It was a question Randy Astramovich heard over and over: Why doesn’t the American Counseling Association have a division for counselors working with children and adolescents in a multitude of settings? This past spring, Astramovich decided it was time to take action so these counselors could have a true organizational “home.”
Astramovich, along with a few other individuals interested in seeing the idea come to fruition, collected 450 supporting signatures. With approval from the Governing Council, the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling became ACA’s newest organizational affiliate this past fall. Once ACAC gains 500 ACA members, it can qualify to become an ACA division.
ACA Executive Director Richard Yep says the timing couldn’t be better. “I appreciate all of the work that the founding officers of ACAC did to move the process forward to the Governing Council. The issues that confront professional counselors who work with children and adolescents are at an all-time high, and the work of ACAC could be instrumental to the success of those providers.”
“The movement toward the establishment of ACAC originally grew out of conversations between ACA members who provide counseling services to children and adolescents across a wide variety of settings and who sought venues within ACA for networking, collaboration, research, preparation and training in child and adolescent counseling,” Astramovich wrote in a letter petitioning for ACAC to become an organizational affiliate. He further noted that although ACA’s Annual Conference & Exposition regularly features a grouping of conference presentations on child and adolescent counseling, no place existed within the ACA family for those counselors to collaborate and network outside the conference. Astramovich, now founding president of ACAC and an associate professor of counseling at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, also pointed out that other organizations for helping professionals, such as the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers, already offered special divisions for child and adolescent work.
“Many of the child and adolescent counselors and counselor educators found ourselves without a specific network of support in ACA,” echoes Dee Ray, ACAC secretary and associate professor of counseling and director of the Child and Family Resource Clinic at the University of North Texas. “Over the years at conferences and through e-mails, we’ve wondered why there wasn’t a division solely dedicated to working with children and adolescents. We provided informal support for each other, but we wanted to have an organization that provided a formal network and support system for this population.”
Now that ACAC is up and running, Ray says expectations are high. “We hope that ACAC will focus on the training needs of counselors who work with children and adolescents and additionally provide professional support in terms of ideas, resources and encouragement to keep counselors motivated and energized to work with children,” she says.
ACAC will offer a variety of benefits to members, says Astramovich, who also serves as editor of the Journal for International Counselor Education. The organization will promote best practices, as well as research and networking opportunities for professional counselors who work with children and adolescents. ACAC will also strive to highlight the unique developmental and cultural needs of these clients, advocate for expanded child and adolescent counseling services, promote interdisciplinary collaboration among specialties whose members work with children and adolescents, and offer ACA members a collective voice in this specialty. “Although other [ACA] divisions address children, we felt like there was a need for some unity in the provision of counseling services to children across multiple settings,” Astramovich says.
ACAC’s primary focus will be to promote research and effective counseling services for children and adolescents, Astramovich says. In working with adults, he adds, most counselor practitioners come to understand that many of the issues their clients struggle with are rooted in their childhoods. Professional counseling is based on the idea of optimal human development, Astramovich says, and maximizing counselors’ effectiveness with children and adolescents could prevent or lessen problems for those individuals when they reach adulthood.
ACAC will also work to ensure that counselors in the field have the education and qualifications necessary to be effective, Ray says. “For so long, our field has focused mostly on working with adults and just applying those same skills to children and adolescents. Working with children and adolescents requires a specific skill set, and we will advocate for counselors to become formally trained in those skills. In addition, we will seek to differentiate skill sets needed for children and skill sets needed for adolescents. We will provide a developmental focus to work effectively with children and adolescents.”
Bridging the disconnect
ACAC isn’t geared specifically toward school counselors, but because they work closely with children and adolescents, the hope is to get school counselors actively involved in ACAC, Ray says. “However, ACAC will focus on the needs of all counselors who are counseling children and adolescents,” she emphasizes. “Private practitioners, mental health counselors in the schools, agency counselors, counselors in hospitals and school counselors are all part of the network that works with children and adolescents. The counseling part is the most important aspect of our concentration.”
Michael Moyer, ACAC trustee and assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says when it comes to school counselors and professional counselors working with children and adolescents, partnering is key. “I believe ACAC will emphasize the need for collaboration between school and community counselors,” he says. “School counselors provide valuable services within the school system and the school setting, and community counselors also provide valuable services outside the school walls. Sometimes there is a disconnect between the two, and I feel very strongly that there should be collaboration and support from both sides to best support children and adolescents.”
