Helping Military Parents Cope

Lynn K. Hall

Increasingly, mental health professionals are providing counseling services to military families. Military parents often struggle with child-rearing issues and experience difficulty meeting the fundamental needs for trust and safety among their children because they are consumed with stress and their own needs. Within this article, military family dynamics are discussed and parenting styles, namely coercive, pampering or permissive and respectful leadership, are explored. The authors conclude by highlighting counseling interventions that
may be effective for working with military parents and families.

Keywords: military parents, family dynamics, child-rearing, safety, counseling interventions

In 1994, Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman began tracking families in their practice who had many of the dynamics of alcoholic or abusive families, but had no history of alcohol abuse, incest, physical abuse, emotional neglect or physical absence. The one consistent characteristic of those families was similar to many military families that I worked with, which was that “the needs of the parent system took precedence over the needs of the children” (Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman, 1994, p. 4). It is because of this dynamic that I chose to use the term “parent-focused families” when writing about parenting issues in the book, Counseling Military Families: What Mental Health Professionals Need to Know (Hall, 2008). Developmentally, many military parents who are struggling with child-rearing issues have difficulty meeting the fundamental needs for trust and safety for their children because they are consumed with their own needs (Hall, 2008). One of the major challenges of military families is learning how to operate within the larger external system of the military without complaint or unreasonable expectations.

Wertsch (1991) described this dynamic as the stoicism of the military, or the need to be ready, maintain the face of a healthy family, and do what is expected without showing discontent or dissatisfaction. A second important dynamic is secrecy, or not allowing what happens in the family to impact the military parent’s career. The third dynamic, denial, also is present in most military families as they make numerous transitions and experience issues like the deployment of the service member (Wertsch, 1991). In order to survive, the non-military parent and children often deny the emotional aspect of these transitions, as well as more “normal” developmental transitions. In many parent-focused military families, particularly when there is a child who is acting out or in other ways exhibiting behavior problems, these three dynamics often lead to other characteristics (Hall, 2008) such as:

1. The belief that the child is the problem, rather than the child may have a problem.
2. The child is given a label, such as lazy or stupid, rather than understanding that the behavior may be the result of a mental health, developmental or learning problem.
3. Children sometimes learn early that, if expressed, their feelings may make things worse so that detaching emotionally becomes quite functional.
4. Once they discover that their feelings will not be validated, they may learn to distrust their own judgments and feelings.
5. The child may take on the responsibility of meeting the emotional and sometimes physical needs of the parents.
6. If either parent is inconsistently emotionally available, children may have difficulty letting down the barriers required for intimacy later in life (Hall, 2008; Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman, 1994).

These characteristics, when played out in military families, are a reflection of the secrecy, stoicism and denial often demanded of these families. Instead of providing a supportive, nurturing, and reality-based mirror, the parents may present a mirror that only reflects their needs, resulting in children who grow up feeling defective (Hall, 2008). “When one is raised unable to trust in the stability, safety, and equity of one’s world, one is raised to distrust one’s own feelings, perceptions, and worth” (Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman, 1994, p.18).

When we look at the demographics of military families, we see that most military dependent children are born to very young couples who have been removed from their extended support system or other supportive older adults on whom they can rely. For almost all military children, their physical and psychological needs are indeed met during childhood; however, when children begin to assert themselves and/or make emotional demands, which often begins in early to middle adolescence, the parental system may be unable to tend to the children’s needs. Parents who are under a great deal of stress and perhaps faced with a high level of uncertainty around issues like multiple deployments may find themselves resentful or threatened by the needs of the children. The ability to understand how some families in the military are organized, not just because of who the parents are but, more importantly, who the parents are in the midst of the demands of the “warrior fortress” in which they live, is essential in working with these families (Hall, 2008).

Parenting in a Democratic Society

One counselor explained that military couples are often not faced with the typical life decisions or choices of civilian couples, such as buying a home or relocating because of an available career opportunity (Hall, 2008). At the same time, military couples and families are required to relate to and often spend a great many years living in our mostly democratic American world. This counselor often finds it necessary to point out to parents of adolescents that, while the parents may have adjusted well to living in the authoritarian military structure, rebellious teens often see the world in a different way. A typical military parental response to a rebelling teen is to tighten the rules, becoming more vigilant and rigid. This is often the result of the fear of losing control or their place as the head of the household. “Children of the military, whether they live on base or not, live, at least part of their life, in a democratic society; they go to democratic schools and their parents are serving the mission of defending a democratic nation. It is understandable, then, how those who face strictly authoritarian parenting or home life might be confused and perhaps become rebellious” (Hall, 2008, p. 119).

McKay and Maybell (2004) write about the democratic revolution which they define as an “upheaval in all of our social institutions: government, education, the workplace, race relationships, gender relationships and families” (p. 64). As these authors point out, during the last few decades most social institutions and relationships in the United States have operated from an equality identity that values attitudes of equal values and respect. These societal changes require new attitudes toward oneself and others, as well as a new set of knowledge and skills (Hall, 2008; McKay & Maybell, 2004). The military, on the other hand, has not changed to an egalitarian institution: it never will because it could not survive. But, regardless of how the military organizes itself and its members, the military family still lives, at least to some degree, in a democratic society. This means the individual members of the family will often struggle as they go back and forth between the authoritarian world of the military and the democratic world in which they both come from and continue to be a part (Hall, 2008).

While McKay and Maybell (2004) were addressing the conflict in the greater society over the last few decades, their description of the “tension, conflict, anger, and even violence . . . as we move from the old autocratic tradition to a new democratic one” (p. 65) clearly describes the ongoing challenge for military parents. These are valuable insights when understanding the children and the families of the military, many of whom may view the world outside of the military quite appealing and then begin to rebel against the rigid structure they are forced to live within. This theoretical framework can be a useful tool for counselors in helping families understand the need to move from the external often rigid superior/inferior military structure to a more egalitarian structure in the home that encourages and respects each individual in the family but still maintains the hierarchical need for parental control that is necessary for all functioning families (Hall, 2008).

Helping parents to assess their current parenting style, and then to consider how to modify their parenting practices from patterns that are discouraging for their children to those that are encouraging, can be extremely valuable for family growth and development. Whether this is done in a parent training environment or a family counseling setting, helping parents adjust their style will directly impact their children’s behavior. McKay and Maybell (2004) describe three of the most common parenting styles: the coercive parenting style, the pampering or permissive parenting style and the respectful leadership style. Because these authors have years of Adlerian training and writing experience, the reader will recognize that these parenting styles correspond to previous parenting literature written by Adlerian writers. The first two often discourage the healthy development of children; the third is not only respectful, but can be both encouraging and empowering (Hall, 2008).

Coercive Parenting

The coercive parenting style is often the style used to control children for their own good and is often the style of parenting used in parent-focused families, as well as the families of very young parents who have little family support (McKay & Maybell, 2004). It is often the style we find in military parents with children who are rebelling or acting out. The parents maintain control by giving orders, setting rules, making demands, rewarding obedient behavior, and punishing bad deeds (Hall, 2008). McKay and Maybell call this model limits without freedom. These parents almost always have good intentions and want to make sure their children avoid many of life’s mistakes; their goal is simply to teach their children the right way before they get hurt. The need for children to accommodate a subordinate identity may work for a while, at least when the children are young. However, when children want to be acknowledged for their individuality or want to be respected as an individual, this style can result in conflict and power struggles (Hall, 2008). “Kids tend to become experts at not doing what their parents want them to do and doing exactly what their parents don’t want” (McKay & Maybell, 2004, p.71). The results of coercive parenting are often kids who either need to get even, resulting in a constant war of revenge, or kids who submit to the coercion and learn to rely only on those in power to make their decisions (Hall, 2008), either of which can be destructive to the healthy development of children.

Pampering or Permissive Parenting

The permissive parenting style (McKay & Maybell, 2004) is used by parents whose goal is to produce children who are always comfortable and happy, by either letting them do whatever they please or by doing everything for them. This parenting style is referred to as freedom without limits and is often the style that current popular literature calls helicopter parenting. These children often end up considering themselves to be the prince or princess and their parents their servants. They can develop a “strong sense of ego-esteem with little true self- or people-esteem” (McKay & Maybell, 2004, p.72). Often they have under-developed social skills and can become too dependent on others. Parents eventually, however, may resent how much they are doing for their children, leading to conflict and power struggles. With so few limits, children believe they not only can do anything they want, but believe they should be allowed to do anything they want, leading to a sense of entitlement along with a lack of internal self-discipline or self-responsibility (Hall, 2008).

These first two parenting styles can even exist in the same family, where one parent is the authoritarian (in a military family, usually the military parent) and the other is the permissive parent who lessens the rules of the authoritarian parent, particularly when that parent is absent. School behavior often worsens upon the return of the military parent from deployment. If asked, young people will say that everything was fine at home while the service member parent was gone, but now that the parent has returned and started cracking the whip, the teens often turn to rebellion or other inappropriate behaviors (Hall, 2008).

Respectful Leadership

The third parenting style is the only encouraging style for children; it is the style of respectful leadership (McKay & Maybell, 2004), or freedom within limits. The parents value the child as an individual and value themselves as leaders of the family through the guiding principle of mutual respect in all parent-child interaction. Giving choices is the main discipline approach with the goal of building on individual strengths, accentuating the positive, promoting responsibility, and instilling confidence in the children (Hall, 2008). This parenting style, in both the civilian and military worlds, can help build respectful, responsible children. Emphasizing that parents are not giving up their leadership role in order to parent their children is especially important in military families. Combining that with the concept of “respect” makes sense within the military culture.

A counselor told of an Army officer who brought his 16-year-old daughter to counseling because she was acting out. He insisted that she come home at her curfew time and she quit hanging out with the boys he disapproved. She responded with a typical angry look that caused Dad to come unglued. The counselor asked Dad what his biggest fear was for his daughter, thinking that he would be worried about her becoming pregnant, not finishing school, or any of a number of other possible responses. After thinking and, for the first time, with tears in his eyes, Dad said that she might leave him like her mother did. The spirit of counseling changed at that point. With a look of complete astonishment on the daughter’s face, she started crying and told her dad that she thought he wanted her to leave because he couldn’t face her after her mom left. The counselor was able to help Dad see that setting rigid rules that had to be tightened up every time they were broken, might not work as the two of them forged a new relationship and he allowed her to mature into a responsible young woman. Helping him find ways to include her in setting limits and in household decisions, as it was now just the two of them, went a long way in repairing their relationship, as well as in empowering her to make healthy decisions in other parts of her life.

Working with Parents

Helping parents understand how their parenting style impacts child development can often be a counselor’s most valuable teaching tool. While it sounds easy, it is not; parents need guidance and direction on how to give choices, when to give choices, and how to be creative in choosing appropriate consequences. Parents have to learn to start small, start young (when possible), and be willing to make mistakes. The Adlerian principle of the courage to be imperfect also must be a part of parent education. Parents all want the best for their children; helping them promote responsibility and confidence by making adjustments in their parenting style can help them reach these goals. As early as 1984, Rodriguez wrote that in a rank-privileged and -oriented social system like the military, this mix of caste formation and egalitarianism may create a difficult dichotomy, particularly for children and adolescents struggling for their identity. This dichotomy can be exacerbated by the parent-focused nature of the military when parents are concerned about how their child’s misbehavior might affect the parent’s status in the military. Children become sensitive to this parental anxiety and the anger that follows when they break community rules or military social norms. In some military communities, particularly those that are isolated and where rules are strongly enforced, children have little room to make mistakes or test the limits of authority in a normal, developmental manner, without impacting the family status or the military parent’s career (Hall, 2008).

It is important to point out that not all military families struggle with these issues; the great majority carry out their parenting duties extremely well and raise healthy children, often in the midst of difficult situations. Jeffreys and Leitzel’s (2000) study noted that a caring relationship and low family stress is associated with resiliency. If children have an emotionally supportive relationship with their parents, they are more likely to demonstrate high levels of self-esteem and healthy psychological development. Their study (Jeffreys & Leitzel, 2000) of military families suggests that family climate promotes the participation in family decision-making and is positive for adolescent identity development. Effective communication patterns facilitate family interaction and are associated with social competence. This finding is reflected in McKay & Maybell’s (2004) respectful leadership style of parenting and can help mental health counselors focus their work on helping military parents learn the parenting skills necessary to reach their goals of having competent, healthy and responsible children, as well as coping with the sometimes overwhelming challenges they face while serving in the military.


