School Counselors’ Perceptions of Competency in Career Counseling

Leann Wyrick Morgan, Mary Ellen Greenwaldt, Kevin P. Gosselin

The National Office for School Counselor Advocacy stated that secondary students need better support from professional school counselors when making decisions regarding their postsecondary education and career. The present qualitative study explored school counselors’ perceptions of competence in the area of career counseling, and resulted in the following themes: challenges to delivery, opportunity, self-doubt, reliance on colleagues, and the use of technology. Recommendations for college and career readiness best practice were incorporated with the findings from the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy report.

Keywords: school counselor, career counseling, competence, postsecondary education, qualitative study


No step in life, unless it may be the choice of a husband or wife, is more important than the choice of a vocation. . . . These vital problems should be solved in a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person’s aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the relations of these elements to the conditions of success in different industries. (Parsons, 1909, p. 3)

Young people exploring career decisions are often left to their own searches to find direction in this complex process. Ninety-five percent of high school seniors expect to attain some form of college education, yet more and more are delaying entry after high school, frequently changing colleges or majors when they do enter, or taking time off throughout their programs (Altbach, Gumport, & Berdahl, 2011). According to The College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), professional school counselors need to better support students during the decision-making process in order to streamline their progress toward postsecondary education and career readiness (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). School counselors must balance this heady task with accountability in other areas, such as academic achievement, social and emotional development, and related administrative duties.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model for School Counseling (ASCA Model) was developed and recently updated by the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP), which supports school counselors and counselor educators by standardizing and enhancing the practices of these professionals (ASCA, 2012). With the release of NOSCA’s survey results, a new movement in school counselor reform emerged, which calls for standardization of practices involving college access for all students. According to The College Board (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014), this reform is necessary to highlight the lack of support students receive in their pursuit of higher educational goal attainment.

School counselors have historically lacked a clear identity in role and function (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Dodson, 2009; Johnson, Rochkind, & Ott, 2010; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009), and in response, many states have adopted the use of some form of the ASCA Model as a guide for practicing school counselors (Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin, Carey, & DeCoster, 2009). Not all states provide such guidance for their school counselors and, as a result, some school counselors are left with little continuity among schools, even within the same school district. Some counselor educators have called for more support and supervision for school counselors (Brott, 2006; DeVoss & Andrews, 2006; Somody, Henderson, Cook, & Zambrano, 2008); however, a gap between education and professional responsibility, and consequently liability, has remained apparent (Foster, Young, & Hermann, 2005; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). It is important to note that the aforementioned reform is linked directly to the roles and functions of school counselors (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). According to NOSCA, 71% of school counselors surveyed stated that they believed academic planning related to college and career readiness was important, but only 31% believed their school was successful in fulfilling students’ needs in that area (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). The gap between what they believe to be important and how they deliver information and assist students in using the information is critical.

To successfully bridge the gap and provide students with a consistent avenue for college and career readiness, more attention must be directed toward training school counselors and clearly defining the roles and functions of school counselors to other school professionals (Dodson, 2009; Mason & McMahon, 2009; McMahon, Mason, & Paisley, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009). Further inquiry is necessary to determine the possible impact of revised training and practice on the profession as well as on school counselors’ relationships with students, parents and the school community stakeholders. Counselor educators are not solely responsible for the role development of the school counselors they train; however, they have an increased personal responsibility as well (Paisley & Milsom, 2007; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). Consistent dialogue between counselor educators and school counselors-in-training regarding role competence in career development may provide an avenue to overall effectiveness.

Currently, professional school counselors are expected to offer comprehensive, well-balanced, developmental, evidence-based school counseling programs that target social and emotional supportive services, educational and academic planning, and vocational education for all students (ASCA, 2003; Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Dugger & Boshoven, 2010; Foster et al., 2005; Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin et al., 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). However, high school counselors continue to be scrutinized in light of the poor marks they receive from high school students and graduates regarding the counselors’ involvement in their respective postsecondary planning processes (Gibbons, Borders, Wiles, Stephan, & Davis, 2006; Johnson et al., 2010).

School counselors serve in multiple­—and often demanding—educational and counseling roles. In addition, school counselors are asked to further the academic and educational missions of the school, seek teacher and administrator buy-in to an integrated comprehensive guidance program, and act in a proactive manner that will enhance collaboration among all facets of the school and community (Brown, 2006; Dodson, 2009; Green & Keys, 2001; Walsh, Barrett, & DePaul, 2007). Keeping these functions in mind, one can see how critical it is for school counselors to develop particular skills in order to provide services, to promote a strong professional identity, and to obtain regular supervision and consultation (McMahon et al., 2009).

In many cases, school counselors develop competencies in their roles while performing the duties assigned by their administrators or counseling supervisors; however, the basic educational training that occurs preservice can vary dramatically. In the field of counselor education, many issues impact the curriculum and philosophy of school counselor training programs including (a) the accreditation of the program by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and (b) the degree to which programs offer training in how to utilize the ASCA Model (ASCA, 2003). The CACREP training standards have gained popularity among state certification and licensure boards (such as those in Louisiana and New Jersey), and some boards now require all candidates seeking certification or licensure to have completed CACREP-accredited counseling programs in order to be eligible for professional certification or licensure. Certainly, not all counselor training programs are CACREP-accredited, and those that are CACREP-accredited likely vary in how they address the standards. Yet, many school counselor trainees will encounter similar standards presented in the newly revised ASCA Model as they pursue state certification or become involved in ASCA as a student or professional member (ASCA, 2012).

The ASCA Model provides a tool for school counselors to design, coordinate, implement, manage and evaluate school counseling programs, but the specifics on how school counselors address each area varies (ASCA, 2012). School counselors are expected to demonstrate competency in the areas of academic achievement, social and emotional development, and career counseling. However, career counseling competency is often minimized in relation to other areas because the accountability measures are not fully developed. Also, the results cannot be determined until years after students leave high school (Belasco, 2013; McDonough, 2005), and due to so many commitments falling upon school counselors, their time to provide specific career interventions can be limited (Bryan, Moore-Thomas, Day-Vines, & Holcomb-McCoy, 2011; Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010).

The leaders of ASCA (2012) have encouraged secondary school counselors to spend at least 40% of their day conducting career assessment, engaging in development and planning postsecondary activities with students (e.g., individual student responsive services, group guidance activities, college and career indirect services); yet, according to Clinedinst, Hurley, and Hawkins (2011), high school counselors devote only 23% of their time to this cause. School counselor education programs minimally address this disparity (Foster et al., 2005). Most programs offer one course in general career development theory, assessment and counseling, which would translate to roughly 6% of students’ training within a 48-hour program, and only 5% for programs requiring 60 credit hours of graduate work. Although CACREP (2009) has called for counselor educators to infuse career development throughout the program curricula, school counselors have reported they did not feel competent in the delivery of career programs (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014).

Given the convergence of an increased number of school counselor education programs seeking accreditation (Urofsky, personal communication, March 28, 2014), increased calls for accountability in school counseling programs (Wilkerson, Pérusse, & Hughes, 2013), and the growing influence of the ASCA Model (Martin et al., 2009), it seems imperative that school counselors be prepared to address the vocational and transitional needs of the secondary student. A gap exists between what is expected and suggested by the national standards for a comprehensive guidance program and what is actually being taught in school counselor preparation programs, specifically in the area of college and career readiness (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014; McDonough, 2005). School counselors must have an appropriate cache of career counseling techniques in order to be effective leaders, not just possess a basic understanding of career development theories (Zunker, 2012). Osborn and Baggerly (2004) suggested the following:

High school is a crucial time for students to make career and/or postsecondary training decisions. If there were any group of school counselors who needed to have a large proportion of their time devoted to career counseling, it would be high school counselors. (p. 55)

Bridgeland and Bruce (2014) stated in the NOSCA report that “counselors are also largely enthusiastic about supporting college and career readiness initiatives, but here again, do not think they have the support and resources to successfully promote their students’ postsecondary achievement” (p. 12).

Hines & Lemons (2011) proposed refocusing university training programs for school counselors to emphasize educational access, opportunity and equity in college, and career readiness, with an increased focus on interns utilizing college and career readiness curricula with students in their schools. They also recommended the revision of school counselor job descriptions to focus on postsecondary planning, the use of performance evaluations connected to student academic outcomes and college and career readiness standards, and the need for persistent professional development in order to cultivate effective college and career readiness counseling programs.

By continuing to examine school counselor training and consequent job competency standards, it may be possible to determine gaps in training and how counselors compensate for their lack of knowledge in serving their students. Career counseling theory and application play a role in how school counselors work with students in postsecondary planning, and where a lack of knowledge exists, a lack of services exists as well (Perrone, Perrone, Chan, & Thomas, 2000). The rising costs of higher education, paired with students’ lack of concise college and career planning, make the school counselor’s role more important than in past decades.


School Counseling

Borders and Drury (1992) determined that “school counseling interventions have a substantial impact on students’ educational and personal development. Individual and small-group counseling, classroom guidance, and consultation activities seem to contribute directly to students’ success in the classroom and beyond” (p. 495). School counselors have shared responsibility for students acquiring knowledge necessary for successful mastery of essential developmental skills at the secondary level (Myrick, 1987; Sears, 1999). The need for appropriate and relevant training of secondary school counselors is critical to ensure that the students they serve receive challenging academic paths that will impact their quality of life long after they leave high school (Erford, 2010).

The CACREP standards for counselor training serve as a guide for counselor education programs to include when determining elements and experiences essential for training competent school counselors. However, the standards were not established to provide any support or structure for the postgraduate professional working in the schools (Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Pérusse, Goodnough, & Noel, 2001). ASCA provides professional school counselors with support through the National Model to administer appropriate programming to students at the secondary level, including career planning. The question remains whether counselors-in-training receive access to the appropriate coursework and relevant experiences to adequately prepare them to fulfill their role in the schools, as suggested by historical perspectives (e.g., the vocational needs of students) and the current national standards for the profession.

The area of career development and postsecondary planning is one in which counselors-in-training may not receive adequate instruction or supervision (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Foster et al., 2005). With the acceptance of the 2016 CACREP standards revisions, counselor education programs would be required to demonstrate how they assess students’ competencies using data “gathered at multiple points and using multiple measures” (CACREP, 2014, p. 6). Counselor educators must determine how to measure competency in career development throughout their programs. Some programs offer one course in career counseling, development or assessment, while other programs may choose to meet the standards in other ways. While students may gain training experience in career counseling through internship hours at the master’s level, career development is not a required part of the internship experience. Through the use of standardized tests that measure students’ knowledge of career counseling theory (e.g., Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination, National Counselor Examination), counselor education programs would be partially meeting the requirements for CACREP accreditation under the new standards. Testing graduate students on their knowledge of career counseling theory, however, does not provide an indicator of the students’ ability to provide comprehensive career counseling programs upon graduation. Using multiple measures of competency throughout the program may be a more effective way to accurately measure professional skill and readiness to provide career services to students.

A recent review of the counseling and education literature yielded several articles confirming the deficiencies in school counselor training and the increased need for additional competence among school counselors to provide college and career readiness programming to students, including information on financial literacy and the cost of higher education (Belasco, 2013; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Some educators may argue that the standards have been infused throughout their school counselor training program curriculum, yet there is no evidence within the professional literature of a consistent standard of practice. As a result, the question remains: Can counselor educators provide the necessary curriculum and expect that counselors-in-training will retain enough information to be able to provide services competently to students?

The educational recommendations versus the professional expectations imposed upon the school counselor may seem unrealistic, and at times, inappropriate (Brott, 2006; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Foster et al., 2005). An inconsistency between the amount of preparation and the expectations of school counselors’ work roles is apparent (Dodson, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009) and is highlighted in the NOSCA report (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). One might wonder how and where school counselors obtain adequate preparation for their professional roles. The authors in this study attempted to explore and document this information within the context of the schools in which the participants worked. Once again, the need to reform school counselor education programs is evident, and the voices of these counselors may help identify the specific areas in which to begin.



The research questions proposed in this study were addressed using a qualitative research design. A phenomenological research inquiry (Creswell, 2013) was used to assess participants’ experiences, preparedness and perceptions of competency related to career counseling with high school students. The goals of using this approach stem from the core ideals of phenomenological research (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990; Wertz, 2005), which seeks to understand “how human beings make sense of experience and transform experience into consciousness, both individually and as shared meaning” (Patton, 1990, p. 104). Based on the premise that human beings by nature strive for a sense of self in the world of work and the knowledge that they have to use in their work (Crotty, 1998), it was imperative to develop an awareness of the relationship between the data and the participants within the context of the study (McCroskey, 1997; Merriam, 1998). With this goal in mind, participant responses were assessed using the methodological processes of grounded theory, and shared meanings grounded in the data were further derived (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).


Participants were chosen using a purposeful and convenience criteria sampling method (Collins, Onwuegbuzie, & Jiao, 2007), and identified from the first author’s community network of school counselor colleagues located in two Midwestern states. These counselors referred other secondary school counselors in their communities to the current authors for potential participation in the study. To select the participants, the authors previewed a convenience sample of 18 secondary school counselors from urban, suburban and rural public schools. They chose specific participants based on differences in age, ethnicity, gender, number of years of experience as a high school counselor, and those who hold master’s degrees from both CACREP and non-CACREP programs. In an effort to diversify the sample, the authors did not select participants with similar characteristics. The authors directly contacted the identified school counselors, and the nine participants agreed to participate in the study (see Table 1 for identifying characteristics). Each participant and school name was changed to protect identity.


Table 1

School Counselor Participant Information and School Information

Participant Name

Participant Description

Graduate Program

Years of Experience

School Description


White female in her late 20s



Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors

White female in her mid-40s



Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors

White male in his late 50s



High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors

White female in her early 50s



High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors

White male in his early 30s



High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors

White male in his early 60s



Mayfield High School: urban; public; 2058 students; 27% F/R lunch*; 45% White, 39% Black, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 2% American Indian; 5 other counselors

Hispanic female in her late 30s



Ridgemont Jr./Sr. High School: rural; public; 222 students; 54% F/R lunch*; 65% Hispanic, 31% White, 3% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; no other school counselors in building

White female in her early 30s



Bedford High school: rural; public; 645 students; 10% F/R lunch*, 85% White, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; one other counselor

Hispanic female in her early 30s



Hill Valley High School: rural; public; 401 students; 52% Hispanic, 45% White, 2% American Indian, 1% Black, 0% Asian/Pacific Islander; no other counselor in building

 Note. All participant and school information has been changed to protect identities.

*Students receive free or reduced-fee lunch based on household income.


Procedures and Data Collection

As part of the data collection process, a personal audit trail (Merriam, 1998) was utilized to minimize and account for specific feelings or opinions formed by the primary investigator. As a former school counselor, the first author had areas of training, and professional and personal experiences that were similar to, or different from those of the research participants. The journal served as an appropriate place for the primary investigator to document feelings regarding these issues and issues of counselor training.

Merriam (1998) suggested that researchers share a common language with the participants of the study; to that end, in-depth, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews lasting 45–55 minutes were completed. The following nine research questions were asked:

Tell me about your overall experience in your counselor training program.

Tell me about your experiences in that program with regard to instruction you received in career development delivery models with high school students.

How has the training you received in career development prepared you for your work with students?

What type of continuing education training have you received in the area of career development since finishing your degree program?

Describe your level of confidence in your ability to provide students with career development information and guidance.

In what areas, if any, do you feel unsure (or less sure) of the information you are providing?

What would have aided you in attaining competency in career development and postsecondary planning?

How much career counseling did you do during your internship?

How did you see your preparedness in career development in relation to your colleagues’ preparedness?

The first author for the study recorded the interviews electronically and then transcribed or typed the interviews using a traditional word processing program. The information obtained from the transcripts was compiled into one data set, which represents the voices of all nine participants. This author also obtained official transcripts from the participants’ master’s degree programs in school counseling to track the number of courses they took in career counseling and development. The participants provided information regarding the accreditation status of their training program as CACREP or non-CACREP at the time they obtained their degrees. At the conclusion of each interview, the first author immediately moved to another location in order to write initial thoughts (i.e., field notes) regarding any physical or nonverbal responses of the participants. The first author wrote notes in a research journal regarding any personal researcher biases that emerged (Creswell, 2013). The field notes, transcript and program accreditation status served as additional data that were shared with the research team for triangulation purposes, specifically to enrich the data collected during each interview.



Interview data were subjected to a rigorous phenomenological reduction. Also known as bracketing (Husserl, 1977), this is the process of extracting significant statements from the actual, transcribed interviews with the participants. The authors utilized Denzin’s (1989) suggestions to extract statements, including (a) locating the key phrases and statements that speak directly to the phenomenon in question; (b) interpreting the meanings of these phrases as an informed reader; (c) obtaining the subjects’ interpretations of these phrases; (d) inspecting the meanings for what they reveal about the essential, recurring features of the phenomenon being studied; and (e) offering a tentative statement, or definition, of the phenomenon in terms of the essential recurring features (see Figure 1 for steps in analysis process).                    

Figure 1. Interview data steps

A total of 543 significant statements were analyzed and coded for inclusion in the theme-building process (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Curry & Bickmore, 2012). The nine counselors’ statements were then grouped into categories as similarities emerged among them. This process gave each statement equal weight in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made the statement (Patton, 1990). New categories were formed until each statement had been grouped, totaling 17 in all. At the conclusion, the sample was determined rich enough to reach saturation. According to Creswell (2013), saturation occurs when pieces of information are put into categories and the researcher begins to see repetition among the data being categorized.



Once saturation was reached, the first author’s epoche (journal) was utilized to control for bias, and member checking was used to confirm the trustworthiness of the data. The act of member checking includes obtaining confirmation from the participants that the extracted statements from the interviews were accurate and inclusive (Creswell, 2013). Each of the nine participants reviewed their statements via e-mail and confirmed the accuracy and true representation of their thoughts and feelings. Triangulation of the data (i.e., comparing the researcher’s journal to the participants’ verified statements) further confirmed the results. At that point, imaginative variation and thematic reduction were employed to provide an organized, rich description of the participants’ experiences (Creswell, 2013).

