The U.S. Workforce from 1960 to 2010: A RIASEC View

Mary-Catherine McClain, Robert C. Reardon

In this article, the authors analyze ways of categorizing civilian occupations and employment data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau over 6 decades (1960–2010) with respect to six kinds of work (Holland’s RIASEC classification), occupational titles used, employment and income. O*NET provided data for the 2010 census regarding employment and income. The authors discuss the distribution of employment changes over time and the examination of findings in relation to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The article concludes with practical implications for counseling and guidance practice.

Keywords: Holland, RIASEC, census, employment, occupations, income


Holland’s (1997) RIASEC theory is generally recognized as one of the most important and influential in the field of counseling and career development. Foutch, McHugh, Bertoch, and Reardon (2014) sought to verify such an observation by using bibliographic research tools and identified all publications based on this theory from 1953–2011. They found over 1,970 reference citations to Holland’s theory and applications, and categorized them in terms of practice, specific populations (e.g., K–12), instruments, diverse populations and theory. These citations appeared in 275 publications (e.g., books, journals, periodicals, reports) produced in varied professional fields and disciplines worldwide.


Many counselors know relatively more about Holland’s RIASEC personality typology than corresponding environmental models (Reardon & Lenz, 1998). From the outset, Holland believed that the environmental aspects of the typology needed further examination (Weinrach, 1980). Occupations, fields of study or academic disciplines, organizations, leisure activities, and jobs (positions) are aspects of the environment included in the theory. In this article, we address the interaction between RIASEC theory and the environment by examining 2010 census data and updating prior studies of occupational employment in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000 in relation to RIASEC codes and Holland’s theory (Reardon, Bullock, & Meyer, 2007).


Various people contemplating career decisions can benefit from understanding the scope and nature of the labor force and employment from this psychological, counseling-based point of view. Moreover, given characteristics of the contemporary U.S. economy, it is important to know how the distribution of jobs is changing over time. For example, the distribution of jobs across the RIASEC categories has changed from 1960–2010 in some ways, but not in others. An analysis of occupational employment, then, can be beneficial to counselors and career services providers assisting those who are unemployed, displaced or exploring the labor force. This work is important for both theoretical and practical reasons. For example, the number of annual job openings is strongly related to the number of people currently working in an occupation, so knowing the number employed is of practical importance in job hunting because of the need to replace workers.


Authors of recent literature have identified concerns about the use of outmoded concepts such as occupation in career/life counseling at a time of unprecedented socioeconomic change in the global economy. For example, Savickas et al. (2009) noted that new social arrangements for work and the digital revolution have led to unstable occupations and frequent job transitions for individuals: “Today, occupational prospects seem far less definable and predictable, with job transitions more frequent and difficult” (Savickas et al., 2009, p. 240). Sampson and Reardon (2011) summarized these ideas: “Occupations have changed in fundamental ways as technology and globalization have reshaped the workplace. Occupations have become fluid and organizations are evolving rapidly, adapting their workforce to respond to a rapidly evolving marketplace” (p. 41). We agree that some occupations are changing but conclude that the concept of an occupation remains common and useful in the social sciences as a way of categorizing work activities and employment.


In contrast to this view, Murray (2012) suggested that the workplace has not transformed for the 82% of American workers in occupations other than managerial professional positions. Teachers, police, plumbing contractors, insurance agents and carpenters have the same duties and routines that these occupations have always required, although some of the work tasks may have been affected by technology. Sampson and Reardon (2011) noted that the perception of massive occupational change has been exacerbated by inaccuracies in media presentations and the failure to use career theory to examine occupational changes.


In the present article, we examine occupational information using Holland’s (1997) RIASEC theory. This theory rests on four basic assumptions: (a) individuals can be categorized into Realistic (R), Investigative (I), Artistic (A), Social (S), Enterprising (E) and Conventional (C) types; (b) environments (i.e., occupations) also can be categorized into these same six types; (c) individuals tend to choose environments that fit their personality types; and (d) behavior is determined by the fit between an individual’s personality and environment. Examination of the occupational titles used to describe current work in the United States, including information about employment and income, can increase understanding of the workplace from this theoretical perspective.


Holland’s (1997) typological theory specifies a theoretical connection between vocational personalities and work environments that makes it possible to use the same RIASEC classification system for both persons and occupations. Many inventories and assessment tools also use the typology to enable individuals to categorize their interests and personal characteristics in terms of the six types and combinations of the types. These six types are briefly defined as follows:


  1. Realistic (R) types are found in occupations such as auto mechanic, surveyor, electrician and farmer. The R type usually has mechanical and athletic abilities, likes to work outdoors and with tools and machines, and might be described as conforming, hardheaded, honest, humble, materialistic, practical and thrifty.
  2. Investigative (I) types like occupations such as a biologist, chemist, geologist, anthropologist and medical technician. The I type usually has math and science abilities, and likes to work alone and to solve problems. The I type might be described as analytical, critical, curious, independent, intellectual, pessimistic and rational.
  3. Artistic (A) types are found in occupations such as musician, dancer, interior decorator, actor and writer. The A type usually has artistic skills, enjoys creating original work and has a good imagination. The A type may be described as disorderly, emotional, idealistic, imaginative, impulsive, independent, introspective and original.
  4. Social (S) types like occupations such as teacher, speech therapist, counselor, clinical psychologist and nurse. The S type generally likes to help, teach and counsel people, and may be described as friendly, generous, helpful, idealistic, kind, responsible, tactful, understanding and warm.
  5. Enterprising (E) types like occupations such as buyer, sports promoter, business executive, salesperson, supervisor and manager. The E type usually has leadership and public speaking abilities, is interested in money and politics, and likes to influence people. The E type is described as acquisitive, ambitious, domineering, extroverted, optimistic, self-confident and sociable.
  6. Conventional (C) types are found in occupations such as bookkeeper, financial analyst, banker and secretary. The C type has clerical and math abilities, likes to work indoors and to organize things. The C type is described as conforming, efficient, obedient, orderly, persistent, practical and unimaginative.


The six RIASEC types are optimally represented by a circular order, also commonly referred to as the hexagonal model. Holland’s (1997) structure of the six types as a hexagon is one of the most well-replicated findings in the history of vocational psychology (Rounds, 1995). The six domains are arranged according to their relative similarity in a hexagonal formation of R-I-A-S-E-C. For example, according to Holland’s theory, the Social and Enterprising types appear in adjacent positions on the hexagon because they are alike; in contrast, the Social and Realistic types are dissimilar and appear in opposite positions from one another on the hexagon.


Prior Studies


In the early 1970s, researchers began to examine the U.S. labor market using the RIASEC classification system (Reardon et al., 2007), and the present study is a continuation of that line of research. Using data provided by the decennial census in 1960, 1970 and 1980, researchers (G. D. Gottfredson & Daiger, 1977; G. D. Gottfredson & Holland, 1996; G. D. Gottfredson, Holland, & Gottfredson, 1975; L. S. Gottfredson, 1978; L. S. Gottfredson, 1980; L. S. Gottfredson & Brown, 1978) analyzed U.S. employment patterns using Holland’s theory. These studies examined a number of variables with respect to the Holland RIASEC classification, including the percentages of men and women working in hundreds of occupations, salaries earned during the preceding year by incumbents, educational and training levels associated with occupations, occupational prestige, and the education levels or cognitive complexity ratings for occupations. These studies provided practitioners and scholars with more theory-based, detailed information about work environments and the characteristics of workers.


After a 15-year hiatus in research on census employment and Holland codes, Reardon, Vernick, and Reed (2004) analyzed the 1990 census data in relation to data from 1960, 1970 and 1980. They considered the variables of gender, income and cognitive complexity and reported stability in the census data for occupational titles and six kinds of work from 1960–1990. For example, the Realistic area included many more named occupations in the census than the other five areas, averaging between 46% and 50% of all named occupations over the 40-year period.


Reardon et al. (2004) found that while employment declined by 18% in the Realistic area relative to other Holland types, it remained the largest area of employment and actually increased in real numbers through 1990. Only 1% of employment was in the Artistic area. Reardon et al. (2004) also reported marked differences in employment between men and women across the six areas from 1960–1990. Reardon et al. (2004) further examined income and gender by six kinds of work and found that the average income profile ranging from highest to lowest was IESARC. The discrepancy across the six areas was very large, with the average Investigative income being two times the average Conventional income.


In a later study, Reardon et al. (2007) examined trends in labor market characteristics using census data from 1960–2000. They found stability in occupational constructs for six kinds of work from 1960–2000; for instance, the Realistic area included many more named occupations in the census than the other five areas, ranging between 43% and 50% of all occupations included over the five census periods. Reardon et al. (2007) reported that although employment in the Realistic area declined by 25% from 1960–2000, this area remained the largest area of employment and actually increased in real numbers from 1960–2000. As before, only 1% of employment was in the Artistic area. Finally, Reardon et al. (2007) examined income and gender by kinds of work and found that the average income profile for six kinds of work ranging from highest to lowest was IESARC in 1990 and ISEARC in 2000. The discrepancy across the six areas was very large, with the average Investigative income about twice as large as the average Conventional income.


In summary, the data included in these studies (Reardon et al., 2007; Reardon et al., 2004) were unique in several ways and have special implications for counselors. First, as an independent branch of the federal government, the U.S. Census Bureau reported actual numbers of people working in different occupations based on an accounting of persons in households. Second, these data provided a retrospective look at the labor markets, and by examining them over time it was possible to view changes in the economic lives of persons in the United States. Third, the occupational titles included in the census have remained constant over the years, reinforcing the use of the occupational schema in matching persons and environments. Fourth, these studies were conducted by researchers in the counseling field rather than economists or sociologists, which helps counselors use occupational data organized by Holland codes to illustrate and explain where jobs exist in relation to their clients’ interests. For example, a client may have a strong interest in Artistic occupations, and census data may help a counselor explain the relatively small number of persons working in Artistic fields.


The Present Study


We examined the employment trends reported in earlier research and added a new analysis based on the 2010 census and O*NET data. Research questions included the following:


  1. What were the numbers of occupational titles reported in the census from 1960–2010 relative to the six areas of work?
  2. What were the numbers and percentages of occupational employment in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 in relation to six kinds of work?
  3. What were the mean incomes for six different kinds of work in 1990, 2000 and 2010?




Procedures and Research Tools

Varied procedures have been used to collect occupational data for the decennial census over the past 6 decades.


1960, 1970, 1980 census. In the 1960 census, the sampling unit was the housing unit, or the person in the case of group housing. This method provided information about 297 detailed occupational categories. L. S. Gottfredson and Brown (1978) described the methods they used to derive Holland codes for the 1960 census data using 1970 census data as a point of reference. In the 1970 census, the sampling unit again was the housing unit, and 440 detailed occupational titles were included in these data, 143 more than in 1960. As with the 1960 census, the data included only employed persons and excluded members of the armed forces. G. D. Gottfredson, Holland, and Gottfredson (1975) analyzed data from the 1970 census involving 424 occupations, and excluded men (5.6%) and women (6.6%) not classified according to one of the detailed occupations. Information about the 1980 census was taken primarily from G. D. Gottfredson and Holland (1989) and G. D. Gottfredson (1984). The 1980 analysis was based on 503 selected occupations.


1990 census. Comprehensive information about the 1990 census was provided by the U.S. Census Bureau (1992a, 1992b), and was based on 500 selected occupations. G. D. Gottfredson and Holland (1996) indicated that this classification was most closely related to the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1980). The U.S. population count in 1990 was 283,928,233 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1992b). Four new categories of work were added to the 1990 census while six from the 1980 census were eliminated.


2000 census. The 2000 census counted 281,421,906 people in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. As in the past, short and long forms were used with about 17% (1 in 6 households) receiving the latter (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). The 2000 census included 471 occupations classified using the SOC (U.S. Department of Labor, 2000).


2010 census. The 2010 census counted 308,745,538 people in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. This census included 539 occupations, including those with “all other” titles representing occupations with a wide range of characteristics not fitting into one of the O*NET detailed occupations. However, as in prior studies, the focus was on the detailed occupations in the 2010 census (N = 494) and excluded military-based occupations.


The information collected in the 2010 census was based on the short form rather than the long form, which means that demographic information about gender, salary and age was not collected relative to occupations. Lowe (2010) noted that the introduction of the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau provided the most sweeping change in census data collection in 60 years. The American Community Survey is a nationwide, continuous survey designed to provide reliable and timely demographic housing, social and economic data every year, in contrast to the long form, which provided data only at the beginning of each decade.


After locating the 2010 census data from the U.S. Census Bureau with lists of occupations categorized with census and SOC codes, we organized the information into a spreadsheet using the following headings: Occupation 2010 category description (e.g., management occupations), Occupation (e.g., chief executive), 2010 Census Code (e.g., 0010) and 2010 SOC Code (e.g., 11-1011). Additional columns were created to incorporate Holland code information for 2010 employment data and mean annual wages. The SOC (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010) was used to collect employment and salary information from the O*NET system ( O*NET is a comprehensive database that provides information on 780 occupations, worker skills and job training requirements. O*NET is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The Self-Directed Search Occupations Finder—Revised Edition (OF; Holland & PAR Staff, 2010) and the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes (DHOC; G. D. Gottfredson & Holland, 1996) also were used to obtain the first-letter Holland code for each specific occupation. Employment data and mean annual wages for census occupations were found in O*NET.


A Note about Data Analysis

Previous studies of employment using census data and Holland codes have reported frequency and percentage distributions, and this study continued that approach. As earlier researchers have noted (G. D. Gottfredson & Daiger, 1977), the sample sizes are so large that the magnitude of observed differences is more important than statistical differences. Rounded numbers are used in this report to the nearest percent or thousand in order to avoid communicating a misplaced sense of precision in the findings.




Occupational Titles in the Census for Six Kinds of Work, 1960–2010

For the first question, we examined the number of occupational titles used in the census and O*NET, and categorized these in relation to the six areas of work. Occupational titles provide schemas for career exploration using Holland’s (1997) RIASEC codes—tools for the exploration and examination of occupational information. As in previous studies (Reardon et al., 2007), the Realistic area included many more named occupations in the census than the other five areas (see Table 1, updated with 2010 data). For example, the 2010 census specified 211 occupations in the Realistic area and 283 occupations in the other five areas combined. Only 19 occupations were identified in the Artistic area. Overall, occupations in the Enterprising area increased from 27 in 1960 to 88 in 2010. Finally, 282 occupations were included in the 1960 analysis, which increased to 465 in 1970, 502 in 1980 and 500 in 1990, dropped to 434 in 2000, and increased again to 494 in 2010.


Table 1 also shows that occupational titles were not equally distributed across the six areas of work over the past six decades and have changed very little during this period. For example, the Realistic area consistently has the most occupational titles and the Artistic area the fewest. Figure 1 shows the average percentages of occupational titles in the census across six decades, as follows: Realistic 46%, Investigative 12%, Artistic 3%, Social 12%, Enterprising 18% and Conventional 9%. This distribution is similar to what was found in 2010: Realistic 43%, Investigative 11%, Artistic 4%, Social 13%, Enterprising 18% and Conventional 11%. Figure 1 shows in graphic form that the schemas used to describe work activities in the U.S. economy have remained relatively stable over 6 decades.


Employment in Six Kinds of Work, 1960–2010

In analyzing U.S. employment data over 6 decades, we focused on the detailed occupations as in previous census studies (Reardon et al., 2007). Table 2 indicates that the total estimated employment increased over the 6 decades from 64.1 million in 1960 to 119.8 million in 2010. Table 2 and Figure 2 reveal that the percentage of Realistic employment declined 28% from 1960–2010, an average of about 4.7% for each decade. However, and in spite of this decline, the Realistic area showed that 31.9 million persons were employed in 2010, and the Realistic area had the highest level of employment across the six RIASEC areas in each census period. The Artistic area had the fewest number employed in 2010 with 2.0 million. Table 2 and Figure 2 show that the percentage of employment in the Social area increased from 9% in 1960 to 24% in 2010, or 5.6 million to 29.6 million persons. During the same period, employment in the Investigative area increased from 3% in 1960 to 10% in 2010, or 2.0 million to 11.5 million persons. Employment in the other four areas remained more stable. Figure 2 graphically shows that the RIASEC employment profile for highest to lowest areas was RSECIA in 1960 compared to RECSIA in 2010. The Realistic, Investigative, and Artistic areas maintained their positions over this time period.


Table 2


Number and Percentage of Persons Employed in Six Kinds of Work, 1960–2010

Census Year (Detailed Occupations)

Kind of Work 1960a 1970a 1980 1990 2000 2010























































































Note. Employment numbers are in millions rounded to the nearest thousand.

aUsed by permission of Academic Press Inc., Journal of Vocational Behavior, 10, p. 131. Copyright 1977 Academic Press Inc.



Income and Kinds of Work, 1990–2010

For the third question, we focused on mean income levels for persons employed in six kinds of work in 1990, 2000 and 2010. Inspection of Figure 3 shows the results of this analysis. These data reveal the continued discrepancy with regard to income among the Holland types across the three most recent census periods. The RIASEC profiles for highest to lowest income were IESARC, ISEARC and IEASRC in 1990, 2000 and 2010, respectively. The Investigative area consistently showed the highest income levels over the 3 decades, while the Conventional and Realistic areas tended to show the lowest. The average income over the 3 decades for the Investigative area was $54,587, compared to Conventional, $28,047 and Realistic, $27,981. Data in Figure 3 continue to show wide variations in income levels among the six RIASEC groups. For example, in 2010 the income in the Investigative area was almost double that of the Conventional area.




The principal findings of this study are examined in terms of the three questions that guided the research, followed by a discussion of the study’s limitations and implications for counseling practice.


Occupational Titles by RIASEC Code

Information about jobs and employment used in counseling may be affected by the uneven distribution of occupational titles describing work across RIASEC areas. Over 60% of the titles used in 2010 were in the Realistic and Enterprising areas, and this distribution has been consistent over the past 6 decades. It is noteworthy that the percentages of occupational titles in the Investigative and Conventional areas in 2010 were the same, but the income reported across the six areas was the most discrepant between these two areas. Labor market information across the six areas is not always equivalent.


G. D. Gottfredson and Holland (1989) reported that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles also showed variations in the distribution of RIASEC codes for occupational titles. They were interested in the number of times each RIASEC letter appeared somewhere in the three-letter code for each occupation in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and reported the following: Realistic, 10,708 times; Investigative, 2,551; Artistic, 570; Social, 6,606; Enterprising, 10,405; and Conventional, 5,999. These data reveal that upon examining the world of work from a RIASEC perspective, counselors can obtain a theory-based view of work environments that is not equitable across the six areas. Counselors can use RIASEC codes to inform clients about work and to increase their understanding of occupations and employment.


Information about jobs and employing organizations changes more frequently than information about occupations (e.g., typical work duties, training requirements, working conditions; Reardon, Lenz, Sampson, & Peterson, 2012). Perhaps lessons from the field of general semantics (Johnson, 1946) can be useful here. For example, the word chair can communicate information about the arrangement of furniture in a room, but this word does not communicate everything known about chairs, which in reality may take many different forms and be built of varied kinds of materials. The same is true for occupational terms. There are many different carpenters working in varied job positions and for varied employers, but the term carpenter still has meaning in communications because it is generally understood that not all carpenters are the same.


Over the 6 decades of this analysis, the number of census occupations in each RIASEC area has been relatively static. This stability indicates that there is considerable permanence in the array of the named occupations in the census reports about the workforce. This finding is contrary to the observations by Savickas (2012) and Savickas et al. (2009) regarding instability of the concept of an occupation in the contemporary global economy.


Employment in Six Areas of Work

The findings of this study report both the numbers of persons employed and the percentages of employment across RIASEC areas for six census periods. We believe that information about employment in the past can be instructive for future career planning. Table 2 reports the numeric and percentage changes in employment over 6 decades. The table shows the actual number of persons employed according to the decennial censuses over the 60-year period. This table and Figure 2 show the percentage change­s—the distribution of the workforce within the RIASEC categories. Occupations that employ the largest numbers of people are in the Realistic, Social and Enterprising areas, with less employment in the Investigative and Artistic areas. The latter two areas report both the fewest numbers employed and the smallest percentages of employment across the six RIASEC areas.


The current emphasis on preparation for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields involves occupations that do not employ large numbers of people. These occupations, often found in the Investigative and Artistic areas, employed relatively small numbers of people in 2010 compared to the other four areas: 12% versus 88%. The STEM fields are not big-growth occupational areas that employ many hundreds of thousands or millions of people (e.g., nurses, retail salespersons, office clerks, teachers). However, the STEM fields are generally characterized by fast growth that involves a few thousand or more persons (e.g., biomedical engineers, veterinary technicians, glaziers, physical therapists). Persons in these occupations typically have higher salaries and better employment opportunities (Horrigan, 2003–2004).


The findings of the present study indicate that most people are employed in Realistic, Enterprising and Conventional (REC) occupations. Public attention to employment and career preparation often is directed at occupations with code combinations in the Investigative, Artistic and Social (IAS) areas because the percentage rate of employment growth is often greater there than in the REC areas (Reardon et al., 2012). The IAS areas provide higher levels of prestige and income, but employ fewer people (Reardon et al., 2004). One must remember that these are projected new jobs, which seem to capture more public attention and interest than the census data regarding actual employment.


A large number of jobs actually involve replacement of older workers, perhaps as much as one-third of employment (Mittelhauser, 1998). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS; 2012) used data from the Current Population Survey and found that the replacements provide many more job openings in most occupations than straight employment growth does.


While the census data provide information about past employment that can inform career planning, the U.S. BLS provides additional labor market forecast information based on occupational projections. Lockard and Wolf (2012) identified the 20 occupations expected to have the most job openings each year through 2020 (big-growth occupations). Four of these occupations—registered nurses, retail salespeople, home health aides and personal care aides—will add more than half a million jobs each through 2020. These occupations are not new, different or unique, and they are unrelated to STEM fields. Reardon et al. (2012) noted that the Holland summary code order for these 20 big-growth occupations was SREICA. In the current study, the profile for employment in the 2010 census was RECSIA. It is not surprising that the Realistic area is prominent in both of these projections, because according to the census, it is the area of largest employment in the economy.


