Tag Archives: Counselor Education & Supervision

Counselor Education & Supervision

Guiding lights

By Bethany Bray May 30, 2018

Counselor supervision is a rite of passage for professional counselors. Although supervision requirements vary from state to state, the crux of the experience — learning that is based in a relationship between a beginning counselor and an experienced practitioner — is universal. As is the case for any relationship to remain healthy and beneficial, the supervisor–supervisee pairing requires care, hard work, respect and trust from both parties.

Supervision is meant to be “the other half” of counselor education, bridging classroom learning and in-session counseling skills, says Summer Reiner, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), clinical supervisor and associate professor and school counseling coordinator at the College of Brockport, State University of New York. “There’s no way you can fully prepare the student in a classroom. Supervision is to fill out your education,” says Reiner, president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Supervision begins “a lifelong process of always stepping back and looking at what went well and what didn’t,” she adds. “Supervision is training to be able to do that throughout your career, a constant of thinking what went well and what do I need to do differently? It’s a supervisor’s role to get that internal dialogue moving, by demonstrating it first and letting [supervisees] know that they will self-evaluate, in a healthy way, throughout their career.”

Balancing act

The supervisor–supervisee relationship is different from the therapeutic bond forged between counselor and client. However, many counseling skills come into play as supervisors support and foster growth in their supervisees. Although supervisors never shed their identity as counselors, they must learn to shift gears between working with clients and working with counselors-in-training or beginning professionals.

Supervisors must also achieve a balance between two primary roles that can, at times, feel like they are at odds with each other: fostering an open and honest dynamic with supervisees and evaluating supervisees. The best learning opportunities often arise when supervisees feel comfortable with and have enough trust in their supervisors to ask questions and admit when they are struggling.

“It’s a delicate balance,” says Kevin Doyle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), clinical supervisor and adjunct instructor of counselor education at Virginia Tech. “The supervisor has the power, but it still needs to be an open relationship. … A supervisor should focus on creating a connection that is similar to counseling, with focus on the supervisee’s professional growth and development. Transparency is paramount, even though there’s a grade or evaluation piece to the situation.”

“It’s one of the biggest fissures in supervision: There’s this evaluative piece. It’s similar to a counseling relationship, but you also have the responsibility to assign grades or to be a reference for a future employer,” says Doyle, a member of ACA. “It’s not a counselor–client relationship, but it also shouldn’t be an inverted relationship” with a power imbalance.

Supervisors are a unique blend of teacher, counselor, evaluator and role model, and they need to be able to nimbly weave in and out of those roles as the moment demands, Reiner says. Throughout the process, counselor supervisors should remain very supportive of their supervisees while also offering honest feedback.

“Help them understand that we’re not evaluating them as a person, or as a counselor, but with each intervention they use with a client,” says Reiner, whose experience is with graduate student supervision as a counselor educator. “This isn’t me judging you; it’s me helping you see what was your intent in this process? What was the intended outcome? If that didn’t happen, what would you have changed?’”

“At the same time,” she continues, “it’s important not to be a cheerleader. Don’t let them feel like everything’s OK when it’s not. It’s this balancing act of having students hear critical feedback without personalizing it and [then] using it constructively.”

Stacey Brown, an LMHC and clinical supervisor in Fort Myers, Florida, stresses that the best supervision happens when the relationship is central to the experience, which transcends simply going through the motions of clocking the needed hours and ticking items off of a to-do list. “For me, it’s about becoming a counselor — beyond the techniques they learn in grad school,” says Brown, an ACA member. “It’s very easy to forget the human part of the equation, and our role as nurturer and encourager, as there are so many boxes to tick. Don’t make it so structured that [supervision] sessions are repetitive or predictable. Be open and allow flow to happen, like you would in a counseling session. You can still cover everything you need to cover, but be creative and open to what comes. Otherwise, you may lose out on [teaching] opportunities that pop up.”

For example, a supervisor might have a stack of case studies ready for review with a supervisee, but the beginning counselor walks into the room with tears in her eyes because of professional stress or something going on in her personal life. In that case, “You shouldn’t push forward with your case reviews,” Brown says. “You should take a step back, ask what’s going on and how can you [the supervisee] manage it? But if I have some kind of checklist to get through, I will miss out on opportunities to help her become a counselor. Teach [supervisees] flexibility, intuition, being present and learning that they have to deal with their own stuff and take care of themselves to be able to help other people. What better way to teach that than by doing it?”

Modeling and forging a bond

Doyle says the skills that supervisees gain through counselor supervision can be divided into two realms: everything that happens in the room with clients, and everything that happens outside of the counseling room.

The first part of the equation, the “nuts and bolts” of counseling, as Doyle calls it, is developed through case review and the one-on-one guidance that a supervisor provides. It involves real-time application of the knowledge base that counseling students were introduced to in graduate school.

The second part encompasses learning that can’t truly be acquired from textbooks. It involves preparation for the entirety of the job of being a professional counselor, Doyle says. Much of the knowledge acquired in this sphere is based on how supervisors model their own professional skills, both inside and outside of client sessions, in the presence of their supervisees. Supervisees watch and absorb not only their supervisors’ interactions with clients, but also the professional boundaries that supervisors set, how much they focus on self-care and how they manage time, professional ethics and other aspects of the job.

Supervisees “absorb so much from how we carry ourselves and what we do in supervision,” says Doyle, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on how supervisors can model wellness and how that influences supervisees’ wellness.

A little self-disclosure, when appropriate, on the part of supervisors can help keep the supervisor–supervisee relationship open and honest, says Kathryn Henderson, an LPC and an assistant professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. When supervisors disclose, for example, that they sometimes struggle to prioritize self-care, it demonstrates not only that even supervisors are imperfect but also that wellness will need to be a career-long goal.