Imaginative variation. The process of imaginative variation (Denzin, 1989) asks the researcher to horizontalize the data, or place the extracted significant statements of each participant side by side to compare, group and organize the statements into comprehensive ideas. The first author collected overall themes by physically cutting the statements out and dividing them into groups of similar statements. This process gave “each statement equal weight” in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made a particular statement (Patton, 1990). The deconstructed data set made the meanings of the participants’ stories clearer.

Thematic reduction: School counselor themes. The meanings derived from the counselors’ statements were grouped into common themes. The authors read and examined the counselors’ statements until words or phrases surfaced that represented patterns of feelings or thoughts that were repeated consistently throughout. These common words or phrases were grouped into major thematic areas that represented the collective voice of the participants.



Four themes emerged that indicated school counselors experienced feelings of under-preparedness in helping students plan for postsecondary pursuits, including (a) awareness (subtheme: feelings of incompetence), (b) theory versus reality (subtheme: disconnect of formal education), (c) acquiring competence (subthemes: colleague networks and technology), and (d) training needs (counselor education programs).

Awareness: Incompetence versus competence. Positive or desirable characteristics of a competent school counselor, particularly in the area of career development, were compiled to create a textural portrayal that illustrated the picture of a highly competent school counselor. Collectively, the participants indicated that a competent school counselor would have the following characteristics: (a) the ability to secure accurate information and provide it to students quickly, (b) active membership in state or national school counseling organizations, (c) use of professional networks for professional development, (d) well-maintained connections with students in spite of large caseloads, (e) outreach to marginalized student populations, and (f) personal respect and reflection of the role of a professional school counselor.

When the more specific themes were examined, the counselors described characteristics of the competency levels they possessed; however, they believed they were not living up to self-imposed standards. Most of the counselors’ statements referred to their perceived lack of competency in performing their roles in the schools, as opposed to positive feelings of competency. One of the participants, Vivian, stated, “A kid would come in and I would think, please, let’s talk about suicide or something because I am not so hot in this [career counseling] area.” This counselor considered herself more prepared to assess a student’s risk for self-harm than to help guide him or her toward a career path. Vivian believed that her training had inadequately prepared her, and did not remember what she was supposed to do to help students look beyond high school. She expressed frustration and the need for more tailored training, specifically on how to deliver comprehensive career and postsecondary planning curricula. Another participant, Noah, stated, “I am sure those kids know way more what their plans are going to be and what their options are than I do, and that is not the way it is supposed to work. It is something that I should know.” This counselor had become aware that he lacked the skills necessary to work with students, and his perceived helplessness prevented him from being engaged in the process. This school counselor needed resources to fill the gap and help him reach his students.

Theory versus reality. Throughout the dialogue with the participants, one common thread was that the formal instruction and implementation suggestions from their graduate training were inadequate. One participant, Noah, strongly voiced his concern with these training deficiencies by stating, “I don’t feel like I had enough [career training], it goes back to . . . well, they gave us theories. I did not get any specifics on how to use them.” Another counselor, Alan, stated, “We had a very good understanding of the theoretical [career counseling] model. It was very lacking in how to convey it to the kids or how you work with kids. This is where I think it came up short.” The voices of all the participants reflected this type of statement. Some of the participants believed that they had been introduced to career counseling theory and some assessment tools; however, they noted that they had not received sufficient instruction on how to apply these concepts when working with students. In addition, none of the participants were able to recall a particular standard for career assessment or planning for secondary school counseling that they might use as a guide when working in the schools.

Colleague networks. In order to combat the noted deficiencies, participants reported forming both formal and informal networks with other colleagues to gain competence in the area of career development. Noah stated, “Luckily I had a friend or two . . . who were good counselors and . . . I learned a lot from them.” The idea of learning how to create and implement career development programming on the job resonated throughout the participants. Diane stated, “I still know that at any time I can call somebody who will know something,” and Vivian said, “Thank God for other counselors because I wouldn’t know where to start.” The importance of colleague networks to the perceived competency of each counselor was made apparent by all the participants, not just the ones represented here. They seemed to rely on one another most often to supplement the gaps in information, more so than consulting other resources available to them.

Utilizing technology. The school counselors made numerous statements regarding the use of technology at their jobs. They mentioned the use of specific programs, and the consensus seemed to reflect that everyone used computer technology in some capacity. Some counselors believed that particular programs purchased by their districts were not useful to them, while others pointed to the use of computers as a resource for gaining competency in providing career development counseling to their students. Vivian stated, “We finally decided to go with the . . . [career development online program], which now has been probably the most used resource by our kids, by our staff, and by the counseling office simply because it is so easily accessible.” Alan also noted the following:

We got it [the online career development program] not only for the kids . . . but for the parents, the community, PR, and making ourselves a viable part of their development. . . . This has been a big plus for us because it forces contact with every kid in an easy, very positive type conference.

A third participant, Kimberly, recalled, “I can point them in the right direction now. The computer is so much easier and the students respond to it.”

The technology-based career development programs appeared to be used more readily by the counselors than any other counseling tool. Some of the benefits of technology-based programs include the following: Students can access information independently (autonomy), students can access career information from any computer at the school or from their homes (accessibility), and counselors can provide answers to students’ questions quickly (time-sensitivity). The computer-based, Internet programs gave confidence to the counselors that the information was up-to-date and accurate. They used the computer and Internet-based programs to work more efficiently and provide students with consistent, research-based career development programming. This resource provided school counselors with confidence where they lacked it prior to using these tools.

Training needs. Participants were forthcoming about what they needed; for example, they would have benefited from specialized training prior to starting their roles as professional school counselors. Throughout the interviews, the counselors interjected their dissatisfaction with their preparedness upon completing their master’s degree programs, to varying degrees. Interestingly, the statements grouped into the training needs category were not gathered in response to a particular question, but rather as they naturally occurred throughout the interviews. Even the participants who stated they were satisfied with their training overall offered suggestions for improving school counselor training programs based on their unique experiences in the field.

Vanessa stated the following:

I think as school counselors, the counseling part one-on-one we see once [in] awhile, but it is geared more towards career and preparing the kids. . . . I think one thing that would have helped me a lot was maybe having college recruiters or admission counselors come into the class and talk about what they look for on an application or in essay questions. I think that would have helped me help my seniors this year.

Similarly, Diane said that it would have been helpful to know “just the day-to-day what does a career counseling program look like or what does a career counseling program in a high school look like?” Other participants did not identify specific training areas that would have helped them; but they acknowledged that continuing education was necessary based on what was provided in their graduate programs. Kimberly reflected, “I would say that out of the 75 kids that we have [grades] 9–12, I would say maybe 20% have a skill that they can use if they were to drop out of school. It is one area that I am really not comfortable in right now.” School counselors carry the responsibility to prepare students for post-graduation, but how they accomplish this task is left to the specific counselor, school or school district.

Jane’s statement reflects her desire for more specific training curricula:

I think that training programs hopefully will evolve and will begin to become more specialized . . . it [career development] is definitely an area that needs more than one class. Three credit hours when 55 are required? It is probably one of the most important things for school counselors to know.

Few counselors echoed this call for more coursework, but specialized training in and out of the classroom was seen as a necessary part of gaining competency for all participants. While a number of the participants were passionate about the idea of increasing training in career development within counseling training programs, the collective voice of the counselors’ statements demonstrated the variety of struggles and frustrations the participants encountered, and still encounter, along the way.



The purpose of this study was to understand how school counselors view their roles, and how they understand and deliver career counseling curricula to students. Nine counselors made statements consistent with feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in their ability to provide adequate career development programming to their students, as well as unpreparedness upon completion of their counselor education programs. The findings are consistent with the reviewed literature, given that even those counselors who made positive statements regarding their overall experiences in their programs clearly reflected uncertainty regarding their competence level in career development in general (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; McDonough, 2005), but especially in how to deliver useful career programs to students (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 2010). The particular training programs that these counselors completed to obtain licensure differed. Additionally, the secondary data collected from participants (i.e., CACREP vs. non-CACREP degree programs) indicate that accreditation and the completion of a course in career theory and application appear irrelevant regarding the participants’ perceptions of overall competency.

The authors noticed that the agitation in the counselors’ voices subsided when they discussed the steps they took to gain competency in this area. For some participants, it was a friendly colleague who showed them the way it had always been done, or the discovery of a new online resource that helped them quickly provide answers to their students’ questions. The counselors identified specific strategies that they used to improve their competency, but said that they relied heavily on their professional networks for support.

The three urban counselors reported that they were more prepared than their colleagues were in terms of providing career development programming that utilized technology. The three rural and three suburban counselors believed that they were close to or at the same level of competency as their colleagues. Additionally, all three urban counselors believed that funding or political obstacles within their respective districts prevented their success. Some participants also noted that they relied on technology because it had been purchased by their schools and was the only resource available. For a number of the participants, the isolation and lack of connection to other counselors furthered their sense of frustration and disconnectedness.

Participants employed professional mentoring and consultation in some cases; however, these counselors reported that they utilized informal, personal networking extensively. They described these relationships as casual, question-and-answer partnerships. These relationships were not formally structured with specific goals as in mentoring relationships, but rather were formed out of necessity for team building and information sharing among colleagues. The counselors valued these contacts more than any other resource they had acquired since completion of their degree programs.

The big picture of what it means to be a competent school counselor resonated loudly through the voices of the participants. They uniformly reported that despite their struggle to achieve competency, there was an overarching sense that their efforts were not enough. The counselors’ feelings of incompetence in the area of career development significantly impacted their ability to address the needs of students. The quiet desperation resonating in their statements magnified their perceptions of how they lacked what they needed to help prepare students for life after high school. School counselors have an understanding of who they would like to be in the schools, but oftentimes they believe they fall short (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Many school counselors lack the confidence or competence to navigate the college counseling process effectively, thus leading to overall perceptions of incompetence in career development (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert 2014).

The lack of competency in career development that these school counselors expressed may imply that a certain degree of insecurity and real or perceived incompetence are expected when one starts out in the field. However, if the degree of preparedness among these participants is at all representative, it may indicate that more focus on career development practice is needed in counselor education programs. According to Hill (2012), it is important to emphasize counselor-initiated strategies for college and career readiness interventions­­—something this group of school counselors found challenging. Addressing this need is a critical issue for school counselor educators as they design training curricula and experiences. Again, participants stated that they had received valuable information in their programs regarding the specifics of what career development is, but not how to use it with students. The missing link between knowledge and know-how for these counselors is palpable. School counselor educators and supervisors must take note and develop career counseling curricula that address the needs of their counselors-in-training, as well as the needs of the future students they will serve.



As a result of the information obtained from this study and with the support of the NOSCA report and other studies published in recent years, a need clearly exists for career development training standards to be integrated into graduate programs for school counselors (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Specifically, counselor educators may adequately identify deficiencies in the overall training model by isolating the differences between anticipated transitions, role adoption and professional development. Participants in the present study believe that they and future school counselors would benefit from a more applied, community-based experience, much like the professional development schools model suggested by Clark and Horton-Parker (2002), and a standard of practice to better serve their students.

The plan outlined by NOSCA includes implementing a process by which all secondary school counselors follow a set of standards while working with students on college readiness from academic, social and career perspectives (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Ideally, these standards would be consistent among school counselors across the country to ensure all students access to adequate college preparation and postsecondary planning. Graduate-level courses offered in the form of additional electives, such as counseling the college-bound student or career and technical education, would provide opportunities for growth in areas not currently available in most graduate counseling programs. In response to the growing need for high school counselor competency in postsecondary planning, some states are now offering an additional licensure endorsement for school counselors; for example, in Colorado, school counselors complete two graduate-level courses already offered within CACREP programs (i.e., individual counseling, career development) and one additional two-credit course in career and technical education, offered through the Colorado Community College System. Upon completion of the three courses, school counselors may then apply for the additional endorsement in career and technical education (Colorado Department of Education, 2014). This effort supports the Common Core Curriculum implementation in Colorado and many other states where school counselors are now expected to provide academic advising to directly reflect their students’ career cluster interests.

With the recent passing of the Langevin-Thompson Amendment to the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10, 2014), school counselors working in charter schools will now be asked to provide documentation of their comprehensive career counseling programs in order for schools to obtain priority status when applying for federal funding. This movement, which currently applies only to charter schools, may begin to find its way into all public school funding requests, thus making career counseling curriculum development and implementation a priority for all school counselors. With the support of ASCA, the Association for Career and Technical Education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, this movement will continue to grow, and the need for well-trained school counselors who are able to provide comprehensive career counseling programs will increase.



In this study, the authors used several measures in order to preserve the internal validity of the study, such as researcher epoche, triangulation and member checking. In keeping with the tradition of qualitative research, the participants were not studied in isolation but in environments in which the studied phenomenon continues to occur. It is safe to assume that the participants’ statements were not without bias, because few inquiries involving human interactions and perceptions are without bias. The authors selected nine participants from a convenience sample of high school counselors from rural, suburban and urban areas within two Midwestern states in the United States. The relationship of the counselors to the first author, although limited, may have reflected a need to please or demonstrate competency where little may have existed. Despite the limitations of the study, the findings contribute to the literature regarding school counselors’ perceptions of their abilities to effectively deliver career counseling programs. Also, the findings further emphasize the need to reform the training methods through which school counselors provide college and career readiness services to students.



Given the results of this study, it would be negligent to ignore the possibility that school counselors may be placed in positions with less than adequate training in career development. Counselor education programs have an obligation to prepare school counselors in more role-specific areas (e.g., college and career readiness), given that the national average ratio of students to school counselor is 471:1, which is well above ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250:1 ( Doing more with less has always been a challenge for school leaders, and preparing school counselors more effectively to meet the needs of their students may empower a new generation of counselors to lead students into the 21st century workforce.

The authors acknowledge that this particular study includes only the voices of nine school counselors; however, their voices loudly echo NOSCA’s findings and support the need for school counselor standardization of practice in promoting, teaching and facilitating career and postsecondary planning for all students (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Currently, most school counselor education programs do not highlight this area, yet this area represents the very heart of school counseling services at the secondary level. ASCA (2012) has deemed this area important enough to provide school counselors with standards with which to guide their daily activities, but training programs offer limited exposure to actual planning and implementation of career services. This study exposes a disconnection between training and practice standards in school counselor education, which has led to feelings of incompetence and discouragement in these nine school counselors. Regardless of how the counselors compensate for this lack of training, this phenomenon exists. Whether they graduated from CACREP or non-CACREP programs, all of the participants in this study believed that they were equally incompetent in providing career development programming to students. Therefore, future CACREP standards and ASCA Model revisions, as well as state credentialing boards, must include guidelines by which school counselors are trained, specifically reflecting their appropriate job duties and responsibilities in college and career readiness programming. Future school counselors may be better equipped to address the needs of their students, parents and communities if this area of training is expanded and integrated as an essential component of counselor education programs.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of  interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.



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Leann Wyrick Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Mary Ellen Greenwaldt is a family case worker for Licking County Job and Family Services, Children Services Division, in Newark, OH. Kevin P. Gosselin is an associate professor and assistant dean of research at Texas A&M Health Sciences Center. Correspondence can be addressed to Leann Wyrick Morgan, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, College of Education, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918,

Understanding Military Culture: A Guide for Professional School Counselors

Rebekah F. Cole

School counselors must be knowledgeable about military culture in order to help military students and their families in a culturally competent manner. This article explores the nature of this unique culture, which is often unfamiliar to educators, including its language, hierarchy, sense of rules and regulations, self-expectations and self-sacrifice. Specific suggestions, such as professional development, self-examination and cultural immersion experiences, are provided so that professional school counselors can increase their multicultural competence when working with this population. Finally, a case study illustrates the challenges associated with this culture and implications for school counselors in regard to increasing cultural competence when working with military families are discussed. 

Keywords: military, school counselors, families, culture, cultural competence

The professional school counselor is called to be a culturally competent practitioner (Holcomb-McCoy & Chen-Hayes, 2011). The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) position statement on cultural diversity emphasizes that school counselors should work for the success of all students from all cultures (ASCA, 2009). Overall, school counselors should work to develop their self-awareness, knowledge and skills when it comes to working with students from diverse cultures (Remley & Herlihy, 2014).

While other cultures have been explored in-depth in the professional school counseling literature (Bradley, Johnson, Rawls, & Dodson-Sims, 2005; Byrd & Hays, 2012; Smith-Adcock, Daniels, Lee, Villalba, & Indelicato, 2006; Yeh, 2001), military culture has not. Military culture is often unfamiliar to educators (Atuel, Esqueda, & Jacobson, 2011) who encounter military students and their families regularly. Every school district in the United States has a child who is in some way connected with the military, and 80% of all military children attend public schools (Military Child Education Coalition, 2014). Therefore, it is essential for school counselors to be knowledgeable in navigating military culture in order to support military students and their family members in their schools (Luby, 2012; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014).

Overall, military culture is a unique one (Luby, 2012) that presents distinctive challenges for its service members and their family members (Brown & Lettieri, 2008; Gooddale, Abb, & Moyer, 2012). While the military itself can be viewed as a profession, the military extends into the service members’ personal realms as well, affecting everyday lifestyle as well as the lifestyle of family members (Cozza & Lerner, 2013).


Visible and Invisible Aspects of Culture

While strategies for working with military children and their families during deployments have been investigated in the professional literature (Allen & Staley, 2007; Cole, 2012; Robertson, 2007), this article explores military culture in order to help increase the school counselor’s knowledge and awareness. McAuliffe (2013), citing the metaphor of an iceberg, encouraged counselors to explore both the visible (above water) and invisible (below water) aspects of culture. Culture that is most easily observed by outsiders, like the tip of an iceberg above water, is considered surface culture (McAuliffe, 2013). Culture which is not observed by outsiders, like the larger part of the iceberg under the water, is considered either shallow culture or deep culture (McAuliffe, 2013). Shallow and deep culture correspond to more intense emotional experiences that may require extensive counseling services and support from the school counselor (The Iceberg Concept of Culture, n.d.; McAuliffe, 2013).

