From the President

True specialization

Don W. Locke May 1, 2012

Don W. LockeIn my previous column, I discussed my belief that counselors are facing a critical time and that we need to be united regardless of our “specialization of practice” or the “location of practice.” This month I want to focus on my concerns regarding “true specialization.”

I developed concerns about this designation first during counselor training and later in practice following multiple accreditation site visits over several years’ time and on the basis of observations from many practicing counselors in a variety of work settings. During the site visits, students were usually selected for interviews according to their programs or specialties. Following the interviews and after subsequent content review of the degree programs, it became apparent that the students truly believed they were “specialized.” In truth, they possessed a “concentration” consisting of some course work and part of their internship experience having a particular focus.

I am convinced that counselor education programs have done an excellent job of strengthening the master’s-level training for prospective counselors by including a strong “professional counselor” core. Quality master’s degree programs have expanded to 60 semester hours to address the critical skills and experiences needed in practice. In most cases, these skills and experiences are common to each of the labeled “specialization” areas. Complicating the issue is the designation of different “programs” for accreditation purposes. My contention is that we should be training professional counselors at one level and that true specialization comes with additional didactic and experiential activities. The complexities of specializing — the required knowledge and experience to truly deliver services as a specialist — extend beyond basic didactic courses and internship experiences in the typical master’s degree program.

Currently, individual counselors and segments of practices advertise or indicate that they can best service particular problem areas because of the specialty they render. In many cases, the specific, additional training that the counselor has received validates this claim. In other situations, however, the assumed “specialty” is touted primarily on the basis of the counselor’s initial degree “concentration” — or simply because the counselor labels himself or herself a specialist. This is a challenge that the profession must meet.

A growing concern is the divide between generic training for professional counselors and the additional skills and experience required by counselors who work with specific clients or in defined work settings. These counselors must possess specific knowledge of, for example, learning issues, the needs of special students, problems of reading, dyslexia, autism, system assessment procedures and much more. Rehabilitation counselors and substance abuse counselors operate in unique cultures with explicitly defined parameters. Marriage and family counselors approach their clients with a unique systems-based perspective. Counselors in mental health settings are being called on to have extended documentation of skills and demonstrated expertise as specialists.

Specialized practice requires specific knowledge and skills that go beyond the generic competencies demonstrated by master’s-level counselors. Licensure boards in some states offer multiple tiers on the basis of level of training and experience. Certification bodies in counseling and other helping professions define standards of care according to particular problems, populations and settings.

My challenge to us as counselors is to “own up” to the fact that a true level of specialization exists. We must accept that credentialed counselors have an excellent skill level and can provide services to a wide range of clients in a variety of settings. We must also accept that “true specialization” requires additional competence and significant supervised training experiences.

I challenge our accreditation groups and counselor training institutions to combine efforts not only to continue providing the quality initial training level that currently exists but also to determine levels of true specialization that extend beyond the existing “concentration” levels. We owe it to our clients and to ourselves as professionals to represent competency and specialization in accordance with the highest standards for training.

1 Comment

  1. William Krieger

    Twenty years ago when I served as President of AMHCA, Chair of NACCMHC and on the ACA Council the theme of my talks throughout the country was “A Counselor Is A Counselor Is A Counselor”. I said there was no such thing as a mental health counselor or a school counselor, etc. There were only counselors who worked in a school or a mental health setting, etc. The idea was to promote the idea that there is a definitive profession of counseling with a different frame of reference from other professions as psychiatry, psychology and social work (Counselor Ed programs have still not done an effective job of helping prospective counselors define not only who they are but how they differ from the other professions using the same tools we do). Social workers for example are taught a clear concept of their professional role and recognize that the clinical social worker and the group worker in the Y are both social worker fulfilling their professional role in different ways. Twenty years ago it was hard enough to get concentrations into graduate programs but my idea was always these were steps to true specialization.

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