“I stress that we’re in this together,” says Henderson, an ACA member. Supervisors share “our knowledge and experience, but we’re learning from [our supervisees] and growing ourselves. We’re learning just as much from them as they are from us. It’s mutually enriching.”

Brown says she is upfront with her supervisees that counselors are no different from the general population in that they sometimes have trauma in their past, struggle with an inner critic or anxiety, or face other challenges. “Part of being a good counselor is being comfortable with yourself and coming to terms with your own issues. I can’t be [my supervisees’] therapist, but as a supervisor, [I] can recommend they see a therapist,” Brown says. “I tell people right off the bat, there’s no reason to hide who you are.”

Brown also thinks that supervisor self-disclosure, within ethical boundaries, can strengthen the relationship with supervisees and help them realize that being honest about their struggles won’t sabotage their evaluation. Brown recalls one supervisee who had an infant at home. When Brown would check in with her about her stress level and self-care routine, the supervisee would insist she was fine. In truth, she was struggling with breastfeeding and a severe lack of sleep. The supervisee opened up only after being shown photos of Brown’s children and having Brown share a few of her own struggles during motherhood.

“My job, as I see it, is not to be rigid or pretentious at all, but to be real,” Brown says. “Being a real person who can share my experiences, my missteps, my learning, my boundary conflicts, my wellness efforts, etc., helps supervisees to be willing to be real with me. Then I
can see who they are and can offer suggestions that can help them personally and professionally.”

“The relationship is the most important part of the supervision,” she continues. “Elements of trust, mentoring, nurturing, directing, humor, compassion and tutoring are all there, just as in the counseling relationship. The difference is that in supervision, the supervisee will one day be completely equal or surpass me in credentials and expertise. I treat them as colleagues while still offering the nurturing and guidance and respect they need and deserve.”

Henderson agrees that trust is paramount in creating a good supervision experience. For supervisors, this includes trusting their supervisees enough to give them room to find their own way professionally. For supervisees, this means trusting the relationship enough to be able to share — and, in turn, work on — their weaknesses and areas of struggle.

“You can’t give someone insight; [a supervisee] needs to find that on their own. But we can create that opportunity in supervision,” says Henderson, co-editor with Alicia M. Homrich of Gatekeeping in the Mental Health Professions, published by ACA in May. “Supervision is their first time working with real clients in a real-world setting and applying what they’ve spent so many hours learning. That can be scary and overwhelming — there’s a fear of inadequacy. … The crux of supervision is that you’re not alone in that. This is exactly where you go to talk about those concerns and get the support and help that you need to grow in your own self-awareness and confidence in your skills.

“Supervisors are the ones to build that support [by offering] encouragement and validation. All of that helps create an environment where I [the supervisee] can come and bring my greatest concerns and failures, be vulnerable and not be afraid of being judged or of negative outcomes or consequences. Trust is so needed to create that environment.”

It takes two

What does it take to establish a healthy and beneficial supervision experience? In part, both parties must contribute by being flexible and practicing open and honest communication.

Suggestions for supervisees

Shop around to find the best fit. Look for a supervisor with whom you click, both professionally and personally. Alicia Simmons, a counselor intern working toward counselor licensure in Florida, found her supervisor, Stacey Brown (quoted in this article), by searching online and talking with friends from graduate school. She called and spoke with Brown before meeting her in person to test the waters of what would become a very positive supervision relationship. Simmons and Brown co-presented a session, “Intuitive Clinical Supervision: Creative Solutions for Helping New Counselors,” at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this past April.

“Look for someone who is going to walk beside you for … however long it takes,” says Simmons, a clinician and play therapist at an agency that serves children removed from their homes due to trauma or neglect. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions before you begin. You want to know you’re in the right fit. Don’t be afraid to try more than one supervisor. … Look for someone who is going to be flexible and work with you in the way you need to work. If you don’t know what that is, work with someone who will help you figure that out.”

Speak up. If you have a need that is not being met through the supervision experience, talk to your supervisor in a tactful but honest way. Doyle acknowledges that this can be a tall order because supervisors are seen as authority figures. At the same time, identifying any area where you might be struggling in the relationship will actually help your supervisor, he says. Counselors who provide supervision have so much to focus on — including client needs, scheduling, paperwork and so on — that they may not notice everything going on with their supervisees.

“Advocate for your needs [even though] that’s a lot to ask at the outset,” says Doyle, who will be starting a new job as assistant professor of mental health counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall. “Speak up when you need support. Realize that the supervisor will rely on that. … When you come to see your supervisor as a safe person, you will really connect with them and [that will] make it easy to disclose your struggles.”

Respect the process. Keep in mind that your supervisor likely took on this extra responsibility because he or she wanted to “pay it forward” to the profession, Reiner says. Yes, supervisees have needs that should be met through the supervision experience, but at the same time, they must remember that a counselor’s first priority will always be client care.

“Step one is being appreciative that someone was willing to take you on as a supervisee and has trust in you that you will be able to serve clients well,” says Reiner, an ACA member. “Keep in mind that you are practicing under the license of someone else. If the [supervisee] does something really inappropriate, it can open the supervisor up to a lawsuit. They are taking on a personal risk as well as an additional workload. … Recognize that the supervisor is investing in the future of the profession and has no obligation to do that. Realize that they care about your future and the clients you are going to work with.”

Be authentic and drop preconceived expectations. Bring your true self into supervision. Don’t act one way with clients and another way with your supervisor. There should be “a thread of authenticity” throughout your work in supervision, Simmons says. “Counseling is basically holding up a mirror and showing somebody what’s there. Supervision I think ideally would be the same way.” Authenticity, both on the part of the supervisee and the supervisor, builds trust, she asserts.