Donaldson-Pressman, S., & Pressman, R. M. (1994). The narcissistic family: Diagnosis and treatment. San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hall, L. K. (2008). Counseling military families: What mental health professionals need to know. New York, NY:
Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.
Jeffreys, D. J., & Leitzel, J. D. (2000). The strengths and vulnerabilities of adolescents in military families. In J. A. Martin, L. N. Rosen, & L. R. Sparacino, (Eds.). The military family: A practice guide for human service providers (pp. 225–240). Westport, CT: Praeger.
McKay, G. D., & Maybell, S. A. (2004). Calming the family story: Anger management for Moms, Dads, and all the kids. Atascadero, CA: Impact.
Rodriguez, A. R. (1984). Special treatment needs of children of military families. In F. W. Kaslow & R. I. Ridenour (Eds.) The military family: Dynamics and treatment (pp. 46–72). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Wertsch, M. E. (1991). Military brats: Legacies of childhood inside the fortress. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Lynn K. Hall, NCC is Dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix. Correspondence can be addressed to Lynn K. Hall, College of Social Sciences, University of Phoenix, 4605 E. Elwood St., Phoenix, AZ 85040,

Venezuelan Counseling: Advancement and Current Challenges

George Davy Vera

In the worldwide community it is not well known that counseling and guidance professional practices have a long tradition in Venezuela. Therefore, this contribution’s main purpose is to inform the international audience about past and contemporary counseling in Venezuela. Geographic, demographic, and cultural facts about Venezuela are provided. How counseling began, its early development, and pioneer counselors are discussed. The evolution of counseling from an education-based activity to counseling as a technique-driven intervention is given in an historical account. How a vision of counselors as technicians moved to the notion of counseling as a profession is explained by describing turning points, events, and governmental decisions. Current trends on Venezuelan state policy regarding counselor training, services, and professional status are specified by briefly describing the National Counseling System Project and the National Flag Counseling Training Project. Finally, acknowledgement of Venezuela’s counseling pioneers and one of the oldest counseling training programs in Venezuela is described.

Keywords: Venezuela, history of counseling, clinical interventions, policy, training programs

Venezuela is located on the northern coast of South America, covering almost 566,694 square kilometers (km; 352,144 square miles). It is bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Guyana, Brazil, and Colombia, with a total land boundary of 4,993 km (3,103 miles) and a coastline of 2,800 km (1,740 miles). Its population is approximately 29 million and mostly Catholic. Some aboriginal groups practice their own traditional magical-religious beliefs. Since its independence, emigrants from different parts of the world have helped build the country’s culture and economy. Diverse populations of Arab, Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese, among others, live in Venezuela.

Even though several ethnic groups prevail in the country today, three groups are clearly distinct from its origin: European white, African black and Native aborigines. After five hundred years of blending, three different culturally and ethnically groups have emerged: Mulato (white and black), Zambo (black and aborigine), and Mestizo (white and aborigine). Although Venezuela has ethnic compositions and mixtures, all Venezuelans have the same rights and duties under the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999. More Venezuelan differences and prejudices are related to social, educational, economic, and political status.

Economically, Venezuela has one of the largest economies in South America due to its oil production; however, a large number of its population remains in poverty. Today, the current administration has created different popular programs, called missions, to deal with most Venezuelans’ needs including lack of education, employment, health care, and public safety, among others. So far, according to the United Nations (UN) and UNESCO’s official reports, Venezuela has reached most of its millennium goals established by the UN. Politically, after several years of turmoil, Venezuelan society reached a normal democratic institutional peace in 2004.

Early Developments of Counseling in Venezuela

During the 1930s, counseling in Venezuela began as a form of educational guidance and counseling concerned with academic and vocational issues using mainly psychometric approaches. Some Venezuelan counseling pioneers were European emigrants. In fact, during the 1940s, some school counseling services were created by Dr. Jose Ortega Duran, an educator; Professor Miguel Aguirre, a counselor; Professor Vicente Constanzo, teacher and philosopher; and Professor Antonio Escalona, a career counselor and professor (Benavent, 1996; Calogne, 1988; Vera, 2009). Because of the education and training of these early pioneers, counseling in Venezuela was conceived as an educational, vocational, and career-oriented service.

A formal definition of the counseling and training of professional counselors has slowly evolved from the 1960s to today. Because of the oil industry development, Venezuela moved from an agricultural to an industrial economic base. Because of this, the Venezuelan population grew rapidly and rural farmers moved to the major cities, which were demanding more workers, specialized employees, and technicians. Therefore the demand for better education to satisfy new jobs related to industrial demands and pressured the government to create new policies concerning education. One of the new policies regarded counseling and guidance services. Therefore, in the early 1960s the government created the first counselor education training program (Calogne, 1988; Moreno, 2009; Vera, 2009).

By an agreement between the Ministry of Education and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), counseling professors from the U.S. were hired to train school teachers in counseling and guidance. The training focused on personal counseling techniques and strategies, counseling theory and methods, and educational counseling. Because the training emphasized basic counseling knowledge and techniques for school teachers, a vision of counseling and guidance as educational activities within the scope of the school teacher role emerged. Accordingly, counseling and guidance was understood as a technique-based activity oriented to help students with academic, vocational, career, and personal issues. Later, the Ministry of Education requested that the Pedagogic Institute of Caracas create a formal, three-semester educational training program in counseling and guidance.

As a result, in 1962 the Ministry of Education requested that the Pedagogic Institute of Caracas house the first formal counselor education program in Venezuela. Counseling and guidance was conceived as knowledge and intervention techniques to help with students’ personal growth and academic performance. The term Orientación was chosen to better signify counseling and guidance in Venezuela’s Spanish language. Graduates from this program received a college diploma as orientador. Both terms, orientación and orientador, were thus used in the country for the first time.

Another consequence of the counselor education program at the Pedagogic Institute of Caracas was its contributions to a new vision of counseling as a technique-oriented educational program. Therefore, counseling was conceived as a technical occupation that emerged within the scope of education. By this time, counseling had achieved official and public recognition as a social occupation that required proper education and a set of formal conditions for practice. The Ministry of Education used this new vision of counseling to create the first jobs defined as counselor positions within Venezuela’s educational system (Vera, 2009).

From Counselors as Technicians to the Counseling Profession

Shortly after the first graduates in counseling started their practice, the Ministry of Education understood that the practice of counseling and guidance was more complex than originally perceived and realized that the high demand for counseling services was calling for rapid institutional answers to counseling-related questions. As a result, the National Counseling System, known as the Counseling Division of the Ministry of Education, was developed. This organizational structure was responsible for all counseling matters countrywide, including hiring conditions, developing counseling services, supervising, and training requirements. From this Division, counseling as a profession was envisioned as a human development model (Aquacviva, 1985; Calogne, 1988).

Because counselor employment was now available within the Ministry of Education, several universities established guidance and counseling training options as a five-year bachelor’s degree. Consequently, the first bachelors’ degrees in education majoring in guidance and counseling (mención orientación) were granted in the early 1970s. Master’s level degrees in guidance and counseling granted by the Pedagogic Institute of Caracas were also awarded during this time.

Some of the early graduates from these programs went abroad, mainly to the U.S., to obtain advanced counseling and guidance education and training at the master’s and doctoral levels. Upon returning to Venezuela, they engaged in teaching and training in counseling and guidance at different colleges and some were hired by the Ministry of Education. Other graduates concentrated their energy on organizing counseling professional associations. As a result, American theories, models, and views of the counseling profession in the 1970s and 1980s were fused with Venezuela’s view of counseling and guidance (Vera, 2009).

Because most Venezuelan counselors had been educated abroad, a number of trends in counselor education were adopted. For instance, some bachelors’ level counseling education programs were based on a vision of guidance and vocational education (e.g., Venezuela Central University and the University of Carabobo), while other programs assumed a vocational and academic perspective (e.g., Liberator Pedagogical University), and yet others implemented individual, lifelong approaches (e.g., The University of Zulia and the University Simon Rodriguez). Finally, the Center for Psychological, Psychiatric, and Sexual Studies of Venezuela clearly embraced an educational and mental health counseling standpoint in masters’ level training. (However, for political and governmental reasons, some of these early programs no longer exist.)

Between the 1970s and 1980s professionalism in counseling was embraced because counseling- and guidance-related organizational movements emerged. Counseling associations were organized and began to promote a vision of counseling as an independent profession from education, psychology, and social work. One of these associations was the Zulia College of Professional Counselors (ZCPC), which was responsible for raising the visibility of professional counseling in Venezuela by creating the first Counseling Code of Ethics, advocating for counseling jobs, and becoming a valid interlocutor between professional counselors and the government.

The ZCPC was established by a group of counseling professors and early graduates from the bachelors’ degree of education in counseling and guidance. During the 1970s and 1980s, counselors in this organization started developing a cultural base for counseling knowledge. In particular, ZCPC established professional meetings for discussing counseling profession matters such as advanced education, professional identity, and social responsibility.

By this time, counseling master’s programs were available in several parts of Venezuela. Hence, professionalism came to light and important matters for counseling’s future development were assumed by counselor educators, practitioners, and associations.

Current Trends: Contemporary Concerns for Professional Practice and Education

Currently, several professional matters regarding counseling are taking place in Venezuela, one being the status of counseling as an independent profession. The Venezuela Counseling Associations Federation (FAVO) will soon introduce a legislative proposal concerning professional counseling practice. If it is passed, Venezuelan counselors will have their first counseling practice law granting counselors’ independent professional practice based on research, knowledge, specified training, and educational requirements.

Another important matter is the creation of the Venezuela Counseling System. This system will organize and provide counseling to the population by a diverse delivery of services and programs based on a vision of counseling for personal, social, cultural, and economical enhancement within the context of a humanistic, democratic, participatory, and collective society. The system is designed and based on the Venezuela Bolivarian Constitution, which guarantees human rights related to social inclusion and justice, freedom, education, mental health, vocational needs, employment, lifelong support, and opportunities for individual development and family prosperity. The system is organized into four areas: education, higher education, community, and the workplace or economic sector. The system is already approved by the Ministry of Higher Education and the formal government resolution and implementation process is pending.

The system embraces advanced concepts and new trends related to professionalism, practice, and the social responsibility of counseling professionals. This includes certification for counseling practitioners, supervision, and credentialing via continuing education for professionals in order to ensure quality. Structurally, the system will be connected to all Venezuelan Ministries for functions and planning purposes, but will be independently managed by a national committee appointed by the Ministry of Higher Education, holding advanced degrees in counseling and appropriate counseling credentials.

A third matter is related to counseling training programs. Because the Counseling National System will require a large number of trained counselors in the next ten years, new counseling training programs will be created by public and private universities to ensure the quality of counselor training and to satisfy system requirements. Consequently, the government has requested that counseling experts propose a unique counseling training program based on core counseling knowledge, techniques, supervision, and other key features. For details on the proposed counseling program coursework, see Table 1.

The proposed National Counseling Professional Program (NCPP) will be at the bachelor’s level and four semesters long. A unique prerequisite of this program is that applicants must already hold one of these bachelors’ degrees: education, psychology, social work, sociology, industrial engineering, philosophy, pedagogy, or physician.

The proposed NCPP will be organized into core areas and will educate counseling professionals according to the following general objectives:
1. Educate professional counselors to satisfy the needs of the Counseling National System, its subsystems, and any other professional counseling contexts.
2. Develop critical, reflective, dialectical and dialogical counseling professionals. Understand theoretical and conceptual information related to the counseling field and its interdisciplinary sources.
3. Acquire the theory based and applied competencies of the counseling profession in diverse contexts.
4. Understand Venezuelan counseling’s historical roots and its international origins.
5. Understand the ethical dimensions of the counseling profession and the legal characteristics of counseling practice.
6. Actively participate in the development of solidarity, participatory and responsible collectivist citizenship.
7. Articulate counseling professional actions with Venezuela’s social, cultural, and economic development.
8. Use the cultural and social bases of the counseling profession in creating lifelong counseling services.
9. Bond the training and practices of professional counselors with plans and guidelines for Venezuela’s cultural, social, and economic development.
10. Train professional counselors needed for the Venezuelan police.

Other counseling training programs will be developed according to the official training program. Institutions may develop their own specific program, but must include the official requirements.

A last concern is professional counselor certification, supervision, and continuing education. FAVO has worked on these matters since 2004 in collaboration with the NBCC International. FAVO is developing Venezuela’s first National Counselor Certification System as well as conceptualizing a national supervision model and continuing education. FAVO granted the first group of national certified counselors in 2010 and is planning for the first group of trained and certified counselor supervisors in 2011.

Final Thoughts

After years of counselor education evolution and counseling services growth, the professionalization of counseling in Venezuela is now happening, but it depends on Venezuelan counseling leaders to develop a strong advocacy movement. Accordingly, Venezuela’s current political climate has the extraordinary opportunity to pass the Venezuela Counseling Law Proposal in the National Assembly. This may be possible if FAVO has successes in the implementation of the Venezuela National Counseling Certification System because this can help in the task of alerting Venezuela’s professional counselors. Accordingly, counselors’ sense of professionalism might spark the enthusiasm needed for involvement in a strong advocacy movement.

Finally, according to experiences in different parts of the world, it can be concluded that not only in Venezuela, but worldwide, the profession of counseling is an emerging phenomenon; therefore, international counseling institutions and organizations need to begin acting on how to face the worldwide challenges for professional counselors.


Benavent, J. (1996). La orientación psicopedagógica en España. Desde sus orígenes hasta 1939. Valencia, VZ: Promolibro.
Calogne, S. (1988). Tendencias de la Orientación en Venezuela. Cuadernos de Educación 135. Caracas, VZ: Cooperativa Laboratorio Educativo.
Moreno, A. (2009). La orientación como problema. Centro de investigaciones populares. Caracas, Venezuela: Colección Convevium.
Vera, G. D. (2009). La profesión de orientación en Venezuela. Evolución y desafíos contemporáneos. Revista de Pedagogia, Universidad Central de Venezuela.

