apply those values consistently, that’s 90 percent of it. I also believe that continuing education and being a member (of your professional associations) should be part of your everyday ethics.”

Perhaps nothing shields counselors from the kryptonite of potential ethical entanglements, however, quite like dropping the “I can do it all on my own” superhero façade. “Half of the (ethics) calls I receive would never be made if counselors were required to have lifelong consultation or a lifelong mentor,” Fornell says. “Professional competence really comes from reminding ourselves every day, ’I don’t know everything.’ When you graduate with your counseling degree, it is not the end of your education; it is only the beginning.”

For Fornell, that education has included learning that laughter really can be the best medicine and that, in certain situations, donning a clown nose may be just as powerful as attempting to fit into Superman’s cape.

“We rarely succeed at anything,” Fornell says, “unless we’re having fun doing it.”

Cultural communication

Jenny Christenson April 3, 2009

Ooh, ooh, I know the answer!” calls out an African American middle school student. Excited about learning, enthusiastic about participating in class and eager to interact with his teacher, he is a seemingly model student. But in an education system that caters mostly to the norms of white middle class culture, teachers may view his behavior as representative of something entirely different, says Sam Steen, a counselor educator at George Washington University and a member of the American Counseling Association, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and the Association for Specialists in Group Work.

Every culture has different communication patterns, Steen explains. For instance, in African American culture, he says, “Everyone jockeys for the opportunity to voice their opinion, and although it is competitive, it is not malicious.” However, when placed in the context of a school classroom governed by white middle class values, this style of communication may be interpreted as being disrespectful, Steen says, even when that is not what the student intended.

Norma Day-Vines, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, says this “simultaneous communication” style is at odds with the prevailing sequential communication style (in which people take turns talking), often leading to misunderstandings both in the classroom and society at large. For example, in mainstream America, she says, people express dissent in a dispassionate manner. “But within the African American community, we tend to be animated. When in a classroom, if something comes up, the student may become highly animated,” she says, adding that this sometimes creates unintended conflict with the teacher.

Differences in communication patterns are just one of the reasons that minorities are at a disadvantage in U.S. schools and society, where they often face additional obstacles to their successful development, Steen contends.

Added obstacles

In general, the U.S. education system still uses a model that works best for white middle class kids, says Courtland Lee, director of the counselor education program at the University of Maryland, president of the International Association for Counselling and a past president of ACA. “Basically, for a lot of kids of color, schools represent a reality that doesn’t make sense to them or is not very relevant to them,” he explains. “They are at a disadvantage because American society, in terms of its value system overall, is based on realities embedded in white middle class culture, which means inherent privileges for white middle class people, but not people who are not white middle class.”

Some counselors point to the continued prevalence of “tracking” as evidence that students of diverse backgrounds aren’t made to feel a part of the prevailing academic and social culture in school systems. “Tracking is when kids are placed in certain classrooms based on ability level,” explains Julia Bryan, assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Maryland. “Often you see that it is children of color who are in the lower academic tracks.” Although efforts have been made to address this disparity, she notes that children of color are not often found in Advanced Placement courses in high schools. “You will see that children of color are often encouraged to apply to two-year colleges rather than more selective four-year colleges. White kids are pushed toward more selective four-year colleges,” says Bryan, a member of ACA and ACES.

“You have disproportionate numbers of minority students in special education and experiencing expulsion and disciplinary actions,” adds Day-Vines, a member of ACA, ACES and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. “One thing that the research literature suggests is that African American students are more than two and a half times more likely to have discipline referrals or be expelled. They, along with Latino students, are also more likely to be expelled for more ambiguous offenses.”

Day-Vines also asserts that, in general, students of color aren’t being taught or encouraged to believe in themselves in the school system. She believes this plays a major role in their comparatively low performance levels as it relates to grades and overall school achievement. “Prior to the civil rights movement, there wasn’t this level of low performance among African American students because they were often taught by African American teachers,” she says. “This helped children believe in themselves and reinforced the notion that children can do a lot. This is the concept behind Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Treating children with dignity and respect is one of the qualities we need to return to in public education,” she says, regardless of an educator’s race.