In addition, it might be best for supervisees to leave behind their ideas of what supervision should look like. The important thing is for the supervisor and supervisee to be working toward the same goals. “What I had heard about clinical supervision was mostly [about] case review and going over the work with clients — very textbook and academic,” says Simmons, an ACA member. “What I’ve learned is that it can be much more fluid than that. All the in-between stuff is what has stuck with me and helped me develop my own style and confidence in my abilities. It’s about more than just the logistics of what’s going on in each [client] case.”

Remain open to feedback. Having a relationship built on trust makes it easier for supervisees to remember that any critical feedback they receive from their supervisor is meant to help them and that they are both working toward the same goal: the supervisee’s growth and development as a counselor. “It’s the same as the counseling relationship — you have to have that rapport,” Simmons says.

Regardless, being critiqued can prove challenging. “As a supervisee, it’s our responsibility to be able to receive feedback,” Simmons says. “If there’s something that’s getting in the way, perhaps that’s something [we] need to work through. We may need to seek therapy ourselves to work on it. Check yourself: Is it something related to the supervisor, or is it something unrelated that you need to work on?”

Think for yourself. At the same time, do not accept feedback blindly. Think it through and talk through any areas you have questions about with your supervisor, Reiner advises. But first, take a step back and consider whether you have received similar feedback from others in the past.

“Critically examine any feedback that you are receiving and be open to being the one who needs to grow and change. Or simply say ‘thank you for that feedback’ and ‘I’ll be mindful of that in the future,’” Reiner says. “I don’t think that supervisees know that supervisors are sometimes uncomfortable sharing critical feedback. They have probably thought it through [before telling supervisees] and were anxious about it themselves.”

Suggestions for supervisors

Temper criticism. Set realistic expectations and frame criticism in a way that lets supervisees know you’re focused on their growth, Doyle says.

In Reiner’s work supervising graduate students, she assures them that she won’t start evaluating them for a grade until halfway through the semester, once they have settled into the experience. It is important to stress that feedback is never personal but rather focused on supervisees’ development, Reiner says.

“There’s also an element of modeling for your supervisees — ‘This is how you have hard conversations with people.’ [They] will need to do that as a counselor,” Reiner says.

Debunk myths of perfection and the existence of one right way. Henderson shares an important lesson with her supervisees that she learned through her own supervision: There is no such thing as a perfect counseling session. Supervisees often put enormous pressure on themselves to find the “right” way to do something, she says. The truth is, clinicians can work with the same client in multiple ways and take different therapeutic directions and still arrive at a positive outcome, Henderson says.

Prioritize fostering growth. Might your supervisees end up working for a local competitor or leave your agency and move on once they’re licensed? Be supportive and invested in their growth, even if it won’t benefit you in the long run, Doyle urges. “Don’t think of [supervision] as just one more thing to get through. Don’t think of it as a task but as a relationship to foster,” he says.

One mark of a good supervision relationship is when a supervisor is comfortable enough to allow — or even to encourage — a supervisee to seek additional skills elsewhere, Simmons says. For example, if supervisees use different therapeutic modalities than their supervisors do, they might want to look for workshops or online training while
in supervision.

Help supervisees embrace their counselor identity. Supervisors can help prepare supervisees for work environments in which they may be the only counselor. “Once people get into a work environment, there becomes a lot of pressure to do things not in the way a counselor is trained to do. Part of a supervisor’s job is to train a supervisee not to lose their identity as a counselor,” Reiner says. “Sometimes you might get the message, ‘We know that’s what you learned in college, but that’s not how we do it.’ Be mindful of teaching them to be a team player yet [also] an advocate for counselors and counseling.”

For example, a counselor in a school setting may be the only person in the building with a counseling background, and he or she may repeatedly be asked to spend time as a test proctor or hall monitor or to perform other noncounseling duties. “How do you politely tell your principal that counselors are not lunch monitors?” Reiner asks. “Instead, explain that your approach will be different. ‘I will do it, but I’ll do it within my counselor identity. Instead of being a disciplinarian, I will use it as an opportunity to talk to students.’”

Lift supervisees up. Supervisees should leave the supervision experience even more energized about the counseling profession than when they began, Brown says. “The way I see it, our job is to lift them up. To help them see that they are more capable than they think they are. To teach, to offer guidance and education, and to model how we do what we do. … Yes, there are techniques and ethics and strategies, but there is also joy in the giving. Graduate students don’t often pick up on that part in grad school. I believe that is the key element we, as supervisors, need to be offering to new counselors. This will help keep integrity in the profession and prevent burnout [by] shining a light on the ability to truly offer healing to clients.”

Navigating the ups and downs

Because supervision is an experience that involves two human beings, it is only natural that not every experience will be positive. Frustration, awkwardness and other negative feelings may surface.

Conflict can arise easily in supervision relationships in which expectations are unclear, Henderson notes. To decrease the likelihood of that happening, she recommends that supervisors document their expectations thoroughly before supervision begins, regardless of whether that process is mandated by the state in which the supervisor practices.

Among the details that should be included:

  • How the supervisee will be evaluated
  • How often the supervisor plans to meet with the supervisee
  • The cancellation policy should a supervisee need to miss a meeting
  • The length of the supervision or how many hours are expected
  • How much the supervisee will pay the supervisor (if applicable)

These details should be talked through with supervisees before they agree to sign the document.

This is also a good time to map out wellness goals, says Doyle, who has supervisees include self-care in the learning contract they create at the beginning of supervision.

“In many ways, it’s on the supervisor to try and develop a welcoming, supportive, yet honest and challenging relationship with their supervisee,” Reiner says. “That starts out with being very direct and forward with your supervisee about what is expected and how they will be evaluated.”