The present author seeks to inform the school counselor about the nature of surface, shallow and deep cultural aspects of the military and provide implications for school counselor practice. In order to fully describe the nature of military culture and its meaning for military students and their family members, this article begins with an exploration of the surface-level aspects of military culture (language, hierarchy, sense of rules and regulations) and then progressively explores the more emotionally intense shallow and deep aspects of military culture (self-expectations and self-sacrifice). Finally, this article presents a case study that illustrates a professional school counselor’s culturally competent approach to working with a military student.



The first area of military culture explored in this article is language, which is a visible, surface-level aspect of the military lifestyle. Encountering military culture has been compared to navigating a foreign country, with its language an important aspect of this navigation (Huebner, 2013; National Military Family Association, 2014). Each of the five military branches has its own set of terms and acronyms that relate to job title, position, location, services, time and resources for military service members and their families (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014). Each military branch also has its own set of moral codes (Kuehner, 2013) such as honor, courage and strength, which affect the service member’s personal and professional outlook (Luby, 2012). Learning and understanding the language embedded in military culture is essential for professional school counselors in order to remove any communication barriers between the school counselor and family members (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014).



Hierarchy is another important visible, surface-level cultural aspect of the military community. Rank and order are rigid in the military, with service members expected to show respect for and compliance with their superiors (Martins & Lopes, 2012). This authoritarian structure may be mimicked in the military family’s home life as well (Hall, 2008). Overall, a service member’s rank determines how much is earned financially (Huebner, 2013; Luby, 2012), how much education is provided, the level of access to resources (Hall, 2008) and the expected amount of responsibility (U.S. Department of Defense, 2014). The service member’s rank impacts the family members’ identity and sense of self, as the family identifies with their position in the military community (Drummet, Coleman, & Cable, 2003). School counselors should be aware that rank may influence not only the family’s economic level, but their stress level as well, as it may determine the length and frequency of the service member’s deployments (Luby, 2012).


Sense of Rules and Regulations

Moving deeper beyond the visible culture, military culture embodies a strong sense of rules and restrictions, as there are clearly defined rules and expectations for military service members and their families, including etiquette guidelines for spouses and children regarding dress, mannerisms and behavior in public (U.S. Army War College, 2011). Military families are directed where to live, when they can travel and with whom they can socialize. Additionally, higher ranking service members receive authority over the family’s personal life. For example, if a child is misbehaving in school or if the family is experiencing financial difficulties, the service member’s superiors may become involved (Gooddale et al., 2012). Failure to abide by rules and expectations may result in expulsion from the military (Kuehner, 2013).



Another invisible aspect of military culture on a more intense emotional level are the expectations that military service members and their families hold for themselves. Today’s military is a volunteer force, and service members freely join the military lifestyle (Hall, 2008). For these military members willingly serving their country, the concept of warrior ethos is prevalent in the military community, as both military members and family members take a sense of pride in their ability to overcome challenges on their own (Hall, 2008; Huebner, 2013). Military culture also promotes the notion of strength and emotional control (Halvorson, 2010), which in turn propels a fear of appearing weak (Huebner, 2013), especially in regard to mental health (Danish & Antonides, 2013; Dingfelder, 2009). School counselors should recognize that this pride may impede the military family members’ sense of comfort seeking assistance.



Imbedded deeper within military culture is the notion of self-sacrifice. Guided by the ideal that the individual is secondary to the unit (Hickman, n.d.), military family members face numerous deployments, relocations and separation from each other (Park, 2011). These challenges are expected and anticipated, as they are a constant reality for military families (Military One Source, 2014) in times of war and peace (Park, 2011). For example, the deployment cycle is continuous, affecting family members as they prepare for, experience and reunite after the deployment (Military One Source, 2014). In the midst of these challenges, over half of military family members have reported that they are satisfied with the military lifestyle (U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, 2005), emphasizing their commitment to routinely facing and overcoming challenges.


Cultural Implications for School Counselors


Self-awareness is an important aspect of increasing one’s multicultural competence and knowledge (Holcomb-McCoy & Chen-Hayes, 2011; Remley & Herlihy, 2014). School counselors should first explore their own perceptions and experiences related to the military in order to become more aware of any biases or preconceptions that may affect their work with military families. Questions for reflection might include: What are my perceptions of war? What are my own political beliefs regarding the military and war? Who in my family has served in the military and what is my relationship like with this person.

Professional Development

Seeking ongoing education is essential for school counselors to become multiculturally knowledgeable and competent as they work with military students and their families (Holcomb-McCoy, 2005; Holcomb-McCoy & Chen-Hayes, 2011). This education might come in the form of workshops or seminars regarding best practices for working with military families (Holcomb-McCoy & Chen-Hayes, 2011). If these opportunities are not easily accessible, school counselors might utilize educational resources through organizations such as The National Military Family Association or Military Families United, or through webinars focused specifically on counseling knowledge and techniques related to working with military families (ASCA, 2014). School counselors should be familiar with current professional literature related to best practices in working with military families so that they can understand and adapt these practices in their work with military families (Holcomb-McCoy & Chen-Hayes, 2011).

Cultural Immersion

In order for a school counselor to learn more about the nature of military culture, especially in regard to its language, the counselor might more fully encounter the military community (Alexander, Kruczek, & Ponterotto, 2005; Díaz-Lázaro & Cohen, 2001). For example, the counselor could volunteer on a military base and interact with military families, thereby gaining a better understanding of the challenges they face related to their culture. The school counselor also might partner with a military organization such as a Fleet and Family Support Center or the United Service Organization in order to experience military culture and lifestyle. Finally, a school counselor could attend military ceremonies or events that are open to the public in order to experience the rituals and to hear the language associated with military culture.

Culturally Competent Practice

Having acquired knowledge of military culture, school counselors should focus on culturally relevant interventions for working with military family members. School counselors might capitalize on the collective, teamwork mindset of military family members and build partnerships with them to enhance their child’s success in school, working to break down resistance that the family may feel toward receiving counseling services and support (Bryan, 2005; Cole, 2012). Learning the military language and becoming familiar with the military’s visible and invisible cultural norms constitute an important aspect of unconditional positive regard and support. School counselors also should focus on the strengths of military families as they affirm their potential to overcome challenges in their daily lives (Myers & Sweeney, 2008). Culturally competent school counselors likewise work to promote the sense of self-efficacy in military students and family members, equipping them with the tools and resources they need to be successful academically, socially and emotionally (Zimmerman, 2000). Finally, school counselors should support military family members in their choice of and commitment to making sacrifices, providing them with needed emotional support as they work to overcome the challenges of the military lifestyle.

Case Study

The following case study provides an example of a military child who is struggling emotionally, socially and academically in a school setting. This student’s challenges reflect the stressors that military students and their families experience within military culture and lifestyle. Following the case study, the author will provide suggestions for how a professional school counselor might approach this student and his family in a culturally competent manner.

Justin was a 9-year-old elementary school student at Freedom Elementary School. This school was located next to a large military base and mainly served military students who lived in nearby base housing complexes. Justin’s father was in the Navy and had recently left for a 9-month deployment. Justin lived with his mother and two younger sisters, ages 2 and 3. Justin’s father was a high-ranking sailor who would be considered for promotion the next year. He had served in the Navy for 15 years and was eager to advance to a higher rank.

Justin’s teachers referred him to the school counselor because his grades had dropped. They reported that Justin appeared to become easily and visibly frustrated during math class, so much so that he often broke his pencil and began to cry. When Justin’s teachers tried to help him, he assured them that nothing was wrong and denied any feelings of anger or frustration. Justin’s teachers reported that socially, Justin was friendly with several of his classmates who lived in his neighborhood, but seemed aloof during lunchtime and recess. He preferred to work individually in the classroom and showed signs of resistance when assigned group tasks. Justin’s teachers contacted his mother, but she assured them that he was doing fine at home and would be “a good kid” at school as well.

When the school counselor invited Justin into her office to assess his situation, Justin proudly reported that his father had left him “in charge” of the family while he was away. Justin told her about his father’s ship and his important job in keeping the other sailors safe during the deployment. When the school counselor gently inquired about Justin’s frustration in the classroom, he stated that he wanted to do well in school to please his father, who expected him to receive good grades. When he did not know the answers to his math problems, he became angry with himself. Justin then asked the school counselor not to tell his mother about his feelings of frustration and anger because he did not want to “bother” her with his problems. He was accustomed to hearing her crying at night and sometimes slept with her so that she would not have to be alone. Justin also worried about appearing strong to his classmates, many of whom had parents who worked with and for his father.

A culturally competent school counselor should recognize several cultural factors affecting Justin’s well-being related to his family’s military lifestyle. First, even at this young age, Justin carried a strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice, seeing himself as a warrior in battle (Hickman, n.d.). Like many service members and their families, Justin also had high self-expectations (Halvorson, 2010), as he wanted to perform academically to please his father. Another military cultural factor affecting his well-being is that Justin seemed to resist help from his teachers, asserting his independence and attempting to demonstrate an appearance of wellness for his classmates and his mother, for whom he assumed emotional responsibility (Hall, 2008; Huebner, 2013). Even in the midst of these struggles, similar to other service members and their families who proudly persist in the midst of challenges, Justin professed pride in his father’s work and role in the military and hoped to see his father continue successfully in his career path (U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, 2005).

After listening to Justin talk about his self-expectations and the emotional and social challenges he faced, the school counselor asked Justin if he would like to meet with her each week to talk more about these issues. The school counselor told Justin that she also would observe him in his classroom to check on his progress and to see how she can better help him. However, she would do so under the premise that she was observing the class as a whole, so that his classmates would be unaware of her true purpose there. She explained to Justin the tenet of confidentiality and how his classmates would be unaware that he was visiting her office on a regular basis (Linde, 2011). Justin seemed relieved at her suggestion and eagerly agreed to talk with her further.


Suggestions for School Counselors

When counseling Justin individually, using appropriate military terminology (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014), a professional school counselor should first work to build rapport in order to explore his feelings. As a military child, Justin should be affirmed and thanked for his role in his father’s deployment and his efforts to comfort his mother.

In order to address his difficulties in the classroom, the school counselor can equip Justin with anger management or self-soothing techniques to use when frustrated. In addition, the school counselor can focus on increasing Justin’s leadership qualities and abilities, which are a key aspect of military culture. This focus on leadership development has been found to help in building anger management skills and behavioral self-efficacy in children and adolescents (Burt, Patel, & Lewis, 2012). In order to further decrease his frustration in the classroom, the school counselor can provide areas of academic support for Justin, such as a tutor in the community (Bryan & Holcomb-McCoy, 2007). The school counselor should finally explore Justin’s feelings of missing his father as the family progresses through the stages of deployment, as well as his feelings of worry about his mother (Cole, 2012). Throughout these conversations, the school counselor can show respect for the military ideals that Justin professes, encouraging him to hold reasonable self-expectations and to take pride in his desire to succeed in school.

The school counselor also can partner with Justin’s mother during the deployment. Affirming her strengths and the warrior ethos that she too may carry, the school counselor might offer Justin’s mother support in terms of resources in the community that she might find helpful during this time (Bryan, 2005). After building rapport with her, the school counselor can encourage the mother to seek individual counseling or support groups to help with any emotional issues related to the absence of her husband, explaining the importance of her social and emotional functioning to the social and emotional functioning of her children (Chandra et al., 2010; Gibbs, Martin, Kupper, & Johnson, 2007). If Justin’s mother expresses concerns over confidentiality and fears endangering her husband’s upcoming promotion due to the appearance of weakness within the family, a common concern in the military community, the school counselor can work with Justin’s mother to find resources outside the military community or in a geographically remote area (Danish & Antonides, 2013; Dingfelder, 2009).

In addition to supporting her emotionally, the school counselor might consider empowering Justin’s mother’s role as a parent as she cares for her young children during the deployment. She might educate Justin’s mother on the stages of deployment and how she might best help her children move through each of these stages (Cole, 2012). Finally, the school counselor might encourage and facilitate open communication between Justin and his mother so that they can express their feelings to one another. Justin’s mother should be aware of his struggles so that she can work to support him during the time of separation from his father (Dollarhide & Saginak, 2012).



As seen in Justin’s case, a great need exists for culturally competent school counselors to support our military families (Brown & Lettieri, 2008; Gooddale et al., 2012). School counselors should be knowledgeable about military culture so that they can successfully support military families in overcoming the challenges that they face (Luby, 2012; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014). Once school counselors are able to understand and navigate this unique culture, both the visible and invisible aspects, they will heed the call of providing equitable services to all students and their families (ASCA, 2009).



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of  interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.




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Rebekah F. Cole, NCC, is a core faculty member in the school counseling program at Capella University. Correspondence may be addressed to PSC 809 Box 2515 FPO, AE 09626-0026,

Smiles from the Heart: Humanistic Counseling Considerations for Fathers of Sons with Asperger’s Disorder

Michael D. Hannon

This exploratory, qualitative study analyzed the narratives of four fathers of sons with Asperger’s disorder, a form of autism, as they described the rewards, challenges and coping strategies associated with their lived experience. The author identified participants via a typical case sampling method; collected data with one-time, semistructured interviews; and utilized emergent theme analysis to highlight themes across the fathers’ narratives. Fathers identified finding a clear communication system with their sons as most rewarding, behavioral issues with their sons as most challenging, and acceptance of their sons’ condition as a coping strategy. Implications for humanistic counseling practice and future research are presented.

Keywords: fathers, autism, Asperger’s disorder, rewards, coping


The counseling profession has long embraced concepts of humanism in theory and in practice. Rogers (1957, 1961) articulated within the six necessary and sufficient conditions for counseling that counselors should seek to understand the lived experiences of their clients. According to Mize (2003), a primary tenet of humanistic counseling is the belief that clients actively assign meaning to their experiences. Scholl, McGowan, and Hansen (2012) wrote that “humanistic practices and approaches to counseling . . . may be understood as those that highlight relating to people in empathic, respectful, and growth-producing ways” (p. 7).

There is a greater need for counselors to understand the experiences of parents of children with autism as the diagnosis rates of these disorders increase (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2014). Counselors whose orientations integrate behavioral interventions (e.g., cognitive-behavioral interventions, solution-focused interventions, rational emotive behavioral interventions) help parents use strategies to address the behavioral symptomology of autism in their children. Humanistic counseling interventions (e.g., narrative interventions, person-centered interventions) offer clients an opportunity to share their stories in an effort to develop self-capacities, stimulate change and be empowered when confronted with normative stressors of this experience (Rogers, 1986). The purpose of this exploratory study was to gain a more in-depth understanding of how fathers describe the rewards and challenges of raising their children with autism, and to report coping strategies for the challenges they have in common. Findings from the study help begin the process of using empirically based evidence to better understand the experiences of fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder, a specific form of autism, which informs interventions for these fathers should they seek counseling support. The findings also can provide direction for the designs of future studies investigating related topics.


Literature Review

Seligman and Darling (2007) reported that there are not enough studies of fathers of children with disabilities, and one must draw conclusions about these fathers’ adjustment cautiously. The majority of empirical research on fathers of children with autism has focused on three related and specific areas regarding fathers’ (a) reported stress levels, (b) feelings of stigma and (c) coping strategies (Hannon, 2013; Canary, 2008; DeMarle & le Roux, 2001; Dyson, 2010; Flippin & Crais, 2011; Gerstein, Crnic, Blacher, & Baker, 2009; Gray, 2002, 2003; Green, 2003; Hartley et al., 2010; Hartley, Barker, Seltzer, Greenberg, & Floyd, 2011; Meyer, 1995; Nixon & Cummings, 1999; Reichman, Corman, & Noonan, 2008; Rodrigue, Morgan, and Geffken, 1992; Seligman & Darling, 2007; Smith & Elder, 2010; Trute, Hiebert-Murphy, & Levine, 2007; Watzlawik & Clodius, 2011). It is important to note that most of these studies are not exclusive to fathers. The studies attempted to measure effects of autism on parent relationships, compare parent assessments, or compare effects between autism and other disabilities. A review of the literature for this study yielded only three empirical studies since 2000 that focused solely on fathers’ reported experiences (Hannon, 2013; Gray, 2002, 2003). Even with these limitations, the current literature does offer insight into the experience of fathers of children with autism and provides a starting point for additional empirical studies to specifically investigate fathers’ experiences with this phenomenon. Intentionally investigating the lived experiences of fathers—by using increasingly diverse methodological traditions—is important because of fathers’ historic and current roles in the family and influence on their children’s development.


Fathers of Children with Disabilities

The transition to fatherhood affects men’s mental health. This experience is even more pronounced for fathers of children with disabilities. Studies have documented that fathers of children with disabilities respond to stress differently, interpret experiences differently and cope differently from mothers of children with disabilities (Garfield, Isacco, & Bartlo, 2011; Guzzo, 2011; Chin, Daiches, & Hall, 2011; Shezifi, 2004). It is appropriate to consider how childhood disability can affect the family life cycle and to share research associated with the experience of fathering children with disabilities, and specifically autism.


Theoretical Framework: Disability and the Family Life Cycle

One way to understand the impact of disability on the family is to consider the situation through a family systems lens. Carter and McGoldrick’s (2005) family life cycle theory offers a family systems theoretical framework that captures the ways a childhood disability might both enrich and cause the family stress at different times. Carter and McGoldrick (2005) articulated six stages within the family life cycle, all requiring some emotional transition and possessing the potential for stress, which the authors refer to as vertical and horizontal stressors. Vertical stressors are family memories, traditions and expectations passed down through generations (e.g., family attitudes, expectations, taboos). Vertical stressors represent how individual family members respond to experiences based on a collective family identity and constructions of what is or is not acceptable. In contrast, a family experiences horizontal stressors over time as they cope with and adjust to the transitions in the family life cycle. Horizontal stressors can be predictable (e.g., young adults leaving home for education or career) or unpredictable (e.g., untimely death). The combination of vertical and horizontal stressors influence functioning based on a number of factors that include but are not limited to economic resources, community resources and coping strategies. The experience of becoming a father can be considered a horizontal stressor based on the normative social, emotional and familial changes associated with the transition (McGoldrick & Carter, 2003).