Given the overall increase in actual employment from 64.1 million in 1960 to 119.8 million in 2010, there has been a corresponding increase in employment across the six areas of work. For example, the number of persons employed in the Investigative area has grown from over 1.9 million in 1960 to 11.5 million in 2010, and in the Social area from 5.6 million in 1960 to 29.6 million in 2010. Employment growth has been less dramatic in the Artistic, Enterprising and Conventional areas, and growth has declined slightly in the Realistic area from 35.0 million in 1960 to 31.9 million in 2010.


In addition, the percentages of the U.S. population employed in the six areas of work also have changed from 1960–2010, but in a less dramatic way (see Figure 2). For example, the employment percent profile from highest to lowest employment in 1960 was RECSIA, and in 2010 it was RSECIA, with only the ECS areas alternating in order. However, the percentage difference between the Realistic and Artistic areas was greater in 1960 (54%) than in 2010 (25%). This may be evidence of a decline in manufacturing.


Income Across Six Areas of Work

Our findings indicate that income is not equitable across the six RIASEC areas, with the Investigative area consistently having the highest income and the Realistic and Conventional areas the lowest. Research using census data by Huang and Pearce (2013), Reardon et al. (2004), and Reardon et al. (2007) revealed similar findings. We find that although the RIASEC schema is familiar to counselors using the Self-Directed Search, the Strong Interest Inventory and many other career assessments, the idea of using this schema to analyze occupational information is more novel. For example, thinking of income levels in terms of the RIASEC schema means using an order of IEASRC per the 2010 census data when discussing occupational information with clients.


Reardon et al. (2007) reported that examining levels of cognitive complexity associated with occupations may provide an explanation for the income disparity among the six RIASEC areas. G. D. Gottfredson and Holland (1996) created the Complexity Rating (Cx) to estimate the cognitive skill and ability associated with an occupation. In developing the Cx, the authors wanted to make greater use of job analysis ratings obtained by the U.S. BLS and also create a single measure of cognitive or substantive complexity associated with an occupation. They noted that cognitive complexity of work demands (G. D. Gottfredson & Holland, 1996) might be an appropriate term for the Cx. A Cx rating of 65 or higher could be associated with an occupation requiring a college degree and possibly postgraduate work and on-the-job training of 4–10 years, while a Cx level of 50 might characterize an occupation requiring a high school diploma and a year or more of on-the-job training. Reardon et al. (2007) found that Cx levels were highest in the Investigative and Artistic areas and that the Conventional area was associated with the lowest ratings. They found that employment in the Investigative area occurred only at the highest two levels of Cx (i.e., baccalaureate or higher) while the other four areas—Realistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional—showed employment at all six levels of Cx.


Huang and Pearce (2013) reported that higher annual incomes in 2010 were found in occupations associated with greater Investigative and Enterprising traits. In addition, they found that the differentiation of an occupational interest profile positively predicted median annual income and moderated the effect across each of the six RIASEC areas. In other words, the more the occupation was characterized by a single, robust RIASEC code letter, the greater the income level for the occupation.


Reardon et al. (2007) examined income by kinds of work and found that the average income profile for six kinds of work ranging from highest to lowest was IESARC. In the current study, the income profile was almost identical—IEASRC. These findings are very similar to those reported by Huang and Pearce (2013). Given that the Investigative area of work requires more education and training than the other five areas, these findings from census data provide evidence that education pays. Reardon et al. (2012) reported that the unemployment rate is clearly related to educational attainment. Those with more education are less frequently unemployed and have higher weekly earnings—more education is connected to more income.




As with earlier studies (Reardon et al., 2007; Reardon et al., 2004), several limitations in the present study should be noted. First, the occupational titles included in the census have changed only slightly over the years. The U.S. BLS conducts extensive research to determine whether a new occupation should be added to its list of detailed occupations. A new occupation is one that includes duties not previously identified, one that has been recognized in small numbers and continues to grow (e.g., now has its own professional association or trade group), or one that is evolving and whose tasks have changed significantly. These new occupations arise from technological advances, new laws or regulations, or changing demographics. However, we believe that this issue has minimal impact on the findings of the present study because changes in occupational codes are unlikely to affect the first letter of a code. First-letter codes of occupations are much more stable over time and across industries than second or third letters.


A second limitation of this study is related to the classification of hundreds of thousands of jobs into 350–500 occupational categories, which requires considerable judgment and skill by occupational analysts. These specialists base their judgments on the application of classification criteria, and there is the possibility of error in the use of this system of analysis. Third, we used the first letter in each Holland code in our analysis in order to simplify reporting. While this decision reduced some of the precision inherent in the Holland classification when three-letter codes are used, it increased the accuracy of occupational classification.


Fourth, our analysis was based on a sampling procedure used by the U.S. Census Bureau over 6 decades, and we generalized from this sample to the entire U.S. population. We assumed that the sampling procedure used by the U.S. Census Bureau was appropriate for this study. Fifth, the method for calculating the income levels reported in this study differed across the 3 decades, and comparisons should be made with caution. We used mean levels rather than median levels, and information about the skew of the distribution is not provided in this study. For example, Lowe (2010) noted that while the American Community Survey data are more current, they are not as precise (margins of error are generally higher) as data obtained in the long form used by the U.S. Census Bureau previously. Finally, it is possible that occupations may be shifting within or among industry groups, which would mask some of the findings regarding income reported in the present analysis.


Implications for Counseling Practice


Limitations notwithstanding, the results of this analysis of six kinds of work and employment over 6 decades have implications for counselors. Holland (1997) noted several rules to use in interpreting the Self-Directed Search interest inventory, such as the Rule of Asymmetrical Distribution of Types and Subtypes. This rule reminds both counselor and client that the distribution of types across the six RIASEC areas is very uneven and unequal; moreover, the distribution of jobs across the six types is not symmetrical or equal. Codes associated with small employment numbers may have fewer positions and fewer openings. The research in the present article underscores the validity of this rule. In each census period, the Artistic area was the smallest area of employment at 1% or 2%. At the other extreme, the Realistic area was the largest area of employment, ranging from 55% in 1960 to 27% in 2010. Career counselors should be cautious in advising workers to look for employment outside the Realistic area, because it has been the largest area of employment for the past 6 decades, with ongoing replacement needs (Reardon et al., 2007).


We can add that even the numbers of named census occupations are extremely uneven across six kinds of work. For example, the schema based on RIASEC types used in 2010 to examine occupations was heavily skewed in the direction of the Realistic area (N = 211), with very few occupational titles associated with the Artistic area (N = 19). We surmise that these findings reveal little evidence of instability and change in the use of the occupational schema by the U.S. Census Bureau, at least from a RIASEC perspective.


Some of these findings may be interpreted in different ways. For example, the Realistic area employed the most persons in 2010, but employment in that area has dropped 28% over the 6 decades. The loss of jobs in the Realistic area is greater than the changes in any other area, decreasing from 42.7 million in 1990 to 31.8 million in 2010. The Investigative area almost tripled in employment from 1960–2010, from 3% to 10%, but fewer than 10% of total U.S. jobs are in the Investigative area (11.5 million). These findings seem related to the issue of big-growth and fast-growth jobs described by Horrigan (2003–2004), in which very few occupations appear at the top of both lists. For example, only home health aides and personal care aides are included in both the top 20 big-growth and fast-growth employment areas. This information underscores the importance of understanding demography and an aging population in using labor market information. The information used in career guidance programs often touts the rapid growth in information and technology jobs; however, this information must be balanced with the understanding that only 8% of U.S. employment is in the Investigative area.


The findings of the current study can update and enhance a counselor’s view of labor market information based on Holland’s career theory. We suggest that a RIASEC perspective on jobs in the labor market indicates that things are not really changing as much as others sometimes discuss. U.S. census data compiled over 6 decades (1960–2010) can inform counseling practice and career interventions for students and others exploring occupational changes. These findings can assist counselors and their clients in better matching personal characteristics with occupational and work environments.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.




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Mary-Catherine McClain is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Georgia. Robert C. Reardon is a professor emeritus at Florida State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Robert C. Reardon, FSU Career Center, PO Box 3064162, 100 South Woodward Avenue, Tallahassee, FL 32306-4162,


Counseling Emerging Adults in Transition: Practical Applications of Attachment and Social Support Research

Joel A. Lane

Today’s emerging adults (i.e., individuals between the ages of 18 and 29) in industrialized nations navigate multiple significant life transitions (e.g., entering career life), and do so in a rapidly changing society. While these transitions pose psychological difficulties, a growing body of research has identified attachment and social support as two notably salient protective factors in emerging adulthood. The purpose of the present article is to explore the counseling of emerging adult clients, particularly those in the midst of one or more transitions. The concept of emerging adulthood represents a relatively recent phenomenon that the counseling community has been slow to acknowledge. Specifically, this author reviews literature pertaining to emerging adulthood, attachment and social support, and uses this literature to provide clinicians with practical recommendations for counseling emerging adults.

Keywords: emerging adulthood, life transitions, attachment, social support, counseling

Emerging adulthood is a stage of life resulting from recent societal trends in industrialized nations, occurring between the ages of 18 and 29 (Arnett, 2000, 2004, 2007). These trends include the proliferation of college enrollment, significant delays in settling down and high unemployment compared to prior generations of young adults (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, & Settersten, 2005). Corresponding with these changes is an evolution of the psychosocial development of current emerging adults, who engage in extended identity exploration and report subjectively feeling in between adolescence and adulthood (Arnett, 2001). While the benefits and drawbacks of these changes are a source of frequent and intense debate (Arnett, 2013; Twenge, 2013), few would disagree that being twenty-something today is a drastically different experience than it was several decades ago.


Emerging adulthood presents many life transitions and significant mental health risk. In the midst of prolonged identity experimentation and subjectivity, emerging adults navigate a multitude of major life and role changes, such as leaving home, entering and leaving educational settings, and starting a career. The convergence of these factors—the subjective feeling of not being an adult and near-constant life changes propelling one toward adulthood—seems to contribute to critical periods of identity crisis and various psychological difficulties (Lane, 2013b; Lee & Gramotnev, 2007; Weiss, Freund, & Wiese, 2012). Though not all emerging adults experience difficulties during these transitions (Buhl, 2007; Galambos, Barker, & Krahn, 2006), some respond with significant distress (Murphy, Blustein, Bohlig, & Platt, 2010; Perrone & Vickers, 2003; Polach, 2004), which is problematic given that the emerging adult years are considered a critical juncture in the development of mental illness (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013; Ingram & Gallagher, 2010) and substance abuse (APA, 2013; Chassin, Pitts, & Prost, 2002; Ingram & Gallagher, 2010). Elevated distress also has been shown to increase impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors in emerging adulthood (Scott-Parker, Watson, King, & Hyde, 2011). The distress accompanying these transitions, therefore, poses a considerable threat to emerging adult well-being.


Despite these changes and risk factors, the counseling community has been slow to acknowledge the evolving landscapes of the late teens and twenties. Counselor training programs continue to prominently feature theories of development contending that identity development is a task completed by the end of the teenage years (i.e., Erikson, 1959/1994). It seems likely that many counselors face the challenge of using outdated developmental models to conceptualize their emerging adult clients. For counselors to work effectively with the many challenges and risks that emerging adults face, they must have an increased awareness of emerging adulthood and better understand factors that predict well-being and stability during the numerous transitions commonly experienced. To address this concern, the author provides an overview of emerging adult theory and research describing the significance of emerging adult life transitions; reviews literature examining the importance of attachment and social relationships in emerging adulthood, which appear to especially salient sources of risk resilience during this period of life; and considers implications for counseling professionals to utilize when working with emerging adults.


Emerging Adulthood


Current societal expectations regarding normative life trajectories in the early-to-mid 20s—being finished with education, marrying, acclimating to a professional setting and adjusting to life as a parent—do not seem fully applicable to today’s emerging adults in most industrialized nations. Arnett (2000) described emerging adulthood as a period of feeling “in between” (p. 471), during which individuals are no longer adolescents, but do not yet identify as adults. Thus, the normative developmental tasks for individuals in their 20s seem to have shifted from objective tasks like attaining work, settling down and becoming financially independent, to more subjective tasks like considering the question, Who am I and what do I want my life to look like? This shift is reflected in several factors that distinguish emerging adulthood from other life stages and from prior young adult generations. Of these distinctions, the three most prominent pertain to demographic instability, changes in subjective self-perceptions and extended periods of identity testing (Arnett, 2000).


Characteristics of Emerging Adulthood

     One way that emerging adulthood is distinct from other life stages is with regard to demographics. The past several decades correspond with higher proportions of 18- to 25-year-olds leaving home and periodically moving back home several times (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999), attending college immediately after high school (Arnett, 2004), delaying marriage and childbirth (Arnett, 2000), spending more time in college (Arnett, 2004; Mortimer, Zimmer-Gembeck, Holmes, & Shanahan, 2002) and changing careers (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). In comparison to other age groups, the demographic statuses of emerging adults today vary with little predictability (Arnett, 2000; Cohen, Kasen, Chen, Hartmark, & Gordon, 2003); however, the demographic factor that is most predictable is frequent residential change (Arnett, 2000, 2007; Shulman & Nurmi, 2010). All of these trends indicate the changing demographic landscapes of today’s late teens and early 20s compared to those of prior generations.


     Another changing landscape of emerging adulthood is a trend toward increasingly vague and subjective self-perceptions (Arnett, 2000; Fussell & Furstenberg, 2005). Emerging adults view their progression into adulthood as long and gradual. When a sample of emerging adults were asked if they felt they had reached adulthood, over 50% selected the answer choice “in some respects yes, in some respects no,” and fewer than 5% selected “yes” (Arnett, 2001, p. 140). Moreover, emerging adults seem to consider individual character qualities (e.g., accepting responsibility) to be more salient indicators of having reached adulthood than objective milestones, such as completing education or becoming a parent (Lopez, Chervinko, Strom, Kinney, & Bradley, 2005). In short, emerging adults perceive themselves as no longer adolescents, but also not quite adults, and report vague perceptions of what it will take to feel more like adults.


     A third distinction of emerging adulthood is a prolonged period of identity exploration (Arnett, 2000; Gerstacker, 2010). Given the relative freedom from life obligations, in tandem with the long-term implications of many of the decisions that will be made during emerging adulthood, this stage of life represents an opportunity for significant identity development to occur (Gerstacker, 2010). The freedom to engage in identity exploration results in the delay of firm decisions regarding adult roles (Schulenberg, Bryant, & O’Malley, 2004). These factors also contribute to an increased self-focus during emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004). While some researchers have interpreted these features as resulting from increased narcissism among emerging adults (e.g., Twenge, 2013), Arnett (2004) conceptualized them as temporary and developmentally normative qualities.


     The three most common areas of emerging adult identity exploration are love, work and worldviews (Arnett, 2000). First, emerging adults use their freedom to explore varying levels of commitment with regard to sexual and romantic relationships (Arnett, 2004), and do so in a time period with unprecedented societal acceptance of differing sexual and romantic preferences (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012). Second, significant identity exploration occurs with regard to professional identity, for which evidence can be found in several college trends. Emerging adults are increasingly likely to change their majors more than once (Arnett, 2000), report negative attitudes toward graduation (Lane, 2013a, in press-a; Yazedjian, Kielaszek, & Toews, 2010), spend more time in college (Arnett, 2004) and experience more career turnover (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008) than prior generations. Finally, worldviews represent a third area of identity exploration. With today’s unprecedented higher education enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014; Weber, 2012), a growing number of emerging adults are gaining a more complex understanding of the world around them via higher education experiences. The impact of the college environment on moral reasoning and cross-cultural experiences is well documented (e.g., Bowman, 2010). These trends may explain the observations of several scholars that today’s emerging adults share an unprecedented passion for social justice and community well-being (e.g., Arnett, 2007), especially in urban areas.


Emerging Adult Transitions

     A central feature of emerging adulthood is the frequent occurrence of significant life transitions. Each of these transitions initiates significant role changes that impact social networks, familial support and autonomy. The influence of life transition on well-being has been well documented and frequently results in periods of self-doubt, immobilization and denial (Brammer & Abrego, 1981). In contrast to common assumptions that the transitions associated with emerging adulthood (e.g., college graduation, obtaining employment) are positive life events, these transitions represent periods of loss (Vickio, 1990) that consist of considerable psychological distress for some individuals (Lane, in press-a, in press-b; Lee & Gramotnev, 2007). The proceeding section reviews a growing body of recent research suggesting that the characteristic delay in adult identity formation in emerging adulthood may increase the degree of loss and difficulty experienced during several normative transitions.


     High school graduation. Conclusions are mixed regarding the assertion that high school graduation is a critical emerging adult transition. Though some have reported that graduation is associated with increased quality of parental relationships and decreased depressed mood and delinquent behaviors (Aseltine & Gore, 1993), others have reported significant differences in these trajectories as a function of race and college attendance (Gore & Aseltine, 2003). Similarly, social and institutional support predicts whether deviant behaviors increase or decrease after high school (Sampson & Laub, 1990). These findings suggest that the transition of high school graduation is a positive experience for some emerging adults, but a psychologically distressing experience for others, especially those who lack social support, do not attend college, or identify as African American or Latino.


     The transition to professional life among non-college attendees. After high school, the two most common trajectories are to enter either postsecondary education or the workforce (Arnett, 2004). The transition to work can be particularly difficult for those who forgo college. These emerging adults attempt to transition into professional life without the advantage of higher education—a psychologically beneficial resource that provides important institutional and social support (Raymore, Barber, & Eccles, 2001). Among individuals with high school diplomas, unemployment rates are highest between the ages of 18 and 19, approaching 20% in 2014 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). Those who do find work are unlikely to receive a sustainable income, as mean incomes among emerging adults are drastically lower than for other adult age groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Such difficulties are particularly problematic given that unemployment and economically inadequate employment have been implicated as mental health risks (Dooley, Prause, & Ham-Rowbottom, 2000).


     The freshman transition. For those emerging adults who decide to attend college, their adjustment to college life also represents a significant life transition. In particular, the first year of college is a risk factor for psychological distress. Bowman (2010) found that among first-generation college freshmen, psychological well-being significantly decreased throughout the course of the freshman academic year. Similarly, Sharma (2012) demonstrated that first-year undergraduates experienced significantly greater emotional and social difficulties than other college students. A prominent focus of first-year transition literature is the important role of attachment relationships, a construct that will be discussed in greater depth later in this article. In short, the attachment security of incoming freshmen predicts their overall well-being, as well as their social and academic adjustment (Kenny & Donaldson, 1991; Larose & Boivin, 1998).


The senior year experience. A small but growing body of recent research has identified potential difficulties for college seniors preparing to transition out of school (Lane, 2013a, in press-a). The college experience represents a period of moratorium from many adult responsibilities (Fasick, 1988) and is associated with increased leisure behaviors compared to individuals who do not attend college (Raymore, Barber, Eccles, & Godbey, 1999). Given the subjective experience among emerging adults that they have not yet reached adulthood (Arnett, 2001) and the prevailing societal expectation that college graduation is associated with adult roles (e.g., entering the workforce, settling down), it is likely that emerging adults increasingly view graduation as an important signifier of impending life changes for which they do not feel ready (Lane, 2013a). For example, ambivalence about graduating was one of the primary themes to emerge from a qualitative study of college seniors (Yazedjian et al., 2010). Other qualitative studies of college seniors have found that students are frequently anxious about graduating due to the impending changes they will experience in priorities (Overton-Healy, 2010) and the sense that they lack direction regarding the next phase of life (Allen & Taylor, 2006). Factor analyses of surveys given to college seniors uncovered domains of concern about graduation, including leaving behind the student lifestyle, the impending loss of friendships and support, the process of obtaining employment, and the process of applying to graduate school (Pistilli, Taub, & Bennett, 2003). A recent path analysis revealed significant relationships between these domains of concern and factors such as life satisfaction, psychological health and attachment security (Lane, in press-a).


     Life after college. Given the psychological implications of preparing to leave the college environment, it is not surprising that the time immediately following college life often presents psychological difficulties as well. A sample of Australian college graduates voiced concerns about adjusting to life after college and to work life, referring to this period as a low point of their lives (Perrone & Vickers, 2003). Chickering and Schlossberg (1998) found that well-being suffered when emerging adult graduates encountered difficulties obtaining employment. Such findings are especially significant since they contrast overall trends toward increased well-being throughout emerging adulthood (Galambos et al., 2006). That is, while emerging adulthood is associated with upward trends in well-being, the time immediately following graduation can alter this trajectory, especially when emerging adults experience difficulties obtaining employment.


     However, emerging adults who do secure postcollege employment are not exempt from transition-related distress. This transition involves significant changes in attitudes, expectations and levels of preparedness compared to college life (Polach, 2004; Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Transitioning to the world of work can be particularly difficult since emerging adults are typically leaving an environment in which they felt experienced (e.g., high school, college) and becoming inexperienced professionals (Lane, in press-b). More than half of all college graduates leave their initial place of postcollege employment within two years of graduating (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008), and there is evidence suggesting that this turnover is due to difficulties in adjusting to professional life for the first time (Sturges & Guest, 2001). Such difficulties seem to frequently result in experiences of imposter syndrome (i.e., perceiving oneself as incompetent despite evidence of competence) among emerging adults entering professional life (Lane, in press-b). Other related difficulties include significant learning curves, less feedback and structure than afforded by the college environment, guilt about initial levels of work production, and difficulties forming new social networks (Polach, 2004). Similarly, the results of a survey conducted by Sleap and Reed (2006) suggested that most graduates possess limited awareness of the impending culture changes they will experience as a result of leaving higher education and entering the workplace. The importance of this awareness was demonstrated in a longitudinal study in which emerging adults were tested as college seniors regarding their knowledge about workplace culture, and then were subsequently tested both six months and one year after entering professional life (Gardner & Lambert, 1993). Those who had more accurate information as seniors were more likely to report job satisfaction at both subsequent intervals. Buhl (2007) conducted a similar longitudinal study, finding that the subjective quality of participant parental relationships predicted well-being trajectories during the initial three years of professional life.