The importance of being direct also extends to addressing any differences between supervisors and supervisees, from level of expertise to gender identity to spirituality, Reiner says. She recommends asking supervisees upfront, “How are you feeling about these elements of who you are and who I am and how that comes together in our space together?” In addition, she says, supervisors can offer assurances to ease supervisees’ concerns about those differences: “If there’s ever a time when I’m not hearing you or not understanding you, please tell me. I want to hear it because it will only help our relationship.”

When tough conversations arise or when things aren’t going well in supervision, it is helpful to keep the discussions focused on growth opportunities. In her role as a counselor educator, Reiner sometimes has to mediate meetings between supervisors and supervisees who aren’t seeing eye to eye. She begins by asking both, individually, what is going well, what can be improved on and what they would like to do or see in supervision that hasn’t happened yet. Reiner tries to frame the conversation so that both parties are able to take personal ownership of what has transpired without placing blame. That way, they are able to share and focus on what they want from the experience that they haven’t yet received.

Clear and open communication is essential when the supervision relationship is having its ups and downs, agrees Henderson, and that is when a supervisor’s counseling skills especially come into play. Supervisors should focus on concrete expectations that aren’t being met rather than vague or arbitrary attributes that they may not like, such as a supervisee’s personality or professional style. If necessary, supervisors can also refer to the contract put in writing at the beginning of the relationship, she adds.

“Many times, we talk around things without talking about the process that’s going on in the room, that here-and-now experience,” says Henderson, who presented on supervision and ethics at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta. “Oftentimes we need to go to that level of metacommunication, to use counselor lingo, to address the dynamics that are happening between us and what’s contributing to it. That can be a very difficult conversation to have, especially considering the power differential. I like to make it as concrete as possible. Having clear expectations and a contract helps focus on competencies and what’s not being met.”

“[Sometimes] it’s these unexpected lessons that find us, that we’re not looking for, that can be the most difficult but that lead to the most growth,” she adds. “When we are having these conversations, keep in mind our mutual goals. What’s our purpose? The supervisee’s growth as well as client welfare. Monitor both.”

Keep it going

Peer support and feedback, mentorship and case review with colleagues can play a vital role throughout a counselor’s career, long after formal supervision leading up to licensure has ended. Doyle recommends that counselors engage in lifelong supervision, whether in an informal or formal capacity, to continue learning and to find support.

“It’s extremely rewarding work that we do, but it’s extremely taxing too. Peer support becomes that much more important after formal supervision ends,” he says. “It’s hard to describe the grind you go through daily as a counselor and the emotional toll it takes. Connect with people who can understand that. Connect with peers across the profession, whether that’s within a professional organization or the practitioner in the office next to you. Make sure you have a support network, wherever you are.”

Henderson says one of the things that stuck with her most from Irvin Yalom’s keynote at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco was that he — a noted psychiatrist, author and scholar — had sought support from peer groups throughout his storied career. “Even though he’s a giant in the field, he continues to work on his own development,” she says.

“The message that we want to send is that the journey doesn’t end when you get that license or degree,” Henderson adds. “The journey is ongoing, and we don’t want to be alone in that journey.”

 

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Related reading: Counselor supervision: Reflections and lessons learned,” an online-exclusive companion piece to this article: wp.me/p2BxKN-58U

 

Additional resources:

From the Counseling Today archives:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counselor supervision: Reflections and lessons learned

Compiled by Bethany Bray May 25, 2018

[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is an online-only companion article to “Guiding lights,” a feature on the ins and outs of the counselor supervision process appearing in the June issue of Counseling Today.]

 

Counselor supervision can have quite a steep learning curve — one that often comes with several ups and downs for beginning counselors.

Counseling Today recently asked several American Counseling Association members about their experience navigating the supervision learning curve. They share their thoughts here so that others can learn from their journeys along the sometimes-bumpy road into professional practice.

 

Fill in the blank: I wish I had known ________ when I was in my supervision.

 

“I wish I had known that it was OK to think outside of the box. I am a naturally creative and intuitive person, but I tried to reel all of that in during supervision. My supervisor was very structured. I still learned a lot, but it took me many years of practicing as a counselor before integrating who I am into my work as a counselor.

Be open to your supervisees interests — you can miss out on opportunities for them to grow, otherwise.”

Stacey Brown, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and clinical supervisor in Fort Myers, Florida

 

” [In supervision,] I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake because it would be evidence that I’m not a good counselor. I felt scared, instead of realizing that my supervisor was interested in knowing me as a person and interested in my development. [My supervisor] wasn’t looking for me to be a fully-formed counselor, they were expecting me to be a novice, and expecting to provide modeling and encouragement for improvement.

Now, I remind my students: If you’re scared and hiding [things from your supervisor], those are the students who don’t do as well, as opposed to those who are open and seeking growth. Be honest about your weaknesses instead of not acknowledging them.”

Summer Reiner, LMHC, clinical supervisor and associate professor and school counseling coordinator at the College of Brockport, State University of New York and president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision

 

“One of the hardest lessons for me in supervision was [learning] the boundary of my own responsibility with my client. I was always wanting more [for them], feeling like I was responsible for more of their change and their experience. [Feeling that] it was somehow my fault or responsibility that they weren’t making progress in a way we wanted to see.

It took some very strong and honest supervisors [for me to learn not to feel that way]. That’s a level of insight, something you can’t give anybody. They helped me find my way.

One supervisor challenged me with ‘where does Kathryn end and where does your client begin?’ At first, I didn’t know that that meant. But it has really stuck with me.

It’s a very common, normal part of development as clinician [feeling responsible for client change]. We can have a parallel process of that, as supervisors — feeling responsible for the growth of supervisees: Where do they begin and we end?

It’s really about being the best that we can for our clients, and supervisees, and acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers.”