Autism’s Influence on Fathers

The CDC reported in March 2014 that approximately one in 68 children living in the United States is diagnosed with autism, and that diagnosis rates have been on the rise in recent years (CDC, 2014). Counselors in various settings (e.g., schools, rehabilitation centers, community agencies) have confronted the individual and ecological effects of the increase in diagnoses. The term autism generally encompasses a range of more specific autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), referred to as pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs) in the text revision of the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). PDDs are considered Axis I diagnoses in the DSM-IV-TR, and described as being “. . . characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development: reciprocal social interaction skills, communication skills, or the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities” (APA, 2000, p. 69).

When data were collected for this study (September–October 2011), the professional counseling community was employing the DSM-IV-TR. However, since the 2013 publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are new and revised diagnoses and associated diagnostic criteria for what is now considered autism spectrum disorder. One major change was the incorporation of previously separate autism diagnoses (e.g., autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, child disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) and the categorization of symptoms as severe, moderate or mild. Therefore, while Asperger’s disorder is not listed as a specific diagnosis in the DSM-5, individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder would be considered to have autism spectrum disorder or autism, with severe, moderate or mild symptoms. The specific diagnosis influences treatment interventions that counselors, speech therapists, occupational therapists and other specially trained helping professionals may deliver. While some research has documented effective interventions or support for family members caring for children with autism, a significant amount of research has illuminated how families adjust to the diagnosis.

Stress, coping and stigma. An abundance of research exists on how children’s disabilities influence the experiences of their parents and typically developing siblings. A comparatively small amount of research has investigated how children’s disabilities specifically affect their fathers (Atkins, 1991; Barr & McLeod, 2010; Barr, McLeod, & Daniel, 2008; Canary, 2008; Dyson, 2010; DeMarle & le Roux, 2001; Gerstein et al., 2009; Green, 2003; Hannon, 2013; Iriarte & Ibarrola-García, 2010; Meyer, 1995; Nixon & Cummings, 1999; Reichman et al., 2008; Ross & Cuskelly, 2006; Seligman & Darling, 2007; Smith & Elder, 2010; Trute et al., 2007; Watzlawik & Clodius, 2011). Childhood disability places a horizontal stressor on families, challenging them to confront their own assumptions and beliefs about people with disabilities, and to adjust to the stress (i.e., vertical stressor) associated with the experience. The level of stress that families experience can be influenced by the type and severity of disability and contextual influences that might support or stigmatize disabilities. With autism diagnosis rates continuing to increase, special attention from the health care and science communities has yielded a deeper and broader understanding of autism including etiology, symptomology and effective interventions.

Normative responses to the stressors of raising children with autism can include mourning, stigma and partner/marital adjustment (Seligman & Darling, 2007). Another stressor for parents is the social challenges (e.g., peer interactions) that children with autism confront. Davis and Carter (2008) found that fathers experienced stress particularly about their children’s externalizing problems (e.g., interpersonal/behavioral challenges), whereas mothers were more concerned about their children’s ability to regulate their emotions. In a study measuring the interaction effects between stressors, social support, locus of control, coping styles and negative outcomes in parents of children with autism, Dunn, Burbine, Bowers, and Tantleff-Dunn (2001) found that fathers were more inclined to engage in escape/avoidant coping styles in response to stress. This type of response increased feelings of depression and isolation and predicted problems between parents.

In a comparative study of 60 fathers of children with autism, children with Down syndrome and typically developing children (20/group), Rodrigue et al. (1992) found that fathers of children with autism and Down syndrome reported more negative effects on their families than those in the comparison group and reported more avoidant coping strategies than other fathers, and that fathers of girls with autism reported lower levels of social support. These types of comparisons are useful because they place fathering children with autism within the context of the fathers raising the children. The findings seem consistent with more general studies of parents, but offer more specific implications about how gender may influence how fathers make meaning of their experiences. Hartley, Seltzer, Head, and Abbeduto’s (2012) study measuring the psychological well-being of 240 fathers of adolescents and young adults with autism, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome found that fathers of children with autism reported higher depressive symptoms than fathers in the comparison groups, and that factors contributing to between-group differences in well-being included father’s age, extent of child’s behavior problems, presence of additional children with disabilities and maternal depressive symptoms. Two major limitations from this study include sample (majority of sample was college-educated, White men) and no reporting of the specific autism diagnosis.

Gray’s (2003) study illuminated how gender differences in coping occur. However, one of the study’s limitations is that it fails to provide any subsequent discussion on the influence that parents’ respective coping strategies have on the marital partnership or the entire family system. Gray (2002) studied how parents of children with Asperger’s disorder experienced felt stigma and enacted stigma, and found that the majority of parents in the study experienced felt stigma, or were made to feel different because of their children’s diagnoses. Parents’ feelings of embarrassment were the most common manifestations of this felt stigma. Gray (2002) defined enacted stigma as behaviors toward or in response to the parents based on the child’s disability (e.g., people staring, being avoidant or making rude comments). Fathers in the study reported experiencing less felt and enacted stigma than mothers.

It is important to acknowledge that there have been positive outcomes associated with raising children with autism and other disabilities. Reichman et al. (2008) argued that positive outcomes for families can include increased awareness, capacity for resolve, and enhanced family cohesion. In sum, these interrelated and complex findings shed important light on how differently fathers perceive this experience and cope with the stress related to it. Variations in parent perception, assessment of children’s needs and challenges, and strategies for coping with the challenges warrant attention. The present exploratory, qualitative study on the singular experiences of fathers of children with autism can offer a contribution to the counseling knowledge base.



The author used a narrative inquiry design for this study in order to obtain the perspectives of fathers of children with autism and to report their self-described coping strategies for the challenges associated with this lived experience. Narrative inquiry seeks to understand what stories reveal about individuals, recognizing that people form and share identities as they recount and disclose their stories to others. The products from the study’s data analysis process include a paradigmatic analysis of the data, which produces categories from common elements across the database (Polkinghorne, 1995).

Some studies about fathers of children with autism and other disabilities have used qualitative methodologies (Hannon, 2013; Gray, 2002, 2003), but much of the existing research has employed quantitative methodologies (Brobst, Clopton, & Hendrick, 2009; Freedman, Kalb, Zablotsky, & Stuart, 2011; Hartley et al., 2010; Hastings et al., 2005). The present study relied on the narratives of fathers of children with autism—derived from one-time interviews—as data. Their narratives offered new insight into how their specific experiences have influenced their identities. Given the current empirical literature on fathers of children with autism, this study’s primary research questions were as follows:

  1. What are the rewards of being the father of a child with autism?
  2. What are the most significant challenges associated with being the father of a child with autism?
  3. In what ways do fathers cope with the challenges of raising children with autism?



The author utilized a typical case sampling method for the study. Inclusion criteria of participants were fathers over 18 years old who spoke and understood English and had a child between the ages of 4 and 20 with autism. There was no incentive or compensation for participating. Miles and Huberman (1994) articulated that typical case sampling represents the average example of a particular phenomenon of study, which was useful in this case because it afforded the researcher the ability to study this phenomenon on an individual basis.

After the study received approval from the Institutional Review Board, the author sent 68 recruitment letters to parents and guardians of children currently receiving mental, rehabilitative, and behavioral health and support services from the local site of a multistate human service agency. The agency served children and adults diagnosed with addictive diseases, autism, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Of the 68 letters, 54 went to parents whose children were receiving services specifically for diagnoses within the ASDs, as per the DSM-IV-TR. The letters asked potential participants to contact the author directly in order to confirm study eligibility. The author sought a sample of at least five participants in order to reach data saturation (Polkinghorne, 1989), although Boyd (2001) regarded 2–10 participants as sufficient to reach saturation. The letters yielded four inquiries from potential participants, all of whom were eligible. However, one participant was excluded from the study because of the inability to coordinate an appropriate interview time. The author identified one additional participant through snowball sampling recruitment, which is a method of expanding a study’s sample size by asking current study participants to recommend additional participants (Babbie, 1995; Crabtree & Miller, 1992; Dane, 1990). Therefore, the author conducted four interviews.



The author recruited participants from a small town in the northeastern region of the United States. This rural town has a predominantly White population. The recruitment letters asked for fathers of children with autism without specifying a particular diagnosis, and yielded four men reporting to be the biological fathers of sons diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. The participants were all White, ranging from 36–59 years old. Their sons ranged from 6–16 years old and had been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder between the ages of 3 and 8. Table 1 highlights descriptive information about the study’s participants and their sons.


Table 1

Description of Participants



Marital status

Highest level of education


Age of son with Asperger’s disorder

Son’s age at diagnosis




Post-secondary certification

Oil professional






Master’s degree







Master’s degree

Historian/        Stay-at-home dad






Doctoral degree




Note. Mean participant age = 46.5 years; mean age of son with Asperger’s disorder = 11.75 years; mean age of son at diagnosis = 6 years old


Data Collection and Analysis

Collection. The author collected data during one-time, semistructured interviews with each participant, conducted at locations convenient for participants. One interview took place in a participant’s home, one in a participant’s work location and two in the author’s work location. The author conducted, audio-recorded and transcribed the interviews, which ranged in length from 35–60 minutes. The author inquired specifically about what the fathers identified as rewards of being fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder, the challenges of being the fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder, and the fathers’ coping strategies. The interviews also included broader, descriptive inquiries (e.g., tell me about your son) to better understand the complexities and nuances of the fathers’ experiences.

Analysis. Bogdan and Biklen (1998) offered theoretical and practical suggestions for appropriately analyzing qualitative data, which include systematically searching and rearranging interview transcripts, memos and other accumulated materials in order to increase understanding about these materials and to assist in presenting the researcher’s discoveries to others. Data analysis for this study included organizing the data, sorting them into manageable parts, synthesizing, looking for patterns, realizing what was important and what was to be learned, and determining what and how to report. The author analyzed data through analysis of narratives, using the emergent themes approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1999). This method required an extensive review of interview transcripts to identify at least two things: (a) commonalities in experiences and shared perspectives, and (b) interpretation of participants’ experiences. The emergent themes approach assumes that conceptual themes will emerge from the data. Analysis of narratives uses paradigmatic cognition to deduce categories and create order among narratives from the interview data (Polkinghorne, 1995). The analysis required identifying common themes and conceptual categories between the narratives by reviewing the interview data and member checking. Identifying the common themes and concepts required recursive movement from recognized themes to researcher-proposed categories (Hammersly, 1992).

Theme identification began with coding, in which the author labeled the raw data (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The author examined participants’ narratives to determine what statements or phrases seemed essential or revealing about the nature of being the father of a child with Asperger’s disorder. The author categorized codes based on the frequency and consistency of shared experiences, perspectives and interpretations reported by participants (Lavlani, 2011). After organizing the identified codes under more abstract categories, with each category containing a cluster of codes that pertained to broader themes, the author created a matrix to identify and display the prominent themes that emerged across narratives (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and to determine which themes occurred most frequently.

Trustworthiness. Hays & Singh (2012) articulated that various aspects of the research endeavor involve trustworthiness, including the research process and design, data analysis, and reporting of findings. Furthermore, they wrote that there are criteria or standards for trustworthiness in a research study and strategies to maintain trustworthiness throughout the study. The strategies to meet the criteria for trustworthiness for this study included reflexive journaling, simultaneous data collection and analysis, member checking, and creating an audit trail. The author also met with two faculty mentors experienced in qualitative data analysis throughout the data collection and analysis process to discuss his personal experiences with this phenomenon and his own biases that could have influenced the data collection and analysis processes. The committee members also assisted in the review of transcripts and the coding process. The cumulative effect of these strategies provided a source of data triangulation and enhanced the study’s credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. 

Researcher-as-instrument statement. Qualitative researchers have discussed the ways in which researchers should document their role in the context of their work (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Glesne, 2011; Hays & Singh, 2012; Wang, 2008). The author is a 37-year-old father of an elementary school-aged son diagnosed with a specific form of autism, PDD-NOS, and is married to the child’s biological mother. The author and his wife also are parents of a daughter 19 months older than their son. The author was a school counselor and cofounded a nonprofit advocacy organization with his wife to support parents of children with developmental disabilities, particularly autism, prior to enrolling in doctoral studies.

Reflexive exercises and simultaneous collection and analysis. Before beginning this research, the author engaged in epoche as an early reflexive exercise. Patton (2002) and Creswell (2006) wrote that epoche­ requires researchers to fully document and describe their personal experiences with the studied phenomenon in order to increase their awareness of how they are biased, and to be clear about the ways they are personally affected by the research process and eventual results. The author also engaged in reflexive journaling. He made journal entries after each interview and included reactions to participants, inclinations about potential findings, and thoughts and feelings about the data collection and analysis process.

Member checking. Member checking is the researcher’s ongoing consultation with participants to test the “goodness of fit” of developing findings, and Lincoln and Guba (1985) cited it as a key strategy for establishing trustworthiness. Member checking requires involving participants in the research process in order to ensure that the researcher accurately communicates their intended meanings when outlining overall themes. The member checking process for this study took place at two points—during interviews (e.g., asking for clarity and confirming understanding) and after interviews (e.g., sharing transcripts for review and validation).



Data saturation was achieved for each of the three research questions. Results from the interview data yielded three themes. The fathers described in detail the rewards of fathering children with Asperger’s disorder, the challenges of fathering children with Asperger’s disorder, and the ways the fathers cope with those challenges. The fathers described the most rewarding aspects of fathering their sons with Asperger’s disorder as experiences in which they could experience clear communication with their sons. The fathers described the most challenging aspects of fathering their sons with Asperger’s disorder as those related to behavioral symptoms. The fathers described their coping strategies for those challenges as activities that allowed them to experience respite and acceptance. Quotations from the fathers elucidate the identified themes.


Clear Communication as Most Rewarding

All of the fathers discussed the various ways clear communication with their sons shaped the rewards of this lived experience. The symptomology associated with autism makes this description logical. Individuals with Asperger’s disorder may not experience the verbal language communication barriers that others face with different forms of autism, but individuals with Asperger’s disorder can have great difficulty reading and interpreting social cues. The feelings associated with clear communication patterns, especially when communication barriers exist, can yield feelings of relief and reward. Participant D, whose son was 6 years old, expressed the rewards in terms of his son effectively communicating his affection and love. The thing I love about him most . . .  like I’ve said before is his reciprocal love to people which is sort of, you know, not typical for Asperger’s children. But, you know, he loves to hug and those sorts of things. Participant B discussed the rewards of communication with his son regarding their shared interests in certain video games and how shared interests deepen their relationship. I know he went through a phase where he loved Texas Hold ’Em Poker and I like poker, too. So, we sat down and for months we would . . . just play for 3 to 4 to 5 hours and he didn’t get tired of it.

Devising an effective communication method can be important to fathers of children with autism. Hannon (2013) found that the process of becoming oriented to autism, which includes learning about the condition and helping others learn about the condition, can be stressful for fathers. The subsequent adjustments to autism—including adjustment of attitudes and defining success—can take a toll on fathers. The data indicated that fathers from the present study found effective ways to communicate, thereby helping them identify those processes as rewarding.


Behavioral Issues as Most Challenging

According to the data from this study, the most challenging aspects of fathering sons with Asperger’s disorder pertained to the behavioral symptoms associated with autism. Prior research has confirmed this finding. Davis and Carter (2008) found that behavioral symptoms, particularly interpersonal behavioral problems (e.g., inability to behave appropriately in social settings) in children with autism are a significant source of stress for their fathers. Each father discussed a different behavioral challenge. Participant C expressed frustration about his 11-year-old son’s arguing, manipulating and lying, even when the truth about a situation was obvious.

He’ll be caught in a lie and he’ll just deny it. . . . We know his mom didn’t do it . . . no one in the house did it. But he continues to not acknowledge that he was the one . . . running up some bills [on the cable bill ordering games and movies]. . . . So, the arguing, the lying, the manipulation . . . we’re trying to get him to be honest, is just one of the things we’re trying to work through with the therapist and in school a little bit.

Participant D shared his frustration with public outbursts and how it is hard for him not to be able to control or defuse the situation quickly. He shared the following:

Sudden outbursts . . . crying, being stubborn, “I’m not gonna do this, I’m not gonna do that,” . . . taking something very small and blowing it out of proportion. Whether it’s in the privacy of our house or in public . . . those are the kind of things that . . . sometimes I have to, as a father. I kind of lose it. . . . Those are the things I still have a really hard time dealing with. Like, this just came out of nowhere. This just doesn’t make any sense.


Acceptance as a Coping Strategy

Henderson and Bryan characterized coping mechanisms as “emotions and behaviors that allow an individual to adjust to problems. The survival of all people depends on their being able to regulate personal feelings, beliefs, and actions so that their anxiety remains at a manageable level” (2011, p. 157). All four participants reported coping strategies that indicated the value of accepting their sons’ conditions in order to cope effectively with the challenges.

Participants A and B talked about how they have come to accept the challenges of their sons’ conditions. Participant A shared how his Christian faith has helped him accept the challenges. He shared the following:

First of all, pray. Put your faith in Jesus and find Jesus and give it to him and he’ll walk you all through it together and it’ll all be all right. But you . . . can’t give up on the kid. It ain’t his fault he’s got what he’s got. So first of all don’t bail on him. You’ve got to be rock-solid for him because it’s hard enough for him because he’s already different.

Participant B discussed a similar acceptance of the emotional highs and lows of this experience:

You understand that there’s going to be certain situations where he’s not going to be able to deal well and you just have to understand that. And, [if] you as a parent or caretaker can’t understand that . . . society in general is definitely not going to understand that. Just dealing with knowing what he has to deal with. [He does] not look you in the eye when you’re talking to him, talk[s] under his breath instead of talking to you. I understand all those as part of his disorder . . . I don’t hold that personally, I don’t find that as a lack of respect. It’s just how he is.