     In sum, it is clear that the common transitions experienced during emerging adulthood pose threats to well-being due to role confusion and psychological distress. Given the risks associated with psychological distress, it is paramount to better understand factors that might promote the maintenance of well-being during periods of transition in emerging adulthood. Accordingly, a focus of emerging adult research has been examining constructs that predict positive developmental progressions through these periods of transition. Two such constructs that have received considerable attention are attachment (e.g., Kenny & Sirin, 2006) and social support (e.g., Murphy et al., 2010). It seems that emerging adults who feel secure in their relational attachments and supported by social networks are able to face the developmental challenges of emerging adulthood with greater confidence and well-being than those who lack support and secure attachments. To better explain the impact of these constructs on emerging adult development and well-being, the proceeding sections of this article examine attachment and social support literature pertaining to emerging adulthood.




     Attachment theory contends that the early relationships people develop with their caregivers inform attitudes toward help seeking and new learning in times of distress across the lifespan (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Attachment is defined as the emotional bonds that develop between children and their caregivers beginning in infancy. Based on repeated experiences of caregiver responsiveness, infants begin to develop beliefs and expectations regarding the degree to which their physical and emotional needs will be satisfied. According to attachment theory, these beliefs become internalized as subconscious representations of self and other, which continue to increase in complexity and broadly inform social interactions throughout the lifespan. Those whose representations are based on consistent and sufficient caregiver responsiveness are considered securely attached and are likely to trust their ability to resolve future needs, either by themselves or by relying on caregivers. Insecurely attached children, on the other hand, develop expectations that their caregivers cannot be adequately relied upon in times of need; these children are likely to react to perceived threats with inappropriate levels of affect (i.e., overactivation or deactivation). These reactions interfere with the children’s development of effective emotional regulation and with the successful resolution of stressful situations, thereby continuing to reinforce such responses to future stressful situations (Guttmann-Steinmetz & Crowell, 2006).


     This idea positions early attachment relationships as a likely influence on psychological health in emerging adulthood. The years of later adolescence and early emerging adulthood are a time in which attachment needs are increasingly fulfilled by peers and romantic partners, as opposed to caregivers (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Thus, the relative security of parental attachment representations is likely to inform interpersonal trust and intimacy, as well as the ability to seek the meeting of attachment needs from others (Schnyders & Lane, 2014). In fact, frequency of contact with parents during emerging adulthood is negatively associated with subjective closeness to parents (Hiester, Nordstrom, & Swenson, 2009), while geographical distance from parents is positively associated with psychological adjustment (Dubas & Petersen, 1996). Younger emerging adults are likely to begin experimenting with independence, though they often still use parents or caregivers as attachment figures in times of distress (Fraley & Davis, 1997; Kenny, 1987).


Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) conducted what was perhaps the first study to consider the relevance of attachment to the unique needs of young adult populations. They demonstrated several trajectories in interpersonal functioning on the basis of attachment functioning. In the study, attachment was conceptualized as occurring across dimensions of self and other: secure (positive representations of self and other), anxious (negative representations of self, positive representations of other), dismissive-avoidant (positive representations of self, negative representations of other), and fearful-avoidant (negative representations of self and other). Such a conceptualization has become a standard for contemporary adult attachment research (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Fearful-avoidant participants seemed to struggle with interpersonal passivity. Dismissive-avoidance was “related to a lack of warmth in social interactions” (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991, p. 234). The interpersonal problems of anxious participants suggested control seeking or overinvolvement in the affairs of their peers. These findings corroborate more recent conceptualizations of insecure attachments in adulthood (Brennan et al., 1998; Mallinckrodt, 2000). Specifically, individuals with elevated attachment anxiety are likely to respond to distress with a hyperactivated strategy, heightening awareness of their distress and causing them to seek inappropriate levels of interpersonal dependence. Conversely, individuals with elevated attachment avoidance are likely to respond to distress with a deactivated strategy, inhibiting awareness of negative affect and preventing them from seeking support from others.


     A growing body of emerging adult research supports the importance of healthy attachment functioning for various psychological outcomes during emerging adulthood. Attachment is a crucial predictor of well-being trajectories at many key emerging adult transition points (Lane, 2014), including the first year of college (Kenny & Donaldson, 1991), the last year of college (Lane, in press-a) and the postcollege years (Kenny & Sirin, 2006). For example, one study tracked Israeli males from their final year of high school through their third year away from home for compulsory military service (Scharf, Mayseless, & Kivenson-Baron, 2004). Securely attached individuals demonstrated better coping strategies and higher capacity for intimacy during their military service than those with insecure attachments. More generally, attachment security in emerging adulthood also influences self-reinforcement capacity and reassurance needs (Wei, Mallinckrodt, Larson, & Zakalik, 2005), affect regulation and resilience (Karreman & Vingerhoets, 2012), perceived self-worth (Kenny & Sirin, 2006), dysfunctional attitudes and self-esteem (Roberts, Gotlib, & Kassel, 1996), self-compassion and empathy toward others (Wei, Liao, Ku, & Shaffer, 2011), self-organization strategies (Lopez, Mitchell, & Gormley, 2002), and identification with emerging adulthood (Schnyders, 2014; Schnyders & Lane, 2014). Many of these factors illustrate the importance of attachment functioning in developing healthy and supportive interpersonal social networks.


Social Support


The construct of social support refers to social relationships or interactions that provide individuals with actual or perceived assistance (Sarason et al., 1991). Social support is psychologically beneficial in its capacity to mitigate stress during stressful situations (e.g., Ditzen et al., 2008), an idea commonly referred to as the stress buffering hypothesis (Cohen & McKay, 1984). A wealth of recent research has strongly suggested that social support is particularly salient during emerging adulthood, as this is a life period marked with numerous transitions and opportunities to experience distress. In a qualitative study of emerging adults who had recently transitioned into professional life, social support was the most prominent theme related to adjustment (Murphy et al., 2010); those who reported relational isolation also struggled with unpreparedness for new financial obligations and feeling that their expectations about life after college were left unfulfilled. Mortimer et al. (2002) reported similar findings. Wendlandt and Rochlen (2008), noting that social support is often lacking in the transition out of college and into the work force, urged college counselors to develop interventions aimed at increasing perceived support. This idea was supported in a study of college graduates who had recently relocated to a metropolitan area and were adjusting to their first year of professional life (Polach, 2004). Participants reported frustration and difficulties trying to establish new peer groups outside the college environment. They also cited the importance of a sense of belonging as the primary reason for moving to a city after graduating. Clearly, ample evidence supports the protective qualities of social support for emerging adults transitioning into professional life.


Moreover, social support also seems to be important during other emerging adult transitions. In one qualitative study, emerging adult participants described the ability to understand friendship dynamics as an important component in the subjective experience of reaching adulthood (Lopez et al., 2005). Examples of understanding friendship dynamics included the maintenance of preexisting friendships, changes in friendships based on varying maturation rates, and understanding the importance of the social network. In another study, first-year college students seemed to adjust more effectively to college life when the support they received from family members shifted from actions consistent with parental attachment to actions consistent with social support (Kenny, 1987). In a multiethnic sample of urban high school students, perceived social support predicted aspirations for career success, positive beliefs pertaining to achieving career goals and the importance of work in the future (Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003).


Several longitudinal studies also have demonstrated relationships between aspects of social support and various elements of positive adjustment in emerging adulthood. A large study that tracked individuals for nearly 30 years beginning at age 7 (Masten et al., 2004) found that social quality was an aspect of resilience and predicted success in various emerging adult developmental tasks (e.g., academic attainment). Moreover, success with these tasks predicted success in postemerging adult developmental tasks (e.g., parenting quality, romantic success, work success). O’Connor et al. (2011) found perceived quality of peer relationships to predict positive development in emerging adulthood, which they conceptualized to include life satisfaction, trust and civic engagement. Galambos et al. (2006), in a longitudinal study tracking nearly 1,000 Canadian participants throughout the course of emerging adulthood, found that increases in social support were significantly correlated with increases in well-being.


These findings suggest that the degree to which emerging adults are able to develop and rely upon support networks directly impacts their ability to adapt to various normative experiences and transitions. Given the aforementioned discussion regarding emerging adult attachment, it is likely that these two constructs (attachment and social support) are of shared importance during such transitions. That is, attachment representations inform one’s capacity for positive interpersonal interactions (Mallinckrodt & Wei, 2005), and in this way, attachment and social support collectively facilitate transition processes in emerging adulthood (Lane, 2014; Larose & Boivin, 1998).


Implications for Counseling Emerging Adults


Counseling professionals who work in mental health or university settings are uniquely positioned to intervene with emerging adult clients and to foster resilience and well-being during this turbulent life phase. If counselors are to be effective working with the many challenges that emerging adults face, it is necessary to better understand factors that predict well-being during life transition. The aforementioned literature demonstrates the protective qualities of social support for emerging adults in transition. Emerging adults who are able to rely on positive social relationships during life transitions derive higher psychological well-being, life satisfaction and positive affect (Lane, 2014). Accordingly, counselors would be wise to assist their emerging adult clients in cultivating supportive social relationships. While counseling is a supportive relationship unto itself (Slade, 2008), the degree to which emerging adults in transition are able to derive satisfaction from a number of supportive relationships seems to directly impact the experience of well-being during transition. In this regard, counselors are encouraged to recognize the unprecedented complexity of emerging adult support networks (Arnett, 2007; Garcia et al., 2012; Manago, Taylor, & Greenfield, 2012) due to the proliferation of social media and changing attitudes toward romantic relationships.


Moreover, social support is not limited to interpersonal relationships, but also includes structural and institutional forms of support (Masten et al., 2004). Thus, possessing knowledge of community programs and resources available to emerging adults also is imperative when working with this age group. Support can be enhanced through transition-specific programs (e.g., Lane, 2013a; Yeadon, 2010) that provide information about future expectations and strengthen coping skills (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Further benefits can be derived as counselors work with their clients to rely on these support systems during times of transition.


As the literature further suggests, one’s degree of attachment security will impact the ability to develop and rely upon social support. Thus, excessive attachment anxiety or avoidance could pose challenges to working with emerging adults on support utilization. Accordingly, counselors of emerging adults should be aware of this potential therapeutic roadblock; they also should be prepared to intervene to develop corrective attachment experiences with their clients. Mallinckrodt (2000) suggested an approach in which clinicians utilize the therapeutic relationship to promote secure attachment strategies. The focus of this approach is maintaining relational boundaries through anticipating how clients might resist such boundaries. That is, because elevated attachment anxiety promotes a desire for maladaptive interpersonal dependence (Brennan et al., 1998), counselors should work to establish greater interpersonal distance than their anxiously attached clients would prefer (Mallinckrodt, 2000). Similarly, since elevated attachment avoidance promotes a desire for maladaptive interpersonal isolation, counselors should seek greater interpersonal closeness than their avoidant-attached clients would prefer. While doing so, clinicians should monitor the affective experience of their clients as a result of the therapeutic relationship, and should assist their clients in self-monitoring as well. This process can facilitate client awareness of attachment tendencies and enhance mindfulness about communicating future relational needs.


Other helpful suggestions come from a qualitative study of experienced therapists who worked toward corrective attachment experiences with their clients (Daly & Mallinckrodt, 2009). The therapists in the sample suggested that therapeutic boundaries should be reevaluated over the course of therapy. These therapists also emphasized the importance of sensitivity to client defenses early in the therapeutic relationship, and suggested several strategies for both managing boundaries and combating resistance. Such strategies included intentional disclosure of feelings toward client patterns, fostering a sense of consistency and dependability about counseling, and developing an awareness of the temporary nature of the therapeutic relationship, beginning at the onset of therapy. These considerations may aid counselors in helping emerging adult clients work past insecure attachment patterns to develop healthy social relationships that can be utilized to facilitate emerging adult transition.


More broadly, the preceding literature review speaks to the importance of counselors acknowledging the changing landscapes of young adulthood. Current trends in the media seem to advance a narrative that today’s young adults are narcissistic, entitled and lazy. While the veracity of such labels is a focus of current debate in the research community (for an overview of this debate, see Arnett, 2013 and Twenge, 2013), the narrative that these labels perpetuate is not conducive to an empathic understanding of the needs of those in this age group. Thus, counselors are encouraged to consider Arnett’s (2004) theory of emerging adulthood when conceptualizing their work with emerging adult clients. This theory indirectly encourages counselors to honor the process of emerging adulthood, during which it is normative to engage in numerous behaviors that are often negatively misconstrued. Specifically, emerging adults are likely to (a) frequently move out and back into the parental household (which could be construed as parental enmeshment), (b) engage in prolonged identity exploration (which could be construed as laziness), (c) possess vague subjective understandings regarding the realization of adult identities (which could be construed as lack of direction), (d) think optimistically about the future (which could be construed as entitlement) and (e) temporarily possess a heightened self-focus (which could be construed as narcissism). Thus, acknowledging and normalizing these characteristics, even if they might constitute relatively recent phenomena, is important for fostering empathic understanding between counselors and their emerging adult clients.




     Emerging adults navigate many significant life and role transitions with important long-term implications. These transitions can induce great pressure and distress for some emerging adults, increasing their likelihood of experiencing many of the risks commonly associated with this age group. Thus, it is important that counselors understand the unique dynamics of emerging adulthood, especially given the myriad ways that this group has changed and evolved compared to prior young adult generations. In particular, the aforementioned literature suggests that counselors may find success with their emerging adult clients by working to enhance social support and correct potential insecure attachment behaviors, as well as by incorporating emerging adult theory to conceptualize client behaviors and perspectives. Though emerging adulthood is often a time of turmoil and instability, it is also a period rife with opportunities and possibilities, thus providing the potential for deeply rewarding and transformative counseling experiences.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The author reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.





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Joel A. Lane, NCC, is the recipient of the 2014 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The Professional Counselor and an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Joel A. Lane, Department of Counselor Education, Portland State University, Graduate School of Education, PO Box 751, Portland, OR 97207,


An Exploration of the Personal Experiences and Effects of Counselors’ Crying in Session

Miles Matise

This article describes a qualitative interview study of 11 counselors’ personal experiences of crying in session with a client and their perception of its effects on the therapeutic relationship. Semistructured interviews with counselors at a mid-sized university in the Midwest found that tears could be an appropriate response to a client’s unique situation and helpful in empathizing with the client. Themes of awareness, empathy, modeling and authenticity as well as implications for counselors are discussed.

Keywords: crying, empathy, self-disclosure, authenticity, therapeutic relationship

Crying is a response that all people have in common and one of the most powerful demonstrations of emotional expression in humans. Darwin’s (1872) early theories of emotions have greatly influenced the significance of studying tears. Emotional expression seems to be universal among humans and the expression of tears is innate, serving an important function for our welfare, as well as a form of non-verbal communication. The words “crying” and “tears” are used synonymously in this study to mean tearing up, as in the eyes filling with tears or running over as an expression of empathy.

Counselors are faced with a variety of emotionally charged situations that at times might be uncomfortable and unpleasant and, as a result, influence counseling behavior during a session. The rationale for this study was based on the paucity of research on counselors’ tearing up as an appropriate form of self-disclosure, when it genuinely and spontaneously occurs and is not the result of the counselor’s unresolved issues.

The main purposes for exploring the phenomenon of counselors’ crying were as follows: (a) to increase counselor self-awareness and reactions in emotionally intense situations, (b) to promote dialogue for counseling supervisors and educators, and (c) to discover the meaning a counselor places on personally significant crying experiences. Cornelius (1981) noted that researchers are a long way from developing a comprehensive theory of crying and that there is a need for more descriptive data before construction of a theory. The current study is a step toward providing such data on the phenomenon of counselors’ crying in session.

Individuals in helping roles are vulnerable to a wide variety of emotionally charged situations, which can be defined situations in which there is high potential for reactionary behaviors. These behaviors can lead to overt expressions, such as crying, screaming, angry outbursts and sometimes seemingly irrational demonstrations of emotion. Emotionally charged situations can be uncomfortable and unpleasant and can induce a state of anxiety, especially in professional situations such as counseling. When a counselor has an emotionally charged response to a client, feelings can intensify, resulting in a spontaneous reaction, even crying. However, a study by Curtis, Matise, and Glass (2003) suggested that crying with clients could be a genuine expression of emotions and facilitate the therapeutic relationship.

Crying has several advantages. Crying is a natural coping mechanism that helps to buffer against the pathogenic effects of stress (Davis, 1990; Frey, Desota-Johnson, Hoffman, & McCall, 1981). Crying not only has certain health benefits (Davis, 1990; Frey, Desota-Johnson, Hoffman, & McCall, 1981) such as relieving stress caused by the buildup of emotions, but also can enhance empathy and facilitate the therapeutic alliance (Horvath, 2001). Waldman (1995) suggested that a counselor’s crying could be therapeutic to a client. According to Frey et al. (1981), emotional stress alters the chemical balance of the human body. When the stimulation of the lacrimal gland in the brain increases due to emotional intensity, it results in the production of tears. Although the social expression of crying has differences in degree, for this study crying is defined as the state of lachrymose secretions pouring from the eyes in response to emotional stimulation.

Crying and Stress in the Counseling Situation

The connection between emotional stress and the biological process suggests that crying is a function of the body to maintain homeostasis by helping to relieve emotional stress. In a study on why adults cry, emotional tears seemed to be associated with tension reduction (Efran & Spangler, 1979). The researchers focused on the recovery aspect of tears and suggested that crying happens when a psychological barrier or perturbation disappears, signifying recovery and adaptation rather than continuation of distress or arousal, thus permitting the system to shift into recovery

Hill, Mahalik, and Thompson (1989) offered two explanations for a counselor’s emotional reaction of crying during a session. The first is self-disclosure, which refers to a counselor’s personal emotional response to the client. When self-disclosure is appropriate, the counselor shares a segment from his or her own life with the client for the purpose of either reassuring or challenging the client’s experience. Yet, the focus in this situation is on the client and not the counselor. When a counselor is in a situation that stirs powerful emotions, self-disclosure can deepen the counselor–client connection or can reflect the counselor’s inability to contain his or her own feelings.

A second explanation for a counselor’s emotional reaction of crying during a session is empathy, which refers to one’s active attention toward the feelings of others (Rogers, 1980). This concept emphasizes the therapeutic function of a counselor’s ability to fully experience the attitude expressed by the client and reflect to the client what he or she is experiencing. Empathy is considered a significant way to enhance and deepen the therapeutic relationship.

Sometimes counselors might discount the behavior of crying as an inappropriate reaction triggered by the experience of anxiety and discomfort or an overly sympathetic response. In order to reduce his or her reaction to an emotionally charged situation, a counselor might emotionally detach from the client in order to quell his or her own discomfort and limit a reactionary response in return. While the intention of this emotional detachment may help the counselor maintain a more objective perspective toward the client’s reaction, the result also may be to limit the counselor’s emotional availability and thus protect the counselor’s own needs over the needs of the client. By detaching, the counselor can unintentionally emotionally abandon the client at a time when the client most needs support.

The Therapeutic Effectiveness of Crying

Few studies have examined the effectiveness of counselors’ crying in session. Waldman (1995) and Counselman (1997) suggested that counselors’ emotional tears could be therapeutic to a client. Waldman (1995) interviewed ten licensed psychologists with at least 5 years of clinical experience each. Each psychologist discussed his or her perceptions and feelings related to an incident in which he or she cried with a client during a session. Waldman found that nine of the participants believed that their emotional tears were helpful in facilitating the therapeutic process. In contrast, one participant reported that emotional crying was the result of personal unresolved issues, which was not helpful to the client. With this in mind, it is possible that counselors’ crying can be the result of the counselor’s own struggles and countertransference. In this instance, objectivity could be lost and the therapeutic relationship hindered. Therefore, counselors might perceive crying as nontherapeutic and even unethical. Nevertheless, Waldman (1995) concluded that crying with clients enhanced the counselorclient connection and facilitated the client’s work in session.

Counselman (1997) conducted a case study exploring the therapeutic effectiveness of a counselor crying in session with a client. She reported on her work with a couple in which the wife was dying of cancer. After several sessions of marriage counseling relating to an affair by the husband, the author described crying when the couple disclosed that the wife’s breast cancer had recurred. Counselman (1997) admitted that her greatest fear was that she would not be able to stop crying and presumably might be viewed as unprofessional. However, she decided that her first priority was to be fully present with the couple, even if this meant crying with them in session. She reported that her willingness to share her emotions with this couple deepened the therapeutic relationship and facilitated the couple’s counseling goals all the way to her client’s death. She also indicated that this self-exposure “was healing for me in the way our work as counselors often is” (p. 237). Corey (2001) suggested, “If you use your own feelings as a way of understanding yourself, your client, and the relationship between the two of you, these feelings can be a positive and healing force” (p. 108).

Men in our society have consistently been taught not to cry and to downplay emotions. Counselors who find themselves on the verge of emotional tears may find the experience more profitable if they have had access to images that portrayed this behavior as acceptable and natural rather than a shameful and weak demonstration of emotions, especially for male counselors (Hoover-Dempsey, Plas, & Wallston, 1986).

Given that much therapeutic work is dedicated to helping clients express their deepest feelings, the lack of research regarding counselors’ tearing up in session lends significance to the study of professionals who encounter emotionally charged situations and their emotional availability to respond in authentic ways without diminishing their credibility.


Study Design

The present study was informed by life-world phenomenology (Ashworth, 2003) in order to gain information and to give voice to the lived experiences of counselors around the issue of intense emotional experiences in the counseling situation, which sometimes includes crying. A phenomenological approach with oral responses was consistent with the goals of the study and sensitive to the needs of the participants. Phenomenological research originated from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology philosophy and aims to clarify a person’s lived experience through everyday life situations (Giorgi & Giorgi, 2008). The root of phenomenology is that of intentionality, which allows objects to appear as phenomena because the self and the world are inseparable components of meaning. The idea is to suspend all presuppositions and biases and closely capture an experience within the context that the experience takes place. This is attempted through the three steps of epoche, phenomenological reduction and imaginative variation (Willig, 2001).