Kathryn Henderson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and assistant professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut

 

“I wish I knew how to advocate for myself within supervision. A lot of times, I didn’t speak up when I was in situations I didn’t feel comfortable in. I wish I had known how to advocate within supervision and how to broach [tough] conversations. But more importantly, knowing how to spot a supervisor who would be willing to broach [those conversations] and model wellness.

I wish I knew [then] how to spot a strong supervision relationship from a weak relationship because ultimately that’s how we benefit.”

Kevin Doyle, an LPC and counselor educator who begins a position as assistant professor of mental health counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall

 

I wish I had known:

  • How to navigate cultural barriers in the supervisee/supervisor process
  • How to advocate for quality over quantity for clients (providing quality clinical services to the client while meeting the agencies financial demands)
  • How to obtain clarity of expectations for my role in practicum/internship
  • That the process would be arduous at times

Kerri Legette McCullough, an LPC, licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), doctoral candidate at Argosy University and a mental health therapist at Hillcrest Children and Family Center in Washington, D.C.

 

 

“I had learned that in clinical supervision, I would learn how to function in the role of a counselor. Here’s what I didn’t know: I did not know that it was okay to not know things — that actually, it was pretty much expected that I wouldn’t.

I was unaware that clinical supervision could be an intuitive process — or that I would learn so much just within the context of the supervisory relationship. I was unaware of the full potential and was not expecting it to be as transformative as it has been for me, in both professional and personal ways.  I think that if I had known this in the beginning, I definitely would have had a lot less anxiety about the process. But experiencing it in real time has been a valuable part of becoming a counselor.  I wouldn’t change it.”

Alicia Simmons, a counselor intern working toward counselor licensure in Florida and a clinician and play therapist at an agency that serves children removed from their homes due to trauma or neglect

 

 

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

Past trauma in counselors-in-training: Help or hindrance?

By Bethany Bray May 20, 2018

Counselors are not immune to trauma — in fact, far from it. Many practitioners say that personal or familial experience with trauma or mental illness actually spurred them to become professional counselors.

The connection between personal experience and the pull to become a counselor is something that is hard to quantify, but “in my personal experience, I encounter it pretty frequently,” says Allison Pow, a licensed professional counselor in North Carolina and adjunct professor at both Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “For a lot of people, past experience draws them into the counseling field, and trauma can play such a pivotal part in someone’s life. It’s a common thing that we see as supervisors and counselor educators.”

Past trauma can be either an impairment or a kind of “benefit” for counselors-in-training, depending on how much the person has worked through and processed the effects of trauma, say Pow and Amber Pope, a licensed mental health counselor and program chair of the clinical mental health counseling program at Hodges University in Fort Myers, Florida.

Counselor educators and other professionals in the field who have close contact with counselors-in-training should keep an eye out for red flags that may indicate that a person’s past trauma is interfering with their growth as a counselor or, in a worst-case scenario, has the potential to cause harm to clients.

“Just because you’ve been through trauma doesn’t mean you can’t become a counselor. You can become a great counselor if [your trauma] is processed correctly,” Pope says.

Pow and Pope co-presented a session, “Wounded healers: How to support counselors-in-training who have experienced trauma,” at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The term “trauma” can encompass a wide variety of experiences, from an acute event to yearslong, developmental trauma, Pow explains.

People who have processed the effects of past trauma — often with the help of a therapist of their own — can become excellent counselors, Pow says. Posttraumatic growth and healing from the experience can foster empathy and strengthen coping skills.

“Going through trauma is a very unique experience [through which] you understand the way your brain works and your body reacts. That is hard for someone to understand who hasn’t gone through that,” Pow explains. “I have had some students who were very resilient because they have been forced to cope [in traumatic situations] in the past.”

“The reason a lot of people become very, very good counselors is their life experience,” Pow adds.

However, people who haven’t fully processed the trauma in their backgrounds can run into trouble as professional counselors. For example, in client sessions, they risk becoming triggered by topics that clients bring up and may be unable to regulate their own emotions or other behaviors in response. These reactions can harm the delicate balance of trust between practitioner and client.

“They may unwittingly be using their role as a counselor to work through their own unprocessed material or to recapitulate an unhealthy power dynamic to feel that they’re in control,” Pow says. “Control is often something that people seek after going through trauma. It may come from a lack of self-awareness.”

 

Red flags

Interactions with classmates and colleagues might be one of the best indicators of whether counselors-in-training have a trauma history that still needs to be worked through. During moments of vulnerability, do they become aggressive or reactive or express other strong emotions? In general, a lack of self-awareness, such as oversharing in class or being unaware of how the people around them are feeling, can be an indicator of unprocessed trauma, says Pow, who has a private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Also watch for attachment issues or signs of avoidance, such as skipping classes or evading one-on-one contact with a professor or authority figures, Pow says. It can also be indicative of a trauma background if students do not generally have themselves together, including missing assignments or being late to class repeatedly, Pope says.

Other indicators can include:

  • Poor boundary keeping: This may manifest as oversharing, attention-seeking or disruptive behavior in the classroom, or an unhealthy preoccupation with relationships with classmates or colleagues.
  • Low self-confidence: Students with unresolved trauma may demonstrate low belief in themselves regardless of past successes. They may feel like they can “never do enough,” Pope explains. These students may lack motivation or even self-sabotage, such as missing a deadline even though they are capable of meeting it.
  • Rigidity in thinking: If students aren’t open to receiving feedback and unwilling to take constructive criticism, it can be a major indicator of past trauma that hasn’t been resolved. This attitude can stem from a black-and-white way of thinking in which the student categorizes things as “all good” or “all bad” with no in between, Pope says.

Everyone has bad days now and then that can set them off. However, if a student is repeatedly unable to regulate their emotions, such as becoming reactive or upset in class, it is a red flag, Pope says.

“When a student is so set in their values or way of thinking that they try and impose it on others, that can stem from trauma. If they can’t become more flexible in their thinking process or relationships with others, then they’re going to have a difficult time with clients,” she explains.