George Davy Vera teaches in the Counselor Education Program, Universidad de Zulia, Maracaibo, Venezuela. Dr. Vera expresses appreciation to Dr. J. Scott Hinkle for editorial comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Correspondence should be directed to George Davy Vera, avenida 16 (Guajira). Ciudad Universitaria, Núcleo Humanístico, Facultad de Humanidades y Educación. Edificio de Investigación y Postgrado. Maracaibo, Venezuela,

The Counseling Program at the University of Zulia: An International Program

George Davy Vera

A personal description of the international counselor education program at the University of Zulia in Venezuela is presented including educational objectives of the counseling degree, various services counselors are trained to provide, and a sample curriculum. This description serves as an example of one international counselor education program that can be used as a model for burgeoning programs in other countries.

Keywords: Venezuela, University of Zulia, international counseling, counselor education, counseling services, curriculum

Venezuela’s early counseling pioneers at the University of Zulia, some of whom were trained in the United States (e.g., Dr. E. Acquaviva, Dr. C. Guanipa, A. Busot, M. Ed.; A. Quintero, M.Ed., M. Socorro, M.Ed., D. Campo, M.Ed.), were pioneers responsible for influencing and crafting the counseling and guidance culture at the University of Zulia. Accordingly, I would like to describe one of the oldest and most well known counseling training programs in Venezuela. This program is chosen because many past and present counseling leaders in Venezuela were educated at the University of Zulia.

Initially in the early 1970s, this bachelor’s level counseling program was conceived as educational counseling (asesoramiento) and vocational guidance (orientación vocacional) as a specialization track within the major of Pedagogical Science. Graduates from this program received a Licentiate in Education, Major in Pedagogical Sciences in the area of counseling (Licenciatura en Educación, Mención Ciencias Pedagógicas, Area de Orientación). According to the University of Zulia’s official archive (1970-2010) on counseling academic and curriculum development, professional services related to individual, vocational or educational counseling and guidance were understood as orientación. Therefore, the Spanish word was implemented to better communicate the meaning of professional counseling and guidance. Historically, the academic choice of using this term at the time was congruent with the Ministry of Education’s decision in 1962, when the terms orientación and orientador were officially adopted to describe guidance professionals and counseling practitioners, respectively. The current bachelors’ degree is five years long (10 academic semesters, for details see Appendix A).

According to the Academic Updated Curriculum Design (Curriculum Commission of Psychology Department, 1995), the education of professional counselors is conceived upon several key concepts:

• Professional identity reflects that graduates are trained to perform counseling and guidance tasks within the educational system and other professional and organizational agencies.
• Counseling professionals help people develop within the social environment, assist with the processes of psychosocial functioning, and effectively deal with developmental changes and stressful life events.
• Professional counselors trained at the University of Zulia are competent in performing counseling tasks such as:
o designing, implementing, and evaluating counseling services.
o developing prevention or remediation programs emphasizing personal, social, academic, vocational, work, recreational, and community needs at any developmental phase using individual or group strategies.

The main educational objectives of the counseling major are:
1. Diagnosing human system characteristics within the educational, organizational, assistance, judicial, and community contexts.
2. Performing counseling and consultation.
3. Designing, implementing, and evaluating services.
4. Generating research in counseling.

Graduates provide counseling services in different areas of human services:
A. Personal-social counselors help clients deal with issues related to social roles and gain more understanding of themselves within their sociocultural context. The main purpose of the personal-social intervention area is to help clients deal with mental health and personal growth issues and to reach psychological stability. In this area, some helping processes are related to:
• psychological development: self-esteem, decision-making, emotional stability, psychosexual maturity, and intellectual potential.
• social development: interpersonal relationships, work and academic motivation, social adjustment, and ethical values.
• family development: prevention, couples relationships, parents and children, family crisis intervention including divorce, terminal and lifelong sickness, bereavement, and human sexuality.
B. Academic counselors help clients deal with issues related to learning and the role of the learner. Helping processes are related to educational adjustment, academic attitudes, cognitive development, academic performance, and consultation with school teachers, families, and communities.
C. Vocational counselors focus on individual talents, vocational potential and tendencies, as well as roles within the workplace. Vocational counselors’ tasks are mainly focused on several facets, including assessment, decision-making, work development, academic needs, workplace readiness, and positive work attitudes.
D. Work counselors provide counseling services to help individuals and organizations with shared objectives to reach mutual satisfaction and development. This area includes process management, career planning and development, work motivation and communication, work-related decision-making, evaluation, conflict resolution, work-service quality, leadership, performance, and teamwork.
E. Community and recreational counselors provide counseling services for community life enhancement. Counseling processes in this area include community resources and needs, civic practices, positive utilization of recreation and free time, community creativity, organization and planning, cultural and artistic manifestations, and social transformation.

Graduates are trained in three core counseling professional competencies:
• Human system diagnostics: use of diverse tools for diagnosing human systems and individual psychological, educational, social and developmental characteristics.
• Program and service design: conceptualize and evaluate human processes in order to design and administer counseling services for individuals, groups, communities, and organizations.
• Counseling and consultation: provide professional services concerning human potential development and to meet psychological, emotional, behavioral, educational, social, organizational, and community needs.


Curriculum Commission of Psychology Department. (1995). Counseling education program. Maracaibo, VZ: University of Zulia.

George Davy Vera teaches in the Counselor Education Program, Universidad de Zulia, Maracaibo, Venezuela. Dr. Vera expresses appreciation to Dr. J. Scott Hinkle for editorial comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Correspondence should be directed to George Davy Vera, avenida 16 (Guajira). Ciudad Universitaria, Núcleo Humanístico, Facultad de Humanidades y Educación. Edificio de Investigación y Postgrado. Maracaibo, Venezuela,

Social Distance and Mental Illness: Attitudes Among Mental Health and Non-Mental Health Professionals and Trainees

Allison L. Smith, Craig S. Cashwell

Social distance towards adults with mental illness was explored among mental health and non-mental health trainees and professionals. Results suggested mental health trainees and professionals desired less social distance than non-mental health trainees and professionals, and that women desired less social distance than men, with male non-professionals demonstrating the greatest desire for social distance to individuals diagnosed with mental illness. Social distance also is related to attitudes towards adults with mental illness. Implications of such findings are presented.

Keywords: social distance, adult mental illness, mental health professionals, stigma, discriminatory behavior

Stigma has been defined as a product of disgrace that sets a person apart from others (Byrne, 2000). Stigma towards adults with mental illness, defined here as a serious medical condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning (National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI], 2009), is both a longstanding and widespread phenomenon (Byrne, 2000; Crisp, Gelder, Rix, Meltzer, & Rowlands, 2000). Researchers seem clear that stigma still exists as a detrimental occurrence in the lives of those diagnosed with a mental illness (Link, Struening, Neese-Todd, Asmussen, & Phelan, 2001; Link, Yang, Phelan, & Collins, 2004; Perlick et al., 2001). In fact, some have argued that the impact of mental illness stigma is so immense that the stigma can be as damaging as the symptoms (Feldman & Crandall, 2007). In the last decade, there have been attempts to highlight to the general population the topic of stigma towards adults with mental illness. For instance, Surgeon General David Satcher spoke in a recent report of the need to recognize stigma as a barrier within the field of mental health. He suggested that mental health care could not be improved without the eradication of mental health stigma (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).

In the mental illness stigma literature, authors have used the construct of social distance (the proximity one desires between oneself and another person in a social situation) to assess expected discriminatory behavior towards adults with mental illness (Baumann, 2007; Link & Phelan, 2001; Marie & Miles, 2008). Scholars have described low social distance as characterized by a feeling of commonality, or belonging to a group, based on the idea of shared experiences. In contrast, high social distance implies that the person is separate, a stranger, or an outsider (Baumann, 2007). It has been suggested that social distance research can provide valuable insight into factors that influence mental illness stigma (Marie & Miles, 2008).

Social Distance and Non-Mental Health Professionals

Factors that are associated with social distance in the general population towards adults with mental illness have been discussed in the literature (Corrigan, Backs, Edwards, Green, Diwan, & Penn, 2001; Feldmann & Crandall, 2007; Hinkelman & Haag, 2003; Marie & Miles, 2008; Penn, Kohlmaier, & Corrigan, 2000; Phelan & Basow, 2007; Shumaker, Corrigan, & Dejong, 2003). One such factor that has been studied as it relates to social distance is gender, both of the target (person with the mental illness) (Phelan & Basow, 2007) and perceiver (person who desires social distance) (Hinkelman & Haag, 2003; Marie & Miles, 2008; Phelan & Basow, 2007).

Researchers (Marie & Miles, 2008; Phelan & Basow, 2007) have found that women tend to be more willing than men to engage in a relationship with someone diagnosed with depression. Marie and Miles (2008) investigated familiarity of the perceiver with various mental illnesses. A significant main effect was found for gender, with women perceivers rating the characters in vignettes as more dangerous than men participants (Marie & Miles, 2008). Phelan and Basow (2007) found that gender of the target character was a significant predictor of social distance, with female targets being more socially tolerated than male targets. This may be due to the fact that participants perceive male characters in vignettes as more dangerous than female characters. Hinkelman and Haag (2003) also have assessed how gender and adherence to strict gender roles impact attitudes toward mental illness. Interestingly, adherence to strict gender roles rather than gender was related to attitudes about mental illness. Those with strict gender roles were less likely to have positive attitudes. Thus, gender alone did not account for differences in attitudes; instead it was gender roles that related to attitudes towards mental illness.

Social Distance and Mental Health Professionals

Researchers have suggested that stigma also exists among mental health professionals (Lauber, Anthony, Ajdacic-Gross, & Rossler, 2004; Nordt, Rossler, & Lauber, 2006). Lauber et al. (2004) found no significant differences between psychiatrists and the general population on their preferred social distance from people with a mental illness. Both psychiatrists and the general population indicated that the closer the psychological proximity (e.g., allowing the person with mental illness to marry into their family compared to working with someone with a mental illness), the more social distance they desired. Similar results were found when comparing mental health professionals (i.e., psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers, and vocational workers) and the general population regarding social distance attitudes (Nordt et al., 2006). Both professionals and the general public reported many stereotypes about mental illness, and wanted an equal amount of social distance towards a mentally ill character in a vignette. Professionals, however, endorsed to a much lesser degree that adults with mental illness should have restrictions to rights such as voting or marriage. The public significantly accepted the restriction of the right to vote more than each professional group.

Professional Counselors and Social Distance

Although professional counselors might work in the same settings as other mental health professionals, the training background of this subgroup includes some noteworthy differences. Relative to other mental health disciplines, counselor training programs are largely, but not exclusively, grounded in developmental perspectives and strength-based orientations (Ivey & Ivey, 1998; Ivey, Ivey, Myers, & Sweeney, 2005; Ivey & Van Hesteren, 1990) as well as humanistic values and assumptions (Hansen 1999, 2000b, 2003), with a primary focus on the counseling relationship. Given these substantial differences as well as authors’ (Lauber et al. 2004; Nordt et al., 2006) suggestions that it is idealistic to assume that stigma does not exist among mental health professionals, it is important to consider counselors in comparison to other mental health professions and the general public. Further, particular types of counseling programs (clinical mental health counseling or school counseling) might differ when compared to each other on stigma towards adults with mental illness, given the variations of curriculum and clinical training associated with each.

Previous researchers have examined psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, but not professional counselors. Professional counselors should be included in this type of empirical examination, as professional counselors have reported that they are seeing more clients in severe distress (Ivey et al., 2005). Additionally, although attitudes towards mental illness and social distance have been examined in the literature, the relationship between these constructs has not been examined using the current study’s instruments. Further, researchers have not examined simultaneously the attitudes and desired social distance of students. Thus, the purpose of this study was to gain a more comprehensive understanding of social distance by including counselors and counseling students in addition to other mental health professionals and students, non-mental health professionals, and students outside of a mental health discipline.

The following research questions (RQ) were developed to organize this study:
(RQ1) What differences exist in social distance toward adults with mental illness between mental health professionals in-training, non-mental health professionals in-training, mental health professionals, and non- mental health professionals?
(RQ2) What differences exist in social distance toward adults with mental illness between mental health trainees and professionals based on professional orientation (i.e., counseling, social work, or psychology)?
(RQ3) What differences exist in social distance towards adults with mental illness between mental health trainees and professionals based on gender?
(RQ4) What is the relationship between social distance and other attitudes toward adults with mental illness?


Participants: The total sample included 188 participants. Of these, 62.8% (n = 118) were female and 37.2% (n = 70) were male. The majority of respondents described themselves as Caucasian (89.4%, n = 168) with other participants identifying as African American (4.2%, n = 8), Asian Pacific Islander (2.1%, n = 4), Hispanic (2.1%, n = 4), Multiracial (1.1%, n = 2), and other (1.1%, n = 2). Age of participants ranged from 21 years to 65 years (M = 39.63, SD = 13.23). Response rate of the participants could not be determined, since participants responded to the survey online via a link provided in an email.

The total sample was divided into four subgroups. The first group, the non-mental health student group, included a sample of students (n = 20) who were enrolled in graduate programs in business administration at a mid-sized university in the southeast United States. Business students ranged from 21 to 53 years of age (M = 36.05, SD = 9.19).