Participants and Setting

Potential participants were contacted either by email or in person and asked to volunteer for a brief interview concerning crying with clients while in a session. The criteria for inclusion were based on licensure, certification and experience, as well as the ability to provide full descriptions of one’s personal experiences of crying in session. In total, 11 counselors and professionals with related experience were included in this study. Participants were between 25 and 71 years old; four participants were males and the remainder female. The sample consisted of licensed professional counselors, school counselors, national certified counselors, a licensed marriage and family counselor, and a psychologist, with a combined average of 15 years’ experience in their related fields. The participant’s theoretical perspectives were varied and consisted of the following: cognitive behavioral, family systems, existential, Adlerian and person centered. Open-ended questions provided a general guide to the interviews (see Appendix), while allowing for discussion of relevant material.

Data Collection

Data collection consisted of semistructured interviews varying in length from 30120 minutes. Interviews were chosen in order to open up topics and receive the participants’ stories of crying in session with clients. Each interview was audio recorded and notes were taken during the interviews to facilitate transcription and future analysis. Repeat interviews were conducted with all but three of the participants, thus contributing to richer descriptions. The following topic areas were covered in the interviews: (1) What issues would make you cry in session? (2) What is your response to a client who starts crying in session? (3) How would crying be beneficial to the therapeutic relationship? (4) How do you keep yourself from crying in session with a client? (For more complete information, see Appendix.)

The data were processed in order to discern meanings and actions by first using a central idea or question relating to the research. The central questions used to guide this analysis were as follows:

What is the counselor’s internal experience of a client who cries in session?

What is the counselor’s internal experience of allowing him or herself to cry in session with a client?

Second, the author and a colleague brainstormed other terms that relate to the central concept of crying. This process led to further questions and terms, such as awareness, empathy, crying as choice, loss, grief, genuineness, control, equality, acceptance and permission. Third, connections were drawn among the various terms based on how the ideas related to each other, until ideas were exhausted about the central topic. Fourth, the findings were summarized and a graphical representation of the data was used to draw themes at face value, rather than explain or interpret at that point. Fifth, the author discussed the findings with a non-biased professional colleague in order to interpret how the data were linked to the big picture, theoretical perspectives and previous literature.

Data Analysis

Following the qualitative guidelines proposed by Creswell (1998) and Moustakas (1994), phenomenological analysis proceeded through several stages. The first was horizonalization of the data, in which the researcher read through the data and identified statements that described how the participants experienced the phenomenon of crying. Moustakas (1994) called these meaning statements and Creswell (1998) called them significant statements. For instance, one participant contributed a significant statement by describing crying as a genuine and spontaneous response:

I see it [crying] as an expression of a deep emotion and a genuine or real thing that happens. The client can see how I’m experiencing what they’ve told me. If that involves crying, that means that’s how I experience their story.

The second stage was transcribing the statements into separate themes. Third, phenomenological reduction was used to group the meaning statements thematically by coding them with short descriptions for each theme. Lastly, imaginative variation was used to vividly capture the textures of the themes. Through intuitive thinking, imaginative variation enables the researcher to derive structural themes from the textural descriptions (Moustakas, 1994). An overall description of the themes that illustrated the essential meaning of the experience was concluded.

Audio-recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim for each participant and the transcripts were analyzed by the author and cross-analyzed for consistency by a professional colleague who was not a member of the counseling profession. All of the interviews were thematically and categorically analyzed for commonalities in the phenomenon of crying, and regular discussions were held to achieve consensus on emerging themes from the descriptive to the analytic stages.

Three main phases of data collection and analysis occurred over the course of 32 weeks. The first phase was an initial analysis that took place during data collection. The second was a content analysis conducted after the study was completed. The final analysis was thematic, in which categories were used to organize contributions.

Categorical analytic procedures described by Creswell (1998) and Merriam (1998) guided analysis of the interview data and narrative questionnaire data, which were combined for analysis. During the interviews, the author bracketed (epoche) experiences that may have contaminated collection, interpretation and analysis of the data. Bracketing is performed by examining possible researcher biases and then setting those biases aside (Moustakas, 1994). This challenge was addressed by the researcher maintaining a journal of thoughts and reactions in order to increase his awareness of and accountability to the process of epoche. Potential researcher biases consisted of the researcher’s personal experiences with crying, his own values and opinions concerning the phenomenon of crying, and his own professional ethics related to crying with a client.

During data collection, there was a continuous cycle in which the researcher read, reread, reflected on and interpreted the data. Constant comparison (Merriam, 1998) was practiced, in which multiple readings of the data set were examined and compared with the next piece of data. Unique responses and isolated situations also were identified and analyzed.

Ethical Considerations

As a professional counselor, the researcher has been conditioned by his training and abides by ethical codes of conduct from professional organizations, most of which do not address the issue of a counselor’s crying in session with a client. These measures were taken during data analysis so as not to interfere with the accurate telling of each participant’s personal experiences of the phenomenon of crying.

Ethical approval was granted by the Internal Review Board of the university where participants were solicited. Participants were asked to consent to a voluntary interview about the nature of their experience of crying in session with a client and notified of the estimated time of participation. The results of the interviews were confidential and no personal identification was requested of the participants.

Procedures to Ensure Trustworthiness

A variety of strategies were used to ensure the credibility, confirmability (validity) and trustworthiness (reliability) of this study. First, a purposeful sample was selected for this investigation to ensure that the participants had a wide range of experiences as counselors in a therapeutic milieu, and in order to increase the probability of participants having experienced the phenomenon of crying in a session.

An audit trail (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) was created to ensure that the participants felt confident that the research data showed a fully accurate description of their experiences of crying in session. Records were kept in the form of raw data (e.g., field notes), data reduction (e.g., summaries of theoretical notes), data reconstruction (e.g., structure of categories, themes, relationships, definitions, conclusions), and process notes (e.g., trustworthiness notes relating to credibility and dependability).

Data triangulation (Thurmond, 2001) was implemented by soliciting feedback from participants during the analysis stage of data collection. The participants’ diversity of experience, theoretical perspectives, demographic variability and length of experience as licensed professionals in their fields helped the researcher gain a clearer understanding of the phenomenon of crying and how it applies to counseling. Participants were allowed to see the interview questions prior to the interview, in order to provide more in-depth and thoughtful answers regarding the phenomenon being investigated.

Member checking was implemented to test the accuracy of the categories, interpretations and conclusions of the researcher with the participants from whom the data were originally obtained. This procedure was conducted informally during the normal course of observation and conversation with the participants at the time of their interviews. A more formal procedure was implemented after the researcher transcribed the interviews and sent them to participants for investigation. After the evaluation stage was complete and themes were established for the phenomenon of crying in session with clients, an email was sent to participants with a summary of the thematic conclusions, soliciting feedback, challenges or additional information from participants.

An external audit was conducted throughout the evaluation and analysis stages, in which the author discussed the data with a colleague who was not a part of the mental health profession. The purpose of choosing this colleague was to have an unbiased person who would not be swayed by training as a counselor and the ethics of the profession. The researcher’s assumption was that mental health professionals would be more prone to accept, tolerate and be nonjudgmental toward clients’ intense emotional experiences, even to the point of crying with them. Another external audit conducted to foster the accuracy and validity of the present study included advising from a faculty member in the applied statistics and research methods department of the university where the participants were sampled.


Through analysis of the participants’ interviews, invariant horizons were identified and themes were extracted and clustered through the reduction process (Moustakas, 1994). Following are textual descriptions of the prominent identified themes that emerged, including awareness, empathy, modeling and authenticity. An examination of participants’ experiences also was extrapolated from the data.

Theme 1: Awareness

     Each of the participants spoke about the skill of awareness as a decisive factor as to whether they would cry in session. Awareness was described as a skill that could be learned and used by the counselor, not only to determine whether to cry in session, but whether the voluntary nature of crying as an emotional response could be used to facilitate a therapeutic interaction. One male counselor-participant described crying as follows:

Crying means different things in different cultures. Some cultures and people may see crying as a sign of weakness, whereas others encourage its expression to practice being humble and exercise social kindness. As part of being culturally sensitive, a counselor needs to pay attention and try to explore with the client about this behavior. Crying is like a universal language that involves a list of vocabulary from different cultures and persons.

Awareness was an essential component of whether crying was considered therapeutic for the client. Even though all participants had cried to some degree or another in session, their respective levels of comfort and opinions of what could help counselors-in-training prepare for such emotionally charged issues varied. One participant spoke of not being able to turn her crying on or off, but said that if she felt it was not appropriate because it took the focus off the client, then she tried to block herself from crying or tearing up:

If I cry in session, I open it up and tell the client that this is how I’m experiencing your situation and I’m crying, how does that feel to you? If they say it’s not ok, then I’ll tell them that I’ll try to block it, but I’m not sure if I’ll always be able to.

One interview question asked whether counseling programs could do anything different in terms of preparing counselors-in-training to deal with emotionally intense situations in which crying might occur. There was consensus among more than half of the participants that they had had no formal training in dealing with such emotionally intense situations, largely because this training is not something that can be taught from a textbook. One can read about an issue, but experiencing it is something quite different. To know oneself was said to be more pertinent, in terms of knowing how one would react to a particular situation. All of the participants made this statement, though they had no formal training in dealing with emotionally intense situations in which crying might occur. A male marriage and family counselor stated:

You can read the kinds of things we’re talking about in a book, but I think the best way to teach people is in experiential situations. To have some knowledge that these things are going to happen and that it’s ok to deal with it, that’s the cognitive piece that you can teach people. The emotional piece, that you can’t teach people, is how to handle it.

Another participant, a licensed professional counselor, stated that she was in fact overprepared. She continued, “My master’s program was in the day [1970s] when there was a lot of therapy. It was about intensity and our own comfort with intensity.” She felt that the pendulum had swung too far the other way, stating, “I think we ought to do a lot more personal growth in our [training] programs than we do.”

Theme 2: Empathy

     A predominant issue for the participants was that of crying linked with empathy. All participants felt that crying demonstrated a deeper form of empathy toward the client. Empathy is the experience of being in the client’s shoes and tapping into the present felt experience of the situation. One of the most effective ways a counselor can help a client change is to affirm his or her subjective experience. Empathy is an essential skill for helping clients feel that they are being validated and understood (Teyber, 2000). For a counselor, knowing the issues that touch his or her own personal soft spots (countertransference) is important in order to inform a counselor’s interaction with a client. One participant said, “I think it [crying] may be the ultimate empathy, if the tears are genuine. I’m sure Carl Rogers would have cried with clients.” The researcher challenged the participant by asking, “I wonder if he [Carl Rogers] ever did cry with a client?” Her response was as follows:

How could he not, because when we’re really in psychological contact we don’t absorb their stuff; we experience it with them for a short time. I don’t think we leave unscathed. I think clients change from our work with them and we change from our work with our clients.

Empathy points to an invisible element that leads to a deeper connection with an individual. Crying with a client in session, if genuine, was deemed a deeper kind of empathy, beyond words, that demonstrates a validating connection and recognition of the client’s subjective experience.

Theme 3: Modeling

As a result of specialized training, counselors may be regarded as more competent in human relation skills such as emotional expression, and thus bear a responsibility to model positive and appropriate expressions of intense emotions to clients. Modeling relates to how the client interprets and integrates the influence of the counselor’s actions into his or her daily activities of emotional expression. Because of training in interpersonal effectiveness, counselors may be more adept at emotional expression, and thus there may exist a higher expectation from others regarding trained mental health professionals’ reactions to such emotionally intense situations. A school counselor stated:

By acknowledging crying, you don’t have to pull back, because what I’ve seen with therapists is they pull back in an attempt to control it, so they lose contact with the client and the situation. They’re also modeling for the client that it [crying]’s not ok and whatever it is they’re experiencing is not okay to share with other people, because it makes people uncomfortable.

Counselors can have a significant influence on clients and model a corrective emotional experience. If counselors are not to be merely conduits for cultural values, in terms of what the socially acceptable response is for emotional expressions, then a counselor modeling authenticity is most effective when it is a genuine act of responding to an emotionally intense situation.

Theme 4: Authenticity

All participants came from a counseling perspective that was relationally based. One counselor came from a cognitive-behavioral theoretical approach, four came from a family systems perspective, one from an existential approach, one from an Adlerian approach, and the remainder from a person-centered perspective. What these theoretical perspectives have in common is that the relationship with the client forms the foundation of the theory. Being genuine was correlated with authenticity and therapeutic effectiveness. Crying might have an equalizing effect, confirming to clients that the counselor is human and understands their experience.

It was found that among participants the range of and comfort with emotional expression varied by age. Older participants (> 40 years old) with more experience had become more comfortable with the way in which they expressed their emotions. Younger participants (< 40 years old) felt that it was acceptable to cry as long as it was appropriate in their estimation, but were less likely to do so while in session with a client.

     A technique called immediacy can have an equalizing effect on the relationship and induce a therapeutic moment by revealing the counselor’s immediate perspective on the situation at hand. One female participant clarified, “Usually when I cry I will say something regarding the tears and have a discussion whether they are helpful or disturbing to the client.” While authenticity is not the sole determining factor of whether or not a counselor cries, according to participants, crying is a strong indicator of the authenticity of a therapeutic interaction. For one counselor, her authenticity took the form of a countercultural response:

When I went to my dad’s funeral, I was thinking, if I don’t cry then they’re going to think something is wrong with me, so I hope I can cry. . . . Sometimes you’re in a situation where you feel it’s expected.

Despite cultural expectations, authenticity represents characteristics that are unique to every individual and is an internal experience of an outward expression. What is a genuine emotional expression to one counselor might look different to another.


The outward expression of crying in a counseling session and whether tears flow as a result of a counselor’s unresolved issues versus an empathetic response to a client’s situation is critical for determining the effectiveness of the crying response. The studies reviewed and the participants interviewed varied in their conclusions about whether to cry with a client while in session and whether it is helpful to the client. Whether it is helpful to the client for the counselor to cry with him or her depends upon certain factors, including the degree and timing of the counselor’s tears, the cultural acceptableness of this type of emotional expression, and even gender. There are unforeseen factors that only a counselor can experience with a client based on the conditions of that exact moment. That being said, whether or not to cry with a client is a choice made based on the professional judgment of the counselor.

One way to measure the appropriateness of crying in session with a client is by the generally accepted practices of professionals in the mental health field. A counselor’s professional judgment has some link to the larger profession and the generally accepted practices of other professionals, as long as they adhere to the ethical standards of the prominent organizations of the field. However, this strategy may not always yield a conclusive answer. A counselor’s oath to do no harm should be a guiding factor, as well as obtaining supervision in order to work out these unique situations with clients.

The theme of authenticity and the desire to be oneself in the counseling session was consistent among the participants of this study. It has been suggested that hiding behind technical expertise and leaving one’s genuineness out of the relationship may not create the most therapeutic environment (Corey, 2001). Considerable research indicates that the counseling relationship is more important than technique in predicting client outcomes (Lambert & Cattani-Thompson, 1996; Nelson & Neufeldt, 1996). Thus, counseling by its very nature requires counselors to undertake the difficult task of managing countertransference while maintaining a genuine and open relationship with clients. To be authentic in session may mean to cry with a client or it may not, even if the emotional expression is intentionally held back. There may be no conclusively right or wrong way to be with a client, only a list of ethical guidelines to which to adhere.

Another important concept that is becoming more useful in the field of counseling is mindfulness. Mindfulness is much like this study’s theme of awareness, which the participants in this study recognized as an important aspect of determining whether to cry with a client. Self-awareness is considered not only a vital part of a counselor’s development, but also an important goal for the client who engages in counseling. Mindful attention helps distinguish between distorted thoughts and emotional patterns that entrap, in order to free the counselor (Bennett-Goleman, 2001). By practicing mindfulness, the counselor strengthens personal attention as a protection against being hijacked by a schema or distortion of thoughts. A mindful counselor can be more aware of thought patterns and catch him or herself from reacting to certain stimuli, such as a client’s tears. By not reacting, a counselor can make a wise choice as to the most appropriate response for a given situation. Because a goal of mindfulness is to be more fully present in the moment, a counselor who is mindful may be more aware of the subtleties between the counselor and client and be less judgmental. The mindful counselor may be slightly detached and more objective in an assessment of the situation and therefore less triggered by rogue feelings and judgments, while allowing for clarity of the situation and an authentic emotional response that may include crying.


A lack of clarity remains around the issue of intense emotional experiences in the counseling situation, which often includes crying or tearing up to some degree, as well as a lack of training in counselor education programs to deal with such situations. This study employed methods adopted from the phenomenological research tradition to generate data with which to interpret the crying event. The phenomenological method served as a starting point for exploration, and through this investigation, a rich description of the textural and structural aspects of each counselor’s experience was developed, as well as a final synthesized description of each participant’s unique set of circumstances. The findings of this investigation may prove useful for counseling faculty, supervisors, counselors and other mental health professionals.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

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



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A qualitative interview on personal experiences and effects of counselors’ crying in session.


Tell me why you decided to be a counselor.

Have you ever cried in session with a client? If no, have you ever felt like crying while in session with a client?

What do you think of clients crying in session?

What issues would make you cry in session with a client?

What do you think of other therapists who cry in session?

What is your response to a client who starts crying in session?

What do you do if you feel like crying in session with a client?

What strategies do you use to deal with yourself crying in session?

How would your crying be beneficial to the therapeutic relationship?

How would your crying hinder the therapeutic relationship?

What fears do you have of allowing yourself to cry in session with a client?

How do you keep yourself from crying in session with a client?

How would your controlling your desire to cry affect your relationship with a client?

What else would you like to add?




Miles Matise, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Troy University. Correspondence should be addressed to 81 Beal Pkwy SE, Fort Walton Beach, Florida, 32548,


Using Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Individual Counseling to Reduce Stress and Increase Mindfulness: An Exploratory Study With Nursing Students

Mark J. Schwarze, Edwin R. Gerler, Jr.

The purpose of this exploratory study was to investigate the effectiveness of a modified mindfulness-based cognitive therapy intervention using individual counseling sessions to reduce stress and increase levels of mindfulness among nursing students. An AB single-subject experimental design replicated three times was implemented. Results indicated reduced stress in two out of three participants and increased mindfulness levels in all participants. Implications for college counselors and counselors working with clients in high-stress occupations are provided. Additionally, the results show promise for the use of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in individual counseling.


Keywords: mindfulness, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, stress, college counselors, nursing, single-subject experimental design 


Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been described as part of a third generation of cognitive therapies (Harrington & Pickles, 2009). Along with dialectical behavioral therapy and others like it, MBCT has integrated the construct of mindfulness with standard cognitive-behavioral paradigms. MBCT found its origins in the work of Kabat-Zinn’s (1990) mindfulness-based stress reduction program. This 8-week group-based program consisted of Buddhist mindfulness mediation practices to help chronic pain sufferers reduce their stress associated with illness. MBCT has incorporated elements of mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive-behavioral therapy to help individuals become more aware of thoughts and feelings and put them into context as mental events rather than self-defining constructs (Teasdale et al., 2000).


Seeing a need for an intervention to help patients who had repeatedly relapsed into depression, Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002) formalized MBCT as a standardized program of therapy. Designed as an 8-week program with specific guidelines for each session, MBCT was originally conceived as a group modality. Clients are placed in classes to learn the mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979) skills needed to regulate emotions and thoughts. MBCT involves training the mind to avoid judgmental reactions to events, thoughts, feelings and body sensations and to practice nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance (Ma & Teasdale, 2004). The key component of MBCT is mindfulness.


Mindfulness, once an abstract concept in the counseling field, is reaching mainstream awareness and gaining more attention in the literature (Brown, Marquis, & Guiffrida, 2013). Derived from Zen Buddhism, mindfulness has been described as a commitment to bringing awareness back to the present moment (Harrington & Pickles, 2009). Brown and Ryan (2003) defined mindfulness as “the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (p. 822). Despite a growing research base, mindfulness as a testable and operationally defined variable is still being shaped.


Bishop et al. (2004) proposed an operational definition of mindfulness as a two-component skill-building approach for responding to emotional and cognitive distress. The first component involves the self-regulation of attention. Measurable skills must be obtained to reach a successful level of self-regulation of attention, including sustained attention; switching, or bringing the attention back to a focal point; and inhibition of elaborative processing, which involves the ability to maintain a state of flexible and nonjudgmental focus and awareness over a period of time. The second component includes developing an orientation to experience. In this, all thoughts, feelings and sensations are acknowledged.


Mindfulness training works well in counseling in that it is a simple idea: staying focused on momentary experience (Grabovac, Lau, & Willett, 2011). The core strategy to teach clients is mindfulness meditation. Meditation has many forms but is ultimately the practiced skill of quieting the mind (Wright, 2007). Counselors trained in meditation can teach clients to sit quietly and observe thoughts and feelings without reaction or judgment (Brown et al., 2013). A version of this meditation is the 3-minute breathing space (Segal et al., 2002). This meditation approach is a core skill learned in MBCT. It utilizes the breathing techniques of meditation while attempting to bring awareness to present experience, focusing on breath as a mediator and expanding to other bodily sensations.


     Because mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist philosophy and belief, its inclusion in Western counseling paradigms has been slow. Most interventions and models consisting of mindfulness-based ideas have been stripped of the Eastern religious and philosophical foundations and presented as skill-based acquisitions (Baer, 2003). This change has increased acceptance of mindfulness-based approaches in mainstream treatment and educational venues. Specifically, using mindfulness to mitigate stress has been a benefit of this practice. One particular population that has historically reported high levels of stress is nursing students (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004).


Nursing Students and Stress


The Spring 2013 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (American College Health Association, 2013) listed stress as the number-one impediment to academic success for college students. Specifically, college students training to be nurses at the university level are subjected to high levels of stress (Gibbons, Dempster, & Moutray, 2011). Pulido-Martos, Augusto-Landa, and Lopez-Zafra’s (2012) review of the literature on the nursing student experience found several factors leading to stress, including balancing home and academic demands, experiencing time management pressures and financial problems, lacking meaningful connections with the nursing faculty, and feeling unprepared and incompetent in clinical practice.


In addition, stress, combined with other issues, has led to significant attrition rates in nursing programs (Harris, Rosenberg, & O’Rourke, 2014). Stickney (2008) found that the number of new students in nursing programs is too low to ensure an adequate number of nurses to meet the future needs of health care agencies. Students in nursing programs experience significant amounts of stress from trying to balance their lives at home with academic responsibilities. It is imperative that counselors, especially those in college settings, are aware of effective and innovative interventions to help nursing students, as well as other students, reduce stress and be successful. MBCT has shown promise in helping people reduce negative emotions such as stress (Collard, Avny, & Boniwell, 2008; Teasdale et al., 2000).