 

When it’s time to intervene

It is beneficial, for any number of reasons, for counselor educators to get to know and connect with the students in their program, Pope says. If a particular student seems to be struggling with challenges that could keep them from becoming a proficient counselor — such as issues related to unresolved trauma — it is better to intervene sooner rather than later.

Be prevention-focused instead of reactionary, Pope suggests. The longer a student continues in a graduate counseling program, the harder it will be to check their behavior or make decisions about their future.

“Don’t let students waste time and money if they’re not going to be a good fit,” she says.

Counselor educators who identify students raising red flags should pull them aside after class or ask them to stop by the counselor educator’s office, Pope advises. The first interaction with the student should be kept informal and light. Let them know that you have noticed some patterns and indicators in their behavior that require some attention, and ask them what supports they need to help them make improvements, she says. If appropriate, other professors or colleagues who know the student can sit in on this initial informal meeting to offer support, Pope says.

Check in with the student frequently during class breaks, supervision meetings and other opportunities. Ask how the student is doing and how they are practicing self-care. This conveys to the student that the professor wants them to succeed and grow, Pope says.

Pope emphasizes that this method should be applied only to counseling students who haven’t committed an egregious offense or intentionally gone against the ACA Code of Ethics. In those cases, a swifter and more formal response is necessary.

If a student does not begin to change their behavior after a first informal meeting, consider meeting with the counselor-in-training again to create a formal written behavior agreement. Spell out which behaviors aren’t acceptable, why those behaviors aren’t acceptable and what they need to do to continue in the counseling program. Be specific and include a timeline of when the expectations must be met, Pope advises.

If the student meets the requirements in the behavior agreement, they should be allowed to continue on with graduate school. If not, suggest that they take a semester or other time off to get the help they need, or leave the program entirely.

“When a student is given feedback and continues in their behavior patterns and doesn’t make any changes, that’s showing me that the student isn’t ready to change or do what they need to do to grow professionally,” Pope says.

Throughout the process, Pope says, she would recommend that the student attend counseling. There is some debate within counselor education as to whether it is ethical to require students to attend personal counseling . In the case of recommending a student to personal counseling, a counselor educator can request the student to provide proof, in the form of written letters from a provider, that they are attending therapy sessions and making progress to demonstrate their willingness to comply with their professors’ recommendation.

“We’re very open, telling students that we [their professors] have all attended or are attending counseling, and that it’s important to be as healthy as you can be, [to] take care of yourself mentally and emotionally,” Pope says.

Although sometimes uncomfortable, this process is also an opportunity for counselor educators to model what a healthy professional relationship should look like, Pope notes. It shows students that you can give critical feedback while caring and maintaining empathy.

“You can give suggestions and guidance while keeping professional boundaries. They may not have had that [example] in their life before,” Pope says.

“In my classes, I make a point of being very transparent with my expectations and predictable. I have a standard of which behaviors I respond to and which I don’t,” Pow agrees. “For a student who has gone through trauma, it’s not our job to be their counselor. But a lot of times their lives haven’t been predictable, and they haven’t had a safe base. We can be that predictable, safe base. We can talk openly about their struggles, getting help and that it’s not a bad thing that you’ve had some challenges in your life.”

 

Gatekeepers and guides

Counselor educators must strike a fine balance between acting as gatekeepers for the profession and serving as mentors and guides for those who need extra support, Pope says.

“When it comes to student trauma and challenges, for me, an ideal situation is when I can have enough conversations with a student so they can come to their own conclusions on whether the field is right for them or not,” Pow says. “Part of effective trauma treatment is creating choice and putting decision-making back into the person’s hands. That may be the choice to take some time off and return to the program. Emphasize where they have agency in things.”

It’s OK for a student to come into a graduate counseling program with unresolved trauma issues. They just have to be willing to work on it, self-process and accept help, Pow says. Students who are open to self-reflection and constructive feedback can experience a tremendous amount of growth, she says. “It’s unreasonable for us to expect, as educators, that people are going to come into these [graduate] programs having processed everything that has happened to them and be completely self-aware,” she affirms.

Processing and rising above trauma builds skills that are the hallmarks of a good counselor, including a strong sense of self-awareness, empathy and sensitivity. Counselors who have successfully processed their past trauma can become models for clients struggling with similar issues, Pope says.

“If you heal from a trauma, you really have to engage with the most vulnerable parts of yourself. It’s a depth that people who haven’t been through trauma may not fully understand,” Pope says. “That’s what creates really great counselors — [to be able to] engage with others at that level of vulnerability and intimacy. Knowing that going through something so challenging, you can become more whole, and in turn become a safe place for others. As a counselor, you’re better able to serve your clients.”

 

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Related reading

  • For more on supporting counselors-in-training through the supervision process, see the feature “Guiding lights” in the June issue of Counseling Today.

 

 

Suggested resources

Want to learn more on this topic? Pow and Pope suggest these titles:

 

 

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

Teaching counselor education curriculum in a ‘new reality’

By Suzanne A. Whitehead May 19, 2017

I love my job, my calling, as a counselor educator, and I take my role and passion as a graduate student advocate, public innovator and social justice change agent to heart every single day. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

His words are my mantra in life. Each one of us touches the hearts of so many others and, thus, the very future.

But teaching in these uncertain, turbulent times has been challenging to say the least. A powerful, yet almost silent and unspoken subtle change has occurred in my classrooms. It almost feels like a gray mist or cloud that is not seen but clearly felt.

I have never tried to be political with my students or to discuss politics in the classes that I teach. I don’t believe in it. Just because a professor has a “captive audience” in a class and CAN speak his or her mind doesn’t mean that one should. I don’t shy away from state, national or global issues because they are often pertinent to the material we discuss. Still, I don’t offer my own political opinion on these issues, mostly out of respect, but also because I feel it’s the right thing to do.