It’s possible, Astramovich says, that ACAC could also promote a new paradigm in the way services are provided to children and adolescents in schools. Astramovich previously worked in Dallas as a school counselor and found that the ratio of students to school counselors left counselors juggling too many tasks. “What was clear was that the demands placed on school counselors are enormous,” he says. “There are so many duties school counselors are expected to fulfill that it’s simply impossible for all those duties to be met effectively by one individual.” (ACA recommends a maximum average student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1, but the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics show the average ratio in U.S. elementary and secondary schools stands at 457:1; see the March 2011 issue ofCounseling Today for more information.)
Astramovich says the future could include creating school-based counseling centers, which might look much like university counseling centers, with a variety of helping professionals, including professional counselors, available to students. If the dynamics trend that way, Astramovich says, school counselors wouldn’t disappear, but their roles would likely change. For example, the roles might be split between an academic counselor who helps students with courses and academic concerns and a mental health counselor who is based in a school counseling center. “Asking one individual to provide all the services that our children need isn’t realistic,” Astramovich says.
A tailored approach
The issues today’s children and adolescents face are wide ranging, Ray says, but perhaps the most common trouble point is society’s lack of understanding of what is developmentally appropriate in terms of mental health, growth and education. “This developmental mismatch between what is expected of children and what is naturally healthy for them is at the root of many children’s behavioral and emotional health problems,” she says.
To see change on the societal level, Ray believes the most important thing counselors can do is be active members of ACA and ACAC and advocate for best practices with children and adolescents. “Clinically, a counselor needs to be educated in working with children and adolescents from a theoretically sound framework,” she says. “Formal education will help counselors develop a belief system from which techniques and skills will emerge. The current trend to just grab any book or article on a technique to use with young people is ethically suspect and fairly ineffective.”
Counselors generally rely on talking in their work with clients, but Ray points out that children and adolescents often communicate in nonverbal ways, making it imperative that counselors cultivate their own nonverbal communication skills. “Because of cognitive differences or emotional issues, children and adolescents typically prefer nonverbal methods of communication to build relationships,” she says. “For example, young children communicate through their play, so we have found play therapy to be the most effective means of developing counseling relationships. Adolescents might prefer a physical activity or expressive arts activity to build their counseling relationships. Counselors need to be trained and supported in these methods to be effective in their counseling.”
Astramovich echoes that sentiment, saying that the use of developmentally appropriate techniques with children and adolescents is key to helping them. For instance, he says, counselors should gain experience using play techniques because substantial research exists showing the effectiveness of these techniques with kids.
Moyer adds that counselors must keep things exciting and moving when working with kids. “I find myself integrating different activities and types of play and not using as much traditional talk therapy,” he says. “Children and adolescents have so many options and activities that involve fast-paced technology that counselors working with that population have to be able to adapt their counseling skills to keep [these clients’] attention and make it meaningful to them.”
Another unique aspect of working with children and adolescents is the potential interaction with their parents or guardians, Moyer says. “Unlike working with adults who can provide their own informed consent, children and adolescents cannot. A legal guardian must provide that consent for them. In addition, parents and guardians have a legal right to know what a counselor is talking to their child about and, I believe, should be involved in the counseling process. On the other hand, as a counselor, I have to balance that sharing of information with the parent or guardian because the child or adolescent is my client, and I have to be able to build a trusting relationship with them. In short, there is a balancing act in building a trusting relationship in which the child or adolescent feels comfortable and confident in talking openly [even as the counselor keeps] the parents informed to an appropriate extent.”
As ACAC gets off the ground, Ray and Moyer offer some general words of wisdom about working with children and adolescents. Quality formal education is absolutely essential, Ray says, as is quality supervision of a counselor’s work by an experienced child counselor supervisor. “Working with children and adolescents is qualitatively different from working with adults,” she says. “Further, working with children is qualitatively different from working with adolescents. One cannot just apply those adult counseling skills to children and expect them to work. Counselors need a new language to be effective.”
Moyer offers the same advice he gives to his counseling students: “Be genuine. Children and adolescents can see right through you when you are being fake, and you will lose them pretty quickly. Be present and listen to their concerns. And [be] nonjudgmental. Children and adolescents — like all populations, I’m sure — are judged constantly on their thoughts and actions. Counselors can do wonderful things just by listening and not judging.”
Interested in getting involved in ACAC? Contact Randy Astramovich at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org