This study utilized a modified version of MBCT in individual counseling sessions to teach and process MBCT core skills of mindfulness meditation and cognitive decentering. While MBCT has mostly been utilized in group formats, there is some argument that group counseling is not always the best approach. Kuyken et al. (2008) found that 5% of an eligible sample for their MBCT study declined participation because they did not like the group aspect of the intervention. Lau and Yu (2009) suggested that offering mindfulness-based treatments in an individual format might increase participation for those who are reluctant to be involved in group settings.


The purpose of this exploratory single-subject experimental study was to evaluate the effectiveness of using MBCT to help reduce stress among university nursing students. Nursing students were used because of their documented high levels of stress. The questions explored included whether using MBCT in individual sessions increases self-reported levels of mindfulness and decreases self-reported levels of stress.




Research Design

Single-subject design has a long history in psychological and counseling research (Heppner, Wampold, & Kivlighan, 2008). Barlow and Hersen’s (1984) exposition on the chronology of single-subject design reveals that psychology’s early research development was steeped in the use of this type of experiment. Lundervold and Belwood (2000) called single-subject experimental design “the best kept secret in counseling” (p. 92). This design can provide counselors with scientific methods of research that produce practical and useful clinical information that can be applied to practice settings.


There are several advantages of using a single-subject experimental design. It allows the researcher to narrow causes of behavior change and determine which treatment approaches are most effective. Group designs often can obscure change in individuals, thereby not allowing flexibility in modifying treatment protocols to isolate examples of cause and effect (Barlow & Hersen, 1984). Morgan and Morgan (2003) posited single-subject design as the best option when trying to explain individual differences. Another advantage of single-subject experimental design is that because the researcher collects data using a baseline and intervention phase, the subject acts as his or her own control group, thereby increasing internal validity (Sharpley, 2007). Additionally, single-subject design can allow for scrutiny of new and innovative approaches (Chapman, Baker, Nassar-McMillan, & Gerler, 2011). Specifically, this study utilized a basic single-subject experimental AB design that allows for a maximum clinical utility.



     Participants in this study were all senior-level students enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program at a small rural Southeastern university. Four of the participants were female and one was male. Participant ages ranged from 21–30 years old (mean age 25.6 years). Three of the participants were Caucasian, one was Hispanic American and one was Native American.


The sample was recruited from students enrolled in the upper division pre-licensure BSN program and fully engaged in all activities and requirements of the program, including clinical work at local hospitals in order to develop basic and advanced nursing skills. Recruitment involved presenting the study and requirements for participation to a class for senior nursing students and sending an e-mail to all junior and senior students, yielding five volunteers. Two of the participants dropped out of the study after intervention sessions two and three, respectively. (More discussion and analysis about participant attrition is presented in the results section.)



The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was developed by Cohen, Kamarck, and Mermelstein (1983) to measure the degree to which one evaluates situations and events in his or her life as stressful. Specifically, the 10-item version of the PSS (PSS-10; Cohen & Williamson, 1988) measures the degree to which one perceives life as uncontrollable, unpredictable and overloading. The PSS-10 typically requires participants to answer questions based on their experiences in the past 30 days. A modification for this study was asking participants to answer the questions based on their experiences and thoughts in the past 7 days, as the study was focused on weekly variability. The PSS-10 has a Likert-type rating scale and is widely used as a measure of perceived stress. It is shown to have internal reliability (coefficient alpha of .78) with established construct validity, as the PSS-10 scores have shown moderate relation to other measures of appraised stress. Scores can range from 0–40, with higher scores indicating greater stress. Roberti, Harrington, and Storch (2006) found the PSS-10 reliable and valid with a non-clinical sample of college students. Mean scores for males were 17.4 (SD = 6.1); mean female scores were 18.4 (SD = 6.5).


Also used in the study was the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), a 15-item scale designed to measure characteristics of openness or receptiveness to what is taking place in the present (Brown & Ryan, 2003). The MAAS aims to assess the level at which one is able to observe what is happening without judgment. The MAAS assesses the absence or presence of mindful mental states over time. For this study, participants were asked to form their answers based on experiences and thoughts over the past 7 days. Normative information is available for college populations (14 independent samples: N = 2,277; M = 3.83, SD = .70). Cronbach’s alphas range from .80–.90. The MAAS also has shown high test-retest reliability, discriminant and convergent validity, and criterion validity (Brown & Ryan, 2003). MacKillop and Anderson (2007) confirmed validity and reliability of the MAAS with internal reliability scores of .89.



     Participants volunteering for the study were scheduled individually for an appointment to meet with the researcher to complete a study orientation and start baseline measurements. This 30-minute meeting consisted of an introduction to the study and the researcher, obtaining a brief background of the participant, a definition of mindfulness, completion of the informed consent paperwork, and completion of a short participant demographic form. Additionally, the first baseline measurements with the PSS-10 and MAAS were collected at the end of this meeting, and the final three baseline measurements were scheduled. Each baseline meeting consisted of an informal discussion about academic and personal stress levels and completion of the dependent measures. In total, four baseline measurements were collected over 5 weeks.


The intervention phase (B) consisted of six 1-hour sessions conducted over 5.5 weeks starting at the conclusion of the baseline phase (A). Session one began on the first week of classes in a spring semester, and sessions two through five occurred during each subsequent week. The final session, a wrap-up and review, was scheduled for the beginning of week six of the intervention. Each session consisted of 50 minutes focusing on MBCT skills, concepts and homework assignments, and 10 minutes at the end of the session to administer the dependent measures. At the final session, the researcher explained procedures and options for counseling if the participant desired to continue exploring MBCT or other issues that may have come up during the study period. Additionally, all participants received mindfulness resources such as book and Web site lists in order to continue learning and practicing mindfulness exercises.


MBCT Intervention

MBCT is traditionally an 8-week intervention conducted in group or class settings (Teasdale et al., 2000). Because this study utilized individual counseling, the intervention was reduced to six sessions, and session length was reduced to 1 hour. The individual counseling modality allowed for more focused attention to participants, and exercises could be consolidated. Also, MBCT was originally used to treat clients with chronic relapsing depressive disorders, while stress was the target symptom in this study. Due to this shift in focus, some of the exercises and homework assignments relevant to those who might have depression were not included in the intervention. Another modification included the use of prerecorded guided meditations for body scans and breathing instead of researcher-led meditations. During sections of the intervention when a meditation was introduced and practiced, the researcher started a prerecorded meditation and left the room while the participant experienced the meditation. The prerecorded breathing and body scan meditations used for this study were from the Maddux and Maddux podcast (2006).


The modified intervention still utilized the core MBCT exercises and philosophy. The next section includes a description of the major techniques used and what modifications were made to accommodate the study goals. Also included is an outline of the six session themes. Theme 1: Using Mindfulness to Break Out of Automatic Pilot focuses on an orientation to mindfulness and techniques to develop a heightened awareness of the present moment. Theme 2: Focus on the Body Enhances Clarity of the Mind, and Theme 3: Mindfulness of the Breath introduce the exercises of the body scan and breathing mediation. Theme 4: Acceptance promotes nonjudgmental acceptance of events, cognitions and emotions. Theme 5: Thoughts Are Not Facts is an educational session about cognitive-behavioral philosophies and their impact on moderating emotions. Theme 6: Putting It All Together provides a summary of the ideas and techniques of MBCT, with suggestions on how to integrate the concepts daily. The modified structure and content used is unique to this study; however, the specific components, homework and exercises are taken from Segal et al. (2002). Table 1 describes the schedule and order of session content, including session themes and agendas.


MBCT Techniques and Exercises Used in the Study

     Raisin exercise. Used as an introduction to mindfulness, this exercise asks participants to take a raisin offered by the researcher and examine all aspects of its shape, texture and external characteristics. Open-ended questions are asked to help participants explore their experience.


Body scan meditation. The exercise brings a detailed awareness and focus to specific areas of the body. A modification in this study included using a shorter meditation (8 minutes; Maddux & Maddux, 2006).


Be mindful during a routine activity. Participants are asked to choose a routine activity (e.g., brushing teeth, vacuuming, washing dishes) and to complete it mindfully per the study’s training.


     Homework record forms. Used in all sessions, these forms allow participants to document the frequency of practice of mindfulness activities.


     Thoughts and feelings exercise (professor sends an e-mail). In this exercise, the researcher presents a scenario to elicit participant reaction.


Pleasant and unpleasant events calendars. Participants receive forms (Segal et al., 2002) that help them identify one pleasant event per day in week two and one unpleasant event per day in week three.


Five-minute hearing exercise. Participants are asked to sit for 5 minutes with eyes closed and center all of their focus on hearing. When intrusive thoughts enter, participants are instructed to acknowledge them, but then return their focus to only hearing.


     Three-minute breathing space. A core skill in MBCT, this exercise acts as a mindfulness timeout.


Twenty-minute sitting meditation. This meditation is a combination of all the skills participants have learned, including the body scan, breathing meditations and the hearing exercise.


Moods, thoughts and alternative viewpoints discussion. This exercise involves a short overview of how thoughts can influence mood, and techniques and suggestions for viewing intrusive thoughts in a different way. Handouts titled Ways You Can See Your Thoughts Differently and When You Become Aware of Negative Thoughts are provided (see Segal et al., 2002).


Breathing meditation. This exercise brings a detailed awareness and focus to the breath. A modification in this study included using a shorter (9 minutes) recorded breathing meditation (Maddux & Maddux, 2006).


Mindfulness resources handout. Researchers generate a list of books, Web sites and podcasts that describe mindfulness and the techniques associated with the study. The participants receive this at the last session with encouragement to continue to seeking information on mindfulness practice if they have found it helpful.


Table 1

Schedule and Order of Session Content


Session Number



1 Using mindfulness to break out of automatic pilot Orientation to mindfulness and MBCT, raisin exercise, body scan introduction and practice, assign homework: use body scan tape six times before next session, be mindful during a routine activity. Provide handouts: Definition of Mindfulness, Summary of Session 1, homework record forms (Segal et al., 2002). Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.
2 Focus on the body enhances clarity of the mind Body scan practice and review, homework review, thoughts and feelings exercise (professor sends an e-mail), introduction of pleasant events calendar assignment, 10-minute breathing meditation introduction and practice. Assign homework: use body scan tape six times before next session, use breathing meditation tape six times before next session, complete pleasant events calendar once a day. Provide handouts: Tips for Body Scan, Summary of Session 2, homework record forms, Mindfulness of the Breath, The Breath, Pleasant Events Calendar (Segal et al., 2002). Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.
3 Mindfulness of the breath Five-minute hearing exercise, 10-minute breathing meditation practice and review, homework review, introduction of unpleasant events calendar assignment, 3-minute breathing space explanation. Assign homework: use breathing meditation tape six times before next session, unpleasant calendar (daily) completed once a day, 3-minute breathing space three times a day. Provide handouts: 3-Minute Breathing Space Instructions, Summary of Session 3, homework record forms, Mindfulness of the Breath, Unpleasant Events Calendar (Segal et al., 2002). Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.
4 Acceptance Five-minute hearing exercise, 10-minute breathing meditation practice and review, body scan meditation practice and review, homework review, 20-minute sitting meditation introduction and practice. Assign homework: 20-minute sitting meditation six times before next session, 3-minute breathing space three times a day and as needed. Provide handouts: Sitting Meditation Extended Instructions (Segal et al., 2002), Summary of Session 4, homework record forms. Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.
5 Thoughts are not facts 20-minute sitting meditation practice and review; homework review; moods, thoughts and alternative viewpoints discussion; 3-minute breathing space. Assign homework: 30-minute breathing meditation (three times a week), 3-minute breathing space (three times a day). Provide handouts: Ways You Can See Your Thoughts Differently, When You Become Aware of Negative Thoughts (Segal et al., 2002), Summary of Session 5, homework record forms. Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.
6 Putting it all together Body scan practice and review, breathing meditation practice and review, sitting meditation practice and review (10 minutes), homework review, review of all techniques used in study. Provide handouts: Daily Mindfulness (Segal et al., 2002), mindfulness resources (researcher generated), Summary of Session 6, Daily Mindfulness, Mindfulness Resources. Administer PSS-10 and MAAS.





All five participants completed the baseline phase (A) of four weekly meetings to complete the dependent measures.  A1–A4 represent weeks one through four of the baseline phase. Out of five participants, three participants completed the full intervention phase (B) of six weekly 1-hour sessions. B1–B6 represent weeks one through six of the intervention phase. The phases ran consecutively. One participant completed only two of the intervention sessions before withdrawing from the study. This participant cited a variety of issues including unexpected sickness and time constraints as deciding factors for withdrawal. Another participant completed three intervention sessions before withdrawing, citing time constraints and academic demands as reasons for withdrawal. The researchers have included the results for only the three participants who completed the full intervention, due to the importance in single-subject designs of multiple measurements of the dependent variable occurring over the complete span of the study in order to determine changes in self-reports of mindfulness and perceived stress. It is the comparison of the two full phases that allows interpretation of whether the intervention was the cause of the change.


Participant 1

Participant 1 reported no previous experience with mindfulness activities. The baseline mean score on the PSS-10 for Participant 1 was 21.75. This baseline mean score is higher than that of the normative sample and indicates some experience of perceived stress. The baseline mean score on the MAAS was 3.07. This baseline mean score is lower than that of the normative sample and indicates less self-report of mindfulness as measured by the MAAS. The individual scores over the baseline period for the PSS-10 fluctuated, which may be related to the time of administration. The A1 and A4 scores were both 22, and both measurements were taken at high-stress academic times. However, Participant 1 earned the highest score in the baseline phase (25) at A3, on Christmas Eve. These scores support the literature that found several factors leading to nursing student stress, including home and academic demands (Magnussen & Amundson, 2003). Alternately, the individual scores over the baseline period for the MAAS were mostly stable with a significant drop in A4, which was collected on the last Friday before the spring semester started. With the focus that mindfulness places on staying in the present moment, as measured by the MAAS, the anticipation of the new semester may have taken precedence. Essentially, baseline scores on the PSS-10 were variable, as were the academic and home stressors, and MAAS scores were relatively stable, but below normative scores for college populations.


The intervention mean score on the PSS-10 was 23. This score was 1.25 points higher than the baseline mean of overall self-reported stress as measured by the PSS-10. The individual scores of the intervention phase showed decreasing PSS-10 scores from B1–B3 while showing increasing MAAS scores at the same time for Participant 1 (see Figure 1). B4 showed a 1-point increase from B3 in PSS-10 scores, which coincided with Participant 1 experiencing a medical emergency. Despite this crisis, stress scores increased only minimally while mindfulness scores increased by .47 from B3–B4.


MAAS scores continued to increase throughout the intervention phase, with the highest score of 4.93 reported at the final session. This finding indicated that increased exposure to and practice of mindfulness activities correlated with higher self-report of mindfulness scores. This result was confirmed by an increase of 0.88 in the mean scores on the MAAS from baseline to intervention and a gain of 2.73 from B1–B6 (see Figure 1). Table 2 provides the dependent measure scores for Participant 1.


Participant 2

Participant 2 reported no previous experience with mindfulness activities. The baseline mean score on the PSS-10 for Participant 2 was 22.25. This baseline mean score is higher than that of the normative sample and indicates some experience of perceived stress as measured by the PSS-10. The baseline mean score on the



Table 2

Dependent Measure Scores for Participant 1










































Note. Sessions A1–A4 were baseline sessions; sessions B1–B6 were intervention sessions.


MAAS was 2.9. This baseline mean score is lower than that of the normative sample and indicates less self-report of mindfulness as measured by the MAAS. The individual scores over the baseline period for the PSS-10

showed an increase in stress scores, with the highest baseline score (25) coming at A4. The individual scores over the baseline period for the MAAS were stable with the lowest score (2.33) reported at A1. Baseline scores on the PSS-10 increased and MAAS scores were stable once past the initial baseline meeting, but still remained below the normative scores (see Figure 2).


The intervention mean score on the PSS-10 was 25.17. This score represents a 2.92-point gain from the baseline mean in overall self-reported stress as measured by the PSS-10. However, there was a drop of five points on the PSS-10 from B1–B2. MAAS scores continued to increase throughout the intervention phase with highest score of 3.73 coming at the final session. There was an increase of 0.54 in the mean scores on the MAAS from baseline to intervention and a gain of 0.46 from B1–B6. Table 3 lists the dependent measure scores for Participant 2.




Table 3

Dependent Measure Scores for Participant 2










































Note. Sessions A1–A4 were baseline sessions; sessions B1–B6 were intervention sessions.


Participant 3

Participant 3 reported no previous experience with mindfulness activities. The baseline mean score on the PSS-10 for Participant 3 was 20.75. This baseline mean score is higher than that of the normative sample. The baseline mean score on the MAAS was 2.7. This baseline mean score is lower than that of the normative sample. The individual scores over the baseline period for the PSS-10 showed a baseline high of 27 at A1. PSS-10 scores dropped eight points from A1–A2.

The individual scores over the baseline period for the MAAS were stable from A2–A 4 with the lowest score (1.93) coming at A1. Participant 3 posted stable baseline scores on both the PSS-10 and the MAAS except for at the first baseline meeting. At this meeting, the stress score was high and the mindfulness score was low.


The intervention mean score on the PSS-10 was 22.17. This score is a 1.42-point gain from the baseline mean in overall self-reported stress as measured by the PSS-10. There was a significant drop of seven points on the PSS-10 from B3–B4, and drops in stress score continued throughout the rest of the intervention phase.


MAAS scores continued to increase throughout the intervention phase with highest score of 5.13 coming at the final session. This is an increase of 1.1 in the mean scores on the MAAS from baseline to intervention and a gain of 3.46 from B1–B6 (see Figure 3). Table 4 lists the dependent measure scores for Participant 3.



Table 4

Dependent Measure Scores for Participant 3


















































Note. Sessions A1–A4 were baseline sessions; sessions B1–B6 were intervention sessions.




The results indicate that exposure to an MBCT intervention can positively impact self-reported stress scores as measured by the PSS-10 and increase self-reported mindfulness scores as measured by the MAAS. All participants in this exploratory study showed gains in mindfulness levels as measured by the MAAS. These results likely occurred due to the fact that most participants began the study with no knowledge of or experience with mindfulness. Once exposed to the practice of meditation and other mindfulness exercises, the participants’ use of mindfulness processes increased steadily.


PSS-10 scores fluctuated during the baseline phase, and that variability could be explained by academic events, evaluative and anticipatory, occurring at the time of administration of the dependent measures. Specifically, the A1 and A4 scores for Participant 1 were both 22. Both of these measurements were taken at high-stress academic times. However, Participant 1’s highest score in the baseline phase (25) came at A3, on Christmas Eve. These scores support the literature that found several factors leading to nursing student stress, including home and academic demands (Magnussen & Amundson, 2003; Pulido-Martos et al., 2012). Consequently, all three participants posted their lowest mindfulness scores on days that coincided with a high-stress academic event such as final exam week, or the day before the first week of classes. However, once the MBCT intervention phase began, two of the participants (1 and 3) showed steady drops in PSS-10 scores, and the third (2) showed conservative reductions, suggesting that the intervention was a likely factor in decreasing perceived stress among the three participants. However, Participant 3’s PSS-10 scores revealed a 1.42-point gain from the baseline to intervention mean. The overall gain in the intervention mean score can be attributed to an unusually high score of 28 on B3. Participant 3 did report increased personal and academic distress at this time in the study. This result also could indicate that the benefits of mindfulness practice can be preempted by reactive stress to specific events. More long-term practice of mindful activities might have mitigated the stress of these events.


Participant 2 posted an overall 2.92-point gain from the PSS-10 baseline mean score to the intervention mean score. This increase may be attributed to an unusually high score of 28 on B1, perhaps because the first session of the intervention fell on the first week of classes for the spring semester. Additionally, Participant 2 had only 50 minutes of exposure to mindfulness activities at this time. However, there was a drop of five points on the PSS-10 from B1–B2. This decrease might be attributed to some type of novelty effect from being introduced to a new treatment (MBCT). This argument is strengthened by the fact that Participant 2 posted stable stress scores throughout the rest of the intervention. It should be noted that Participant 2 informed the researchers after B4 of the need to withdraw from the study due to time constraints and academic demands, but eventually decided to finish the study. This participant acknowledged feeling some personal distress throughout the next two sessions but did not report the need for any additional intervention. For Participant 2, it appears that MBCT was successful overall in increasing self-reported mindfulness levels as measured by the MAAS. Based on the small decreases in PSS-10 scores over time, and the continued self-report of personal distress through the final session, the MBCT intervention was only minimally successful in stress reduction for Participant 2.


Homework assignments and additional meditation practice were highly encouraged in this study, but not required. All participants chose to complete some homework and practice meditations outside the study sessions; however, the reported time spent on meditation practice varied significantly. Ancillary findings from Collard et al. (2008) found a correlation between longer practice times of mindfulness and higher levels of mindfulness. An analysis of the data surrounding participant practice time and levels of obtainment of mindfulness would have been an interesting component to include in this study.



One disadvantage of this study is the inherent limitation of single-subject design—specifically, external validity. Because this study included separate experiments with data on only three cases, it is difficult to make generalizations. However, external validity can be enhanced by replicating the design multiple times, thus strengthening possibilities for generalizations (Heppner et al., 2008; Hinkle, 1992). Additionally, Hinkle (1992) discussed issues related to the AB design, specifically stating that “cause and effect cannot be explicitly determined” (p. 392).


The sample was motivated enough to volunteer for the study, which may mean that participants were more stressed than other nursing students and more motivated to seek solutions for stress. Alternatively, the willingness to volunteer for the study may have meant that these participants were less stressed and had more free time to participate in a weekly intervention. Another limitation was the modifications made to the MBCT intervention to accommodate the individual counseling modality. However, because of the exploratory nature of the study, modifications in future studies are warranted.


The use of only one dependent measure for each dependent variable also presents limitations. The PSS-10 and the MAAS measure self-reported stress and mindfulness. The use of other instruments or data to measure the two dependent variables might have strengthened the study. Specifically, a mixed-methods design could have focused on the provided quantitative measures as well as qualitatively analyzing the homework forms and the participant’s verbal session content. Potentially, because of the timing of the study, and because stress is often linked with college student academic failure (American College Health Association, 2013), final exam grades and midterm grades could have been compared to assess for academic changes based on the introduction of the intervention.