Studies assessing the ways fathers of children with autism cope have been limited, and results have been mixed. Dunn et al. (2001) studied the interaction effects between stressors, social support, locus of control, coping styles and negative outcomes among parents of children with autism. Their study’s results indicated that escape/avoidant coping styles, which were higher among the fathers, correlated with increased feelings of depression, isolation and spousal problems in parents.

There is evidence suggesting that specific coping strategies predict more positive moods and overall greater psychological well-being in parents of children with autism. Pottie and Ingram (2008) found that coping strategies that were problem-focused, engaged social support, and used positive reframing, emotion regulation, and compromise predicted more positive psychological well-being and better moods in parents. A recent study found that effective coping among six fathers of children with autism meant engaging in activities that helped the fathers achieve a sense of personal balance (e.g., prayer, exercise, disk jockeying; Hannon, 2013).



It is worth considering the integration of humanistic counseling tenets when working with fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder. The results of this study point to the need for counselors to understand the lived experiences of fathers of sons diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. The importance of instilling hope by focusing on the rewards of this fathering experience and demonstrating empathy can potentially assist counselors in their work with these fathers.


Instilling Hope Through Strength-Based Interventions

The instillation of hope has been associated with Yalom and Leszcz’s (2005) curative factors of group therapy. However, across theoretical orientations, counselors assist clients in finding hope in the ability to adjust to or overcome their presenting issues and eventually experience wellness. A humanistic, strength-based approach to counseling is one attempt toward this goal. Strength-based counseling interventions intentionally encourage clients to identify, acknowledge and take pride in their strengths and assets versus solely focusing on the challenges that presenting issues may elicit; such interventions also align with humanistic approaches to counseling (Whitmarsh & Mullette, 2009). As a result, clients are ideally better able to reconceptualize their presenting issues and construct a different, less pathologizing identity.

The participants articulated the rewards of fathering children with Asperger’s disorder as being able to communicate clearly (through verbal and nonverbal language) with their sons. Counselors can assist fathers with their adjustment to Asperger’s disorder by learning about ways Asperger’s disorder positively and uniquely enhances a child’s experience, and by helping fathers embrace the positive attributes associated with the disorder. For example, researchers have appropriately identified communication barriers as a symptom of autism. The notion of limited communication can be interpreted as absence of communication. Counselors can remind fathers that all family members communicate and can assist fathers in reconstructing ideas about communication to extend beyond verbal communication and highlight the ways their children do communicate (i.e., nonverbally through body language and other communication systems). The fathers in this study discussed how rewarding it was to find and use effective communication systems, most of which were not verbal. Counselors can use this example to highlight the strengths of fathers and sons in this situation. The fathers engaged with their sons enough to find effective communication systems, and the sons learned and practiced skills that require interpretation of verbal and nonverbal language, which can be delayed or impaired in children with Asperger’s disorder.



Empathy is the ability to communicate an understanding of another’s worldview or experience and is a core value in humanistic counseling (Hazler & Barwick, 2001; Krebs, 1975; Lyons & Hazier, 2002; Rogers, 1957, 1961). Integrating a humanistic orientation can facilitate counselors’ heightened understanding of how fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder make meaning of their experiences and, consequently, allow the fathers to experience empathy in ways they may have never experienced it before (Mize, 2003), particularly regarding the aspects of parenting that the fathers in this study described as most challenging. Scholl et al. (2012) wrote, “humanism is unified by an overarching philosophy of human irreducibility. Accordingly, humans can be understood only as whole beings and should never be viewed as by-products of other processes” (p. 7). Helping fathers grasp that neither they nor their sons can be reduced to a particular diagnosis or symptoms associated with the diagnosis might facilitate a healthier conceptualization of their experience as fathers of sons with Asperger’s disorder. Counselors can use the findings from this study along with Seligman and Darling’s (2007) work to better understand how fathers may make sense of the more challenging parts of fathering children with Asperger’s disorder. Seligman and Darling (2007) noted the following:

Fathers tend to perceive the diagnosis of the disability as an instrumental crisis, whereas mothers see it as an expressive crisis. . . . Fathers tend to be more concerned than mothers about the adoption of socially acceptable behavior by their children—especially their sons—and they are more anxious about the social status and occupational success of their offspring. (p. 223)



This study provides counselors with valuable information on the experience of fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder. However, there are three limitations within the study that warrant attention: (a) the small sample size, (b) the lack of racial and ethnic diversity, and (c) the inability to generalize the findings to the broader population of fathers of sons with Asperger’s disorder.

The small sample size of the study simultaneously strengthens and limits the findings. Qualitative methodological traditions usually do not engage large sample sizes due to their focus on collecting in-depth data and investigating processes of human interactions and phenomena (Buckley, 2010). The sample size in this study was particularly small for at least two significant reasons: low response rate to recruitment efforts, and the fact that mothers typically act as primary caregivers and coordinators of their children’s therapeutic services. The low response rate was no surprise considering the larger phenomenon of researchers not actively sampling fathers of children with various forms of autism for research about their experiences. Mothers of children receiving services at the recruitment site were overwhelmingly the most consistent parent with whom the agency interacted. Consequently, mothers were likely the ones who received and opened recruitment letters, and responses depended on whether they encouraged the fathers to participate.

A second and related limitation of the study is the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the sample. It is important for counselors to intentionally find more diverse samples of fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder in an effort to understand this phenomenon more accurately. For example, Hannon (2013) sampled six African-American fathers of children with different forms of autism, and among the findings was a need to assess the fathers’ social and financial capital and consequent ability to secure quality services for their children based on their racial identity. Members of different racial and ethnic populations may or may not report the same concerns, but additional inquiry is important. A more diverse sample can inform the counseling knowledge base on any potential similarities and differences in experiences compared to the results from this study. Additional research can inform the broader and more effective practice of counseling fathers, but also help others understand the subtleties that may exist for members of different racial and ethnic groups; such work will enhance the counseling profession’s quest to provide culturally competent clinical interventions for diverse populations.

The last limitation of the study is the inability to generalize the findings to the broader population of fathers of sons with Asperger’s disorder. The importance of this topic for the professional counseling community warrants more qualitative, in-depth studies to inform the counseling knowledge base about the intricacies and nuances of the Asperger’s disorder experience that qualitative methodological traditions can reveal. However, the knowledge base also can greatly benefit from studies that use larger sample sizes to discover the extent to which findings can be generalized to the larger population of fathers of sons with Asperger’s disorder.



This study is a step toward better understanding the family and ecological influence of autism because it provides the counseling community with the knowledge necessary to more effectively offer counseling and related services to fathers of children with Asperger’s disorder. Counselors should continue to pursue this research agenda as the prevalence of this lived experience continues to increase in the identified population of fathers. As a result, effective strength-based interventions that consider the distinct needs and requests of this population must be further researched and developed. Continuing to investigate this phenomenon is beneficial for both research purposes and practical application.



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Eligibility and Interview Protocol


Eligibility/Screening Questions

  1. Are you over 18 years old?
  2. Are you able to speak and understand English?
  3. Are you the father of a child with autism?
  4. Is your child with autism between the ages of 4–20?


Demographic Questions

  1. How old are you?
  2. How old is your child with autism?
  3. When was he diagnosed with autism?
  4. Does your child with autism have any siblings? If so, how many?
  5. What is your highest level of completed education?
  6. What is your occupation?
  7. How many people live in your household?


Semistructured Interview Questions

  1. Tell me about your son.
  2. Describe your experience as a dad of a child with autism.
  3. Discuss the most rewarding aspects of being a dad of a child with autism.
  4. Discuss the challenges associated with being the dad of child with autism.
  5. How do you cope with the stress of parenting a child with autism?
  6. Have you considered seeking help (counseling, support group, etc.) to adjust to the challenges of being the dad of a child with autism?
  7. Describe your relationship with the mother of your child with autism.
  8. How has your child’s diagnosis affected that relationship?
  9. How would you advise other dads of children with autism to prepare for the rewards and challenges of this unique experience?




Michael D. Hannon, NCC, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Michael D. Hannon, Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership, 3190 University Hall Montclair State University, One Normal Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07043,


This study is supported by the Association for Humanistic Counseling 2012 Make-A-Difference Grant Award to support graduate student research in counseling that supports the humanistic philosophy and provides a significant, tangible benefit for the population under study.

Revitalizing Educational Counseling: How Career Theory Can Inform a Forgotten Practice

Robert C. Reardon, Sara C. Bertoch

Educational counseling has declined as a counseling specialization in the United States, although the need for this intervention persists and is being met by other providers. This article illustrates how career theories such as Holland’s RIASEC theory can inform a revitalized educational counseling practice in secondary and postsecondary settings. The theory suggests that six personality types—Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional—have varying relationships with one another and that they can be associated to the same six environmental areas to assess educational and vocational adjustment. Although educational counseling can be viewed as distinctive from mental health counseling and/or career counseling, modern career theories can inform the practice of educational counseling for the benefit of students and schools.

Keywords: educational counseling, career theory, Holland, secondary education, postsecondary education

In searching for a formal definition of educational counseling, we found only one in the APA Dictionary of Psychology (VandenBos, 2007):
The counseling specialty concerned with providing advice and assistance to students in the development of their educational plans, choice of appropriate courses, and choice of college or technical school. Counseling may also be applied to improve study skills or provide assistance with school-related problems that interfere with performance, for example, learning disabilities. Educational counseling is closely associated with vocational counseling because of the relationship between educational training and occupational choice. (p. 314)

The Counseling Dictionary (Gladding, 2006) does not mention the term “educational counseling” in the following definition of counseling.
The application of mental health, psychological or human development principles, through cognitive, affective, behavioral or systemic interventions, strategies that address wellness, personal growth, or career development, as well as pathology. (Gladding, 2006, p. 37)

A renewed focus on educational counseling may be underway. The American Counseling Association meeting in Pittsburgh in 2010 brought together delegates from 29 major counseling organizations who agreed for the first time on a common definition of counseling. Educational goals were explicitly included in this definition: “Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals” (Breaking News, May 7, 2010).

The purpose of this article is to describe five functions essential for educational counseling (Hutson, 1958) and to use them to illustrate how Holland’s RIASEC theory might inform this counseling practice: (a) choosing a college or school for postsecondary training, (b) selecting an academic program or major, (c) adjusting to the college or academic program, (d) assessing academic performance, and (e) connecting education, career, and life decisions.

Historical Perspective

In tracing what has happened to educational counseling, a brief historical review can be helpful. In the early days of the vocational guidance movement, Brewer (1932) shifted the focus of guidance from vocation and occupation to education and instruction. He went so far as to institutionalize guidance as a professional field by linking the terms education and guidance and even using them synonymously. This could have elevated educational counseling to a more prominent position in the profession, but that did not happen. Brewer and others viewed guidance as limited by the descriptive adjective “vocational” with an emphasis on occupational choice (Shertzer & Stone, 1976), and this resulted in an estrangement between vocational and educational counseling.

Shertzer and Stone (1976) reported that the term “educational guidance” was first used in a doctoral dissertation by Truman L. Kelley at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1914, and that he used it to describe the help given to students who had questions about choice of studies and school adjustment. Stephens (1970) pointed out that the shift from vocational choice to “guidance as education” ruptured the basic nature of the vocational guidance movement, separating the focus on “vocation” to “education.” Thus, vocational theory became associated with occupational choice and only tangentially related to educational choice, and we view this as leading to the separation of educational guidance and counseling from career theory.

In a comprehensive review of educational guidance literature published from 1933–1956, Hutson (1958) saw the counseling element of the educational guidance program as its most important function. He devoted a chapter to “Counseling for Some Common Problems” in which he identified 10 discrete but overlapping counseling situations. Several elements focused on educational counseling, including choice of subjects and curriculums, college-going (choice of going to college or working; choice of a particular college), and length of stay in school. Each of these problem areas involved counseling related to student psychological and educational characteristics, goals, and decision-making skills. Of relevance to this article, Hutson identified no theory related to educational counseling and cited only the vocational theory of Eli Ginzberg (Ginzberg, Ginsburg, Axelrad, & Herma, 1946) as informing vocational counseling. Theory-based educational counseling had not yet arrived.

The practice of educational counseling has faded from view in contemporary guidance and counseling literature. We conducted a search of journal titles and abstracts within the social sciences area using the term “educational counseling” and our university’s online library database system using Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (CSA) and PsychInfo. We were interested in how many “hits” for the past 10 years we would find in the following journals: Career Development Quarterly, Journal of Career Assessment, Journal of College Counseling, Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Counseling & Development, and Journal of Counseling Psychology. The search provided a total of seven results with only four falling into one of these six journals.

Advising, Coaching, Brokering

While the field of educational counseling seems to have been in decline for the past 50 years, other specialties have emerged to take its place, including academic advising, academic coaching, and educational brokering.

The field of academic advising has been very active in the past 30 years. Ender, Winston, and Miller (1984) defined developmental academic advising as “a systematic process based on a close student-advisor relationship intended to aid students in achieving educational, career, and personal goals through the utilization of the full range of institutional and community resources” (p. 19). Later, Creamer (2000) defined it as “an educational activity that depends on valid explanations of complex student behaviors and institutional conditions to assist college students in making and executing educational and life plans” (p. 18). While generally careful to distinguish between the terms advising and counseling, the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA; has fully embraced most of the educational planning and adjustment issues faced by postsecondary students that heretofore might have been included in the domain of educational counseling.

It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore the notion of academic coaching, so we will limit our comments to the general field of life and career coaching (Chung & Gfroerer, 2003; Patterson, 2008). In general, proponents view coaching as a service focused on a student’s future goals and the creation of a new life path based on less formal collegial mentoring relationships and a positive, preventive wellness model. Opponents view coaching as practicing counseling without proper training or certification because there are limited professional standards or requirements in the coaching field.

Finally, the educational brokering movement in the 1970s was focused on helping adult learners navigate their way through postsecondary educational experiences (Heffernan, 1981). The educational broker independently assisted learners in the process of exploring, researching, and deciding on educational alternatives available. Some educational brokering proponents (Heffernan, 1981) held the view that an educational counselor employed by a specific institution would be biased and “guide” prospective students into the academic programs offered by the employing organization. Brokers were seen as neutral guides to the full range of educational options available to postsecondary learners.

Modern Career Theories

In this article, we examine the topic of educational counseling and suggest that modern career theories could contribute to a revitalization of this function. These theories, identified and described by Brown (2002), include career contextualist theory (Young, Valach, & Collin, 2002); Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription, compromise, and self-creation (L. Gottfredson, (2002); cognitive information processing theory (Sampson, Reardon, Peterson & Lenz, 2004); life stage/life space theory (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996); narrative construction theory (Savickas, 2002); person-environment correspondence theory (Dawis, 2002); RIASEC theory (Holland, 1997); and social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002). We illustrate our idea of how career theory might be useful in educational guidance and counseling programs using Holland’s (1997) RIASEC theory, emphasizing the environmental aspect of the theory.

Thus far, we have identified the function of educational counseling as an early component of the developing field of guidance and counseling, and we have outlined trends that have negated that function more recently. The irony is that the need for educational counseling services remains strong today, but it needs revitalization. We believe that the application of new theory, especially career theory, would be useful in that process and inform practice and research in the field. In this article, we focus on Holland’s RIASEC theory as one theory for accomplishing this revitalization. At the same time, we draw upon some of the basic functions of educational counseling drawn from the literature (Hutson, 1958; VandenBos, 2007).

Holland’s RIASEC Theory

Holland’s theory and the related tools such as the Self-Directed Search (SDS; Holland, 1994) have become familiar icons in the career counseling field. Since the introduction of the SDS in 1972 and its use with over 29 million people worldwide (Psychological Assessment Resources, 2009), its incorporation into the Strong Interest Inventory (Harmon, Hansen, Borgen, & Hammer, 1994) and many other tools, we believe that most counselors feel comfortable and knowledgeable about this system. However, we also believe that the widespread familiarity with the hexagon and SDS is based on incomplete and outdated understandings of Holland’s contributions. For many, the theory is viewed as a simple matching model of three personality types, e.g., the three-letter SDS summary code, and the codes of occupations taken from some source, e.g., O*Net (, Occupations Finder (Holland, 2000).

One reason for the partial understanding of Holland’s theory and applications may be the result of the massive volume of research and literature that has been produced since 1957. Authors (2008) reported 1,609 reference citations from 1953–2007 in 197 different journals which make it extremely difficult to fully understand and utilize this body of work. Moreover, many articles have appeared in education journals not often read by counselors, e.g., Journal of Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Higher Education, and the Review of Higher Education. It is no small irony that Holland’s early work was undertaken in educational settings examining students undecided about their major, adjustment to college, the nature of academic environments, and the work of the faculty within disciplines. Smart, Feldman, and Ethington (2000) recognized this gap in applying Holland’s work to higher education, and their research collaborators have published over 20 articles seeking to address it.

This article focuses on how college students struggle with varied educational decisions, e.g., undecided about their college major, and then examines the ways in which Holland’s RIASEC theory might be used in educational interventions. We begin with a review of Holland’s theory with respect to personality and environment, and then describe several practical tools based on the theory that might be used in educational counseling.


Holland’s typological theory (Holland, 1997) specifies a theoretical connection between personality and environment that makes it possible to use the same RIASEC classification system for both. Many inventories and career assessment tools use the typology to enable individuals to categorize their interests and personal characteristics in terms of combinations of the six types: Realistic (R), Investigative (I), Artistic (A), Social (S), Enterprising (E), or Conventional (C). These six types are briefly defined in relation to educational options in Table 1.

According to RIASEC theory, if a person and an environment have the same or similar codes, e.g., an Investigative person in an Investigative environment, then the person will likely be satisfied and persist in that environment (Holland, 1997). This satisfaction will result from individuals being able to express their personality in an environment that is supportive and includes other persons who have the same or similar personality traits. It should be noted that neither people nor environments are exclusively one type, but rather combinations of all six types. Their dominant type is an approximation of an ideal, modal type.