I care a great deal about my students. I can see the concern and worry in their eyes. They are more unsettled than normal, and the mood is palpable. Approximately 80 percent of my students are Hispanic and bilingual. They share an immense pride in their heritage, culture and family systems. I honor their commitment to their communities, their livelihoods and this country that they dearly love.

My students bring in reports of their own counselees in schools and agencies who share stories of intense fear, anxiety and pain at the idea that they, or their parents, could be deported. We have a lot of “Dreamer” students (children of undocumented immigrants) at my university and many of these children and families in our surrounding communities. Their understandable angst is powerful, heart-wrenching and compelling.

 

Teaching in these challenging times

And now we are asked to continue to teach our students as though nothing has changed in our world. No matter how one voted (or chose not to vote) in our nation’s most recent election, one thing is for certain: It has been an incredibly acrimonious, divisive and challenging time for our entire country. I have my opinions, but they are not for me to share them with my students. Yet they share theirs, every day. They have to because it affects their lives, their families and the clients they serve.

Other counselor educators who are struggling with these same issues may be wondering: How do we respond in a caring, empathic, yet ambiguous, way and not take sides?

The danger in “taking sides” is that even if I find great personal solace in doing so, I may also inadvertently destroy a student’s belief that each person has a right to free speech and to believe as he or she sees fit. In my bully pulpit ramblings, I could possibly (even if unintentionally) insult or even scar a student who may hold vastly different opinions from my own. That would be inexcusable. That serves no one except for my own selfish gain.

 

What we can do

It tugs at my heartstrings, but the only conclusion I can see is to treat this situation as a counselor would with any client. We must be confident, genuine, caring and willing to listen. We need to share that we understand students’ (and their clients’) fears and concerns. We express great empathy for what they are experiencing and model, summarize and validate their honest emotions, using an overall person-centered approach from Carl Rogers.

This isn’t always easy with a large number of students on one’s caseload. I never want to appear disingenuous. I just keep telling them, and myself, that their feelings, and those of their clients, are real, significant and truly matter. I will not judge; that is not my purpose as an educator. And I will not just gloss over everything with the proverbial, “It will all be just fine” message, to assuage their fears and my own discomfort.

All we can do is let them know how much we care and then use our own therapeutic orientations that we hold dear to help them and their clients. For example, in using a brief solution-focused therapeutic approach (Steve de Shazer), they can explore their options and what they believe IS within their power to influence, and develop effective ways to cope and move forward. These are all productive ways of handling and making sense of difficult times. The basic tenets of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy seem useful here as well — finding purpose and meaning, even within one’s suffering and turmoil, and a reason to keep going.

 

Wellness for counselor educators

It is also more evident than ever that we as counselor educators need to take the time for wellness and coping strategies for our own mental well-being. It is one thing to conduct site visits and observations to see each of my students working with children, adolescents and adults. I too hear their stories firsthand and feel great empathy for their situations. But now, we also hear the same concerns from our students in our classes, and it is hard not to feel their pain intensely.

I reach out to my professional colleagues for feedback and interaction. I value the unwavering support of my family and friends and cherish their input now more than ever. And I have become intensely aware of where my own “head” is at — and my emotions — and utilize my coping strategies to the fullest. I consciously try to “check my ego and attitude” at the door before I step into the classroom and hold fast to the belief that I am here to instruct, teach, lead and inspire. The American Counseling Association’s values and code of ethical conduct are bedrocks of sanity to hold dear.

I am guessing that things will continue to be tricky for many of us in the coming months and years. As educators, we need to help each other through these very different times and circumstances. Knowing that the counseling profession is strong, and that our colleagues are always there for us, brings great comfort and resoluteness. My fervent hope is that it brings the same to each of you.

“Carpe diem,” dear colleagues.

 

 

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Suzanne A. Whitehead is a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor of counselor education at California State University, Stanislaus. Contact her at sawhitehead7@gmail.com or swhitehead1@csustan.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The journey to counselor educator: Deciding to get your doctoral degree

By Makeba Boykins February 21, 2017

The moment you decide to pursue a doctoral degree is one of the defining moments of your career. You have decided that you want to go further, push yourself and obtain the skills needed for training new counselors. You begin to research schools and their doctoral programs. A glimmer forms of what you would like to write your dissertation on. You apply to your favorite schools, plus some that you don’t like as much to increase the chances of your dream becoming a reality.

But when the interviews start, reality kicks in. For some people, that reality is the amount of work it takes to become a counselor educator. For others, it’s the reality that their favorite school might be just out of reach for a variety of factors.

And if you are a minority student, a different kind of reality starts to settle in. One that tells you your dream might be far more complicated to reach than it is for other students.

Growing up as a black woman in the United States, I was aware of the implicit bias that can affect who gets opportunities and who doesn’t. My father was born in 1928 in the South, so the history of being black in America is forever cemented in me in ways that are hard to describe.

This knowledge becomes personal when you enter the workforce and experience implicit and explicit bias firsthand. Even while obtaining my master’s degree in community counseling, I could see how this bias played into higher education. Once I completed my master’s and went into the field, I worked in social services, attempting to make a dent in the systems and make life better for those who may not be able to do so on their own. When I decided to get my Ph.D., I felt accomplished. I felt ready to go on an academic journey.

 

Roadblocks

Upon starting the application process, I quickly realized how exclusive the “doctor” club is. Most schools accept six to 10 students for Ph.D. programs, and you are competing with students from around the world. What you want to do research on becomes extremely important because some universities want you to participate in or further research that aligns with the research interests of professors who are already in the program.

What I realized very quickly was that even if a professor has interest in multicultural issues or even race, it is rare to want to tackle implicit bias head-on. Diversity and social justice, even in the counseling profession, can be dirty words.