A second subgroup included counseling students (n = 17), social work students (n = 20), and psychology students (n = 21). These students were enrolled in master’s level graduate training programs and were in at least their second year of graduate study. Counseling students ranged in age from 21 to 48 (M = 27.94, SD = 5.97). Social work students ranged in age from 22 to 31 (M = 30.45, SD = 8.56). Psychology students ranged in age from 21 to 32 (M = 24.29, SD = 2.72). Three programs of each discipline (counseling, social work, and psychology) at midsized universities in the Southeast United States were used to recruit volunteers. These students comprised the mental health student group.

The third subgroup included 76 mental health professionals who self-identified as counselors (n = 24), social workers (n = 20), or psychologists (n = 32) who were working in the mental health field and had been employed as such for a minimum of one year. Professional counselors ranged in age from 27 to 61 (M = 45.42, SD = 10.79), professional social workers ranged in age from 28 to 64 (M = 53.30, SD = 9.45), and professional psychologists ranged in age from 28 to 65 (M = 47.16, SD = 12.25). Mental health professionals ranged in years of mental health experience from one to 20 years (M = 14.32, SD = 6.25).

The fourth subgroup of interest included 34 non-mental health professionals. These were professionals who were working in a non-mental health field (business) in the southeast United States. Only professional level participants were included in this group to provide some control for education level as a potential confounding influence. Non-mental health professionals ranged in age from 25 to 64 (M = 43.76, SD = 10.62).


Social Distance Scale. Social distance was measured by a modified version of a Social Distance Scale developed from the World Psychiatric Association Programme to Reduce Stigma and Discrimination Because of Schizophrenia (2001). Gureje, Lasebikan, Ephraim-Oluwanuga, Olley, and Kola (2005) modified this scale to assess social distance regarding attitudes toward mental illness, as the original scale was designed to measure social distance specifically towards adults with schizophrenia. Gureje et al.’s modified version was used in the current study. Six statements assess various levels of intimacy. For example, the first question asks, “Would you feel afraid to have a conversation with someone who has a mental illness?” Answers are given on a 4-point likert-type scale ranging from definitely (1) to definitely not (4). Item scores are added together to get a total social distance score, with high scores indicating less social distance and lower scores indicating more social distance. The Social Distance Scale had sufficient evidence of internal consistency (α= .81) with the current sample.

Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill. The Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill (CAMI; Taylor & Dear, 1981) was used to assess attitudes towards adults with mental illness. The CAMI was developed from the Opinions of Mental Illness Scale (OMI; Cohen & Struening, 1962) and is a 40-item self-report survey that uses a 5-point likert-type scale (5 = “Strongly agree” to 1 = “Strongly disagree”). Four scales are included on the CAMI: Authoritarianism, Benevolence, Social Restrictiveness, and Community Mental Health Ideology. Authoritarianism is defined by the belief that obedience to authority is necessary and people with mental illness are inferior and demand coercive handling by others. Benevolence is defined as being kind and sympathetic, supported by humanism rather than science. Social Restrictiveness involves beliefs about limiting activities and behaviors such as marriage, having children, and voting among people with a mental illness. Community Mental Health Ideology is defined as a “not in my backyard” attitude toward adults with mental illness, or the belief that adults with mental illness should get treatment, but not in close proximity to me (Taylor & Dear, 1981).

Evidence for internal consistency of the CAMI was clear for three of the four scales with the current sample: Community Mental Health Ideology (α= .86), Social Restrictiveness (α= .80), and Benevolence (α= .81). Only the Authoritarianism subscale (α= .62) was problematic in this research.

Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. The Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (MCSDS; Crowne & Marlowe, 1960) was included in order to assess the extent to which participants were answering in a socially desirable manner to further validate the attitudes captured by the CAMI and the Social Distance Scale. The MCSDS is the most commonly used social desirability assessment (Leite & Beretvas, 2005) and has demonstrated strong reliability. The original authors obtained a Kuder-Richardson reliability coefficient estimate of .88 (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960). A Cronbach’s alpha of .85 with the current sample provides evidence of reliability with this sample.


Potential participants were invited to respond to the survey via electronic email. Email addresses of potential mental health professional participants were obtained from comprehensive statewide lists of the various subgroups of interest. To collect the sample of students, graduate students were contacted via various departmental listservs. Non-mental health professionals were reached through an alumni listserv obtained from a non-mental health training program. Participants were told that the following survey was designed to investigate attitudes towards adults with mental illness. Included in the email was a link to the survey, which was housed at a commercial online site for electronic survey research.


As a preliminary analysis, scores on the Social Distance Scale and the CAMI were correlated with scores on the MCSDS to investigate whether participants were answering in a socially desirable manner. It has been suggested by authors (Leite & Beretvas, 2005) that a low correlation between the Marlowe-Crowne Desirability scale and the scale of interest indicates honest responses. No scores of interest correlated significantly at a .05 level with scores on the MCSDS. This provides evidence that social desirability did not have a substantive role in participant responses and that participants answered questions on the Social Distance Scale and the CAMI with a reasonable level of honesty.

To answer RQ1 and RQ3, a 2 X 2 X 2 ANOVA (professional level [trainee vs. professional] X status [mental health vs. non-mental health] X gender [female vs. male] X Social Distance) was used to investigate the desired social distance toward people with a mental illness. This analysis assessed for main effects based on professional level (trainee vs. professional), main effects based on status (mental health vs. non-mental health), main effects based on gender (female vs. male), and possible interaction effects between professional level, status, and gender. There was a significant main effect found for status F (1, 184) = 16.44, p < .05, η² = .08. Mental health trainees and professionals had higher mean scores on the Social Distance Scale (M = 3.4, SD = .38) than non-mental health trainees and professionals (M = 3.0, SD = .54). Results indicated a main effect for gender F (1, 184) = 6.63, p < .05, η²=.04. Women desired less social distance than men (M = 3.38, SD = .39 vs. M = 3.13, SD = .54) and an interaction effect for gender X mental health status F (1, 184) = 12.17, p < .05, η²=.07. Marginal means revealed that the non-mental health male sub-group was most important in separating the groups. There were no other significant main or interactive effects.

A 2 X 3 ANOVA (professional level [trainee or professional] X professional orientation [counseling, social work, psychology] X Social Distance) was used to investigate the differences in desired social distance. Results indicated that there was a main effect for professional orientation F (2, 184) = 17.67, p < .05, η² =.16. Univariate follow-up analyses indicated that participants with the professional orientation of counselor and psychologist desired significantly less social distance (M = 3.40, SD = .34; M = 3.40, SD = .4, respectively), than those who identified as social worker and non-mental health professional (M = 2.89, SD = .62; M = 3.06, SD = .49).

Finally, although attitudes towards mental illness and social distance have been discussed in the literature (Gureje et al., 2005; Taylor & Dear, 1981), the relationship between attitudes towards mental illness and social distance towards mental illness had not been explored using the CAMI and the Social Distance Scale. Therefore, bivariate correlations were calculated. Because multiple bivariate correlations were being conducted, a more stringent alpha level of .01 was used. There was a significant negative relationship between social distance and Authoritarianism (r (186) = -.52, p < .01) and social distance and Social Restrictiveness (r (186) = -.64, p < .01). There was a significant positive relationship between social distance and Benevolence (r (186) = .51, p < .01) and social distance and Community Mental Health Ideology (r (186) = .60, p < .01).


Previous researchers have examined social distance attitudes of mental health professionals and trainees with samples of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, but not professional counselors. In addition, researchers had not examined simultaneously the attitudes and desired social distance of students. Both the mental health professional group and the mental health trainee group included professional counselors, a group previously excluded from this research.

Authors had suggested that those associated with the mental health field hold the same social distance attitudes towards adults with mental illness as the general population (Lauber et al., 2004; Nordt et al., 2006). Results of the present study suggested that non-mental health trainees and professionals desired more social distance than those associated with the mental health field. This implies that members of the general population hold more negative attitudes toward those with mental illness than mental health professionals and trainees. These results are encouraging and imply that training programs and experience might have a positive effect on reducing social distance towards adults with mental illness. Regarding gender and social distance, a consistent finding in previous research (Marie & Miles, 2008; Phelan & Basow, 2007) suggested that women desired less social distance than men from those diagnosed with mental illness. Results from this study are consistent with those findings.

Since mental illness stigma can be as damaging as the symptoms (Feldman & Crandall, 2007), professional counselors can advocate for adults with mental illness in order to lessen stigma. These messages can be shared with the general population through national groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally IlI and the National Mental Health Association, as well as through international programs such as the World Health Organization and NBCC International’s Mental Health Facilitator Program. Further, professional counselors might broach the topic of social distance with their clients, as sharing thoughts and feelings related to discrimination as a result of stigma might be therapeutic for those who are dealing with the phenomenon.

Professional orientation was of particular interest in this study. As counselors come from distinct training programs that largely, but not exclusively emphasize developmental perspectives and strength-based orientations (Ivey & Ivey, 1998; Ivey et al., 2005; Ivey & Van Hesteren, 1990), how this subgroup compared to other disciplines was of interest. If there were noteworthy differences in the ways in which professional counselors viewed adults with mental illness, for example, results could serve as an indication that counselor training is indeed unique in the way that professional counselors view clients, as the aforementioned literature has suggested.

Findings suggested that professional counselors and psychologists desired less social distance than both social workers and non-mental health professionals. Despite distinguishing aspects of counselor training (i.e., developmental, strength-based orientation), however, there were no significant differences in attitudes of professional counselors and counselor trainees when compared to those in the psychology field. The lack of difference between counselors and psychologists may be attributed to similarities in training. Alternatively, though, it may be that the types of people drawn to counseling and psychology programs are more similar than different, and that the similarities might not be based on training.

Social work trainees and professionals and non-mental health professionals desired significantly more social distance. This might imply that there are some fundamental differences in the training and coursework of social workers as compared to other professional orientations. For example, it is possible that the focus on macrosystems, more uniquely the purview of social work, leads to an external orientation to change relative to an individual or microsystem approach more common to counseling and psychology. Thus, this focus on larger systems might be a differentiating factor related to proximity to persons with mental illness. Conversely, training and coursework might not be differentiating factors related to social distance. Perhaps students already possess social distance preferences when they enter into mental health training programs.

Of particular interest was how the gender of mental health professionals impacted desired social distance towards adults with mental illness. There was a significant main effect found for status as well as for gender. This finding is consistent with previous literature (Marie & Miles, 2008; Phelan & Basow, 2007) that suggested that women desired less social distance than men from those diagnosed with mental illness. In addition, there was an interaction between the two variables. The social distance scores of women were highly similar between mental health professionals and non-mental health professionals. For men, however, there was a substantive gap based on status. Men who were not mental health professionals desired the highest level of social distance. Although there is a within-group difference, this suggests that targeted advocacy efforts might be tailored to men in the general population who seem to desire a greater social distance from people diagnosed with mental illness.

This study looked at social distance attitudes of participants as one group in order to explore the relationship social distance had with other attitudes towards mental illness. It seems that social distance and other attitudes towards mental illness are related. All correlations were in the hypothesized direction. There was a significant negative relationship between social distance and both Authoritarianism and Social Restrictiveness. There was a significant positive relationship between social distance and both Benevolence and Community Mental Health Ideology. This is because higher social distance scores indicate less social distance while higher mean scores on the CAMI indicate more of each attitude. Scores on the more negative attitude subscale of the CAMI, such as Authoritarianism and Social Restrictiveness were related to more social distance, while more positive attitudes on the CAMI such as Benevolence and Community Mental Health Ideology were related to less social distance.

This implies that social distance, or proximity to adults with mental illness, can be related to attitudes. People who hold more negative attitudes towards mental illness, such as Authoritarianism (belief that people with mental illness are inferior) and Social Restrictiveness (limiting the rights for people with mental illness) might manifest this in behavior such as the desire for more social distance. More positive attitudes towards mental illness such as Benevolence (a kindly or sympathetic attitude towards mental illness) and Mental Health Ideology (the belief that mental illness deserves treatment but “not in my back yard”) are related to the desire for less social distance. Those who hold a more positive attitude towards adults with mental illness will tend to be more comfortable with situations such as working at the same place of employment or maintaining a friendship with someone with a mental illness. Since the two constructs are related, perhaps advocacy efforts need to be geared towards both attitudes and social distance in order to combat mental illness stigma. For example, only focusing on attitudes might miss the proximity associated with stigma toward an adult with mental illness. These efforts might especially be geared towards those in the general population, since this study suggested that non-mental health professionals and students desired the most social distance.

Mental health professionals of any type can begin to consider social distance as it relates to attitudes towards adults with mental illness, since the construct of social distance can be used to assess expected discriminatory behavior towards adults with mental illness (Baumann, 2007; Link & Phelan, 2001; Marie & Miles, 2008). As well, professional counselors might begin to explore their own comfort level with proximity and closeness to adults with mental illness, since it relates to attitudes. Counselor educators might consider including people with mental illness as a marginalized group in multicultural training and challenging students to examine their knowledge and self-awareness related to mental illness. Although results of this study suggested that mental health professionals desired less social distance than those in the general population, other recent research has suggested that it would be too simplistic to assume that mental health professionals do not indeed hold stigmatizing attitudes (Nordt et al., 2006).