Implications for Counseling

This study strengthens the growing research base on the use of MBCT. Specifically, it adds to the literature supporting the efficacy of MBCT in reducing stress. A unique contribution is the use of MBCT in a single-subject experimental design. Typically, MBCT is used in a class format; this study supports the potential efficacy of MBCT in individual sessions.


Based on the above implications, this study also has implications for college counselors and counselors who work with those in stressful professions. Due to high attrition, academic distress and high-stakes testing, colleges are struggling to help their students succeed. College counselors provide services that address the academic and personal well-being of students. This study indicates that the use of MBCT in individual counseling to mitigate stress can yield promising results.


College counselors and faculty members can work together to provide mindfulness-based workshops or other activities that promote a meditative approach. Developing effective partnerships should begin with an assessment of available mindfulness resources. Program administrators want their students to be successful and may be willing to integrate resources from outside the program. Many colleges and universities might have trained counselors on staff who can provide these services. If not, negotiations with certified off-campus meditation or yoga centers could provide reduced rates for students. More importantly, counselors can train faculty members in mindfulness exercises that they can integrate into the fabric of their programs. Embedding mindfulness into academic programs could be more effective and efficient if students perceive it as part of their education instead of an add-on.


College counselors will do well to learn the language and culture of the academic programs on their campus. Crafting mindfulness interventions to correspond directly with the stressors of a certain program might help develop rapport with students. This process could be collaborative, involving college counselors, educators and students. Also, sharing data gathered from program evaluations or studies with administrators can strengthen relationships by assisting with long-term programmatic goals.


Future Areas of Research

Future areas of research should include the use of MBCT and other mindfulness-based interventions in order to replicate these results. More research is needed on delivering MBCT in an individual format. Another component of this study that needs more exploration is whether a longer amount of time spent practicing mindfulness activities provides greater relief from self-reported stress symptoms. The next logical step is to complete a study using a larger sample. Experimental studies comparing the effects of MBCT with more traditional counseling approaches aimed at reducing stress and improving performance could prove useful. How, for example, might MBCT compare to rational-emotive or rational-behavior approaches to reducing stress? Additionally, given the evolving nature of technology-based counseling interventions, future research on MBCT also might explore the value and usefulness of online MBCT interventions. Examining and comparing the effectiveness of synchronous versus asynchronous MBCT interventions would be especially valuable.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.






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Mark J. Schwarze, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Appalachian State University. Edwin R. Gerler, Jr. is a Professor at North Carolina State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Mark J. Schwarze, Reich College of Education, Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling, 151 College Street, Appalachian State University, Box 32075, Boone, NC 28608-2075,


Career Adaptability, Resiliency and Perceived Obstacles to Career Development of Adolescent Mothers

Heather Barto, Simone Lambert, Pamelia Brott

Career adaptability, resiliency and perceived obstacles to career development of adolescent mothers were examined using a proposed conceptual framework that combined resiliency and career adaptability. The goals of this study were to gauge the current state of the career development and resiliency of adolescent mothers, including areas of strength and weakness, and to better understand the interactions between the three components of career adaptability (i.e., planfulness, exploration, decision-making), resiliency and perceived obstacles. Adolescent mothers were similar to nonparenting peers on the planfulness and decision-making dimensions of career adaptability, yet lower on career exploration. While adolescent mothers’ traits of personal resiliency and emotional reactivity were comparable to those of their peers, their relational resiliency was lower. Based on the findings of the study, proposed strategies to further the three components of career adaptability and the resiliency of adolescent mothers are suggested.

Keywords: adolescent mothers, career development, career adaptability, resiliency, decision-making

In the United States, becoming a parent during adolescence has been described as a premature and nonnormative life event that can present lifelong challenges and growth opportunities in the career development of adolescent mothers (Gruber, 2012; Zachry, 2005). Taylor (2009) reported the most prevalent negative outcomes associated with adolescent parenthood as lowered high school graduation rates, limited educational opportunities after high school, and difficulty achieving stable work and financial independence. These are important career development considerations for this population given the national statistics on adolescent motherhood, previous research findings on the impact of parenting programs on the long-term career outcomes for adolescent mothers, and the viability of the proposed theoretical framework of the integration of career adaptability and resiliency (Barto, Lambert, & Brott, in press).


The national statistics on adolescent mothers indicate a disparity between racial groups with 8.3% of Latina, 6.5% of African American and 2.7% of Caucasian (non-Hispanic) adolescent females becoming mothers (Guttmacher Institute, 2010). Race and ethnicity may influence how an adolescent pregnancy is perceived by the adolescent mother and those around her, further contributing to the mother’s obstacles to and opportunities for career development (McAdoo, 2007; Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, & Gallardo-Cooper, 2002). Support from families has been shown to be a positive factor in furthering the career development of adolescent mothers (Brosh, Weigel, & Evans, 2009). Although both African American and Latino families may be disappointed by adolescent pregnancies, these families tend to discourage pregnancy termination or adoption, instead offering assistance to adolescent mothers (McAdoo, 2007; Santiago-Rivera et al., 2002). Conversely, Caucasian adolescent mothers have the highest rates of formal adoptions outside the family; thus, family support for attempting to combine motherhood and career development may be lower for Caucasian adolescent mothers than for adolescent mothers in other racial or ethnic groups (Low, Moely, & Willis, 1989).


Adolescent mothers typically report more challenges with life planning when compared to nonparenting peers (Spear, 2004). Related issues can be viewed through the lens of obstacles to and opportunities for career development for adolescent mothers. These obstacles may include completing an education, finding employment and experiencing increased financial strain. Conversely, becoming a mother during adolescence may stimulate resiliency and growth opportunities in the working role (Zachry, 2005). These opportunities could foster the desire to provide financially for self and child, positive attitudes toward the future after becoming a mother (Brubaker & Wright, 2006), and a greater sense of maturity and purpose about the future (Rosengard, Pollock, Weitzen, Meers, & Phipps, 2006). Therefore, adolescent parenting can be simultaneously stressful and meaningful (Perrin & Dorman, 2003) while impacting all areas of life, particularly the working role.


Career development can be viewed as a holistic, dynamic and lifelong process, whereby individuals construct meaning and determine the most appropriate expression of their life roles (Savickas et al., 2009). Life roles are conceptualized as a constellation of interacting enactments that have relative importance to the individual within the context that these roles occur (Brown & Associates, 2002). For adolescent mothers, the addition of the parenting role can influence the dynamics between life roles and affect the perceived importance of the working role (Savickas, 1997).


In both school (Kaplan, Blinn-Pike, Wittstruck, Berger, & Leigh, 2002) and community settings (Gruber, 2012; Sarri & Phillips, 2004), programs and services are designed to meet the unique needs of adolescent mothers. Adolescent mothers have reported that parenting programs are moderately helpful in providing information relevant to their parenting role, such as medically related advice to improve the health of child and mother (Sarri & Phillips, 2004). However, these programs typically do not address finding employment and educational training opportunities (Kaplan et al., 2002, Sarri & Phillips, 2004).


Longitudinal studies investigating the career outcomes (i.e., being employed and self-supporting adults) for adolescent mothers participating in parenting programs have produced mixed results. Horwitz, Klerman, Kuo, and Jekel (1991) reported that 82% of the mothers who participated in an adolescent parenting program were financially self-supporting 20 years later. However, Taylor (2009) reported that when compared with nonparenting peers, adolescent parents had lower incomes and less prestigious occupations 20 years later. Neither Horwitz et al. (1991) nor Taylor (2009) indicated which program components helped or hindered participants’ career outcomes. Research is needed to derive evidenced-based intervention strategies and programs for improving career development outcomes of adolescent mothers (Brindis & Philliber, 2003). In the current study, career adaptability and resiliency were used to better understand career development of adolescent mothers as they adjust to their new role as a parent in relation to other life roles, especially the role of worker. Career adaptability includes the dimensions of planning, exploring and decision-making about one’s future (Savickas, 1997). Resiliency includes the attributes to develop personal and relational strengths in the process of overcoming adversity (Prince-Embury, 2006). In the current study, attention was given to the unique obstacles in the adolescent mother’s career development, as she constructs meaningful expression of her working role (Klaw, 2008; Savickas et al., 2009). The goals of this study were to gauge the current state of the career development and resiliency of adolescent mothers, including areas of strength and weakness; and to better understand the interactions between the components of career adaptability, resiliency and perceived obstacles.


Conceptual Framework


     Limited research has focused specifically on the career development and adaptability of adolescent mothers (e.g., Brosh et al., 2009). From a review of the literature, the current authors (in press) found the following impediments to career development of adolescent mothers: pressing immediate needs (e.g., housing, transportation, childcare), limited career development skills (e.g., decision-making skills) and lack of career-related knowledge (e.g., occupational information). Based on the existing literature, a career resiliency model has been suggested to promote career adaptability among high-risk individuals who are experiencing a dramatic life event, such as adolescent mothers (Rickwood, 2002; Rickwood, Roberts, Batten, Marshall, & Massie, 2004). The proposed conceptual framework for the career development of adolescent mothers combines resiliency and career adaptability and (a) addresses challenges (e.g., obstacles), (b) capitalizes on opportunities and strengths (e.g., increased sense of maturity/responsibility), and (c) develops positive intervention strategies and programs to better the long-term outcomes of adolescent mothers. Constructs that support this framework are career adaptability and resiliency, as previously combined by Rickwood (2002) and Rickwood et al. (2004).


Career Adaptability

Career adaptability is a central construct in adolescent career development (Hirschi, 2009) and is defined as the ability to adjust oneself to fit new and changed circumstances in one’s career by planning, exploring and making decisions about one’s future (Brown & Associates, 2002; Savickas, 1997). Planfulness is a learned skill that allows individuals to develop a future orientation to increase adaptability (Savickas, 1997). Exploration encompasses the understanding of relationships between individual differences and contextual factors that influence career development (Blustein, 1997). In the current conceptual framework, decision-making is expanded beyond the traditional models of career development to consider the multiple alternatives and objectives that are present in the career decision-making process (Phillips, 1997).


Career adaptability is currently used as a theoretical basis for both (a) the assessment of career-related skills and knowledge, and (b) the development and implementation of intervention strategies for adolescents (Creed, Fallon, & Hood, 2009; Hirschi, 2009). The concept of career adaptability is applicable to adolescent mothers, as it focuses on developing skills to address the individual and contextual factors associated with career development (Savickas et al., 2009). These career adaptability skills (i.e., planning, exploring, decision-making) are most relevant to the working role, but can be generalized and utilized easily in considering other life roles (e.g., parenting).



Resiliency has been defined as one’s ability to overcome adversity and be successful (Greene, Galambos, & Lee, 2004). This concept represents a paradigm shift from looking at risk factors associated with problematic situations to searching for more strengths-based personal attributes that help individuals overcome adverse or stressful situations (Richardson, 2002). Some researchers believe that resiliency is a combination of protective factors (i.e., personal characteristics and relationships) and areas of vulnerability (i.e., ability to self-regulate through adversity; Prince-Embury, 2006; Richardson, 2002; Zachry, 2005). In the current study, mastery (i.e., internalized personal characteristics of optimism, self-efficacy and adaptability) is referred to as personal resiliency. Relatedness (i.e., social and relational experience concerning trust, support, comfort and tolerance) is referred to as relational resiliency, and emotional reactivity (i.e., level of sensitivity, recovery and impairment to self-regulation in response to adverse events or circumstances) is referred to as emotional vulnerability (Prince-Embury, 2006; Richardson, 2002). These three resiliency constructs are helpful in understanding the attributes that are displayed by resilient individuals who are able to adapt to difficult or stressful situations (Prince-Embury, 2006; Richardson, 2002).


Researchers have measured the resiliency of adolescent mothers in various ways. For example, resiliency has been paired with the assessment of risks to better understand both the risks and protective factors that promote resiliency, thus moderating the negative effect of adolescent motherhood (Kennedy, 2005). Black and Ford-Gilboe (2004) used resiliency to validate and predict theoretical relationships among variables associated with creating a healthy family environment for adolescent mothers. Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, and Morgan (1987) found that a substantial portion of adolescent mothers demonstrated resiliency by overcoming the challenges of adolescent parenthood through maintaining regular employment and establishing financial stability without the need for public assistance (as cited in Kennedy, 2005). In summary, resiliency is thought to be one of the factors influencing the degree of success that adolescent mothers experience as adults (e.g., Schilling, 2008).


Career Adaptability and Resiliency

Linking career adaptability to resiliency may be more favorable to adolescent mothers than approaches that focus on risk factors, problems associated with adolescent motherhood, and career-related skill deficiencies (Perrin & Dorman, 2003). However, even resilient mothers can find the day-to-day demands of motherhood overwhelming. Without attention to the obstacles they may encounter, adolescent mothers may be unable to attend to career adaptability skill development (Klaw, 2008). Recognizing and addressing these pressing immediate needs helps adolescent mothers gain the ability to focus attention and effort on developing their personal career adaptability (Klaw, 2008).


Furthermore, adolescent mothers need to cultivate their own personal and relational attributes in order to foster and encourage resiliency (Zippay, 1995). Personal characteristics (i.e., optimism, self-efficacy, adaptability) can influence levels of resiliency (Prince-Embury, 2006). Socially supportive relationships based on trust, support, comfort and tolerance with family members and mentors have been effective in helping further the career adaptability of adolescent mothers by providing them with career-related information and aiding them in developing career-related skills (Klaw, Rhodes, & Fitzgerald, 2003; Prince-Embury, 2006). Both career adaptability skills and higher levels of personal and relational resiliency may be helpful in overcoming the obstacles experienced by adolescent mothers.


The Current Study


In the present study, the current state of career adaptability, resiliency and potential obstacles to career development among adolescent mothers from one state in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States was examined. Data were gathered using the career planning (CP) scale from the Career Development Inventory-School Form (CDI-S; Super, Thompson, Lindeman, Jordaan, & Myers, 1979), the self-exploration and environmental exploration scales from the Career Exploration Survey (CES; Stumpf, Colarelli, & Hartman, 1983), the Career Decision-Making Self-Efficacy Scale-Short Form (CDSE-SF; Betz, Klein, & Taylor, 1996), the Resiliency Scales for Children and Adolescents (RSCA; Prince-Embury, 2006), and the Obstacle Survey (Klaw, 2008). The participants also received a demographic questionnaire. The research questions that guided the study included the following: (1) What are the relationships between the dimensions of career adaptability (i.e., planfulness, exploration, decision-making) and resiliency? (2) What are the reported obstacles to the career development of adolescent mothers? (3) Can measures of resiliency predict career adaptability in adolescent mothers?





Participants in community- and school-based parenting programs were solicited for the study. The community-based parenting program is a support and self-help organization for assisting members in becoming more self-sufficient, but no specific career development component exists. The school-based parenting program addresses the unique academic, career and personal issues of parenting students, allowing attainment of a high school diploma in an alternative school setting. Study participants (N = 101) ranged in age from 15–18 years old (65%) and 19–21 years old (35%). Participants’ racial backgrounds included Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin (74%); African American (22%); Caucasian (2%); Asian American (1%); and bi-racial (1%). Roughly half (52%) indicated that English was not the primary language used in their home. All participants had at least one child; some participants had multiple children (one mother had three children, 12 mothers had two children and 14 were currently pregnant with their second child).


Their current living situations included residing with parent or grandparent (57%), with their child(ren)’s father (20%), in foster care with their child(ren) (9%), with family of their child(ren)’s father (8%) or on their own with their child(ren) (6%). Their primary source of income support was from parents and family (38%), their child(ren)’s father or his family (32%), self (20%) or assistance programs (10%). While most participants (63%) reported not being currently employed, 53 participants indicated that they were actively looking for a job; 31 participants worked part-time and six worked full-time. Only seven participants had graduated high school and were not currently enrolled in school. The remaining participants included ninth graders (11%), tenth graders (16%), eleventh graders (26%), twelfth graders (31%) and college students (9%). Participants indicated that their educational plans included pursuing a college degree (65%), only graduating from high school (23%), unsure (7%) and at risk for not graduating from high school (4%).



     Career Development Inventory-School Form. The CDI-S has been utilized to assess the career development and adaptability of adolescents (Super et al., 1979; Thompson & Lindeman, 1981). For this study, the CDI-S’s CP scale was used, with 12 items for career-planning engagement and eight items for career knowledge. Items are rated on a five-point Likert-type scale: career-planning engagement ranges from 1 (I have not yet given thought to this) to 5 (I have made definite plans and know what to do to carry them out); career knowledge ranges from 1 (hardly any knowledge) to 5 (a great deal of information). For female students in grades 9–12 for the CP scale, CDI-S reliability alphas range from .87–.90 (Betz, 1988; Thompson & Lindeman, 1981). The reliabilities for the current study were .89 for both CP subscales and .90 for the total scale. The content validity has been demonstrated on all scales and subgroups; the factor structure was validated as the scale items appropriately loaded on the subscales (Thompson & Lindeman, 1981). Both content and construct validity have been supported (Savickas & Hartung, 1996).


     Career Exploration Survey. The CES (Stumpf et al., 1983) was developed to measure aspects of the career exploration process, including reactions and beliefs (Stumpf et al., 1983). The following two subscales were used in the current study to measure career exploration behaviors: the six-item subscale on environmental exploration (e.g., learning about specific jobs and careers) and the five-item subscale on self-exploration (e.g., reflecting on future career choice based on past experiences). Frequency of career exploration behaviors are self-rated on a five-point Likert scale. The reliabilities reported for the self-exploration and environmental exploration subscales are .87 and .88, respectively (Stumpf et al., 1983). Acceptable content and construct validity have been established (Creed et al., 2009; Stumpf et al., 1983).


     Career Decision-Making Self-Efficacy Scale-Short Form. The CDSE-SF (Betz et al., 1996) measures one’s confidence in making career-related decisions. The 25-item instrument measures self-reported career decision-making behaviors on five subscales: self-appraisal, occupational information, goal selection, planning and problem solving. Reported reliabilities for the subscales range from .73–.83, and reliability for the total scale is .94 (Taylor & Betz, 1983). Content, concurrent and construct validity of the CDSE-SF have been established (Betz, Klein, & Taylor, 1996; Taylor & Betz, 1983).


     Resiliency Scales for Children and Adolescents. The RSCA identifies resiliency attributes in children and adolescents (Prince-Embury, 2006) using three scales: Sense of Mastery (MAS), Sense of Relatedness (REL) and Emotional Reactivity (REA). The MAS, which assesses personal resiliency, includes 20 items in three subscales (optimism, self-efficacy and adaptability). The REL assesses relational resiliency and has 24 items in four subscales (sense of trust, support, comfort and tolerance). Emotional vulnerability is measured by the REA, which includes 20 items in three subscales (sensitivity, recovery and impairment). The sum of the subscale scores became the raw score for the respective scale (MAS, REL, REA), which converts to a T score. Higher T scores on the MAS and REL scales and lower scores on the REA indicate more resiliency resources.


The RSCA reliability alphas range from .79–.90 for 15- to 18-year-old females and are considered acceptable (Prince-Embury, 2006). Convergent and divergent validity have been correlated with those of conceptually similar instruments that measure resiliency (e.g., Reynolds Bully Victimization Scale); the criterion validity was established by comparing groups of clinical samples to matched groups of nonclinical samples of children and adolescents (Prince-Embury, 2006).


     Obstacle Survey. The OS (Klaw, 2008) was designed to determine the specific obstacles that adolescent mothers encounter in daily life that could potentially impede their career adaptability, such as needing childcare and facing discrimination because of race. The survey consists of 26 items that could potentially impact participants’ career adaptability. The OS is a relatively new instrument designed for use with adolescent mothers; therefore, there is little information available about psychometric properties. However, the information provided by the OS was expected to be helpful in developing a better understanding of the perceived obstacles to the career adaptability of adolescent mothers.


     Demographic Questions. The demographic items were 12 questions designed to gather the following information about the participants: age, racial/ethnic identity, language used in the home, number and age(s) of children, living situation, socioeconomic status, current school status, and employment status.



After obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board, the first author developed relationships with the directors of one community-based and one school-based parenting program in order to recruit study participants. All adolescent mothers in both programs who met the study criteria received the opportunity to participate in the study. Given the unstructured nature of both programs, it is unclear what exact percentage of study-eligible adolescent mothers elected not to participate in the study, but informal observations from the first author suggest that almost all the study-eligible adolescent mothers completed the survey. Attendance was voluntary in the community-based program, so the number of adolescent mothers present varied from week to week, but the first author was present at a total of four meetings. For the school-based program, the first author made two scheduled visits to the school, during which she invited adolescent mothers who were present in classes specifically provided for them (e.g., life skills, support group) to participate in the study. Participants under age 18 received parental permission forms and older participants received informed consent forms. Participants completed all instruments via the computer using an online questionnaire created in Survey Monkey, with the exception of the RSCA (Prince-Embury, 2006), which they completed using a paper-and-pencil version as the publisher required. Survey completion was untimed. Participants who completed all aspects of the study received $10.00 in compensation to encourage completion. Three incomplete surveys were excluded from the statistical analysis.




Career adaptability, resiliency and perceived obstacles were measured using a number of established instruments in order to generate descriptive statistics to better understand the current state of adolescent mothers’ career development. Career adaptability and resiliency were correlated to look for relationships between the two and entered into a multiple regression to determine the predictive power. Career adaptability was defined as and measured by the participants’ process of planfulness, exploration and decision-making. In the area of career planfulness, participants’ scores were slightly higher than the average score for the norm sample of female adolescents (Thompson & Lindeman, 1981): CP (M = 3.34, SD = 0.78), career-planning engagement (M = 3.15, SD = 0.93) and career knowledge (M = 3.61, SD = 0.88). This finding suggests that adolescent mothers in this study were similar to their peers in terms of career planfulness. For career exploration (M = 2.73, SD = 0.99), participants reported a moderate amount of career exploration behaviors with slightly higher self-exploration (M = 3.16, SD = 1.12) involving reflection on one’s future career and past experiences, than environmental exploration (M = 2.34, SD = 1.08) that involves investigating career possibilities. The reliabilities for the current study were .89 for both CP subscales and .90 for the total scale. In terms of career decision-making, there was little variation between the total score (M = 3.26, SD = 0.95) and each of the subscale scores, which ranged from 3.12–3.37. The subscale reliabilities ranged from .87–.90, and reliability for the total scale was .90. Thus, participants were neither strong nor weak in terms of decision-making skills related to selecting a college major, determining one’s ideal job, deciding on values related to occupations and preparing for a job search.