Steen says racially, ethnically and culturally diverse students are at a disadvantage because they often have limited access to positive role models in positions of responsibility. “The role models that students of color have in society tend to be athletes, musicians,” he says. “Rarely are they educators, and it is not until recently that they have been politicians.”

Minority students from low-income backgrounds and living in urban areas struggle even more, Steen says. “The research is clear that students from low-income backgrounds who live in neighborhoods where violence is more rampant, where they are more likely to come from single-parent households, lack basic resources and necessities.” In addition, issues of homelessness and addiction, whether in their neighborhoods or in their families, are more likely to touch the lives of children of color, Steen says, further hindering their developmental opportunities in school.

While stressing the need to be sensitive to these potential struggles, Day-Vines also reminds counselors that not every African America student will internalize oppression or have difficulty succeeding in the U.S. education system.

Strategies for promoting student development

In the midst of this disparity, counselors are well positioned to help students of color overcome some of these barriers to their development. Indeed, Lee says, “Counselors’ role should be to help kids navigate the system. I think counselors have a moral imperative to knock down those systemic barriers. Counselors need to be advocates for children, ensuring that all children are held to high standards.”

Steen says counselors need to be careful to help students of diverse cultures adapt to the norms of their schools and social environments without invalidating the cultures and social norms of minority children. Counselors can teach social norms and academic skills through psychoeducational groups in the classroom or hold counseling groups outside of class to help students adjust to difficulties they are having. “In both cases,” Steen says, “the ultimate goal is to empower students through the interactions they have with you as a leader and with each other to work on some of their issues and challenges and teach them how to overcome some of the barriers to prepare them to be successful in the classroom.”

To genuinely effect change in how school systems and society at large function with regard to people of diverse backgrounds, Steen and other counselor educators say counselors must work on a systemic level. This involves “building partnerships and working with stakeholders such as parents, community leaders and staff to create programs that can help children and families,” says Bryan, who adds that counselor education programs need to provide more training to help counselors develop advocacy and leadership skills.

Steen suggests that counselors “collaborate with people who have those skills that they don’t have, while also taking on a leadership role where (counselors) initiate programs or initiate task forces.” For example, counselors can work more closely with parents, who “are just waiting for those invitations,” he says. Steen asserts that school counselors can better spend their time taking on this liaison role rather than limiting themselves to one-on-one therapy with students. In the long run, he says, more people — both students and adults in the wider community — will be positively affected by counselors assuming this expanded role.

Day-Vines also emphasizes the importance of creating partnerships between schools and communities. She points to an example in an Oakland, Calif., high school that was experiencing a high rate of discipline problems among its African American and Latino students. Community leaders were brought into the school to train students, using focus groups, to talk to their teachers about what might happen if they worked together more cohesively. During the schoolwide initiative, counselors worked individually with students to validate — and sometimes challenge — their perspectives. Counselors also promoted the initiative throughout the school.

“One result was that teachers gained a great deal of respect for the students because they were able to articulate their concerns,” Day-Vines says. “Overall, more than 75 percent of the disciplinary infractions were reduced.” Although community leaders provided most of the training to students in this instance, counselors possess the expertise to perform similar training initiatives, she adds.

Building relationships for systemic change

The leverage that counselors have in a school is gained over time, Steen advises. “School counselors who are trained as advocates learn that they must gain allies,” he says, adding that counselors may not be able to make a substantial difference early on. “But over time, they establish credibility, show small successes, build relationships with teachers who have a similar framework or belief system and build relationships with administrators. As the years pass, they start winning the war based on these small successes.”

Building relationships with teachers and administrators is helpful, Steen says, because counselors are then better positioned to advocate for institutional change. “Their work not only impacts the few students they see in their counseling offices, but also the school, school district and community at large when working together with teachers and administrators,” he says. “Initially, counselors can engage students in critical thinking about their race, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds and how they fit within the context of today’s society. Further, an emphasis on strengths, skills and talents students possess, as well as coping strategies they are aware of and those they are not aware of, can be included in counseling interventions and programs” for students of color.

Steen shares seven tips to help counselors create stronger relationships with teachers and administrators:

  1. Be as flexible as possible.
  2. Have a team-player orientation.
  3. Engage in and facilitate honest and open dialogue.
  4. Model professionalism.
  5. Negotiate and compromise.
  6. Speak an educator’s language (with an emphasis on academic and career development).
  7. Take risks and reflect on decisions made.