The profile of the six types can be described in terms of a number of secondary constructs, e.g., the degree of differentiation (flat or uneven profile), consistency (level of similarity of interests or characteristics on the RIASEC hexagon for the first two letters of a three-letter Holland code), or identity (stability characteristics of the type). Each of these factors moderates predictions about the behavior related to the congruence level between a person and an environment. These secondary constructs provide an in-depth schema for understanding a person’s SDS results with diagnostic implications regarding the amount of counselor involvement and skill that may be needed for an intervention (Reardon & Lenz, 1999). Given extended discussion of these ideas in other literature (Reardon & Lenz, 1998), we will not focus on them here but concentrate our attention on the environmental aspects of RIASEC theory in education.


While the personality aspects of Holland’s theory are widely known, the environmental aspects—especially of college campuses, fields of study, and work positions—are less well understood and appreciated (Gottfredson & Holland, 1996). Holland’s early efforts with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) and the American College Testing Program enabled him to look at colleges and academic disciplines as environments. It is important to note that RIASEC theory had its roots in higher education and later focused on occupations.

Gottfredson and Richards (1999) traced the history of Holland’s efforts to classify educational and occupational environments. Holland initially studied the numbers of incumbents in a particular environment to classify occupations or colleges in terms of RIASEC categories, but he later moved to study the characteristics of the environment independent of the persons in it. College catalogs and descriptions of academic disciplines were among the public records used to study institutional environments. Astin and Holland (1961) developed the Environmental Assessment Technique (EAT) while at the NMSC as a method for measuring college RIASEC environments.

Smart et al. (2000) presented evidence concerning the way academic departments socialize students. They reported that “faculty members in different clusters of academic disciplines create distinctly different academic environments as a consequence of their preference for alternative goals for undergraduate education, their emphasis on alternative teaching goals and student competencies in their respective classes, and their reliance on different approaches to classroom instruction and ways of interacting with students inside and outside their classes” (p. 238). Furthermore, these environments “have a strong socializing influence on change and the stability of students’ abilities and interests—that is, what students do and do not learn or acquire as a consequence of their collegiate experiences” (p. 238). Smart et al. noted that faculty in Investigative, Artistic, Social, and Enterprising disciplines create academic environments in a manner consistent with Holland’s theory, and “the degree to which academic environments are ‘successful’ in their efforts to socialize students to their respective patterns of abilities and interests thus appears to differ considerably, with Artistic and Investigative environments being the most ‘successful’ and the Social and Enterprising environments being less ‘successful’” (p. 146).

These findings suggest that students might best view academic programs in terms of the IASE schema and focus on the kinds of abilities and interests they wish to develop while in college. Such understandings and goal setting could be explored in educational counseling.

Finally, Tracey and Darcy (2002) reported that college students without an intuitive RIASEC schema for organizing information about interests and occupations experience greater career indecision. This finding suggests that the RIASEC hexagon may have a normative benefit regarding the classification of occupations and fields of study. There is increasing evidence that a RIASEC cognitive structure is associated with positive career decision variables (Tracey, 2008). Persons adhering to this structure had stronger career certainty, interest-occupation congruence, and career decision-making self-efficacy at the beginning of a career course than those not using the RIASEC structure. Moreover, teaching this structure in a career course led to increased certainty, congruence, and self-efficacy at the end of the course for those adhering to the model.

Using RIASEC Theory in Educational Counseling

In this section, we discuss the five basic educational counseling functions identified by Hutson (1958), and how Holland’s RIASEC theory might inform this practice. To address these five problems in educational counseling from a RIASEC perspective, it would be important for the counselor to have a basic understanding of Holland’s theory (Holland, 1997). The client might complete the Self-Directed Search (Holland, 1994) and review the Occupations Finder (Holland, 2000), Educational Opportunities Finder (Rosen, Holmberg, & Holland, 1997), and You and Your Career (Holland, 1994) booklets. These materials operationalize and explain the theory in client terms. Armed with this basic information and these tools, the counselor and client can enter into a collaborative relationship to resolve educational problems and make educational decisions.

Choosing a College or School

The number of options for education and training is very large. Choices Planner (Bridges, 2009) was examined for one state and 196 postsecondary schools offering associate, bachelors, and professional (postgraduate) degrees were found. The Choices system makes it possible to use varied criteria for selecting among these options, including five school types, (e.g., public, private), specific miles from a designated ZIP postal code, six regions of the state, five campus or town settings of the school, eight tuition ranges, five affiliations (e.g., women, religious), on-campus housing, and over 30 sports options for men or women. If the student wanted to explore options in additional states the number of options would grow exponentially.

The array of postsecondary schools has very limited options for Realistic and Conventional types, which led Smart et al. (2000) to exclude these areas from their study of baccalaureate level colleges and universities. College level occupations are least frequently associated with the Conventional and Realistic categories, while Investigative and Artistic work are most likely associated with college level employment or the highest level of cognitive ability. Smart et al. found few college majors, faculty, or students in their samples categorized as Realistic or Conventional.

Taking this a step further, the number of associate, bachelors, and professional academic programs listed in the Educational Opportunities Finder (EOF; Rosen et al., 1997) were tabulated in relation to RIASEC categories. Of the 750 postsecondary programs of study listed in the EOF, there were 296 offered at the associate level, 492 at the bachelor’s level, and 645 at the professional level. Because some programs are offered at more than one degree level, the resulting total degree programs listed in the EOF number 1,517. Inspection of Figure 1 shows proportionally more Realistic and Conventional programs are available at the associate degree level in comparison to the other two degrees. Conversely, more professional degrees are offered in the IAS categories. This suggests that vocational technical schools and community colleges would be the types of schools most likely offering programs in these two areas. In this way, RIASEC theory could be used to guide selection of a school.

Authors (1996) documented this phenomenon in their research and reported that the student body at their postsecondary institution was composed predominately of S, E, and I types, creating an SEI-type school. They reported 153 fields of study at the university enrolled 10,439 students with declared majors in the following categories: R, 5%; I, 19%; A, 13%; S, 34%; E, 19%; and C, 10%. This suggests a student body with a profile of SEIACR. Such a student population would find C and R types in a minority.

RIASEC theory can inform the process of choosing a college by providing a conceptual schema of six environments and judging the priority and influence of each in socializing enrolled students. Students with E-type personalities (e.g., interests and skills) might have the best fit in a school that reinforced and prized those traits, and the same would be true for the remaining RIASC environments. In the following sections we will explain more how the environmental aspect of RIASEC theory may be used in educational counseling.

Selecting an Academic Program or Major

The Choices Planner (Bridges, 2009) lists over 780 specific academic programs or fields of study (majors) for students for the selected state. Large universities may have several hundred undergraduate majors and this can be overwhelming to students required to pick one field. Holland’s RIASEC schema can help to make the process of exploring and selecting options less daunting. This section describes some ways this might happen.

First, when students understand the basic elements of RIASEC theory they are armed with a schema for categorizing a great amount of academic information. Table 1 illustrates the operation of this schema in practical terms. Students intent on pursuing a bachelor’s degree can be informed that most college fields of study or disciplines are concentrated in Holland’s Investigative, Artistic, Social, and Enterprising areas (Smart et al., 2000), which reduces hundreds of options to four areas.

Second, the research by Smart et al. (2000) of bachelor’s programs was based on the idea that “faculty create academic environments inclined to require, reinforce, and reward the distinctive patterns of abilities and interests of students in a manner consistent with Holland’s theory” (p. 96). Moreover, “students are not passive participants in the search for academic majors and careers; rather, they actively search for and select academic environments that encourage them to develop further their characteristic interests and abilities and to enter (and be successful in) their chosen career fields” (p. 52). This is an important idea because it puts the power of informed choice in the hands of students as they explore educational options. They can actively select the type of environment in which they desire to spend their time and in which they wish to learn while in college.

Third, Smart et al. (2000) described primary and secondary recruits entering bachelor’s level academic programs. Primary recruits were freshmen entering disciplines directly from secondary school (discussed in this section) and secondary recruits (discussed in the next section) were those who changed their minds after entering college. Based on their research, Smart et al. found that two-thirds of freshmen (primary recruits) initially selected majors in the Social area and remained in that area over four years, while only slightly more than half of the students in the Enterprising area persisted in that area over four years. Students in the Artistic and Investigative areas both persisted over four years at 64%. Overall, about two-thirds of freshmen (primary recruits) persisted in one of the four disciplines initially selected and about 30% changed to another area.

The information gleaned from research by Smart and his colleagues of bachelor’s level programs can help inoculate students for relief of some of the anxiety regarding the selection of an academic program. Rather than simply focusing on the occupations related to a major in making a choice, students can focus on the nature and characteristics of the IASE environments and prioritize them according to their goals, interests, values, and skills. These understandings would also help students search for information about academic programs that provide details about whether or not the way life in the program is consistent or inconsistent with the theoretical RIASEC environment characteristics, e.g., student relationships with professors, classroom activities, nature of learning projects, leadership styles favored.

Adjusting to the College or Academic Program

Faculty in IASE disciplines create specialized academic environments that are shared by the students selecting these majors. The variability in the socialization styles and the effects of the environments on student behaviors and thinking were described by Smart et al. (2000) and are summarized below. Increased understanding of these environmental characteristics is important in educational counseling and for student decisions about preferred fields of study.

Faculty in Investigative environments place primary attention on developing analytical, mathematical, and scientific competencies, with little attention given to character and career development. They rely more than other faculty on formal and structured teaching and learning, they are subject-matter centered, and they have specific course requirements. They focus on examinations and grades. This environment has the highest percentage of primary recruits (e.g., students select it as freshmen).

Faculty in Artistic environments focus on aesthetics and with an emphasis on emotions, sensations, and the mind. The curriculum stresses learning about literature and the arts, as well as becoming a creative thinker. Faculty also emphasize character development, along with student freedom and independence in learning.

Varied instructional strategies are used in these disciplines.

Faculty in Social environments have a strong community orientation characterized by friendliness and warmth. Like the Artistic environment, faculty place value on developing a historical perspective of the field and an emphasis on student values and character development. Unlike the Artistic environment, faculty also place value on humanitarian, teaching, and interpersonal competencies. Colleagueship and student independence and freedom are supported, and informal small group teaching is employed.

The Enterprising environment has a strong orientation to career preparation and status acquisition. Faculty focus on leadership development, the development and use of social power to attain career goals, and striving for common indicators of organizational and career success. Teaching strategies in this environment are very balanced, but faculty like most to work with career-oriented students regarding specialized issues related to organizational and individual achievement.

Once an academic program is selected as a major field of study and the student begins to interact with other students and faculty in the program, more information of a personal nature is acquired which can lead to adjustments that the student will need to make to excel in that environment. For example, when Smart et al. (2000) examined college environments (the percentage of seniors in each of the IASE areas), they found that from 30–50% of the four environments were composed of primary recruits and about half were secondary recruits, e.g., the seniors who had changed their majors. This means that almost half the seniors ended up in an IASE discipline that was different from their initial choice.

Students migrated to and from the four environments in different ways. For example, two-thirds of the seniors in the Artistic environment were secondary recruits from one of the other areas; they did not intend to major in the Artistic area in their freshman year. In addition, about one third of the students migrating into the Social area came from Investigative, Enterprising, or undecided areas. Stated another way, the Social environments appear to be the most accepting and least demanding of the four environments studied by Smart et al. (2000) and Social disciplines seem to have the least impact and the least gains in related interests and abilities. Students moving into the Investigative area were most likely to come from the Enterprising area, and vice versa.

These findings (Smart et al., 2000) reveal the fluid nature of students’ major selections and the heterogeneous nature of the four environments with respect to the students’ initial major preferences. They also provide information regarding the migration of students among the IASE disciplines, and this can inform educational planning for students and counselors about the way in which these four disciplines interact with different types of students.

In summary, Smart et al. (2000) found that congruent students in Investigative, Artistic, and Enterprising environments increased their pattern of self-reported interests and abilities over four years by further developing what was already present in their personality. These three environments also increased the related traits for incongruent students, but the gap between the congruent and incongruent students did not decrease over time. In other words, students in both congruent and incongruent environments made equivalent or parallel changes in self-reported abilities and interests over four years, but students in congruent environments had higher levels of interests and abilities at the end of four years. Investigative and Enterprising environments had the most impact on student characteristics. These findings, if communicated to students in educational counseling, could affect the nature of discussions about students’ educational goals in college.

Assessing Academic Performance

Early in his career, Holland (1957) began to discuss the impact of college on students and how varied personality traits and beliefs other than aptitude were associated with success. Gottfredson (1999) noted that Holland’s early research demonstrated that much of the output from the college experience was related to what students brought into that experience. According to Gottfredson, Holland promoted the idea that college selection practices relying heavily on measures of academic potential resulted in much lost talent, e.g., selection of the top 10% of high school students based only on grades would exclude about 86% of high school class presidents (Enterprising types). The idea that noncognitive traits (e.g., RIASEC personality types) would be important in assessing academic performance is a noteworthy contribution of Holland’s theorizing and research.

Academic success is sometimes measured in terms of persistence on the part of the student or retention on the part of the institution. Other immediate outcome measures might include the grade point average, student satisfaction, awards received, or engagement in program activities, while longer term outcomes might include professional accomplishments, contributions, and recognitions. It should be noted that while all academic programs require cognitive skill and ability, some programs further emphasize interests and abilities related to the RIASEC areas identified in Table 1. These could include creativity, leadership, community service, and the like.

According to RIASEC theory, students in an environment that is highly congruent or matches with their personality will persist in that environment and achieve awards and recognition from the environment. In the process of educational counseling, students should have opportunities to clarify what it means to be in, or move to or out of, an environment that either matches their type or provides an opportunity to develop desired skills and interests. Their achievements and satisfaction would theoretically be related to the quality of the match between their personality and the environmental characteristics.

Connecting Education to Career and Life

Holland’s RIASEC theory provides a relatively simple, effective scheme for thinking about people (e.g., personalities, traits, interests, values, behaviors, attitudes) and their options (e.g., educational programs, occupations, work organizations, leisure activities). Conceptualizing people and options in these six areas can improve personal and career decision making.

Several examples of this strategy are apparent. For example, when students conduct information interviews they might structure questions and make observations about the degree to which the various RIASEC codes are prevalent in the life of the interviewee or characterize the organizational setting. In considering job offers, students might use the RIASEC schema to assess the quality of the fit between their personality and the culture of the organization, or more particularly, the personality of their immediate supervisor.

The UMaps project at the University of Maryland is a good example of applying RIASEC theory to life/career options (Jacoby, Rue, & Allen, 1984). The UMaps program operated out of the Office of Commuter Affairs in the Division of Student Affairs and was designed to help students become aware of diverse campus opportunities, options, and resources related to RIASEC types. Using both large posters displayed on bulletin boards and brochures distributed by advisors, each of the six RIASEC UMaps had a standard layout including areas of study (with office locations and phone numbers), sample career possibilities, internship and volunteer options, and student organizations and activities related to each type. Each map also had a brief description of the RIASEC type and a brief self-assessment related to interests and skills.

As reported earlier, Reardon, Lenz, and Strausberger (1996) used an earlier version of the Educational Opportunities Finder (Rosen et al., 1997) to classify all of the majors at a large university, and then used these data to assess the types of students seeking services in the career center and to design appropriate interventions. For example, it was judged that Realistic and Investigative students might prefer independent career planning using a computer-assisted guidance system, e.g., Choices Planner, rather than an individual counseling session.

Descriptive information about college majors could include the kinds of information summarized by Smart et al. (2000) about course structures, learning style expectations, faculty interests and activities, and program objectives. Other student information materials could list volunteer experiences related to the discipline (if any), introductory classes, sample employment opportunities, and profiles of graduates. Brochures and other descriptive information used in academic advising and educational counseling could be indexed or include information about Holland codes. These examples illustrate the ways in which RIASEC theory applied in educational counseling might be extended to broader life and career decisions.

Summary and Implications

This article illustrates how the educational counseling function has become estranged or lost in traditional counseling practice in secondary and postsecondary settings. While educational counseling can be viewed as distinctive from mental health counseling and/or career counseling, modern career theories can inform the practice of educational counseling for the benefit of students and schools. Holland’s RIASEC career theory, especially the extensive research on educational environments conducted by Smart and his associates (2000) and reported in more than six different journals, was used to illustrate this idea.

Educational counselors using RIASEC theory need to be fully informed about the theory, the research that supports it, the instruments that are based upon it, and the counseling techniques that could be derived from it. Such theory-driven practice might represent a new paradigm in educational counseling. Holland’s (1997) theory, like other career theories, has the most power when the extremes of wealth, social class, genetic traits, and health are not in effect. In other words, career theory probably works best in educational counseling for students in general rather than those at the extremes of any personal trait or situation.

RIASEC theory can be useful in educational counseling by specifying the kinds of conditions and traits associated with difficulties in educational decision making. Authors (1998, 1999) and Holland, Gottfredson, and Nafziger (1975) indicated that persons with poor diagnostic signs on the Self-Directed Search, e.g., lack of congruence between expressed and assessed summary codes, low differentiation, low consistency, low coherence among aspirations, low profile elevation, and a high point code in the Realistic or Conventional area, were likely candidates for more intensive counseling interventions. This is a special province of educational counselors because of their professional counselor training as opposed to the standard training for academic advisors or coaches. Students with high Artistic codes also may be problematic because of their preference for a non-rational approach to decision making (Holland et al., 1975). Persons with such diagnostic signs will likely need more time and professional, individualized counselor assistance in career problem solving and decision making.