Limitations and Future Directions

As with all research, the current study has limitations that both contextualize the findings and provide direction for future research efforts. First, replication with larger and more diverse samples is warranted. It is unknown the extent to which respondents in this study differ from non-respondents. In particular, it is possible that there is a systematic bias (either positive or negative) among those who chose to respond to the study request. Future researchers should include a more racially diverse sample, as these findings are based on the responses of participants who largely identified as Caucasian.

Additionally, replication and extension efforts are warranted that use alternative methods of measuring social distance, which is important for at least two reasons. First, the current study relied solely on self-report and, although responses were not overly influenced by social desirability, it is unknown to what extent a mono-method bias exists. Future researchers could use other methods of assessing social distance to account for this potential bias. Furthermore, the present study is limited because of the cross-section scope of the data. Scholars interested in social distance might longitudinally examine mental health trainees before and after training to better understand the developmental nature of social distance and stigma towards adults with mental illness. Specifically, it would be useful to know what types of experiences impact one’s desired social distance and stigma. Such a longitudinal study also would provide information about whether mental health trainees enter their training program already desiring less social distance than the general population. While previous researchers explored attitudes towards mental illness before and after a single course during mental health training, thus assuming attitude changes were a result of the course, future research might survey students at the beginning of the training program, before starting any coursework, and at the end of training in order to investigate social distance over time. If desired proximity remains the same, this might imply that mental health students naturally possess less stigmatizing attitudes and are drawn to helping professions rather than assuming that low levels of desired social distance are an artifact of training. Further, future research could examine different types of counseling students, so that any differences related to particular types of counseling programs (i.e., clinical mental health counseling or school counseling) would be revealed. Given the variations of curriculum and clinical training associated with each, differences in attitudes might suggest attitude changes as a result of curriculum and training.

The topic of gender and social distance may be an area for continued study. Qualitative designs might assist researchers in gaining a deeper understanding of desired social distance of men and women, and whether gender is most important in understanding desired social distance with adults with mental illness. Depending on themes that might arise related to social distance, counselors can aim advocacy efforts and anti-stigma campaigns to assist with this.


Many people have attempted to highlight to the public that stigma towards adults with mental illness is as damaging to those diagnosed as the illness itself. Missing, however, is a comprehensive understanding of the stigma process. In this study, the focus was on social distance as it relates to stigma towards adults with mental illness. Factors such as mental health training, professional orientation, and gender seem to result in differences related to social distance. Individuals not associated with the mental health field continue to have mental illness stigma, as previous research suggested. Results of the current research can assist in a deeper understanding of the factors involved in the phenomenon. With a deeper understanding of social distance and stigma, practitioners can create advocacy efforts and targeted interventions with the overall goal of eradicating mental illness stigma.


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Allison L. Smith is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University New England. Craig S. Cashwell, NCC, is a Professor of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Correspondence can be addressed to Allison L. Smith, Antioch University New England, 40 Avon Street, Keene, New Hampshire 03431,

Bringing Life to e-Learning: Incorporating a Synchronous Approach to Online Teaching in Counselor Education

James M. Benshoff, Melinda M. Gibbons

Recently, many counselor education programs have considered whether and how to offer courses online. Although online counselor education courses are becoming increasingly common, the use of synchronous (real-time) teaching approaches appears to be limited at best. In this article, we provide a context and rationale for incorporating online synchronous learning experiences, discuss the use of simple technologies to create meaningful educational experiences, and present one model for combining synchronous and asynchronous instructional approaches online. We also share our perspectives on the contributions of synchronous learning components, reflect on student and instructor experiences, and discuss issues to be considered in developing online counselor education courses.

Keywords: online teaching, counselor education, synchronous learning, implementation, technology

Use of technology in counselor education is commonplace today. Email, PowerPoint presentations, and online grading are accepted and utilized on a daily basis. In addition, many counselor educators use online teaching platforms such as Blackboard as a way of incorporating asynchronous communication, discussion, and resources to enhance face-to-face (F2F) courses. In this hybrid model of instruction, the asynchronous component is utilized but a significant part of the course is taught in a traditional (F2F) classroom. What is less prevalent, however, is the use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in place of F2F classroom meetings. Online synchronous discussion (OSD) is one approach to CMC that includes a range of activities which occur online in real time, including chat and instant messaging. These technologies allow participants to have conversations much as they would if they were physically in the same space. The purpose of this article is to review the literature on the effectiveness of CMC, to provide an example of how online synchronous discussion (OSD) (combined with asynchronous use of Blackboard) has been used effectively in counselor education, and to discuss the possibilities and limitations of this approach. This article is intended for those with little or no experience in online teaching as well as for those who have primarily used asynchronous teaching approaches online.

Technology in Counselor Education

Although technology is not the primary focus of this paper, some introductory definitions of terms are necessary to approach this topic. Distance education is an overarching term used to describe teaching that includes the use of various technologies in order to serve students who are not physically present in the classroom. Often, this involves using audio- or videoconferencing tools to allow people from various locations to participate in a course. In video- or teleconferencing, students may report to various satellite classrooms in order to access the technology. Students in each classroom can then view both the instructor and other students (Woodford, Rokutani, Gressard, & Berg, 2001). Computer-mediated communication (CMC), which involves the use of computers and web-based technology as teaching tools, can be divided into two types. Online asynchronous discussion (OAD) involves learning that is not restricted to classroom time and that can be accessed at any time; often, this includes discussion boards, email, and postings of course materials on an Internet-accessible site (e.g., webpage or Blackboard course pages) (Jones & Karper, 2000). Alternatively, online synchronous discussion (OSD) involves audio, text, and/or video connections through the Internet for real-time communication (Slack, Beer, Armitt, & Green, 2003). Because the advantages of distance education often include the opportunity for students to attend class completely on their own schedule, many distance education courses depend on asynchronous approaches to instruction since these do not require that all students and the instructor be in the same space (physical or virtual) at the same time.

Two studies have examined the use of technology in counselor education programs. Wantz et al. (2003) surveyed CACREP-accredited counselor education programs on their use of distance learning and found that the majority of programs reported not using distance learning and that these programs had no current plans to implement these types of courses into their curriculum. A second group (Quinn, Hohenshil, & Fortune, 2002) examined the use of technology in general by CACREP-accredited programs. Although technology frequently was utilized within a traditional classroom setting, few respondents reported offering online courses in their programs. It appears that advancement in the use of CMC has been slow within the counselor education community.

A Conceptual Framework for Online Teaching

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) created a conceptual framework that includes the required components of what they considered to be a powerful online educational experience. Their model, termed a community of inquiry, included three aspects of the educational experience: Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence. Social Presence refers to the ability to bring student and instructor personalities into the learning community. Included in this social component are expression of emotion, open communication, and development of group cohesion. Cognitive Presence is the ability to construe meaning from the educational experience, with critical thinking or inquiry being the major focus. Finally, Teaching Presence refers to the design, delivery, and facilitation of the course content. This component includes three aspects: instructional management, creating understanding, and direct instruction. Garrison et al. suggested that all three components are necessary for a successful online course.

Research on OSD

Studies of online learning communities have been conducted in various realms. Shea (2006) surveyed students participating in various online courses and found that the stronger the Teaching Presence, the stronger the overall learning community. Students rated the classroom community higher when their instructors were more active facilitators, including keeping students on task, creating an open and accepting learning climate, and acknowledging student input and contributions. Results of another study (Perry & Edwards, 2004) revealed that effective online instructors both challenged and affirmed their students, and that high levels of Cognitive Presence and positive Social Presence directly added to students’ positive reactions to online learning. Clearly, research to date supports the potential for successfully creating a community of inquiry online.

Other researchers have conducted studies examining the effectiveness of synchronous learning experiences online (OSD). Wang (2005) found that the use of open-ended and comparison questions in a real-time online classroom was effective in engaging students and fostering cognitive development. Another study (Walker, 2004) helped identify those teaching strategies that could help develop critical thinking and debate in an OSD-based course. Participants in one debate course indicated that Socratic strategies such as open-ended responses, including challenges and probes, were most likely to elicit student response, and that encouragement and countering also were helpful. Slack et al. (2003) found that online discussions where group cohesion had occurred promoted cognitive development in students better than in classes that lacked cohesion. This suggests that instructors must give attention to rapport building in their OSD classes in order to increase levels of critical thinking and involvement. Finally, Levin, He, and Robbins (2006) surveyed preservice teachers before and after their participation in a series of OSDs. Prior to the online discussions, the majority of participants believed they would prefer asynchronous discussion; afterwards, however, the majority indicated that they actually preferred synchronous discussions online. Reasons given for this change in preference included the opportunity to receive immediate feedback, the real-time pace of the discussions, the convenience of having the entire chat completed in one sitting, and the challenge of having to think critically and learn from peers. In addition, participants in OSD demonstrated higher levels of critical reflection than did OAD participants. These studies demonstrate the potential effectiveness of OSD and point to the importance of appropriate facilitation in order to promote student growth.

Although Garrison et al. (2000) stated that “all three elements [Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence] are essential to a critical community of inquiry for educational purposes” (p. 92), they also noted challenges involved in developing such an online community of inquiry. These authors proposed that “… the elements of a community of inquiry can enhance or inhibit the quality of the educational experience and learning outcomes” (p. 92). In addition, they clarified that the kind of OAD they addressed, although collaborative, was quite different from F2F environments. It is this difference from traditional F2F learning that makes the obstacles in using online courses to train counselors unacceptable and virtually insurmountable. Because counseling is a person-to-person experience, it can be particularly difficult for counselor educators to envision how counseling students could be trained and evaluated effectively through a text-based, online experience where course participants cannot see and interact with each other in real time.

The online group course described in the following section was designed to address all three of Garrison et al.’s (2000) elements of a community of inquiry by combining synchronous and asynchronous experiences that much more closely simulate an F2F educational experience. Moreover, our experience has been that use of readily-available technology has allowed us not only to more closely simulate face-to-face classroom experiences, but also to take advantage of features unique to the online experience.

The Online Course: Group Counseling in Schools

To meet the needs of practicing school counselors for additional post-master’s degree training in school counseling, the counselor education program at one southeastern university created an online-only Post-Master’s Certificate (PMC) in Advanced School Counseling. This program was designed to provide working school counselors with 12 hours of additional training that also would qualify them for a significant salary increase in the state system. Over a two-year period, four graduate-level courses were developed for this program. The first of these courses, Group Counseling in Schools, was created and used to pilot test an instructional model for the remaining courses. To do this, the first author worked closely with university instructional technology consultants to create an online learning environment that could be process-based and provide a student-focused learning environment in which student participation was critical to the quality and success of the course itself. The result was an online course that incorporated both OAD and OSD components.

The Asynchronous Component (OAD)

Blackboard is well known and widely used as an educational platform “for delivering learning content, engaging learners, and measuring their performance” ( in higher education. Blackboard is primarily an asynchronous learning platform which offers a format that provides for easy posting of course information and a wide variety of course resources. Features include a discussion board with forums that provide opportunities for students to respond to prompts, discuss issues, and share ideas in an OAD where postings can be made and responded to at any time. Blackboard currently is used widely to supplement F2F instruction. In our online group course, Blackboard’s discussion board is used to allow students to take more time to reflect on their learning and encourages them to think more critically about online experiences and course material. Because instructors typically do not participate in these discussions, both responsibility and control are shifted to students for the quality and content of their postings. We have been very interested to see how learning conversations develop as students learn to respond not just to instructor-generated prompts, but also to each other, sharing support, differing perspectives, and experiences. Instructors’ review of the weekly postings is then used to help guide course content and discussion in the OSD component of the course.

The Synchronous Component (OSD)

LinguaMOO (MOO) is an interactive, synchronous learning platform that is available in its basic form for free (see, with technical support provided by each individual institution. MOO was developed as a community that is designed to simulate F2F environments in many ways using technology that is affordable and easily implemented. MOO is text-based and utilizes a very basic chat environment. More capable, commercial software packages that are now becoming widely used include Elluminate (a free, virtual, collaborative web-conferencing system; and Saba Centra Classroom (which offers a complete set of features for recreating interactive classroom learning experiences online; Both of these packages add greatly enhanced capabilities for using audio, video, whiteboards, and graphics as part of online class meetings, providing a wide variety of tools to use in creating a virtual environment for learning.

In the online MOO class, when students come to class, they enter the instructor’s room, which is the virtual classroom. Each person who enters the online classroom is visible to everyone else already in the room. As with F2F classes, MOO meetings often begin and end with informal chatting among students and instructors. The visual format of MOO is simple and would be familiar to anyone who has participated in online chats. The computer screen is divided into three sections: two sections on the left display the ongoing discussion and provide a place for students and instructors to compose their comments. In addition to text, MOO also provides an emote feature that can be used to add nonverbals and emotions (similar to text-based emoticons) to the discussion, giving participants a different way to express themselves or add expression to their comments. The right half of the screen is used to present PowerPoint slides that support, guide, and facilitate online discussion, as well as provide structure and content for the class meetings. In addition, MOO allows for recording the transcription (complete with links to PowerPoint slides) for each class, permitting students to review what occurred in class if they missed a class or wanted to revisit a discussion topic. This feature also frees students from having to take notes during class.