Some research has shown that students generally give poorer evaluations to professors who teach diversity. If those professors are minorities, their evaluations are often even lower. Depending on the university, those student evaluations can be the difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure, so these things matter.

You can imagine that several programs would proceed with caution if a student of color applied and stated that he or she wanted to do research on bias. There is a fine line between telling students that they must change their research ideas (which often change anyway over the course of study) or setting them up for a hard road that may lead to limited academic success. This was the first lesson I learned in my journey.

The first school to which I was accepted did so on the condition that I change my research topic. I had somehow been naive enough to think that in the world of academia, pushing the boundaries was encouraged. Entire bodies of research exist on implicit bias and how it affects almost every facet of society. Given the popularity of the online Implicit Association Test and the ever-growing body of research on the topic, I assumed that research on bias was no longer that controversial.

But when the program chair discussed concerns about my topic with me, I got a rude wake-up call. It shook me and made me question whether pursuing my Ph.D. was really the right course of action. I pushed on and eventually found a school that I am proud to call my academic home.

Upon starting classes, I realized this road could be a constant battle unless I had strategies for success. I hope that some of the skills I learned and implemented can be beneficial to other students, particularly minority students who are pursuing their doctoral degrees.

 

Strategies for success

Being accepted to a school that was interested in my research topic and supportive of my inclination toward social justice was the first hurdle. So, when applying and interviewing for schools, remember that you are reviewing those schools as much as they are reviewing you. It is important for any student, but particularly a student of color, to find an academic home that is supportive of your goals. Do not settle for the first school that accepts you. Review your options carefully, and make a choice that you will be happy with for the next several years to come.

The second step was becoming knowledgeable about the difficulties that African American students face. Per a 2011 research study by Malik Henfield, Delila Owens and Sheila Witherspoon in Counselor Education and Supervision, many African American doctoral students in counselor education programs feel that they face discrimination and a high level of stress. Many cite feelings of isolation, lack of support from faculty and treatment by other students as reasons for not continuing their programs. The article cited additional research done in 1996 that showed that as many as 49 percent of African American doctoral students felt at least partially, if not totally, negatively about their doctoral experience.

I was shocked to learn about these statistics and this research, but arming yourself with this knowledge will allow you to be prepared for the road ahead. So much of completing any graduate degree involves the subjective experience we have in our programs. Counselors, specifically, can forget to check in with themselves emotionally because we are used to caring for everyone else. So do your research and allow yourself to be sad about the extra set of hurdles ahead, but allow those hurdles to motivate you to achieve your goals.

Once you have been accepted to a doctoral program for counselor education, seek out professors and campus organizations that are supportive of and foster your passions. When I began school, I joined the campus diversity department, I stood strong in my passion for social justice and multicultural competency. Basically, I began the ongoing process of carving out my own space — one that is filled with support and is uniquely my own. Universities, particularly predominantly white institutions, might not have a ready-made space for you. If you begin creating your professional and collegiate identity early, it will allow you to start to set your own metric for success.

Set small, achievable goals that remind you that you are making progress. Setting your own standard for success is crucial, particularly for minority students, because feelings of isolation and a lack of support can make it hard to recognize how far you have come. This is where your family and friends can come in because they don’t have to understand what you are writing about to celebrate that you have finished a huge paper. They can constantly give you encouragement, and although their emotional support may not equal an A in the classroom or create a more inclusive environment in your school, it can mean the difference between feeling completely isolated on your journey and feeling supported.

My next step was having frank conversations with family and friends. I had already done this prior to applying to my doctoral program, but after becoming more knowledgeable about all the hurdles that minority students can face even after acceptance, it was important to talk again. I let my partner, my family and my friends know that I might need additional support because I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get it consistently at school. I feel completely supported by my school and faculty, but I wanted to ensure that I possessed multiple levels of support.

As mentioned previously, counselors can be hard pressed to practice self-care. Do not wallow in feelings of guilt when you need help or support, and don’t feel bad about telling your support network early on that you might need them to help lift you up.

Directly correlated with creating your support network is learning to be patient and gentle with yourself. Obtaining any degree is difficult, and the higher you go, the harder it is. You must deal with life’s challenges, and if you are a minority, you may face extra hurdles.

For most people, it will be a year from the time you start submitting applications to the time you actually enter school. During that year, begin practicing your self-care techniques, and then take them with you into the program. If possible, attend campus and association events to begin connecting yourself to your colleagues. Research divisions of the American Counseling Association that you might be interested in joining; these divisions can provide opportunities to expand and affirm your interests.

Also remember that pursuing your doctorate is as much about your learning as it is your grade. Talk with your adviser and take the course load that makes the most financial and emotional sense for you.

Finally, stand strong and proud in your interests and in who you are as an individual. Getting your doctorate should be about more than calling yourself a doctor. You should pursue a doctorate to do scholarly work that matters to you and to be a part of training future counselors.

What drew me to this path and program was a desire to learn more and further the discussions on implicit bias and mental health. Shying away from that path would have been detrimental to my ability to complete my studies and feel fully engaged in my profession. Although it is possible that I will change my topic down the road, it is important for me to pursue what interested me. My end goal is always “scholar” and “educator” first, not “doctor.” So unless your goals or interests change, don’t back away from your passions.

 

Conclusion

The challenges that students face when applying for and entering a doctoral counseling program can be great. Those stressors can be compounded when issues of diversity and inclusion arise. Arm yourself with all the tools and supports available to you to make your journey as smooth and successful as possible. Always be kind to yourself and, remember, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

 

 

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Makeba Boykins has been working in the field for more than a decade. She obtained her master’s degree in community counseling from Argosy University Chicago and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in counselor education from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at mboykins@ego.thechicagoschool.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.