Smart et al.’s (2000) research reveals some of the variations in academic departments and suggests implications for college and university organizational systems. It is important for counselors and other staff to inform students about the impact of majors and academic disciplines on the development of student interests and skills. At present, advisors make students aware of many aspects of a major, e.g., required courses, prerequisites, entrance requirements, and the occupations most closely aligned with the major. Providing additional information based on the research findings by Smart et al. regarding the way academic environments socialize or affect students pursuing that major will make students better “consumers” of majors or “shoppers” of academic programs.


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Robert C. Reardon, NCC, is Professor Emeritus and Sara C. Bertoch, NCC, is a career advisor, both at the Career Center at Florida State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Robert C. Reardon, Florida State University Career Center,
PO Box 3064162, Tallahassee, FL, 32306,

Integrating Left-Brain and Right-Brain: The Neuroscience of Effective Counseling

Thomas A. Field

Abstract: Based on emerging findings from neuroscience, the counseling professional can consider a different approach to research-informed practice, by integrating left- and right-brain processing in client care. This new model is commensurate with counseling’s historical lineage of valuing the counseling relationship as the core ingredient of effective counseling.

Keywords: counseling, neuroscience, evidence-based, effectiveness, right-hemisphere, intuition

During the past decade, the field of counseling has considered the notion of identifying effective counseling practices. In 2005, the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics included a recommendation to use therapies that “have an empirical or scientific foundation” (C.6.e). The Journal of Counseling & Development introduced a new journal feature in 2007, entitled “Best Practices.” In 2009, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) modified their Standards for addiction counseling (I.3., p. 22), clinical mental health counseling (I.3., p. 34), and marriage, couple, and family counseling (I.3., p. 39) to require that the student “knows evidence-based treatments” (EBTs; p. 5). In the September 2012 edition of Counseling Today, Dr. Bradley Erford, the current ACA President, asserted the following in his monthly column:

If professional counselors use the best available research-based approaches to help clients and students, then counselor effectiveness, client satisfaction and third-party insurer satisfaction all improve. When professional counselors provide effective services, it also helps our professional advocacy and lobbying efforts with federal, state, and local politicians and bureaucrats, and leads to more counseling jobs and higher pay scales.(p. 5)

Erford argues that counselors must use research to inform practice—the public, insurance companies, and clients demand it. Yet until recently, only one approach to research-informed practice has been available to the counseling profession—namely the EBT movement that originated in the field of psychology. Many techniques and theories exist outside of the EBT movement, in addition to other models for best practices such as the common factors movement (Duncan, Miller, Wampold, & Hubble, 2010). Counselors may feel confused about which model to follow. An approach to research-informed practice that is more commensurate with the counseling profession’s values and identity is the application of research evidence from neuroscience to inform counseling interventions.

Current Direction: The Left-Brain Pathway

The left side of the brain is responsible for rational, logical, and abstract cognition and conscious knowledge. Neuroscientists such as Allan Schore (2012) have suggested that activities associated with the left hemisphere (LH) currently dominate mental health services. This is evidenced by the current reliance upon psychopharmacology over counseling services, the manualization of counseling, a reductionist and idealistic view of “evidence-based practice,” and a lack of respect for the counseling relationship in client outcomes despite a large body of evidence. McGilchrist (2009) takes this argument further: if left unchecked, the modern world will increase its reliance upon the LH compared to the than right hemisphere (RH), with disastrous consequences. A “left-brain world” would lead to increased bureaucracy, a focus on quantity and efficiency over quality, and a valuing of technology over human interaction, and uniformity over individualization. While this dystopia has not been fully realized yet, one could argue that the field’s current reductionist and cookie-cutter approach to mental health services and reliance on quantitative over qualitative research all point in one direction.

To understand the importance of the association between the LH and the current mental health system, the author reviews the history of the counseling effectiveness movement, along with the counseling profession’s gradual adherence to this left-brain movement.

The History of “Effectiveness”

It is hard to know when the term effectiveness was first used in counseling circles. A long history of competition exists between different theoretical schools that sought to find evidence for the efficacy of their theory and discredit (or at least, disprove) all pretenders. Eventually, in 1995, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined effectiveness by identifying counseling interventions that were considered to have adequate research support (Task Force for Promotion and Dissemination of Psychological Procedures, 1995). The criteria for delineation were narrow: at least two randomized controlled studies or multiple pre-and post- individual studies, and the existence of a treatment manual. This model of efficacy was based on the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) criteria for what constituted acceptable research evidence for a new medication’s efficacy. The field of psychology was concerned at the time about medications being considered the “first line of treatment” for mental disorders instead of counseling and psychotherapy, thus wanting to provide empirical evidence for counseling efficacy that could be used for political and financial leverage in the marketplace (LaRoche & Christopher, 2009). Various terms were used for this movement: psychological treatments, empirically validated treatments, empirically supported treatments, and EBT. This movement soon became synonymous with the definition of effectiveness in counseling and psychotherapy.

Criticisms abounded throughout the mental health services community. It became apparent that these interventions were difficult to implement, or else that practitioners were resistant (Becker, Stice, Shaw, & Woda, 2009). Criticisms focused on the inadequate representation of certain demographic and minority groups, the disregard for the predominance of co-occurring disorders within client populations, the exclusionary definition of “research evidence,” and the lack of consideration for clinical expertise and judgment (Bernal & Scharró-del-Rio, 2001; LaRoche & Christopher, 2009).

Training programs in the mental health services field have also been resistant to training students in EBTs. Weissman et al. (2006) found that only 28.1% of psychiatry preparation programs and 9.8% of social work preparation programs required both didactic instruction and clinical supervision in EBT use. In clinical psychology preparation programs, 16.5% (PhD) and 11.5% (PsyD) required didactic instruction and clinical supervision in EBTs. This is a low rate, considering that the inclusion of training in psychological treatments is required for APA doctoral program accreditation (Chambless, 1999). No data are currently available on the percentage of counselor education programs that require both didactic instruction and clinical supervision in EBT use. However, one could argue that the 2009 CACREP Standards mandate instruction and supervision in the use of EBTs. If counselors do not find another path, counselor education may adhere to the training model of psychology, requiring a greater emphasis on teaching techniques rather than relational skills, and inflexibly following standards of practice rather than individualized instruction. Counselor education may become a left-brain discipline.

Counseling Approaches and the Left-Brain 

Counselors are already using EBTs in practice settings. Field, Farnsworth, and Nielsen (2011) conducted a small unpublished national pilot study in the use of EBTs by National Certified Counselors (NCCs; n = 76). Demographics were consistent with the most recent demographical survey of NCCs (National Board of Certified Counselors, 2000). The majority of participants reported utilizing EBTs within the past year (69.4%), and the number of EBTs utilized was surprisingly high (M = 9.17, SD = 6.94, SEM = 0.97) for those who utilized EBTs. Furthermore, of those who used EBTs, only 6% (n = 3) did not report using a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Although this was a small pilot study, and thus results cannot be wholly generalized to the counselor population, initial findings seem to indicate that EBT utilization may be practically synonymous with CBT utilization. This is alarming, since research has shown that when psychotherapies are directly compared to one another, studies in which CBT is claimed to be more beneficial than other treatments subsequently achieved comparative outcomes (e.g., Wampold, Minami, Baskin, & Tierney, 2002). The apparent “fit” between CBT and the EBT movement can be elucidated when considering that following a manualized protocol and using conscious verbal analysis (CBT) are both LH functions, and studies have found a link between CBT and activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the LH (Siegle, Steinhauer, Friedman, Thompson, & Thase, 2011). Put simply, CBT activates the LH, and the EBT movement values LH over RH processing.

It could be argued that the emergence of the EBT movement has propelled CBT into first place among interventions used in practice settings. Structured interventions that can be easily manualized and measured such as CBT seem to correspond with strict and rigid guidelines for empiricism compared to therapies that are more abstract and unstructured (e.g., humanistic-existential and relational forms of counseling). The dominance of CBT may only solidify following the initiation of EBT training within graduate programs. Yet even Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, asserted that “you can’t do cognitive therapy from a manual any more than you can do surgery from a manual” (Carey, 2004, p. F06). In other words, the purely LH approach of rigidly following a treatment manual is not sufficient for effective counseling practice.

The Right-Brain Pathway

The right side of the brain is associated with unconscious social and emotional learning, and includes intuition, empathy, creativity, and flexibility. Some may argue that counseling has always been associated with RH processes (J. Presbury, personal communication, November 25, 2012). There are signs that the field of counseling is moving toward the valuing of RH processes during interventions, evidenced by the empirical respect attributed to the therapeutic relationship (e.g., Magnavita, 2006; Norcross & Wampold, 2011; Orlinsky, Ronnestad, & Willutzki, 2004), and the admission that EBTs are unsuccessful if applied rigidly. The APA Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice (2006) intoned that “sensitivity and flexibility in the administration of therapeutic interventions produces better outcomes than rigid application of…principles” (p. 278). A purely LH counseling approach may be overly rigid, problematic since counselor rigidity has been found to impair the counselor-client relationship (Ackerman & Hilsenroth, 2001).

Clinical Judgment vs. Intuition

In 2006, the APA issued a new definition of evidence-based practice, derived largely from the definition provided in 2001 by the Institute of Medicine (APA, 2006). Evidence-based practice was redefined as consisting of three elements: research evidence, clinical judgment, and client contextual variables (APA, 2006; Institute of Medicine, 2001). Yet the APA’s revised definition of evidence-based practice still privileged LH processing. Whereas clinical judgment can be defined as the application of rational and analytical reasoning when working with clients (LH function), clinical intuition can be described as the attunement to unconscious and implicit knowledge when working with clients, and has been associated with activation in areas of the RH (Bolte & Goschke, 2005). Often difficult to articulate, intuition has been commonly described as “the unthought known,” a “gut feeling,” and “a working hypothesis” (Bollas, 1987). Lieberman (2000) defined clinical intuition as “the subjective experience associated with the use of knowledge gained through implicit learning” (p. 109). It is now known that effective counseling requires both conscious reasoning and unconscious intuition—in other words, the integration of the LH and RH of the brain. As the famous attachment theorist John Bowlby (1991) once wrote, “clearly the best therapy is done by the therapist who is naturally intuitive and also guided by the appropriate theory” (p. 16).

Studies on counselor development have found that experienced counselors tend to rely more on intuition than manualized protocols (Rønnestad & Skovolt, 2003; Stoltenberg, McNeill, & Delworth, 1998). As any experienced practitioner can attest, counselors tend to learn intuitive skills such as timing and word choice with experience. Welling (2005) wrote, “no therapist can reasonably deny following hunches, experiencing sudden insights, choosing directions without really knowing why, or having uncanny feelings that turn out to be of great importance for therapy” (p. 19). Volz and von Cramon (2008) concluded that the counselor’s intuition is often reliable and accurate during the counseling process. The difference between novice and experienced counselors can be understood as a difference in amount of accumulated experiences from prior client encounters within the unconscious, which informs intuitive clinical judgments (Schore, 2012). Less-experienced counselors are prone to make more inaccurate intuitive clinical decisions given their lesser clinical experience and, therefore, their less sculpted unconscious intuition.

Creativity vs. Replication

Creativity in the counseling process allows clinicians to individualize treatment, and consider the client’s contextual values during decision making (APA, 2006). This is the third part of the APA’s definition of evidence-based practice. Creativity has also been associated with the RH (Grabner, Fink, & Neubauer, 2007), and occurs when counselors are attuned to implicit memories. Creativity occurs when counselors trust their unconscious, where novel ideas are generated, based on environmental cues. Creativity is typically an emergent and unconscious process, unfolding in the immediacy of the counseling room. Counselors often cannot fully prepare for what the client brings to the session. Every session therefore requires some degree of creativity by the counselor, whose flexible response to the interpersonal contact with the client is crucial to establishing a deep and sustained therapeutic bond. For this reason, there is no existing evidence-based protocol for nonverbal body language or affective response by the counselor; these behaviors and responses are highly individualized and contextual, and thus cannot be manualized. Without creativity, the counselor is reduced to the role of technician, administering treatments in a consistent yet rote and rigid manner. The manualization of counseling naturally limits the creative process and RH processing for both counselor and client. While studies are needed, it is possible that a rigid LH approach to the counseling process would restrict rather than enhance the creative capacities of counselor and client, and neglect the client’s natural problem-solving ability (Bohart & Tallman, 2010).

To take a purely LH approach to counseling is to negate the importance of unconscious intuition and clinical experience in counselor effectiveness. Shrinking clinical expertise to merely conscious decision making is reductionist and misses a large body of evidence suggesting that unconscious information also guides clinical decisions. It is entirely possible that many clinical decisions are based more on RH than LH processes. For example, some counselors have experienced moments with clients when they instinctively know the diagnosis or what problem a client is experiencing, without formally checking off symptoms from diagnostic criteria. Counselor educators and supervisors can help trainees to hone unconscious intuition by asking questions such as the following: What is your gut feeling about this client? What prior clinical experiences may have led you to that conclusion? What unconscious decisions have you made that you were satisfied with? What unconscious information are you ignoring or suppressing.

The Centrality of the Counseling Relationship

The importance of RH processing extends to the counseling relationship, which is considered to have a central role in client outcomes. In 2001, the APA formed a Task Force on Evidence-Based Therapy Relationships, concluding in 2011 that the counseling relationship was central to client outcomes to an equivalent or greater extent as the treatment method, and “efforts to promulgate best practices or evidence-based practices (EBPs) without including the relationship are seriously incomplete and potentially misleading” (Norcross & Wampold, 2011, p. 98). Fifty years of research support the centrality of the counseling relationship in client outcomes (Orlinsky et al., 2004). Magnavita (2006) concluded, “the quality of the therapeutic relationship is probably the most robust aspect of therapeutic outcome” (p. 888). By the end of the 1990s, counseling was beginning to move toward a two-person interpersonal model in place of a one-person intrapersonal model for conceptualizing client problems and planning treatment (Cozolino, 2010). Some have argued that identifying and utilizing specialized treatments for certain disorders is therefore misleading, since research studies have consistently found that the “confounding variable” of the therapeutic relationship is the primary factor for counseling efficacy (Norcross & Wampold, 2011).

During counselor-client interactions, the level of intersubjective attunement and engagement strongly influences the quality of this interpersonal contact. As Bromberg (2006) wrote, when counselors try to “know” their clients instead of “understand” their clients through their engagement in the shared intersubjective field of the here and now, “an act of recognition (not understanding) takes place in which words and thoughts come to symbolize experience instead of substitute for it” (p. 11). When this moment of meeting occurs, the client can safely contact, describe, and regulate inner experience. During the client’s heightened emotional states, the counselor can model healthy emotional regulation for the client. This secure holding environment enables clients to experience and cope with their own dysregulated emotions and thus serves as a corrective emotional experience. Because the LH is specialized to manage “ordinary and familiar circumstances” while the RH is specialized to manage emotional arousal and interpersonal interactions (MacNeilage, Rogers, & Vallortigara, 2009), many if not most counseling interventions enhance RH processing for both counselor and client.

Neuroscience supports the integration of both the LH and RH in interactions between counselor and client. The counseling relationship is informed by linguistic content and auditory input (LH function), in addition to visual-facial input, tactile input, proprioceptive input (the body’s movement in space), nonverbal gestures, and body language (RH function). Whereas the LH is involved in conscious processing of language, the RH is responsible for a large amount of social and emotional behavior that occurs during the counseling relationship, such as the moment of contact between counselor and client (Stern, 2004), attention to the external environment (Raz, 2004), empathic resonance of both linguistic content and nonverbal behavior (Keenan, Rubio, Racipoppi, Johnson, & Barnacz, 2005), mental creativity (Asari, Konishi, Jimura, Chikazoe, Nakamura, & Miyashita, 2008), social learning (Cozolino, 2010), emotional words (Kuchinke, Jacobs, Võ, Conrad, Grubich, & Herrmann, 2006), and emotional arousal (MacNeilage et al., 2009). Clearly, all of these RH functions are crucial to the development of a strong counseling relationship. One cannot establish an effective counseling relationship by merely attending to verbal content (LH); a strong counseling relationship requires the integration of both LH and RH processes. Approximately 60% of communication is nonverbal (Burgoon, 1985), which is a RH function (Benowitz, Bear, Rosenthal, Mesulam, Zaidel, & Sperry, 1983). Since so much of counseling is nonverbal and unspoken, yet “known” to the counselor, the practice can be better understood as a communication cure rather than a talking cure (Schore, 2012).

Proposed Direction: Integration of Left- and Right-Brain Pathways

A balance needs to be struck between the extreme polarities of creative vs. structured and repetitive approaches, individualization vs. fidelity to manuals, flexibility vs. rigidity, unconscious vs. conscious, emotions vs. cognitions, and RH vs. LH. Radical adherence to either polarity is less effective. At one polarity, fidelity to a structured, rigid, conscious, LH-activating manualized treatment would lack the flexibility and individualization necessary to establish a strong counseling relationship. At the other extreme, fidelity to a purely spontaneous, flexible, unconscious and RH-activating individualized approach would result in the impossibility of research evidence and thus be unproven. This has been a criticism of some theoretical approaches, such as psychoanalysis (Modell, 2012). Counselors can avoid rigidly following treatment manuals, and avoid completely spontaneous approaches that lack research evidence. According to emerging evidence from neuroscience, an integrated approach to client care seems necessary for effective counseling practice (Schore, 2012). The RH and LH seem equally important to human functioning and survival. These often function in tandem with one another. For example, both hemispheres are integral to problem solving; the RH generates solutions, while the LH decides on a single solution to best fit a problem (Cozolino, 2010).


Counseling effectiveness requires the integration of both right- and left-brain processing. Effective counseling is determined not only by what the counselor does or says; it is determined also by the quality of the counselor’s interaction with the client (Bromberg, 2006). In a two-person relational system, the interaction between counselor and client is at the core of effective counseling. The neuroscience literature suggests that hemispheric processing for both counselor and client is bidirectional. The counselor’s RH-to-RH attunement to the client’s subjective experience in the here-and-now encounter of the counseling room informs unconscious intuition and creativity for both counselor and client.