Class meets for two hours per week during the regular semester. Like F2F courses, class is scheduled for a particular day and time. Thus, students must commit to being able to attend the online class meetings at the same designated time each week; just like F2F, everyone has to attend class at the same time. Unlike F2F classes, however, students do not have to travel, search for parking, and arrive at a physical classroom on time. Both instructors and students have the flexibility to log into class from any location with an Internet connection. Although the same faculty member has taught this course from its inception, different advanced doctoral students, typically with strong background and expertise in school counseling, have been assigned to co-teach each time the course was offered.

Implementation of the Course

A required F2F meeting is scheduled on campus prior to the beginning of the group counseling course. Although the primary purpose of this meeting is to train students in use of the technology to be used in the course, additional benefits include: making social connections with students and instructors; developing a basis for social presence; and getting a feel for the instructors’ teaching style. Starting in a familiar F2F format and using a standard classroom environment to acquaint students with new technology, a new learning format, and each other seems to work well. In addition, students frequently comment on the importance of this first F2F session for having a successful experience in the course; their F2F experiences help reduce anxiety and create a basis for group cohesion and support throughout the PMC program.

Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Modes of Learning

In this online course, OAD and OSD approaches are combined to create the total learning environment. Blackboard tends to elicit more formal, traditionally academic, and reflective responses as students reply to instructor prompts (and each other) on the Blackboard discussion board. Prompts typically come from readings and OSD discussions. By contrast, MOO has the vitality more characteristic of a F2F class meeting, with more social and informal discussions and responses. Use of PowerPoint slides online helps structure class and provides content to supplement required reading. Like F2F, synchronous online class meetings have immediacy and are fast-paced. The chat aspect of class means that comments, responses, and interactions can move very quickly, challenging students (and instructors) to pay attention. The quick back-and-forth in the chat format requires that traditional academic expectations about such details as spelling and grammar be suspended, helping to create a more relaxed climate online. Also, active participation online requires much shorter comments and responses than in F2F classes because the faster pace requires faster posting of responses and shorter amounts of text for others to read. Thus, online class sessions are reading- and writing-intensive.

Cognitive Presence

In discussing the cognitive presence component, Garrison et al. (2000) emphasized the “potential for facilitating deep and meaningful learning in a [virtual learning] environment” (p. 93). We use MOO to provide opportunities for high levels of in-depth interaction during class. The nature of the OSD component is that it requires verbal participation online in order to be actively engaged in class. Students who are not actively posting in the discussion are invisible in class. This is unlike F2F experiences where students can contribute minimally or choose to be passive learners. In MOO, all students contribute very actively to discussions. In interactions with instructors online, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, share their knowledge with others in the class, and combine what they know from practice with new or revisited concepts in class. Thus, instructors strive to address the teaching elements proposed by Newman et al. (1996), including actively encouraging and inviting new ideas and perspectives as well as helping link together theories, facts, applications, and professional experiences.

With this expectation of active verbal participation online, many students are challenged to modify their usual classroom style. For example, introverts who might be hesitant to share comments in an F2F class often shine online. Conversely, strong extraverts can feel constrained online by having to compose their comments and keep them shorter and more focused. Students quickly adapt to this change and most tend to be active in every class meeting.

Throughout the course, we utilize various techniques to promote critical thinking. Similar to F2F classes, open-ended questions are frequently posed to students. Often, probes are used to stimulate further discussion on a topic. In addition, we frequently make encouraging comments such as “interesting idea” or “well put” to let students know that their ideas are important to the discussion and highlight these contributions for other students. These encouragers reinforce student contributions to class, help promote additional conversation, and help highlight important points in the transcript. Even more than in an F2F class, it is vital that instructors plan for how to use their teaching skills to promote cognitive presence online. In the synchronous online learning environment, critical thinking results from instructors’ intentional encouragement, supportive comments, and challenging questions.

Social Presence

Garrison et al. (2000) hypothesized that “high levels of Social Presence with accompanying high degrees of commitment and participation are necessary for the development of higher order thinking skills and collaborative work” (p. 93). To create a community of inquiry, students must feel they can be “real” people in the virtual classroom. As noted earlier, we use the on-campus training to help students feel comfortable and competent with the technology. Then, in the first class online, instructors ask students to reflect on their own professional experiences, modeling use of humor, restatement, encouragement, and positive reinforcement along the way. These techniques help build a level of social presence in the online classroom.

As students have successful experiences in the online environment, they find ways to contribute their personalities, ideas, and expertise in the virtual classroom. As that happens, the technology becomes just another tool for learning and sharing information, ideas, and resources with each other. The shared experience of doing something new and the commonalities students have as school counselors also help to foster social connections and relationships online. One strong indicator of success in developing the social component online is that students frequently share both professional and personal issues with each other, at the beginning and end of class as well as (appropriately) throughout discussions. Students typically develop strong connections with the group and its members that provide a working foundation for their ongoing development as a group during the PMC program. As Garrison et al. (2000) have observed, “Social Presence marks a qualitative difference between a collaborative community of inquiry and a simple process of downloading information” (p. 96).

Teaching Presence

Clearly, there is a critical need to establish a strong teaching presence online, since this has been described as “the binding element in creating a community of inquiry for educational purposes” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 96). One challenge for counselor educators is to provide familiar kinds of structure, leadership, and facilitation online. We have found that the synchronous learning environment lends itself very well to using group facilitation and process skills to stimulate and involve students in very active ways. We present prompts, share selected information, encourage students to think critically about material, and help students relate course material to their own experiences and work settings. For teaching that is more instructor-centered and more lecture-based, MOO is limited and somewhat lacking. As a platform for process-based learning experiences, however, MOO provides the basic elements to create an online experience that can offer a viable alternative to F2F instruction. In fact, what actually takes place in an online class is largely the same as what would happen in an F2F version of the class; the primary adaptations have to do with effectively using technology to do these things online.

Garrison et al. (2000) noted the importance of students having time to reflect on information as a critical part of the learning process. In our course, students have built-in time to reflect and discuss during online meetings. This reflection time, however, is limited, and must be intentionally included in the class structure by the instructors. Enhanced reflection can occur through Blackboard discussion board postings (OAD) and by requiring students to review and comment on transcripts from online class meetings following online class sessions. With co-instructors for this course, there typically are two instructor/facilitators online in the class. As with co-leading groups, this allows one instructor to serve as lead facilitator to guide the process and cover content while the other instructor keeps a closer eye on student responses and responds to their questions and comments, often playing a major role in supporting and reinforcing student contributions. Because the lead instructor role often shifts midway through a class, each instructor has the chance to be more upfront and facilitative in one part of the class and more of the active listener and supporter in another.

Some examples can illustrate how we create a strong teaching presence. First, class size is limited to 12 students. This small number helps the instructors keep track of the students in the class; since students cannot be seen, it is important to watch users’ screen names to ensure that everyone participates. In addition, the smaller class size allows activities to be completed without consuming the entire class time. Activities also are used to engage students and model facilitation skills. For example, in one class students are asked to design a tattoo for themselves and discuss its meaning. The instructors use this activity to demonstrate group processing skills by modeling reflections, open-ended questions, and facilitative comments. This type of activity helps lead to cognitive presence through strong teaching presence. Finally, everything done in the class is purposeful, just as in an F2F classroom. This attention to goals and purpose helps maintain students’ interest, keeps students focused and involved during the class, and helps us maintain a strong teaching presence.

Reflections on Course Format and Learning Experiences
Benefits to Students and Instructors

Surprisingly, one of the benefits for students is a much higher level of consistent, ongoing participation than would be possible in an F2F classroom. One reason is that in a chat (MOO) format, everyone can essentially be talking at the same time, something that can be managed in an online environment, but would create total chaos F2F. In addition, the chat format allows students to address instructors and each other directly to ask questions, share observations, or make suggestions. In many ways, students can have much more contact and interaction with instructors and their peers in the virtual classroom, and we see this as a major benefit of this online learning environment.

Because of the ongoing dialogue in class, students can more readily affect the pacing and depth of material covered in class by having ongoing input into the educational process. We also encourage students to bring their real-life experiences to bear on the material (and vice-versa). This is particularly appropriate for working adult students who consistently have been found to value opportunities to blend experience with new information in the classroom. Many other benefits to students have been mentioned previously, including the opportunity for everyone to participate, availability of class transcriptions, easy access to the class on the Internet, and the ability to use PowerPoint slides to both guide discussion and inject instructors’ personalities into the class (e.g., through selective use of photos, images, or quotes).

Instructors share many of the benefits noted above for students. The most obvious instructor benefit may be the flexibility of being able to teach from any location with reliable Internet connections (e.g., the lead author has taught this class from New Zealand and Italy). Also, guest presenters can easily participate in the class no matter where they are located geographically. One class featured a guest presenter from India who shared information about her culture and responded to students’ lively questions. Additionally, the simple format of MOO allows instructors the opportunity to exercise their creativity by adding color, graphics, photos, and design elements to visually enhance and enliven the online experience. These creative elements also can help to stimulate and harness the live energy and the excitement of collaborative learning experiences. Graduate student co-instructors have found that teaching online has given them additional teaching skills they can market as new counselor educators, in addition to influencing how they view both online and F2F teaching. Even for the experienced faculty member, the online teaching experiences have positively affected how he plans for and conducts F2F classes.

Student Feedback on Online Experiences

As we reviewed student evaluations from several semesters of this online course, the most striking thing was how similar ratings and feedback were to student evaluations of F2F classes taught by the counselor educators. In addition, very little mention was made about the technology used for class; the few comments that were made were positive. The vast majority of student comments focused on instructor effectiveness, skills, and knowledge. Related to teaching presence, students commented positively on organization of the course, group leadership/facilitation, clear communication, and instructors’ knowledge. In the area of cognitive presence, key themes were instructors’ ability to stimulate interest in course content and stimulation of critical inquiry. Finally, students addressed social presence in the course with comments about instructors’ approachability and helpfulness, respectfulness, and ability to foster group cohesion.

Precautions and Practical Considerations

We believe there are three keys to success with online learning: (1) incorporate an energetic and well-planned interactive component; (2) keep things as technically uncomplicated as possible; and, (3) provide necessary training and tech support (e.g., backup) upfront. Students regularly cite the importance of the initial F2F technology training and the comfort of knowing they can contact university tech support if they experience difficulties. As noted above, the MOO platform provides basic tools for creating live classes online without many of the frills that can make things unnecessarily complicated and intimidating to students. Classes really come alive with the interactive component that MOO offers, due in no small part to instructors’ establishing a norm for active and enthusiastic participation in online sessions. Instructors also act as if these classes are F2F, using familiar language (e.g., “see you next week,” “see you in class”) and familiar structures (agendas for class, balance of information-giving and discussion, even having a break midway through class) that subtly replicate familiar F2F instruction experiences.

To be able to accomplish all three areas of presence (teaching, cognitive, and social) identified by Garrison et al. (2000), instructors must be very intentional in designing and conducting the OSD component. For example, to teach effectively in this environment, instructors need to closely monitor student participation so that they can see those who are sitting quietly in the online classroom and encourage or call on them to bring their voices to class discussions. We have found it very helpful to have co-instructors to help keep up with the flow of discussion, maintain energy in the online classroom, and reach out to quieter or less involved students. To create and maintain cognitive presence, instructors need to be very intentional in cultivating an environment of critical inquiry, including asking good, critical questions and encouraging constructive dialogue among students and instructors. Social presence primarily involves encouraging students to connect with their peers and with instructors in class, and can include appropriate use of humor, liberal use of names, and attention to time for socializing at different points in class (beginning, end, break).


Numerous approaches exist for offering and teaching online graduate courses. If the primary goal is communication of large amounts of information, the approach described in this article likely will not be the most effective or efficient option. Counselors and counseling students, however, like to be able to interact with each other—whether F2F or online—and the MOO/Blackboard (OSD/OAD) approach to teaching and learning online allows for much discussion and processing of course material. Over the past several years, we have found that student responses to this online format have been overwhelmingly positive. Even students fearful or skeptical at the beginning, readily become active and engaged class members. This approach has worked particularly well with more advanced students where their F2F coursework prepared them with fundamental counseling knowledge and skills. It is our belief that a community of inquiry can be established effectively in an OSD format and that the elements of teaching that counselor educators hold dear—social contact and interaction—can be created successfully in an online environment. The increasing availability of more sophisticated platforms for synchronous online class meetings (e.g., Elluminate and Saba Centra Classroom) should make it even easier for counselor educators to use OSD for online only or hybrid courses in their programs. For us, the ability to interact with students online in real time has been a key to making online instruction come alive in ways that rival what we do in our F2F classes.