“Counselors need to take the initiative to seize leadership to work on behalf of kids,” Lee says. “Counselors have to get angry — angry at the achievement gap, at the system — and get to the point where they go up to the system and say ’enough is enough’ to people in positions of power and public policy-making positions.”

One important way counselors can influence public policy, Lee says, is by gathering and presenting data that show systemic inequities for children of color, including suspension rates, academic achievement rates and differential graduation rates. “The important thing is that data speak volumes,” Lee says. “Counselors can gather data for their individual schools, or they can collaborate across all schools (in a district) to show inequities.” After gathering accurate data, he says, counselors can present the information to school administrators, superintendents, central office staff, school board members and their political representatives at local, state and national levels. Lee adds that there is power in numbers and encourages groups of counselors to approach policy makers together.

Diverse approaches

Steen and Day-Vines previously worked together on a group counseling program that targeted achievement and ethnic identity in African American high school students through the use of culturally relevant bibliotherapy. The two counselors assessed how the students felt about themselves both before and after the group program and discovered that their self-concept and academic concept improved after the bibliotherapy intervention, in which the students read books by African American authors.

“Through engagement with the central protagonist, they begin to come up with solutions to problems (and) coping strategies,” Day-Vines says. Using bibliotherapy in this manner is “healing, because most young people (of color) have mainly been exposed to people who are white in books,” she continues. “A conclusion that a person may draw is that ’I don’t see children of color succeeding academically (in books), so that is not something I can do.’” Culturally relevant bibliotherapy also allows students of color to see their cultures represented in healthy ways, unlike the often negative depictions prevalent in the news, Day-Vines says.

In addition to books, Dana Griffin, assistant professor of counselor education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, advocates using contemporary music such as rap (provided it has a positive message) as a tool for raising the self-esteem of African American children. Listening to the music provides a platform for adolescents and older children to discuss what it means to be black in America as well as appropriate paths to success in life, she says. “Mainly, I choose songs by African Americans,” says Griffin, a member of ACA, ACES, AMCD and the Counseling Association for Humanistic Education and Development. “You can always find positive rap songs or singers that write about loving yourself (rather than) giving up. So I can say to children, ’See, here are some people who are just like you who are doing well.’” One song that Griffin likes to use with girls is “Work That” by Mary J. Blige. “(Blige) talks about how African American girls are often judged by how they look but that they should keep their head up and keep (on going). I use that to raise the self-esteem of girls.”

Sometimes, the best technique to assist students is “plain talk therapy or narrative therapy,” Griffin says, adding that children and adolescents often carry around feelings about their experiences in school that are not validated by adults. Narrative therapy “gives them a place to be themselves,” she says. “If a child comes to your office and says a teacher is racist, we need to validate their viewpoint, whether it is true or not.” This validation can be done during individual therapy.

Another way for counselors to help provide validation to students of color is through creation of minority identity development groups, Griffin says. This approach allows students to talk about their feelings and concerns in school within a group of their peers. In setting up these groups, Griffin suggests recruiting a few students who are strong and outspoken because they will naturally empower the other students. In addition, Griffin says, “I’m an advocate for always involving parents (in general). Listen to their side, listen to their viewpoints.”

Bridging the cultural gap

Day-Vines has developed a model called “broaching” to describe counselors’ optimum behavior when interacting with minority children and discussing the often-sensitive issues connected to race. “You can use broaching with children to examine the extent to which racial, ethnic and cultural differences affect their learning,” she says. “Broaching answers the question, ’How do we open up to children to explore the racial impact on their school experience?’”

Validation of the child’s experiences with racism is important in the concept of broaching as a counselor, says Day-Vines, who described the broaching model in detail in an article she cowrote for the Journal of Counseling & Development (“Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity and Culture During the Counseling Process,” Fall 2007). In the article, she and her coauthors write that “Broaching behavior refers to a consistent and ongoing attitude of openness with a genuine commitment by the counselor to continually explore issues of diversity.” Day-Vines describes the sensitivity involved in the technique of broaching with the following example: “The counselor may indicate, ’We’re both from different ethnic backgrounds. I’m wondering how you feel about working with a white European American woman on your concerns.’”