Regarding resiliency, participant T scores for the three scales and scaled scores for the subscales were compared to those of the female adolescent norm group (Prince-Embury, 2006). T scores over 60 are considered high, 50–59 are above average, 46–49 are average, 41–45 are below average, and below 40 are low. The reported T scores for participants were average for both the MAS (M = 48.29, SD = 7.93) and the REA (M = 49.44, SD =10.58) and below average for the REL (M = 44.47, SD = 10.11). The manual reports that scaled scores for the subscales over 16 are considered high, 13–15 are above average, 8–12 are average, 5–7 are below average, and below 5 are low. The related subscale scores for the MAS were average (M = 9.45–9.75); subscales for the REL were average (M = 8.12–8.75); and subscales for the REA were average (M = 9.80–10.39). The subscale reliabilities ranged from .57–.87 and the scale reliabilities ranged from .84–.93.


The participants rated 25 perceived obstacles using the OS (Klaw, 2008). The obstacles were organized into seven categories plus other to capture themes that have been reflected in the literature (e.g., pressing immediate needs, work-related concerns, education-related concerns). Ratings of 2 (somewhat of a concern) and 3 (a large concern) were combined and categorized for descriptive and contextual purposes. The most frequent obstacles for adolescent mothers were related to pressing immediate needs (childcare [73%] and transportation [72%]), work-related concerns (need for more job training [72%] and not many jobs available in my area [72%]), and education-related concerns (need more preparation to continue my education [71%] and need money to continue my education [68%]). Another identified obstacle was health-related concerns for mother or child (68%). Of lesser concern for these adolescent mothers was discrimination (facing discrimination because I am a woman [26%] and facing discrimination because of where I live [20%]) and relationship concerns (parents wanting me to work full-time [27%] and my baby’s father doesn’t want me to work [19%]). Deviant behaviors do not appear to be obstacles for most adolescent mothers surveyed; these behaviors include education-related concerns such as suspended/expelled from school (14%) and community concerns such as fear of community violence (21%), being in jail or in trouble with the police (14%), and being part of a gang (5%).


Relationships Between Career Adaptability and Resiliency

The mean scores for the three dimensions of career adaptability were correlated with the three resiliency scales scores (see Table 1). Within the resiliency measures, personal resiliency (as measured by the MAS scale) and relational resiliency (as measured by the REL scale) demonstrated a moderately strong positive correlation (r = 0.65), while emotional vulnerability (as measured by the REA scale) was weakly and negatively related to the other two measures (r = -0.22; r = -0.26). The relationships among career adaptability measures suggest that, while each dimension of career adaptability is a separate aspect of career adaptability, they are related. The strongest correlation was between exploration and decision-making (r = 0.70). The interrelationships among career adaptability dimensions and the three resiliency attributes were found to moderately correlate with personal (r = 0.29; r = 0.39; r = 0.49) and relational resiliency (r = 0.27; r = 0.26; r = 0.35); emotional vulnerability was not related to any of the scales for career adaptability. Decision-making demonstrated the strongest positive relationship with personal and relational resiliency (r = 0.49; r = 0.35).



Table 1


Intercorrelations between Resiliency, Dimensions of Career Adaptability, and Obstacles









Resiliency Measuresa
  1. Sense of Mastery (MAS)   (.84)
  2. Sense of Relatedness (REL)



  3. Emotional Reactivity (REA)




Career Adaptability
  4. Career Planfulnessb




  5. Career Explorationc





  6. Career Decision Makingd








Note. Reliability values for this study are shown diagonally (Cronbach alphas). N = 101

* p < 0.05

RSCA (Prince-Embury, 2006)

b CDI-S (Super et al., 1979)

c CES (Stumpf, Colarelli, & Hartman, 1983)

d CDSE-SF ( Betz, Hammond, & Multon, 2005)




Predictive Power of Resiliency for Career Adaptability

Multiple regression was used to examine the predictive power in the three constructs of resiliency to the three dimensions of career adaptability (see Table 2). The three resiliency measures explained a statistically significant 25% of variance in career decision-making (F = 10.96), 15% of variance in career exploration (F = 5.84) and 9% of variance in career planfulness (F = 3.37). Personal resiliency (MAS) was the only resiliency scale that produced statistically significant results in two of the three career adaptability measures (see Table 2). The lack of statistical significance for relational resiliency is due to its high correlation with personal resiliency. Therefore, adolescent mothers who possess higher personal resiliency appear to possess higher levels of career adaptability.


Table 2

Predicting Career Adaptability by Resiliency Scores




p value



p value

Career Planfulness














Career Exploration














Career Decision Making



< 0.0001**











Note. N= 101. MAS = Sense of Mastery; REL = Sense of Relatedness; REA = Emotional Reactivity.*p< 0.05** p<0.001






The results of this study should inform researchers and practitioners who are interested in assessing and advancing the career adaptability and resiliency of adolescent mothers while concurrently being mindful of perceived obstacles. In terms of career adaptability skills, the adolescent mother participants endorsed similar skills to their peers in both career planfulness and career decision-making, but lower scores in career exploration. Overall, participants appear to be average in their career planfulness skills, including engagement in career planning and career knowledge. This finding suggests that adolescent mothers are just as competent with respect to career planfulness as nonparenting peers in the normative sample of the CP of the CDI-S (Thompson & Lindeman, 1981).


The career exploration scores indicate that environmental exploration (e.g., gathering information about careers of interest, jobs/careers in a local geographical region, jobs/careers with specific companies, career training opportunities; making contact with professionals in career areas of interest) is the most pressing of exploration needs. The results suggest that the participants show a need for increased career exploration skills, especially regarding environmental exploration. However, Porfeli and Skorikov (2010) stressed the importance of both aspects of career exploration. Thus, developing self-exploration skills (i.e., reflecting and connecting past experiences to future career choices and plans) would be beneficial for the participants. Consistent with the findings of Creed et al. (2009), targeted exploration initiatives are recommended to develop effective environmental and self-exploration skills to help adolescent mothers improve their overall career exploration skills.


For career decision-making, participants indicated feeling the most confident in assessing their own interests and abilities, conducting career-related research on the Internet, and planning and goal setting. They indicated feeling the least confident in navigating issues related to college, preparing a résumé, clarifying values, knowing about salary and wages for specific jobs and careers, and identifying potential employers. Several of the skills about which participants felt the least confident are reflected in the lower environmental exploration scores (e.g., knowledge of specific career information, such as salary and being able to identify potential employers). Interventions with adolescent mothers surrounding career decision-making skills should be targeted at areas of reported need (Fouad, Cotter, & Kantamneni, 2009).


In terms of resiliency, the participant profiles offer some consistent information about areas of strength and concern. Participants possess similar levels of personal resiliency and emotional vulnerability as same-age and same-gender peers within the normative sample of the RSCA (Prince-Embury, 2006). However, some differences are apparent between the study sample and the norm group on relational resiliency. The adolescent mothers indicated that they had more trouble communicating with others, less effective support systems, less favorable views of interpersonal relationships, and difficulty initiating and maintaining socially supportive and healthy relationships with family and friends, which is consistent with previous research findings (Gee & Rhodes, 2007; Klaw et al., 2003). It is unclear whether the inability to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships is a result of contextual factors related to adolescent pregnancy/parenthood, inadequate social skills present before the pregnancy/parenthood or a combination of factors.


The multiple regression showed that all of the resiliency measures had statistically significant power in predicting the career adaptability dimensions. Personal resiliency, a relative strength for this sample of adolescent mothers, showed the most predictive power. The relational resiliency scores demonstrated less predictive power and were lower than those of the participants’ same-age peers. Participants have difficulty initiating and maintaining interpersonal relationships that are comforting, supportive, tolerant and trusting, which is consistent with previous findings (Gee & Rhodes, 2007). This finding raises questions about the relationship between below-average relational resiliency scores and average career adaptability scores. If the relatedness scores were higher, indicating that the adolescent mothers had strong interpersonal relationships, would the career adaptability scores also be higher? Looking at the relationship between career adaptability and resiliency in larger groups of adolescents, both parenting and nonparenting, might provide more information about correlation or predictive relationships between the two variables (e.g., supportive relationships may provide adolescent mothers with more career-related skills and knowledge).


Data collected from adolescent mothers on their reported obstacles are helpful in understanding the challenges of motherhood. Consistent with Klaw’s (2008) findings, the most frequently cited challenges were pressing immediate needs (e.g., transportation, childcare, caring for the baby, healthcare). The next most mentioned obstacles were career and education-related concerns (e.g., job training and difficulty in school), also similar to Klaw’s (2008) findings. Although the obstacles were not statistically related to career adaptability and resiliency, understanding the obstacles encountered by adolescent mothers may be helpful in designing and implementing strategies to further develop career adaptability and foster resiliency.


The results indicate that the dimensions of career adaptability (i.e., planfulness, exploration, decision-making) can be quantitatively measured and used for assessment purposes to inform future intervention strategies. Additionally, the nature of career adaptability is expanding to include such attributes of resiliency (Savickas, 1997; Savickas et al., 2009). Theorists are moving away from the linear definition of career adaptability as planfulness, exploration and decision-making skills in order to create a more holistic, contextual and developmental conceptualization of career adaptability (Savickas et al., 2009).


Proposed Intervention Strategies


The following are proposed strategies to further the three components of career adaptability (i.e., planfulness, exploration, decision-making) and resiliency among adolescent mothers. Interventions to increase career-planning skills include fostering a future orientation and optimism, reinforcing positive attitudes toward planning, and teaching and providing practice in planning and goal-setting skills (Muskin, 2004; Savickas, 2005). While Muskin (2004) advocated for more generalized interventions designed to teach adolescents long- and short-term goal setting, Savickas (2005) recommended specific interventions to develop career-planning skills, like the Real Game (Jarvis & Richardt, 2001).


Interventions to help foster exploration include activities designed to help adolescents learn more about themselves (e.g., clarifying values, reflecting on past exploration experiences, assessing personal interests and abilities) and the world of work (e.g., job shadowing, volunteering, reading about various careers) with exercises designed to encourage both types of exploration (Porfeli & Skorikov, 2010). Interventions to foster decision-making must consider how differing perspectives on decision-making (e.g., collectivist or individualistic) can impact the decision-making process (Cardoso & Moreira, 2009; Shea et al., 2009). Other interventions such as assertiveness and decisional training, time and self-management skills training, and discussion groups can be used to foster career decision-making skills (Muskin, 2004; Savickas, 2005). Interventions to foster resiliency focus on building self-efficacy in order for adolescents to feel that they are strong enough to handle current and future situations and typically include role modeling, encouragement, anxiety reduction and developing problem-solving skills (Savickas, 2005).


Suggestions for Future Research and Limitations


The information gathered in this study highlights the need for assessment to accurately measure and enhance the career adaptability and resiliency of adolescent mothers. Adolescent mothers face additional obstacles that necessitate intervention strategies carefully be constructed based on both theoretical and contextual considerations. The combination of resiliency and career adaptability may provide the positive, strengths-based assessment and intervention strategies framework necessary to assist adolescent mothers in overcoming obstacles and becoming self-supporting adults.


Based on observations during data collection, two recommendations were generated for researchers and practitioners working directly with adolescent mothers in further research, assessment or intervention endeavors. First, adolescent mothers indicated that they would have preferred an interview rather than a written survey. The desire for verbal communication over written communication may provide insight into the most effective means of implementing assessment and intervention strategies. Second, many of the participants expressed immediate interest in the results of the study, both personal and overall results. These inquiries suggest that adolescent mothers are interested in and committed to developing career adaptability skills. Capitalizing on this initial enthusiasm may be a key factor in structuring assessment and intervention strategies. Delays in providing results and subsequent interventions to participants may diminish their interest in further developing career adaptability skills. Prescod and Daire (2013) noted the critical need for adolescent mothers to be involved in career development counseling services in both a time-sensitive and culturally sensitive manner for optimal results.


Given the challenges of studying this population, one limitation of the current study is that the assessment data were gathered from a purposeful sample of three programs in a limited geographical region. Yet, this sample was incredibly diverse, adding much information to the literature. Another important limitation was observed during data collection—not all of the scheduled participants attended data collection sessions. As the results of the OS (Klaw, 2008) also demonstrated, the lack of childcare and reliable transportation was evident during the data collection. Many participants brought their children to the data collection sites or were unable to get transportation to the sites.


Furthermore, research has indicated that childcare may lead to socioeconomic advancements of adolescent mothers, as they have increased available time to focus on school and work (Mollborn & Blalock, 2012). Thus, exploring childcare resources and possibly providing childcare resources while adolescent mothers partake in career development programs may be essential in their ability to focus on such efforts. The childcare challenge likely far exceeds the typical time management struggles of today’s nonparenting adolescents who are in the process of exploring careers as described by Strom, Strom, Whitten, and Kraska (2014). In the current study, program staff at community and school program sites indicated that attendance was a challenge for adolescent mothers because of these obstacles (i.e., childcare and transportation), highlighting the need for researchers and practitioners to address obstacles that more than 70% of adolescent mothers face in order to work effectively with these clients.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.






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Heather Barto is an Assistant Professor at Messiah University. Simone Lambert, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at Argosy University. Pamelia Brott, NCC, is an Associate Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Heather Barto, Suite 3052, Messiah College, One College Avenue, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055,


Evidence-Based Practice, Work Engagement and Professional Expertise of Counselors

Varda Konstam, Amy Cook, Sara Tomek, Esmaeil Mahdavi, Robert Gracia, Alexander H. Bayne

This study examined work engagement and its role in mediating the relationship between organizational support of evidence-based practice (integrating research evidence to inform professional practice) and educational growth and perceived professional expertise. Participants included 78 currently employed counselors, graduates of a master’s program in mental health counseling located in an urban northeastern university. Results revealed that work engagement significantly mediates the relationship between organizational support of evidence-based practice and educational growth and perceived professional expertise. Implications for counseling practice and recommendations for future research are discussed.

Keywords: professional expertise, counselors, evidence-based practice, professional development, work engagement


Although ongoing efforts to maintain and improve clinical competence are intrinsic to ethical practice for counselors (Jennings, Sovereign, Bottorff, Mussell, & Vye, 2005), clinical experience does not appear to guarantee additional skill acquisition among counselors (Goodman & Amatea, 1994; Skovholt & Jennings, 2005). Notably, a meta-analysis conducted by Spengler et al. (2009) revealed that level of education, training and experience had a small effect on clinical judgment (d = .12). Skovholt and Jennings (2005) concluded that “experience alone is not enough” to ensure professional growth and increased professional expertise in counseling practice (p. 15).


Because years of experience only minimally inform professional expertise (defined as the ability to accurately diagnose and implement treatment plans that sensitively incorporate the contexts in which clients are embedded [Meier, 1999]), it is important to isolate both individual and organizational factors that improve professional expertise over time. Individual factors identified in the counseling literature include (a) the importance of self-reflection (Neufeldt, Karno, & Nelson, 1996), (b) exploration of unexamined assumptions about human nature (Auger, 2004), (c) empathy (McLeod, 1999; Pope & Kline, 1999), (d) self-awareness (Richards, Campenni, & Muse-Burke, 2010), (e) mindfulness (Campbell & Christopher, 2012) and (f) cultural competence (Goh, 2005). Organizational factors (defined as organizational systems and processes that are in place to support counselor professional growth linked to organizational and client outcomes) also have been identified (Aarons & Sawitzky, 2006a; Bultsma, 2012, Goh, 2005; Perera-Diltz & Mason, 2012; Truscott et al., 2012). The range of studies, however, has been limited in scope, and research has tended to focus on administrative practices associated with staff turnover, morale, efficiency and productivity (Aarons & Sawitzky, 2006a).


This research focused on how individual counselors and organizations providing counseling services can promote the continuing development and refinement of professional expertise among practicing counselors. Specifically, we focused on individual work engagement and organizational factors—that is, organizational support of evidence-based practice (EBP) and educational growth, and their relationships to perceived counselor professional expertise. Counselor use of EBP involves engaging in critical analysis of professional practice and integrating research evidence to inform interventions (Carey & Dimmitt, 2008). We propose that organizational support of EBP and educational growth are important job resources (Bakker & Demerouti, 2008), and that work engagement mediates the relationship between these resources and perceived counselor professional expertise. First, we present a review of the literature related to organizational support of EBP and work engagement, with a specific focus on linking individual and organizational factors to perceived professional expertise.


Evidence-Based Practice


Efforts put forth by the American Counseling Association (Morkides, 2009) and the American Counseling Association Practice Research Network (Bradley, Sexton, & Smith, 2005) have revealed that evidence-based interventions are critical to the optimal functioning of counselors. Implementation of EBP has been increasingly required across a variety of counseling settings, such as in schools (Carey & Dimmitt, 2008; Dimmitt, Carey, & Hatch, 2007; Forman et al., 2013) and nonprofit human services organizations (McLaughlin, Rothery, Babins-Wagner, & Schleifer, 2010). The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Program standards (2009) also have documented the importance of counselors being trained in using data to inform decision-making, although there are no specific guidelines informing counselors and counselor educators how to engage in EBP effectively. Consequently, implementation of EBP has required that practitioners work in new ways, develop and refine existing clinical skills, and at times reconcile philosophical differences between EBP and their respective disciplines (Tarvydas, Addy, & Fleming, 2010).


The requirement that counselors integrate research findings when working with clients serves to not only sharpen their conceptual understanding of treatment effects, but also aligns conceptual understanding with clinical practice. Such alignment affords the counselor a clearer sense of mastery and aids in developing professional confidence (Beidas & Kendall, 2010). At the organizational and individual practitioner levels, supervisors can work to promote the implementation of more efficacious interventions (Brown, Pryzwansky, & Schulte, 2006; Sears, Rudisill, & Mason-Sears, 2006; Truscott et al., 2012). Thus, understanding individual and organizational factors that influence the use of EBP could help inform counselor development and counseling expertise.


Aarons and Palinkas (2007) surveyed comprehensive home-based services case managers working in child welfare settings specifically with respect to their experiences with EBP. The authors reported that organizational support and willingness to adapt EBP to fit unique settings are the best predictors of successful EBP implementation, including positive attitudes toward EBP. When paired with consistent supportive consultations and supervision, implementation of EBP in child services settings has been associated with greater staff retention (Aarons, Sommerfeld, Hecht, Silovsky, & Chaffin, 2009). Researchers have not yet replicated these results with practitioners working across a range of counseling settings, nor have they expanded their analyses to examine the relationship of EBP training and implementation to professional expertise.


In a qualitative study, Rapp et al. (2008) identified barriers to implementing EBP in five Kansas-based community mental health centers participating in the National Implementing Evidence-Based Practice Project. Rapp et al. (2008) were able to identify critical strategies that produced successful outcomes and positive attitudes toward EBP on behalf of the staff. These strategies included the following: (a) managers setting expectations and front-line staff monitoring EBP use, (b) members of upper management serving as champions of EBP by proactively keeping organizational focus on EBP, (c) educating all staff on the importance of EBP rather than exclusively targeting the staff using EBP as part of their job responsibilities, and (d) creating leadership teams that included representatives from all levels of responsibility within the organization to monitor progress and identify obstacles to implementing EBP. Similarly, in a survey developed to assess EBP implementation in community mental health settings, Carlson, Rapp, and Eichler (2012) found that the key components of successful EBP implementation were team meetings, professional development and skill-building activities, and use of outcome measures to track progress.


Organizational and individual processes by which EBP contributes to optimal counselor functioning over time are relatively unexplored in the literature. One possible variable to consider when addressing issues related to EBP implementation and counselor effectiveness is work engagement, a work-related state of mind associated with feeling connected and fulfilled in relation to one’s work activities (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004; Schaufeli, Bakker, & Salanova, 2006). Work engagement holds promise in furthering the understanding of how individuals and organizations that support these individuals can promote the continuing development and refinement of professional expertise (Bakker & Demerouti, 2008; Schaufeli et al., 2006).


Work Engagement and Professional Expertise

Schaufeli et al. (2006) defined work engagement as “a positive, fulfilling work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption” (p. 702). Contrary to those who suffer from burnout, engaged individuals have a sense of connection to their work activities and see themselves as capable of dealing with job responsibilities. It is important to note that the literature related to work engagement is represented by a wide array of contexts including those that are business related. The results of these studies, therefore, cannot be generalized to counselors working across a variety of mental health and school settings (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007, 2008; Salanova, Agut, & Pieró, 2005; Sonnentag, 2003). However, the findings in business-related contexts have revealed interesting associations that warrant further examination. For example, Langelaan, Bakker, van Doornen, and Schaufeli (2006) found that in participants working in diverse business settings (e.g., managers working for Dutch Telecom, blue-collar employees working in food processing companies), specific personality qualities associated with work engagement, such as low levels of neuroticism, high levels of extraversion and the ability to adapt to changing job conditions, were correlated with high levels of work engagement. A number of studies also identified a reciprocal relationship between personal resources (self-esteem and self-efficacy), job resources (effective supervision, social support, autonomy and variety in job tasks) and work engagement (Hakanen, Perhoniemi, & Toppinen-Tanner, 2008; Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2009). The participants in the Hakanen et al. (2008) study were Finnish dentists, whereas the Xanthopoulou et al. (2009) study was based on the responses of employees working in three branches of a fast-food company.