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James M. Benshoff, NCC, and Melinda M. Gibbons, NCC, are professors at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, respectively. Correspondence should be addressed to James M. Benshoff, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Department of Counseling and Educational Development, P.O. Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170,

The Effect of Parenthood Education on Self-Efficacy and Parent Effectiveness in an Alternative High School Student Population

Becky Weller Meyer, Sachin Jain, Kathy Canfield-Davis

Adolescents defined as at-risk typically lack healthy models of parenting and receive no parenthood education prior to assuming the parenting role. Unless a proactive approach is implemented, the cyclic pattern of dysfunctional parenting— including higher rates of teen pregnancy, increased childhood abuse, low educational attainment, intergenerational poverty, and lack of steady employment—will continue. Parenthood education seeks to remediate this recurring cycle with at-risk youth before they become parents. Eighty-two alternative school students, grades 7 through 12, were randomly assigned to either an experimental or control group. After the experimental group completed a 16-session parenthood education program, differences between the two groups were tested using two measures: the Self-Efficacy Scale and the Parent Effectiveness Measure. Two-way ANOVA analyses showed statistical significance between the primary caregivers in the experimental and control group on the social self-efficacy and parent effectiveness measures. Implications and suggestions for further research are discussed.

Keywords: parenthood education, pre-pregnancy prevention, at-risk youth, social self-efficacy, parental effectiveness

At-risk adolescents typically lack the resources and background to build a strong foundation for parenthood. Often these adolescents do not have appropriate models of parenting, which potentially account for higher rates of teen pregnancies, higher incidences of childhood abuse or neglect, lack of self-efficacy, and low socio-economic status (Bifulco et al., 2002; Coleman & Karraker, 1997; Donenberg, Wilson, Emerson, & Bryant, 2002; Herrenkohl, Herrenkohl, & Egolf, 2003; Griffin, 1998; Helge, 1991, 1990; Herrenkohl, Herrenkohl, Rupert, Egolf, & Lutz, 1995; Massey, 1998; National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy [NCPTP], 2002; Shumow & Lomax, 2002). Without some type of intervention, at-risk adolescents may be prone to developing the same unhealthy patterns they experienced in their own upbringing and continue the cycle of poor parenting. Minet (1985) suggests parental patterns are reproduced across generations. For example, studies have found that 40% of mothers who were abused or neglected as children maltreated their own children, another 30% provided borderline care (Cowen, 2001), and over 22% of adolescent females that were born to a teenage mother will become teen parents themselves (Terry & Manlove, 2000). In the absence of more effective options, cyclic dysfunction may ensue. Education programs may provide a catalyst to learn positive parenting techniques and skills from sources outside one’s own upbringing (Reppucci, Britner, & Woolard, 1997) and to increase one’s sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, Adams, Hardy, & Howells, 1980; Griffith, 2002; Leerkes & Crockenberg, 2002). A program that enhances student self-efficacy may lead to increased motivation and a transfer of efficacious beliefs to other domains in participants’ lives (Bandura, 1982). This study examined the effect of a parenthood education program with at-risk alternative school adolescents on a measure of self-efficacy, parent effectiveness, and the parent-child relationship.

Cost to Society

Continuing the cycle of poor parenting comes with a great price tag to society. A host of societal problems—school failure, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, assaultive behavior, intergenerational poverty, single mother births, welfare dependency, workforce underdevelopment, absent fathers and low self-efficacy—have all been shown to be closely associated with teen pregnancy (Herrenkohl et al., 2003; Massey, 1998; NCPTP, 2002). Financially, teen parenthood results in a considerable cost to local, state and national governments. The welfare costs for families started by a teen birth have been estimated at $25 billion in one year nationally (Herrenkohl, Herrenkohl, Egolf, & Russo, 1998), while almost 60% of the expenditures for another federal program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) go to single mothers who had their first child while a teenager (Dorrell, 1994). One cost benefit analysis suggests the government could increase spending on teen pregnancy prevention to eight times the current amount and still break even (Sawhill, 2001, 2007).

Although these figures are significant, the social-emotional burden is even more alarming. Without proper preparation to learn the skills needed for the challenges of childrearing, parents are highly likely to default to inappropriate coping mechanisms, such as violent behaviors. In the United States, 8,042 children are reported abused or neglected every day, more than 3.25 million annually; nearly four children die each day as a result of child abuse or neglect (Hopper, 2005; Massey, 1998). Education is an essential part of the foundation of our society; a violent or abusive environment undermines a student’s ability to learn and the damage is not easily repaired (Prothrow-Stith & Quaday, 1995; Swick & Williams, 2006). Clearly, the ongoing, multifaceted cost to society is difficult to calculate.

Although decline in teen pregnancy and birth rates recently exists (Flanigan, 2001), the United States still has the highest rates of teen pregnancy, teen births, and teen abortion in the fully industrialized world. There are nearly half a million teen births annually; each hour nearly 100 teen girls become pregnant and 55 give birth (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2002; Ventura, Mathews, & Hamilton, 2002). Four in ten young women become pregnant at least once before age 20 and nearly 40% of these are age 17 or younger (NCPTP, 2002). The NCPTP (2005) reports 35% of teen girls become pregnant at least once as a teen—850,000 annually. Moreover, more teens are sexually active earlier. In a recent study (see Pearson, Muller, & Frisco, 2006; Terry & Manlove, 2000), 8.3% of students report having sex before age 13, a 15% increase since 1997. There was a 3% increase in teen pregnancy rates between 2005 and 2006 (NCPTP, 2011). If current fertility rates remain constant, the number of pregnancies and births among teenagers will increase 26% by 2010 (NCPTP, 2002). Collectively, the effects of teenage parenting have become a national crisis. Research, as well as politicians and national, state, and local initiatives and campaigns have embraced some aspect of the teen pregnancy agenda. In his 1995 State of the Union address, former President Bill Clinton declared teen pregnancy the most serious social problem facing the country.

Adolescent pregnancy continues to be a cycle of dependency and poverty. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce children of unmarried teenage mothers experience long-term abject poverty four times as often as children from other families (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1990) and two-thirds of families begun by young unmarried mothers are poor (NCPTP, 2002). Recent research found that unmarried teen mothers had a 43% lower income-to-need ratio, were 2.8 times more likely to be poor and 1.4 times more likely to receive government welfare benefits than were non-teen mothers or married teen mothers (Bissell, 2000). The NCPTP (2005) reports that 52% of all mothers on welfare had their first child as a teenager, and teen mothers are twice as likely to become dependent on welfare than their counterparts—nearly 80% of unmarried teen mothers are on welfare (Dorrell,1994).

Unremitting poverty is not the only issue of teenage parenthood; education and employment are affected as well. Less than 4 of 10 teen mothers who have a child before age 18 ever complete high school (Hotz, McElroy, & Sanders, 1997, 2005), with school dropouts six times more likely to become unmarried parents than their graduated counterparts (Dorrell, 1994). Moreover, about one-fourth of teenage mothers have a second child within 24 months of the first birth, which can further impede their ability to finish school, obtain or maintain a job, or escape poverty (Kalmuss & Namerow, 1994; Raneri & Wiemann, 2007). Without a high school diploma, the economic outlook is bleak: according to the 2003 U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for college graduates increased 13% in the past 25 years, while median income for high school dropouts decreased 30%. Teen mothers are more likely to work at low-paying jobs, experience longer periods of unemployment, receive welfare benefits, experience single parenthood, and live in high poverty compared to mothers who do not have a child in their teen years (Bissell, 2000). Even if a teen parent finishes high school, earnings are nearly 20% less annually than that of those completing some college courses, and at least 75% less annually than those who complete a bachelor’s degree—almost $1 million less in lifetime earnings (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

The Cycle Continues

If more children were born to parents who are ready and able to care for them, there would be a significant reduction in the social problems afflicting children—from school failure and crime to child abuse, neglect and poverty (NCPTP, 2002). The outcome for many children of teen parents is grim: children of teen mothers are 50% more likely to repeat a grade, less likely to complete high school, and perform lower on standardized tests than children born to older parents (NCPTP, 2002). One in five children in the U.S. lives with a mother who has not completed high school; the chances of that child dropping out of school are two to three times higher than those of a child whose mother has graduated (Dorrell, 1994). The sons of teen mothers are 13% more likely to end up in prison and the daughters of teen mothers are 22% more likely to become teen mothers themselves (Terry & Manlove, 2000). An adolescent single parent is the best single predictor that a child will live in poverty (Griffin, 1998).

A 2002 study by Johnson, Cohen, Kasen, Smailes, and Brook found maladaptive or adverse parental behavior (classified as hostile, abusive, or neglectful) significantly associated with subsequent disorders experienced by offspring, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and disruptive disorders. Abused or neglected children tend to perform poorly in school, lack the social skills that lead to inclusion in conventional peer groups, exhibit low self-esteem and experience increased levels of depression (Smith, 1996). According to a study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), abuse or neglect in childhood increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53% (by 77% for females) and violent crime by 38% (“April is Child Abuse Prevention Month,” 2005). Another study found that disruptive behavior disorders in children are linked to negative parenting (Frick, Christian, & Wootton, 1999). As Prevatt (2003) concludes, these studies have consistently confirmed a direct correlation between parenting practices and developmental outcomes. The cycle is relentlessly repetitive.

When examining the childhood of teen parents, Herrenkohl et al. (1998) found that 96% of teen mothers and 97% of teen fathers had been abused or neglected as children, and a statistically significant number of teen parents were rated as lacking in self-confidence by their elementary school teacher. These adolescents exhibit a passive acceptance of their future and seem to believe nothing will change, despite their best efforts to the contrary (Griffin, 1998). This recurring cycle creates an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that can appear insurmountable to at-risk adolescents lacking in healthy supports and skills. Instead of reacting to the interminable products of this complex social problem, a proactive, preventive approach to intervention, which is both logical and cost-effective, may provide an enduring solution.

Parenthood Education Programs

Program rationale. In order to decrease the likelihood of teen pregnancy, increase self-efficacy, stop the cycle of childhood abuse, increase high school retention, improve the outlook of long-term employment, and increase parent effectiveness, a creative prevention program is necessary. One such approach is to integrate a proactive parenthood education program into the school curriculum to provide adolescents with focused educational intervention before they become parents. The public school systems are natural catchment areas, bringing together the majority of children and adolescents residing in a given community in a learning environment where didactic teaching is expected (Herz, Goldberg, & Reis, 1984). There is support for integrating programs that prepare “the next generation of parents” and recommendations from prior research have included adapting programs for inclusion in the school curriculum (Bissell, 2000; Cutting & Tammi, 1999; Dorrell, 1994; Griffith, 2002; Helge, 1989, 1991; Herz, Goldberg, & Reis, 1984; Jacobson, 2001; Rutgers, The State University, 1979; Stanberry & Stanberry, 1994; Stirtzinger et al., 2002).

Program description. A parenthood education program is comprised of a pre-service intervention through which adolescents are provided fundamental information regarding the role of “parent”—the skills, responsibilities, and time commitment required of a healthy functioning parent, appropriate parenting models, and positive, strength-focused parenting strategies. An effective parenthood education program repairs and reconstructs the lens through which at-risk adolescents see the parenting role, one that has typically been adversely impacted by their dysfunctional models. The adolescent is enabled to prepare more realistically for eventual parenting responsibilities and build a more effective relationship with their current parent/caregiver (Cutting & Tammi, 1999). Parenthood education aims to equip students with the skills necessary to make informed choices and a greater awareness of the responsibilities and implications of becoming a parent.

Prior programs. Relatively scant empirical literature exists on proactive parenthood education programs. A thorough review of the literature produced studies with three different types of programs. One study involving 7th and 8th grade students (ages 11–15) in two inner-city Chicago schools observed positive changes from pretest to posttest in the experimental group. The study measured the impact of a family life education program, for which the goals were twofold: reducing the risk of pregnancy by helping young teens develop a positive self-image, and promoting responsible sexual and contraceptive decision making. Program participants exhibited “(a) improved knowledge about contraception, reproductive physiology, and adolescent pregnancy outcomes; (b) increased awareness of the existence of specific birth control methods; (c) among seventh graders, more conservative attitudes toward circumstances under which sexual intercourse was viewed as personally acceptable, and among eighth graders, a shift toward more liberal attitudes; and (d) a greater tendency to acknowledge mutual responsibility for contraception” (Herz, Goldberg, & Reis, 1984, p. 309).

A second parenthood education program was developed as part of Save the Children, Scotland’s 3-year Positive Parenting Project in Angus, a rural school in North East Scotland. The participants were ages 13–14, labeled Year 2 level in Scotland. Goals were: increase the quality of life for the next generation of families; improve the way young people handle life within their own families; help develop young people’s communication skills in all their relationships; and establish good parenting as the foundation for other aspects of personal and social education (i.e., drug awareness, environmental education, and community involvement). Although not an experimental study, the conclusion was that the program had a positive impact on students by helping them think more objectively about the parenting role and concurrent responsibilities of parenthood (Cutting & Tammi, 1999).

A third study examined the longitudinal effects of an Adolescent Development Program on participants in Trinidad, Spain, 10 years after participation. The 3-month program was designed to develop the social and academic skills of adolescents ages 16 to 19, and focused on self-understanding, parenting skills, overcoming everyday problems, and increasing motivation to better equip themselves with marketable skills. Qualitative findings, gathered through follow-up surveys, indicated participants benefited from the program in several ways: they became better parents, improved communication with their own parents, developed higher levels of self-esteem, and female participants postponed childbearing (Griffith, 2002). While these studies have been important in showing that parenthood education programs can be influential with adolescents, there is a gap in experimental research with the at-risk high school population in the U.S.