The counselor develops an implicit understanding of the client’s inner world and generates clinical intuitions that guide the counselor’s decision making. The client is provided with a RH-to-RH holding environment from which deep emotions and sectioned-off past experiences can be explored, and creativity is sparked by the need to respond to the uniqueness of the counseling environment. In cases when clients seem to benefit from interventions that target LH processing, the counselor’s often intuitive and unconscious adjustment is a result of the RH-to-RH interaction between counselor and client. Integrating LH interventions may provide a helpful structure to address client problems and facilitate RH processing when the counselor and client both expect change to occur and demonstrate belief in the chosen intervention, which further strengthens the therapeutic bond (Frank & Frank, 1991).

Prior to incorporating a manualized protocol, counselors can therefore establish rapport and attend to the therapeutic alliance and counseling relationship. This attention to RH processing provides a foundation from which the structure of a LH-activating, manualized treatment can be provided, thus mitigating potential ruptures to the therapeutic relationship that occur when counselors abruptly or rigidly apply treatment manuals in a rote fashion. In this manner, both LH and RH processing is enhanced, which is crucial to successful counseling outcomes.

Taking such an approach would integrate the left and right brain in counselor practice. By incorporating research evidence from neuroscience, counselors have a new model for research-informed counseling practice that fits the historical lineage of prizing the counseling relationship as the core ingredient in therapeutic change. While it is not easy to value both structure and spontaneity, or uniformity and individuality, achieving this balance will result in practice behaviors that are more commensurate with the counseling profession’s values and identity.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The author reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.



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Professional Identity of Counselors in Mexico: A Commentary

Viviana Demichelis Machorro, Antonio Tena Suck

The authors conducted an exploratory study using cultural domain analysis to better understand the meaning that advanced students and professional counselors in Mexico give to their professional identity. More similarities than differences were found in the way students and professionals define themselves. The most relevant concepts were empathy, ethics, commitment, versatility, training and support. Students gave more weight to multiculturalism and diversity, whereas professionals prioritized commitment and responsibility at work. Prevention did not appear as a relevant concept, posing challenges for professional counselor training programs in Mexico.

Keywords: professional identity, multiculturalism, ethics, prevention, counselor training, Mexico

In the field of professional counseling, it is important to consider the benefit of developing a strong professional identity. Initiative 20/20: Vision for Counseling’s Future, represented by influential organizations such as the American Counseling Association (ACA), the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), identifies principles that must be developed in order to strengthen the counseling profession (ACA, n.d.). These principles include sharing a common professional identity and presenting the counseling profession in a unified way. CACREP (2009) recognizes the relevance of promoting professional development in counseling programs; the organization’s standards were written to ensure that counseling student development is congruent with professional identity, as well as the necessary knowledge and skills to practice counseling effectively and efficiently.

In Mexico, steps have been taken toward developing such standards. The Mexican Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy (AMOPP), founded in 2008, has stated in its mission and objectives the promotion of counselor identity and stimulation of professional development (AMOPP, 2014). However, the process of defining professional identity for counselors has complex aspects that imply a great challenge for the Mexican counseling guild (Calva & Jiménez, 2005; Portal, Suck, & Hinkle, 2010).

First, there are few Mexican university programs that train counselors. The only such Mexican graduate program is the master in counseling (maestría en orientación psicológica) at Universidad Iberoamericana, which started in fall 2003 and was awarded CACREP accreditation in 2009. This program prepares students in prevention, evaluation and intervention using an integrative approach that includes theories and techniques, promotion of multicultural sensibility, and a focus on vulnerable populations (Universidad Iberoamericana, n.d.-a). Most students in this master in counseling program have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, which makes for a mixed psychologist/counselor identity that is not easy to separate, and that is likely experienced as a psychological specialty by faculty, students and the general public.

In contrast to countries like the United States and Canada, where a bachelor’s degree is awarded first and students professionalize afterward at the graduate level, in Mexico, students professionalize at the undergraduate level, which promotes professional identity at this point. Thus, in Mexico the possibility of studying for an undergraduate professional program in counseling does not exist, which contributes to the difficulty of counseling being recognized as an independent profession.

There are plenty of reasons to study the professional identity of counselors in Mexico. First, counseling awareness within the community could be increased, making counseling accessible to a population that needs quality mental health services. The Mexican Poll of Psychiatric Epidemiology (ENEP) of the National Institute of Psychiatry reveals that 28.6% of the population presents some type of psychiatric disorder at some point in life, mostly anxiety (14.3%), followed by the use of illegal substances (9.2%) and affective disorders (9.1%). Nevertheless, despite this high incidence of mental health problems, only 10% of the population that presents with a mental disorder receives the attention it needs (Medina-Mora et al., 2003).

Secondly, there is limited professional literature in Mexico regarding professional counseling. Searching behavioral science databases revealed only one reference in a Mexican book regarding psychologists’ professional identity (Harsh, 1994) and no articles about counselors’ professional identity. If the professional identity of counselors in Mexico were more defined, it could help prospective students who are interested in studying counseling. It also could help practicing counselors form a solid base to serve as a platform to strengthen and enrich their professional behavior and clarify their professional identity. Neukrug (2007) has stated that when counselors find out who they are, they will know their limits and relationships with other professions. Therefore, the authors explored the professional identity of counselors in Mexico to better understand their definitive characteristics.

Professional identity, according to Balduzzi and Corrado (2010), is the definition one makes about self in relation to work and an occupational guild. It begins with training, during which professional identity can be promoted or obstructed, and includes interactions with others as well as modeling. Counselors begin to develop professional identity as they are trained (Auxier, Hughes, & Kline, 2003; Brott & Myers, 1999), integrating personal characteristics in the context of a professional community (Nugent & Jones, 2009). Brott and Myers (1999) studied how professional identity is developed among school counseling graduate students in the United States and reported that counselors develop an identity that serves as a reference for professional decisions and assumed roles. These researchers used grounded theory to explain the identity development process of counselors in training. First, students go through a stage of dependence to attain the stage of independence at which the locus of control is internal and the counseling student has the opportunity for self-evaluation without external evaluation. In this advanced stage, experience is integrated with theory, joining personal and professional identities.

To analyze the development of professional identity in counseling students in the United States, Auxier et al. (2003) developed their research from a constructivist model that assumed reality is socially developed, determined by the place where it is elaborated and based on the participants’ experience. They developed the model of “recycling identity formation processes” (p. 32). This model explains that for constructing an identity, a person needs to go through (a) conceptual learning via classes and lectures; (b) experiential learning by practices, dynamics and internship; and (c) external evaluation from teachers, supervisors, coworkers and clients.

Nelson and Jackson (2003) wanted to better understand the development of professional identity among Hispanic counseling students in the United States. They conducted a qualitative study and found seven relevant topics: knowledge, personal growth, experience, relationships, achievements, costs, and perceptions of the counseling profession (Nelson & Jackson, 2003). Although the results were congruent with other findings, such as the need to be accepted and included, relationships such as those available from caring faculty or the support of family and friends were identified as meaningful factors that contribute to formation of a professional identity.

Similarly, du Preez and Roos (2008) used social constructivism to analyze the development of professional identity in South African students between the fourth and last year of their studies as undergraduate counselors. Participants elaborated on visual and written projects regarding their professional development training. Through an analysis of this work, four professional identity themes were identified: capacity for uncertainty, greater self-knowledge, self-reflection and growth (du Preez & Roos, 2008).

Skovholt and Ronnestad (1992) explained that identity development implies progress of attitudes about responsibility, ethical standards, and membership in professional associations. According to the Skovholt and Ronnestad (1992), a counselor’s identity differs from other professional identities because a therapeutic self is shaped by a mixture of professional and personal development. The researchers explained that professional identity is a combination of professional self (e.g., roles, decisions, applying ethics) and personal self (e.g., values, morals, perceptions) that create frameworks for decision making, problem-solving patterns, attitudes toward responsibilities, and professional ethics.

In one of the few quantitative investigations on the topic, Yu, Lee and Lee (2007) used the concept of “collective self-esteem” (p. 163) as a synonym for collective and professional identity. They conducted a study to learn whether the collective self-esteem of counselors influences or mediates their work satisfaction and how they relate to clients. The researchers found that “job  dissatisfaction is negatively related to greater levels of private collective self-esteem, and in turn, greater private collective self-esteem is positively related to better client relationships” (p. 170). Based on their conclusions, it is important to study the professional identity of counselors in Mexico, who must work from a place of job satisfaction and good client relationships in order to successfully address their clients’ social needs.

Hellman and Cinamon (2004) performed a series of semi-structured interviews for 15 professional school counselors with a consensual qualitative research (CQR) strategy to classify counselors through the stages of Super’s (1992) career theory: exploration, establishment, maintaining and specialization. The classification was made according to the perceptions the researchers described about counseling, professional identity, work patterns, and resources and barriers at work. In the beginning stages of their career, counselors describe school counseling as a job or a role, but later they consider counseling a profession. Furthermore, counselors start by depending on external recognition, specific techniques, and highly structured programs. As they become more experienced, counselors gain self-confidence and rely more on their professional judgment.

In general, researchers have described subjective experience to explain the development of professional identity. Furthermore, findings suggests that counselors in their identity development gain more self-knowledge, confidence in their abilities and judgment, knowledge and involvement in their profession and its standards, and a combination of personal and professional characteristics and experiences.


Cultural domain with free listing was chosen as the data collection technique. Cultural domain is “the set of concepts chosen by memory through a reconstructive process that allows participants to have an action plan as well as the subjective evaluation of the events, actions or objects, and it has gradually become one of the most powerful techniques to evaluate the meaning of concepts” (Valdez, 2010, p. 62). It has been accepted in Mexico and applied principally in social psychology and education to define and delineate several concepts such as psychologist (García-Silberman & Andrade, 1994); love, men and women (Hernández & Benítez, 2008); parenting (Medina et al., 2011); the rich and poor (Valdez, 2010); family (Andrade, 1994, 1996; Camacho & Andrade, 1992); and corruption (Avendaño & Ferreira, 1996), among others. This methodology was chosen because “professional identity” is a subjective concept to which different meanings are granted based on personal experiences; the idea was to show the concepts related to the meaning counselors give to their identity.

In this study, the authors posed the following question: What meaning do Mexican counselors give to their professional identity? The dependent variable was professional identity and the attributive variable was level of preparation (student or professional). The study was transversal (data recovery at a unique time frame) and descriptive.


The participants in the study included advanced students in at least their third semester in the master’s counseling program at Universidad Iberoamericana and professional counselors who graduated from the program at least one year ago. Fifteen of 17 advanced students (88.23%) participated, including 3 men and 12 women with an average age of 29.40 years. Twelve of 29 graduates (41%) participated, including 1 man and 11 women, with an average age of 42.75 years.

Survey Development and Procedure

Each participant was asked to list 10 words or brief terms to describe the concept counselor professional identity. Afterward, participants were asked to rank each word from 1–10, assigning 1 to the characteristic word considered the most relevant and 10 to the word considered least relevant. Advanced counseling students were given the survey in their classrooms and graduate counselors were sent the survey via e-mail. The surveys were analyzed following Valdez (2010), obtaining the definitions with the semantic weight (M), for both students and professionals, considering the frequency with which the words were mentioned, as well as the assigned rankings. The authors used a mathematical procedure called el valor M total [Total M Value] (VMT; Valdez, 2010), which entails multiplying the frequency of occurrence times the weight of each defining word. Next, a cross-multiplication was done, considering the highest VMT as 100% in order to obtain the semantic distance between each concept and the stimulus concept (i.e., counselor professional identity). This procedure is referred to as FMG (Valdez, 2010).


For the students, the defining terms for the stimulus counselor professional identity, listed in the order of the frequency and relevance with which the participants used and ranked them, were as follows:

empathic, understands, sensitive, ethical, honest, sincerity, fair, prepared, knowledge, trained, updated, flexible, adapts, support, help, backup, listening, human, warm, congruence, authentic, mental health, well-being, trustable, integrative, responsible, commitment, intervening, implementing, action, professionalism, respect, tolerance, multicultural, contextualized, diversity, observer, acceptance, non-judgment, structure, organizes, collaboration, design, planning, creativity, patience, goal recognition, positive view, growth, development, contention, service attitude, dedication, different, brief, social commitment, interdisciplinary, reflective, analyzes, guides, communicates, open, wide view, curious, scientific, relationship, psychotherapist, therapist, educates, prudent, diagnoses, prevention, dynamic, specialized, assertive, personal, practical, resilient, facilitator, personal therapy, strategic and consultant.

Consensually, the researchers separated these concepts into semantic categories, taking into account terms that are synonyms or that have a very similar meaning, leaving 57 definitions. Similarly, those concepts with more semantic weight were detected, resulting in the Semantic Association Memory (SAM) group according to Valdez (2010), which refers to the 15 categories with the most relevance (M total). This process is done considering frequency and weight. This group includes 17 categories since the last 3 present the same value. Table 1 shows terms that counseling students used to define counselor identity, weighted in order of relevance.

Table 1

Counseling Students’ Identity


For graduated professional counselors, the defining terms for the stimulus counselor professional identity, listed in the order of frequency with which participants used and ranked them, were as follows:

empathic, commitment, dedicated, responsible, ethical, serves vulnerable populations, social service, prepared, experienced, updated, supervised, studious, research, listening, authentic, genuine, congruent, support, assistance, orientation, guidance, honesty, integrity, integrative, trustable, educates, informative, professional, versatile, adaptable, flexible, active, guide, creative, discipline, work, therapeutic relationship, curious, healthy, motivated, reflective, framing, intelligent, strength, ecological, humble, sensitize, acceptance, verbal, focused, aware, systemic, problem-solving, catalyze, assertiveness, decision-making, practical, positive, growth, development, fair, influence, self-knowledge, respectful, tolerant, reflects, cheerful and certified.

Once more, the defining words were classified into semantic categories, obtaining 48 definitions, as well as detecting those with the most semantic weight, resulting in a SAM group with the 15 most relevant categories. The authors derived these categories by considering higher frequencies and weight. The participants indicated that being empathic was the closest concept to counselor professional identity. The authors established empathic as FMG = 100, and cross-multiplied the other concepts to obtain their distance. Table 2 shows terms that professional counselors used to define counselor identity, weighted in order of relevance.

Table 2

Professional Counselors’ Identity


The resulting defining concepts also were divided into two categories: (a) the way counselors work and (b) the way counselors are. The authors believe it is important to understand how counselors actually perceived their role in their work (e.g., professional behaviors, attitudes, approaches, roles, and functions) and also the way they identify themselves personally (e.g., characteristics and abilities; see Table 3).

Table 3

Counselors’ Roles and Characteristics



It is possible to distinguish professional identity with common themes that begin during counselor training and continue as a process (Auxier et al., 2003; Balduzzi & Corrado, 2010; Brott & Myers, 1999). More similarities than differences were found comparing students and graduates.

For students and professionals, empathy occupies the most relevant place when describing counselor identity. It is interesting to observe how counselors, students and professionals prioritize values and concepts that come from a humanistic approach (e.g., empathy, authenticity, being genuine, congruent, warmth). This finding coincides with what Hansen (2003) expressed in that the counseling profession has its roots in the humanistic model, which is an undeniable part of its identity. This is also congruent with the values that the Universidad Iberoamericana promotes with students.

Ethics appear predominantly in both sets of participants, likely since professional identity and ethics are closely related (Nugent & Jones, 2009; Ponton & Duba, 2009; Skovholt & Ronnestad, 1992). Responsibility and commitment, as well as training and preparation, appear to be important defining words for counseling students and graduates, indicating that these concepts are considered fundamental. Furthermore, students and graduates consider flexibility as one of a counselor’s professional identity characteristics, which relates to versatility in counselor roles and functions. Attending to the vulnerable population and social commitment were prominent for graduates, which fortunately matches well with the mission of counseling at their university (Universidad Iberoamericana, n.d.-b).

According to the data, the concept of prevention does not emerge as a direct priority that Mexican counselors believe distinguishes them. Students mention this concept, but just once and with low relevance; however, it does not reveal itself at all as a defining term for professionals. This finding does not correlate well with actual course descriptions within the counseling master’s degree program (Universidad Iberoamericana, n.d.-a); therefore, changes in the program curricula may be needed. Students identified multiculturalism and diversity in the description of their professional identity; however, graduates did not. This distinction could be related to the recent teaching of this topic in Mexico and is expected to increase in the new generation of graduates.

It is important to note the limitations to this preliminary descriptive study. The sample was limited to 27 participants and no in-depth interviews were done in order to more comprehensively understand student and counselor perceptions. There is no basis for suggesting that the results can be generalized to other counselor populations, given that the study was specific to the particular context of one program at a private university. It is imperative to continue the study of counselor professional identity in Mexico with more participants and in-depth interviews.

There are several implications for Mexican counselor educators in regard to the development of counselor professional identity. First, there is the understanding that counselors are models in their professional activities including writing, affiliations and certification. It is imperative that educators invite students to get involved in national and international associations; promote practice, research and writing; and exalt the relevance of counselor certification.

Prevention—on the one hand a historic activity of many counselors—has proven to be a less important to Mexican counselors. To enhance this concept, the university curricula design may need to emphasize this topic in the thematic content of the program’s courses. Practica and internships might as well include prevention strategies in the student’s roles and functions. Furthermore, an elective course about prevention program design and implementation could be offered. On the other hand, it may be that prevention is a good idea, but not actually practiced by professional counselors because people tend to not pay for preventive services.

In summary, counseling students and graduates in Mexico share a common professional identity self-described as empathic, ethical, committed, versatile, trained and supportive. Efforts should be made to continue enhancing counseling core values as the profession continues to grow in Mexico, as well as internationally.


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Viviana Demichelis Machorro is a doctoral student at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Antonio Tena Suck is the Director of the Psychology Department at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Correspondence can be addressed to Viviana Demichelis Machorro, Universidad Iberoamericana, Departamento de Psicología, Prolongación Paseo de la Reforma 880, Lomas de Santa Fe, 01219 México Distrito Federal,