Supportive Organizational Contexts, Work Engagement and Professional Expertise

Colquitt, LePine, and Noe (2000) emphasized the importance of providing organizational support in the workplace when considering job performance and work engagement. However, the focus on “situational characteristics such as support remains surprisingly rare” (p. 700). The authors defined organizational support of educational growth as the extent to which the organization supports ongoing professional learning and development. Research findings have suggested that work engagement is positively correlated with job characteristics identified as resources, such as social support from supervisors and colleagues, performance feedback, coaching, job autonomy, task variety, and training facilities (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007; Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001; Salanova et al., 2005; Salanova, Bakker, & Llorens, 2006; Salanova & Schaufeli, 2008; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2003; Schaufeli, Taris, & van Rhenen, 2008). According to Bakker, Giervels, and Van Rijswijk (as cited by Bakker & Demerouti, 2008), engaged employees have been successful in mobilizing their job resources and influencing others to perform better as a team.


In accordance with the model proposed by Bakker and Demerouti (2008), work engagement, in the context of perceived counselor professional expertise, mediates the relationship between job and personal resources and job-related performance. Job resources (e.g., organizational support of EBP, organizational support of educational growth) and personal resources inform work engagement, especially in jobs with high demands (Bakker & Demerouti, 2008; Bakker, Hakanen, Demerouti, & Xanthopoulou, 2007; Salanova et al., 2005). We propose that organizational support of educational growth and organizational support of EBP are important job resources as conceptualized by the Bakker and Demerouti model, and that work engagement mediates the relationship between these resources and counselor professional expertise.


This study addresses a gap in the literature by focusing on understanding the relationships among work engagement, organizational support of EBP and organizational support of educational growth with respect to perceived professional expertise in practicing counselors. To our knowledge, no research to date has linked the systematic organizational implementation of EBP and organizational support of educational growth with the proposed mediating role of work engagement in relationship to counselor perceived professional expertise. See Figure 1 for the proposed mediation model. In addition, the participants of this study function across a variety of counseling settings including schools, hospitals and mental health agencies.





It is important to determine whether a supportive professional context in general, rather than support specific to EBP, accounts for the relationship between EBP and work engagement. We assessed an alternative source of organizational support: support of educational growth, defined as the extent to which the organization supports ongoing professional learning and development. We hypothesized that organizational support of EBP uniquely contributes to work engagement, independent of support of educational growth. We hypothesized the following:


Organizational support of EBP, organizational support of educational growth and professional expertise will all be positively related to each other.

Work engagement will significantly mediate the relationship between organizational support of EBP and educational growth, and in turn will increase perceived professional expertise, as proposed by Bakker and Demerouti (2008).





The participants for this study included 78 graduates of a master’s program in mental health counseling located in an urban university in the northeastern part of the United States. The graduates of the counseling program were exposed to coursework that incorporated training and content specific to developing EBP (although they did not complete individual courses devoted specifically to the topic). For example, during the completion of internship coursework and courses foundational to the counseling profession, they were required to complete assignments focusing on using research and data to inform decision-making and practice. As such, prior to being employed in the field as professional counselors, the participants had prior exposure to the theory and practice of employing EBP.


Mailing addresses of 286 mental health counseling graduates were obtained from the alumni office, and a survey was sent to each graduate. A total of 91 mental health counselors located in a variety of settings, including mental health, school and hospital settings, completed the survey and returned it by mail; a response rate of 31.8% was obtained. Five of the questionnaires were excluded due to the participants not working in the field, and eight questionnaires were excluded due to missing data. An a priori power analysis was conducted to ascertain the number of participants required to achieve statistical significance using G*Power (Faul, Erdfelder, Buchner, & Lang, 2009). In using an alpha level of .05 and establishing a minimum power set of .80 and moderate effect size of .30, a minimum of 64 participants was needed to obtain a power of .80 in a hypothesis test using bivariate correlations. A minimum sample size of 58 was needed to achieve a power of .80 for our mediation model analysis (Fritz & MacKinnon, 2007).


The sample consisted of mostly female (n = 67, 86%) respondents. The participants were primarily White (n = 61, 78%), a small percentage Black (n = 4, 5%) and Hispanic (n = 3, 4%), and the rest identified as being “other” or “mixed-race” (n = 10, 13%). Participants averaged 37.4 years old (SD = 9.4), with a median age of 34.5 years. The participants were experienced, with over 90% having 2 or more years of work experience; 35% (n = 27) had 0–4 years of experience, 37% (n = 29) had 5–7 years of experience, while over 28% (n = 22) had 8 or more years of experience. A majority of participants (n = 65, 83%) reported involvement in a national committee within the mental health profession, indicating that the participants were involved within the counseling community and therefore more likely to be engaged at a professional level. Participants came primarily from mental health agencies (n = 33, 42%), followed by school settings (n = 15, 19%) and hospital settings (n = 7, 9%), with the remaining 27% (n = 20) indicating that they worked in more than one type of setting and approximately 4% (n = 3) not identifying their work setting. Data regarding licensure status was not collected.



The Professional Expertise and Work Engagement Survey (PEWES) containing four subscales (Organizational Support of Educational Growth Measure [OSEGM], Organizational Support of Evidence-Based Practice [OSEBP], Utrecht Work Engagement Scale [Utrecht] and Mental Health Counseling Professional Expertise Questionnaire [PES]) was developed to measure professional expertise, organizational support of EBP and educational growth, and work engagement. The survey items were developed through incorporating key literature from counseling and related fields (e.g., business and psychology), since the constructs measured had not been assessed directly in the counseling literature. To ensure that the items were applicable to counseling practices, the survey was developed and piloted by two counselor educators. Items that the counselor educators identified as not applicable to counseling practices were excluded from analysis.


Organizational Support of Educational Growth. This assessment is a 5-item instrument using a 10-point Likert-type scale that evaluates characteristics of work settings. The instrument was designed based on the work of Colquitt et al. (2000) and focuses on attributes that predict motivation to learn and job performance. Cognitive abilities and age (identified as individual factors) along with work environment and trainee feedback from colleagues and supervisors (identified as situational factors) are represented in the model. The scale purports to assess support for educational growth present in the work environment. A few sample items used are the following: (a) To what extent does your work setting provide experiences for professional growth and development? (b) To what extent does your work setting provide time for learning activities to promote your professional growth? (c) To what extent does your organization have a climate that supports learning? A factor analysis was conducted on the items using a principal components extraction method. A single factor solution accounted for 52% of the variance in the items, with an eigenvalue of 2.6, indicating that a single summative scale could be utilized. The scale resulted in a range from 5 (low) to 50 (high). A Cronbach’s alpha of .81, 95% CI [.74, .87], was obtained for this instrument.


Organizational Support of Evidence-Based Practice. This 4-item survey using a 10-point Likert-type scale measures the organization’s culture in terms of supporting employee commitment to EBP. The items were created based on Colquitt and colleagues’ work (2000) and the work of Pfeffer and Sutton (2006). Examples of items used include the following: To what extent do the following statements represent your organizational culture? (a) Committed to evidence-based decision-making, which means being committed to getting the best evidence and using it to guide actions. (b) Looks for the risks and drawbacks in what people recommend—even the best interventions have side effects. A factor analysis with principal components extraction was conducted. Results indicated that a single factor accounted for 66% of the variance in the items, with an eigenvalue of 2.66. The scale resulted in a range of values from 4 (low) to 40 (high). A Cronbach’s alpha of .84, 95% CI [.78, .89], was obtained for this questionnaire.


Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. As originally developed, this is a 9-item assessment using a 10-point Likert-type scale that measures level of connection and enthusiasm related to one’s work (Schaufeli et al., 2006). Individuals are evaluated within three aspects of work engagement: vigor, dedication and absorption. The first five items of the scale are utilized to assess work engagement, as follows: (a) At my work, I feel bursting with energy. (b) At my job, I feel strong and vigorous. (c) When I get up in the morning, I feel like going to work. (d) I am enthusiastic about my job. (e) I am proud of the work that I do. These five items fall within the first two subscales of vigor and dedication. Given that absorption was not assessed due to clerical error, items were examined to determine whether a single summative scale could be utilized that would define both vigor and dedication at work. A factor analysis using a principal components extraction found a single factor to account for 81% of the variance in the items, with an eigenvalue of 4.06. This total sum scale created a range of values from 5 (low) to 50 (high). The Cronbach’s alpha for this subset of questions in our sample was .95, 95% CI [.93, .96], indicating high reliability. Schaufeli and colleagues (2006) found a reliability between .60 and .88 for the full 9-item scale.


Mental Health Counseling Professional Expertise Questionnaire. Professional expertise was measured by the PES. This self-assessment instrument was designed to measure perceived professional expertise and professional skills. It consists of 10-questions on a 10-point Likert-type scale. Those taking the survey are asked to determine how a strict but fair supervisor would rate their counseling and clinical abilities as related to their work setting. Questions focus on two areas of functioning: ability to select and employ appropriate diagnostic methods, including consideration of cultural data, and ability to implement a treatment plan, based on diagnostic considerations. A few sample items include the following: (a) I am able to select and employ appropriate diagnostic methods. (b) I am able to accurately interpret diagnostic material and make an accurate diagnosis. (c) I am able to develop a comprehensive treatment plan based on my diagnosis. A factor analysis with principal component extraction was conducted to determine whether a single summative scale could be utilized. Our results indicated that a single factor accounted for 63% of the variance in the items, with an eigenvalue of 6.3. A total sum scale was then created and had a range of 10 (low) to 100 (high) points. A Cronbach’s alpha of .92, 95% CI [.89, .94], was obtained for the scale.


Data Analysis

Analyses for hypothesis one were performed by calculating a full correlation matrix for the four variables. The second research question evaluated the hypothesized mediation effect proposed by Bakker and Demerouti (2008) using a path analysis. The alpha level was set to .05 for all statistical analyses. Analyses were conducted using SPSS Version 19.0 and SAS Version 9.2.




Hypothesis One

Scores on the OSEGM were positively correlated with the OSEBP Measure, r(76) = .53, p < .001. This positive correlation indicated that high values of organizational support of educational growth were found with high values of organizational support of EBP. In addition, scores on the OSEGM were positively correlated with scores on the Utrecht, r(76) = .55, p < .001. This significant positive relationship indicated that high levels of organizational support of educational growth were found with high scores on the Utrecht. A significant positive correlation also was found between the OSEGM scores and the PES scores, r(76) = .25, p < .03. This positive directional effect indicated that high levels of organizational support of educational growth related to higher scores on professional expertise.


The Utrecht was positively correlated with the OSEBP Measure, r(76) = .58, p < .001. High levels of organizational support of EBP related to higher scores on the Utrecht. The Utrecht was positively correlated with the PES, r(76) = .46, p < .001. The positive relationship indicated that higher scores on the Utrecht found with higher scores on the PES.


Lastly, OSEBP was found to be positively correlated with the PES, r(76) = .33, p = .003. This positive relationship indicated that high levels of organizational support of EBP were found with high scores on the PES. Thus, as hypothesized, organizational support of EBP, organizational support of educational growth and perceived professional expertise were all positively related to each other (see Table 1 for correlations between all major variables.).


Table 1


Correlations Between Study Factors




PESOSEGM .46***.55*** .33**.53*** .25*
OSEBP .58***


*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001



Hypothesis Two

Bakker and Demerouti (2008) proposed a model with a mediation effect of work engagement on the relationship between job and personal resources and performance. Our interpretation of the model placed the OSEGM and the OSEBP Measure into what Bakker and Demerouti (2008) identified as job and personal resources. Additionally, performance was measured by the PES. Work engagement, a mediating variable as suggested by the model, was measured by the Utrecht. Because we adapted the PEWES in accordance with Bakker and Demerouti’s (2008) model, we assessed the individual items and subscales for content validity and reliability as previously described. Given that preliminary findings suggested strong internal consistency, we hypothesized that the full survey could be utilized to ascertain a potential mediation effect of work engagement on the relationship between organizational support of EBP and educational growth, and consequently, greater perceived professional expertise.


The estimated model, along with the standardized estimates, is shown in Figure 2. The fit of the model was very good, with an RMSEA of 0.00, χ2(2, n = 78) = 0.66, p = .72, GFI = .99, CFI = 1.00. Additionally, 55% of the direct effect between the OSEBP Measure and the PES can be accounted for by the mediation of the Utrecht, and 70% of the direct effect between the OSEGM and the PES can be accounted for by the mediation of the Utrecht. Given the large bivariate relationships between professional expertise and both organizational support of EBP and organizational support of educational growth, it appears that work engagement itself is largely contributing to these positive relationships. This finding is shown by the large percentage of direct effects accounted for by the Utrecht.






The purpose of this study was to gain an increased understanding of the relationships between organizational support of EBP and educational growth, work engagement, and perceived counselor professional expertise. In addition, we examined the mediational effect of work engagement on perceived counselor professional expertise. Results revealed a consistent and coherent picture with important implications for organizational support of continued development of counselor professional expertise across a variety of work settings, including mental health agencies, schools and hospital settings.


Significant positive relationships between all variables indicate that counselors who rated themselves higher in professional expertise and perceived their work settings as supportive of EBP and educational growth reported significantly higher work engagement scores. Results affirm the importance of organizational support of EBP and its unique contribution to nurturing and sustaining work engagement levels among counselors. Results also affirm the importance of organizational support of continued counselor educational growth. These findings help to substantiate the research efforts of Bakker and Demerouti (2007, 2008) and Schaufeli and Salanova (2007).


While organizational support of EBP and organizational support of educational growth both were shown to increase professional expertise, it was the amount of work engagement that accounted for a large proportion of the direct relationships between organizational support of EBP and educational growth with professional expertise. This finding suggests that employers can assist in creating environmental conditions that support and promote employee engagement. A commitment to supervision processes that promote the use of EBP and address issues related to the improvement of work engagement can contribute to improvement in counselors’ functioning across a variety of counselor work settings. Supervision that incorporates linkages between and among EBP implementation, work engagement and professional expertise is potentially empowering to respective supervisees.


It is important to note that relying on counselor individual factors exclusively is an insufficient and incomplete path to improving professional expertise outcomes. Results suggest that organizational assessment of work engagement, specifically how it is promoted within the organization, in concert with counselor self-assessments, has the potential to yield meaningful results in terms of creating work environments conducive to professional growth.


Further longitudinal research is needed to corroborate the pathways resulting in increased counselor work engagement and professional expertise. Linkages to client outcomes would have significant implications for the continued assessment and support of professional growth of counselors in the field. Another important contextual consideration, exploration of job demands (e.g., work pressure, emotional demands) and how they inform work engagement, would also be beneficial, with important implications for training, supervision and practice. Because work engagement appears to increase possibilities for influencing positive counselor outcomes across a variety of settings, a promising practice includes increased emphasis on assessment and continued monitoring of counselor work engagement.


Treatment approaches based on evidence-based principles are likely to increase counselors’ confidence levels and expectations for treatment (Beidas & Kendall, 2010). As suggested by the work of Bakker and Demerouti (2008), a positive feedback loop develops between level of work engagement and organizational support of EBP. Our data are incomplete in terms of understanding these critical and complex relationships that suggest mutually reinforcing feedback loops. Future research is needed urgently to understand these linkages, specifically how organizational support of EBP and counselor level of work engagement reinforce each other in the service of improving treatment outcomes. Conducting longitudinal studies would allow more complete understanding of the relationship between organizational support of EBP and counselor work engagement. Such studies would permit careful examination of how these feedback loops unfold and are sustained over time. Furthermore, supervision models that promote systematic understanding of feedback loops can empower supervisees and promote them monitoring and evaluating their professional growth.


In the current study, we did not assess individual attitudes about and commitment to EBP; rather, we assessed participants’ perceptions of organizational commitment to supporting EBP in their respective counseling work settings. We did not explore the unique contributions of supervision models across provider settings and their contributions to perceived professional growth. Consequently, future studies are needed to determine how organizational implementation of EBP, including the use of formal and informal supervision, combined with individual commitment to EBP, is implicated in terms of levels of work engagement and professional expertise.


Organizational support of EBP is likely to thrive in a context in which individuals, as well as the system in which they are embedded, embrace and respect the scientific inquiry process (Aarons & Sawitzky, 2006b). While preliminary factors have been identified (e.g., Rapp et al., 2008), further research is needed to investigate this potentially fruitful area of inquiry across culturally diverse work settings, including mental health agencies, schools and hospital settings.




This study is characterized by several limitations, in particular, generalizability. All of the participants were graduates of a Master of Science degree program in mental health counseling at an urban northeastern university with a strong commitment to and focus on social justice and serving vulnerable populations. In addition, participants had completed coursework that incorporated assignments focusing on building knowledge and understanding of EBP. Further limiting the generalizability of our findings is that only a select number (31.8%) of graduates from the master’s degree program chose to respond to the questionnaire. The participants were a self-selected group committed to serving clients in urban contexts, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized to all practicing counselors.


Another limitation in our results is the use of a subset of questions designed to assess vigor and dedication on the Utrecht, but that did not assess absorption. However, the questions that were included to assess vigor and dedication yielded a Cronbach’s alpha of .95, indicating a very high reliability. A factor analysis revealed that a single factor accounted for 81% of the variance in the items.


The use of self-reports is an additional limitation of the study. Professional expertise and counselor work engagement were assessed by the participants themselves. The study would be enhanced if seasoned external evaluators, deemed experts in their fields, evaluated each of the participants’ level of work engagement and professional expertise. Multiple self-report measurements such as the EBP Attitude Scale (Aarons, 2004) would have provided additional useful information.


This study would be enhanced if variables such as provider demographics, job characteristics and in-depth analyses of supervision services provided were assessed. In addition, using a longitudinal design that incorporated client outcomes and linked them to mental health counselor professional expertise and work engagement would address the limitation of the cross-sectional nature of this design. Nevertheless, given the dearth of research in this unfolding area of study, our findings provide an important contribution in terms of building a foundation for developing a relatively unexplored section of literature as it relates to the counseling profession. Examining the impact of organizational support of EBP and educational growth and level of work engagement has the potential for significantly improving counselor professional expertise over time.


Professional Practice and Supervision Implications


     The findings of this study suggest important directions for counselors, counseling supervisors and administrators. The mediation model indicates the strength of work engagement as a mediator of the large positive relationship between organizational support of EBP and counselor professional expertise, and provides a potential powerful lens for improving counselor outcomes. Given that work engagement accounts for a majority of the direct relationship between organizational support of EBP and professional expertise, the findings of this study suggest that assessment of work engagement can be a valuable avenue for increasing professional expertise.


Professionals in counseling and related work settings are struggling with how best to situate their organizations in terms of ensuring optimal counselor and client outcomes, particularly in a context of diminishing economic resources. Although, for example, research studies have provided a degree of clarity in terms of identifying strategies that promote positive attitudes on the part of counselors toward implementation of EBP (Rapp et al., 2008), the systematic study of counselor work engagement and its contribution to professional expertise has not received the attention and focus it merits. While traditional models of counselor training have focused on counselor deficiencies, our finding in support of the mediational role of work engagement expands the understanding of professional growth from a positive psychology perspective—the positive aspects of work.


The dynamic nature of the mediational model proposed in this study provides important opportunities for supervision and administrative practices. In accordance with the model proposed by Bakker and Demerouti (2008), relationships between resources, such as organizational support of EBP and continuing organizational support of education; work engagement; and counselor professional expertise are neither static nor unidirectional. These variables mutually reinforce and inform each other. Based on the model suggested by Salanova et al. (2005), organizational support of EBP and organizational support of educational growth serve as job resources that increase work engagement levels among counselors; they also inform counselor professional expertise. Sensitizing counselors and supervisors who function across a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals and mental health agencies, to the significance of work engagement, its linkage to EBP and the opportunities it provides for self-assessment can increase possibilities for improving counselor professional expertise (Crocket, 2007). To date, there is no study that suggests how these important linkages—organizational support of EBP and education, work engagement, and professional expertise—can best be harnessed and translated to a variety of settings and improved outcomes with respect to counselor professional expertise (as well as improved client counseling outcomes). Comparison studies are needed to determine optimal models and how they may be adapted and individualized across a variety of sociocultural settings in order to reinforce the dynamic interplay of these important constructs.


Supervisors of mental health counselors have an important role in helping counselors understand organizational contexts, and how they may influence and support their professional growth. Crocket (2007) found that a counselor’s workplace and professional culture, including what transpires during supervision discussions, influence the counselor’s development. Supervisors also play a role in deciphering organizational contexts and can be instrumental in supporting supervisees’ job satisfaction and work motivation (Sears et al., 2006). It is important to understand one’s work context and the potential impact of organizational and professional values on one’s own professional development, a stance that helps counselors to engage actively in the process of self-assessment (Crocket, 2007). Finally, the linkage of organizational commitment to EBP and counselor engagement to continuing professional expertise offers promising opportunities for reflection and professional growth. There is developing evidence that support for professional growth in general facilitates the successful implementation of EBP (Rapp et al., 2008). When there is consistent supportive supervision for using EBP, and when all staff members are included in the education on EBP and demonstration of its importance, even those personnel who are not targeted for EBP implementation, more successful outcomes of EBP implementation have been reported (Rapp et al., 2008). Further, Carlson et al. (2012) reported that successful implementation of EBP is supported by implementation of professional development and skill building as supervisory activities. Not only does our model provide support for the implementation of EBP in counseling settings, but it also provides support for implementation of interventions that enhance professional growth. In keeping with the findings of Colquitt et al. (2000), our model suggests that organizational support contributes to work engagement, independent of support of EBP. Furthermore, Witteman, Weiss, and Metzmacher (2012), based on the work of Gaines (1988), suggested that the development and refinement of professional expertise depend on consistent positive feedback processes. Organizational support of EBP provides counselors and administrators with data-driven feedback processes that encourage opportunities for focused collaboration with room for reflection, evaluation and refinement.


Our robust findings suggest a potentially fruitful area of inquiry that is relatively unexplored terrain. Given that implementation of EBP requires both well-conceived research and practitioners to interpret that research, it would be helpful to isolate and understand the variables that promote successful implementation of EBP in terms of counselor level of work engagement and counselor professional expertise. In the present study, a mediational model that considered systemic factors yielded fruitful findings that have significant implications for counselors, supervisors and administrators working in mental health, school and hospital settings.




Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.




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Varda Konstam is a professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Sara Tomek is an assistant professor and the director of the Research Assistance Center at the University of Alabama. Amy L. Cook is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Esmaeil Mahdavi is a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Robert Gracia is an instructor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Alexander H. Bayne is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Correspondence can be addressed to Varda Konstam, Department of Counseling and School Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 2 Avery Street, Boston, MA 02111,