An alternative school population. This study was designed to expand the body of knowledge and address the identified gap in current literature by quantifying the results of a parenthood education program with one of the more needy populations—pre-pregnancy, pre-parenting alternative school students. Research is plentiful on parenting education programs geared toward teen parents, a necessary, albeit reactionary course of action. Alternately, this study implemented a parenthood education program with alternative school students prior to parenthood. Alternative school adolescents are plagued with countless obstacles—low self-efficacy, substance abuse, poverty, child abuse, school failure, employment barriers, teen pregnancy—as a result of recurring intergenerational cycles (Barr & Parrett, 2003; Payne, 2003). Without proactive intervention, the cycle is bound to continue indefinitely and outlook for improvement is dim. These challenges were addressed in this study by exploring the following research questions: Would a parenthood education program integrated into an alternative school curriculum produce student participants who (a) demonstrate higher self-efficacy, (b) believe they are more prepared to be effective parents, and (c) evidence increased empathy for their current parent/caregiver, thereby improving the student’s appreciation for the parent-child relationship?


The participants for this study were 82 students, grades 7th through 12th (M = 9.93, SD = 1.44), from an alternative school located in a rural community of a northwest state. Participants included 37 females and 45 males ranging from 13 to 20 years of age (M = 15.73, SD = 1.66). Sixty-five of the participants (79%) came from a home with a female primary caregiver, while 17 (21%) were from a family with a male primary caregiver. Additionally, 50 (61%) had a one-parent family, 27 (33%) had a two-parent family, and five (6%) were not living with a parent. The breakdown of the demographic characteristics by experimental and control group are displayed below.

Because the school is small (currently 100 students), the entire student population, except for pregnant or parenting teens, was utilized as a census sample. Therefore, no sampling procedures were enacted through the process. Four participants from the experimental group dropped out of the study. One male, grade 9, age 17, dropped out of school to get his GED; another male, grade 12, age 18, and the two female participants, both grade 12 and age 18, dropped out of school to seek full-time employment.


Self-Efficacy Scale. The instrument used to measure self-efficacy was the Self-Efficacy Scale (Sherer et al., 1982). According to Bandura (1997), expectations of self-efficacy are the most powerful determinants of behavioral change because self-efficacy expectancies determine the initial decision to perform a behavior, the effort expended, and persistence in the face of adversity. According to Sherer, the primary author of the instrument, the goal in developing this instrument was to create a measure of self-efficacy that would not be tied to a specific situation or behavior. The purpose of this study was discussed with Sherer (personal communication, August 10, 2004), who agreed this instrument would be appropriate to measure a growth factor in the self-efficacy domain for this student population. The Self-Efficacy Scale is a 30-item measure assessing two self-efficacy constructs: general self-efficacy and social self-efficacy. The total scores for each subscale were utilized.

Parent Effectiveness Measure. Parent effectiveness, the second variable, was assessed with an adapted version of the Parenting Self-Agency Measure (Dumka et al., 1996). The 10-item instrument was measured on the same scale, but the items were modified to account for the fact that the student participants are not yet parents. The wording of items was changed to future tense to validate the change of context (e.g., “I feel sure of myself as a mother/father” was modified to “I will feel sure of myself as a mother/father”). Dumka (personal communication, October 6, 2004), the primary author of this measure, agreed that the instrument would be equally valid when adapted as a prospective parenting assessment, even though it was originally developed for use with parents of young teens. Dumka et al. noted that hypothetically, increased parenting self-agency should be one outcome of any preventive or therapeutic parenting intervention.


Student participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental or the control group, initially 43 in each group. In order to study the effect of parenthood education with only non-pregnant, non-parenting alternative school students, this study was delimited to participants who fit this criteria—students who were either pregnant or already a parent were not included in the initial randomization of students to experimental or control groups. The experimental group attended the parenthood education program two mornings each week, for eight weeks. The control group was offered the opportunity to attend the same parenthood education course after the post data collection. A survey of parent education research revealed a range in curricula length, with the mean program at 10.5 weeks of instruction (Bamba, 2001; Cline & Fay, 1990; Cutting & Tammi, 1999; Doetsch, 1990; Fay, Cline, & Fay, 2000; Herz, 1984; Stirtzinger et al., 2002).

The parenthood education program was designed as a pre-pregnancy prevention strategy to teach pro-social parenting skills, a realistic picture of child raising (including financial, time, and emotional demands), child development, goal setting, proactive family planning strategies, and included learning opportunities for the development of self-efficacy and empathy (with current parent/caregiver roles and responsibilities). The program is partially a derivative of an established parenting program, which was read and approved by Dr. Foster Cline, a renowned child psychiatrist and parenting educator/author (personal communication, November 2004). Based upon extensive experience and certification, the first author was selected as the instructor for the program. The teaching method consisted of lectures, small and large group discussions, daily journaling, instructional videos, role-playing, practical and relevant information dissemination, and question and answer periods.


The program impact for the results of the two instruments described above was assessed using a between-subjects posttest design. The experimental group concluded the last program session by completing the four instruments while the control group participants simultaneously finished the instruments in their advisory classes. The classroom teachers adhered to the posttest protocol discussed by the first author prior to testing (test environment, order of instruments, student question guidelines, timeline, data collection). It should be noted that the experimental group was much larger (n=39) and the testing environment was considerably louder and less focused than control group settings, where the participants in each room ranged from only two to six students and the rooms were observed to be quiet and composed. The experimental group was reported to be “in a hurry to finish” and “distracted,” with “excessive talking and chitchat” present in the room. It was expected that these factors might negatively influence the validity of the instrument results.

Table 2 summarizes the descriptive data—means and standard deviations of the scores—for each dependent variable with both the experimental and control group. The alpha level was set at .05 throughout the study, unless otherwise indicated.

General Self-Efficacy (GSE). Two-way ANOVA analyses were conducted to evaluate the effects of a participant’s group (experimental or control) and identified attributes (grade, age, gender, gender of primary caregiver and number of parents in the household) on general self-efficacy. Statistical significance was shown in the difference between the experimental and control group when averaged across the primary caregiver levels (male or female), F (1, 78) = 5.51, p < .05, partial η² = .07. No other main effect or any interaction effects were found to be significant on the GSE measure (see Table 3).

Social Self-Efficacy (SSE). The results for the two-way ANOVA on social self-efficacy indicated two statistically significant main effects. The primary caregiver factor, averaged across the grouping factor (experimental or control) was found to be significant at the alpha level .001, F (1, 78) = 11.24, p < .001, partial η² = .13 (see Table 4). The second main effect showing significance was the number of parents in the household (1, 2, or none), F (2, 76) = 3.51, p < .05, partial
η² = .08 (see Table 5).

Parent Effectiveness (PE). The two-way ANOVA analyses were again conducted to evaluate the effects of a participant’s group and attributes (grade, age, gender, gender of primary caregiver, and number of parents in the household) on a dependent measure, parent effectiveness. Statistically significant results were indicated in the grouping main effect (experimental or control), F (1, 78) = 5.03, p < .05, partial η² = .06, although in the opposite direction than originally hypothesized. The other main effect, parent effectiveness, and the interaction effect did not produce statistically significant results (see Table 6).

Discussion and Implications

The purpose of this study was to examine the effect of parenthood education on self-efficacy and parent effectiveness. Review of research studies corroborates that at-risk students are confronted with discouraging cyclic patterns including school failure, child abuse and neglect, substance abuse, poverty, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency, workforce underdevelopment, fatherless children and low self-efficacy (Herrenkohl et al., 2003; Massey, 1998; NCPTP, 2002). These intergenerational cycles of unconstructive parenting patterns will continue, absent new knowledge and more effective options. The current inquiry offered a proactive approach to teaching fundamental information through an integrated parenthood education program.

Using a two-way ANOVA, statistically significant results were obtained from four main effect analyses: (1) General Self-Efficacy measure (group by gender of primary caregiver); (2) Social Self-Efficacy measure (gender of primary caregiver); (3) Social Self-efficacy measure (group by number of parents in the household); and (4) Parent Effectiveness (group). Interestingly, the Parent Effectiveness measure actually produced results counter to the purported outcome.

The seemingly contradictory results from a comparison of overall means obtained on the Parent Effectiveness measure (the control group mean calculated higher than the experimental group) are a logical outcome when considering one of the goals of the parenthood education program—to increase student awareness of the financial, social-emotional and time demands of actual parenting. Once the experimental group became cognizant of the realistic depiction of parenting, it is probable they were evaluating themselves more accurately in the parental role, unlike the control group who idealistically, albeit erroneously, rated themselves as more “effective” parents based upon a limited, narrow definition of parenthood. These naïvely confident students, as Hess, Teti, and Hussey-Gardner (2004) contend, may feel highly secure at parenting tasks and believe they are a competent parent, but when they are working from a faulty knowledge base of what is developmentally appropriate, the self-analysis of parenting skills will not be a genuine reflection of ability. Hence, the experimental group’s authentic assessment was lower because it was filtered through the newfound knowledge of what it actually takes to be a healthy functioning parent. Cutting and Tammi (1999) documented a significant impact on participants’ perceptions of parenting after the parenthood education program in their Scotland study; students rated “Made me a lot more aware about what being a parent involves” higher than other survey choices. Similar to Griffith’s 2002 study, which found that the intervention enhanced the participants’ future parenting skills, these study results suggest a new awareness level of participants. Although contrary to the intention of this research, the outcome may be considered positive because there is a possibility students are now more prepared for parenthood and may be more cautious and introspective about pregnancy and family planning. Consistent with the Trinidad Spain study’s long-term follow up (Griffith), future studies should include subsequent analysis of pregnancy rates at various time intervals after program intervention to determine the program’s childbearing effects and capacity to deter teen pregnancy.

These findings are consistent with Bandura’s 1982 theory that a program which aims to enhance self-efficacy will lead to increased motivation and a transfer of efficacious beliefs to other domains in participants’ lives. The intervention program provided a mechanism for student participants to gain new knowledge and attitudes from a source outside their own family construct and to increase their own sense of self-efficacy (Hess et al., 2004; Leerkes & Crockenberg, 2002; Reppucci, Britner, & Woolard, 1997). A supposition can be made that knowledge and new insight from the intervention program led to an increase of general self-efficacy for student participants, which subsequently translated into enhanced scores on the post-test measures. This would support Bandura’s theory of efficacy transference. Integrating parenthood education into an alternative school curriculum affords at-risk students the opportunity for exposure to healthy parenting and family planning information that they would not otherwise receive. By participating in a parenthood education program designed as a pre-pregnancy prevention strategy, alternative school students receive instruction and guidance in prosocial parenting skills, realistic child raising (including financial, time, and emotional demands), child development, proactive family planning, goal setting, and the development of self-efficacy and empathy (with parent/caregiver’s roles and responsibilities).


The major limitation of this study was using the program with the entire experimental group (39 students) placed in one large instructional setting. Although logistically necessary for the school’s academic and scheduling requirements, this arrangement was not theoretically sound from an alternative school educational pedagogy (Barr & Parrett, 2003). A group of 39 students is too many to monitor, focus toward lesson goals and objectives, and authentically involve in discussions and activities. It is likely that sustainability of program content for student participants was weak or even lost due to the size of the group. A smaller group would naturally prompt an increase in instructor-student interaction, group discussion participation, and greater retention of the information by student participants. Future programs or follow-up studies are recommended to be not more than 8–12 students per class session, which is consistent with group theory and at-risk curriculum recommendations (Corey, 1990; Becvar, Canfield, & Becvar, 1997).

The duration of the program—eight weeks, two times per week—can be a limitation. Although the length of the parenthood education program is consistent with best practices and the average for parent education programs (Bamba, 2001; Cline & Fay, 1990; Cutting & Tammi, 1999; Doetsch, 1990; Fay, Cline, & Fay, 2000; Herz, 1984; Stirtzinger et al., 2002), extending the program would allow for reiteration of material, increased process and reflection time, and retention of curriculum. Because the program content is unfamiliar to this population, a longer time span for program intervention would assist in assimilation and application for the students.

Generalizability of the study findings beyond this population is limited. Because the population consisted of only one alternative school in Northern Idaho, caution is advised in generalizing the results to other settings. In order to extend generalizability, future research should replicate the current study parameters in similar populations.

Recommendations for future studies include: (1) increased integration of the program across a full semester scheduled to meet at least one hour per week; (2) implementation of the program with group sizes which are theoretically sound for the at-risk adolescent population (between 8–12 students per group); (3) administration of posttests in at least two sessions versus all assessments completed in only one session; (4) the addition of a qualitative component to the posttest measures which would enhance understanding of the at-risk adolescent; and, (5) inclusion of a follow-up measure that would help analyze pregnancy rates at various time intervals after program intervention to determine the effect of the program in deterring teen pregnancy over time. These recommendations would serve to alleviate the current study’s limitations, expound on its strengths, and produce a robust, credible parenthood education program effective with our at-risk alternative school adolescents.


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Becky Weller Meyer is Principal of Sandpoint High School in Sandpoint, Idaho. Sachin Jain, NCC is Assistant Professor of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Idaho. Kathy Canfield-Davis is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Idaho. Correspondence can be addressed to Sachin Jain, University of Idaho, 1031 N. Academic Way, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814 -2277,