To better understand African American children, Day-Vines also suggests that non-black counselors use “cultural informants” to indirectly bridge the cultural gap. “You may be working with a child whose culture you don’t know much about, so you might identify an adult in the community who is a member of that culture and get feedback and recommendations from them,” she explains. “Reaching out into the community is important.”

Another way counselors can boost the development of students from diverse backgrounds is to bring representatives from the community who are also culturally diverse into the school, Day-Vines suggests. People of color who are in positions of power or responsibility in society are particularly good role models for children on school career days. “Putting children in contact with resources in the community is important,” she says. “Involve church, civic and social organizations so children feel a sense of belonging and feel validated. We can’t let children internalize the oppression. Part of the deficit paradigm in terms of interacting with poor and minority children in general is the notion of low expectations. We have to place high standards on them and believe that they can achieve.” Involving the community is key to raising the expectations of minority children and assisting them in their achievement, she adds.

While striving to promote achievement in students of color, Griffin reminds counselors that “even if you are working with a minority population, you can’t treat the whole group as one. You need to treat everyone individually. Some things may be common to the group but not common to the person in front of you. Even if it is a white student, you still treat that student differently based on variables, such as where they live, their religion, how much money they have, their culture and so on.”

This is an exciting era for African American children, Steen says, because they have a positive role model in a position of power to look to with Barack Obama as president. Still, there is much progress to be made.

“The issues surrounding our children in schools didn’t happen overnight, so they won’t be undone overnight,” Day-Vines says. “We want all children to thrive so that all children have enhanced opportunities. We also need to think of this on a selfish level — we’re all at risk if we don’t help society.”

We are in this together

Richard Yep April 2, 2009

Richard Yep

The economy has impacted all of us in one way or another. I know there are professional counselors who are dealing with the global financial situation each and every day, either personally, professionally or both. The American Counseling Association has been exploring how best to let our members know that we understand, that we want to help and that we will be with you during this tumultuous time. Let me share what we have done and what we are working on for you.

Some of you know that ACA offers hardship waivers in regard to membership dues. These waivers have always existed and are to be used in dire situations. Not surprisingly, we are hearing from more individuals who wish to maintain their membership in ACA but find it difficult to pay the full amount of dues. I am pleased to say that this option is still available for those facing significant financial obstacles.

In addition, last year, we introduced the option of paying membership dues in three installments rather than being hit for the entire amount all at once. The response has been positive, and we will continue to explore options that make it easier to meet these types of financial commitments. Should you have questions about this option, please call ACA Member Services at 800.347.6647 ext. 222.

Many of you are aware that ACA introduced a new benefit for master’s-level student members in January. This benefit provides professional liability insurance as part of their student membership at no additional cost. Yes, that is correct — professional liability insurance, backed by our professional partner HPSO. This is without a doubt one of the best professional liability insurance programs on the market. The response to this new benefit has been overwhelming, and ACA was happy to be able to negotiate this on behalf of our master’s-level students.

This month, I wanted to tell you about another added benefit that we have been working on for ACA members. In an effort to save you some money, we will be offering the opportunity to earn 12 continuing education credits per year at no additional cost to your ACA membership. This new program, slated for operation beginning in May, will provide one continuing education credit per month to ACA members. We know that it costs money to maintain your license and certification — and just to stay current in the profession. We want you to know that during this time of economic uncertainty, ACA has stepped forward to help ease the burdens you may face.

Because these continuing education offerings will have approval from the National Board for Certified Counselors, these “free” continuing education credits will count toward your license renewal in all jurisdictions that have counselor licensure (49 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).

For those of you interested in what this will save you in real dollars, here is an example. ACA currently charges members $18 per continuing education credit, so 12 of these would be worth $216. With the cost of professional membership in ACA being $151, I think you can see the value this new benefit will have for our members.

I hope the various new benefits we have been working on, as well as what we have already brought forth, are seen as a genuine effort to meet the needs of members. We want to help address those obstacles that might hold you back from doing your job.

Please contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions that you might have via e-mail at or by phone at 800.347.6647 ext. 231.

Thanks and be well.