A Review of Adverse Childhood Experiences as Factors Influential to Biopsychosocial Development for Young Males of Color

Shaywanna Harris, Christopher T. Belser, Naomi J. Wheeler, Andrea Dennison


Despite the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending school segregation in 1954, African American children and other children of color still experience severe and adverse challenges while receiving an education. Specifically, Black and Latino male students are at higher risk of being placed in special education classes, receiving lower grades, and being suspended or expelled from school. Although adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and the negative outcomes associated with experiencing them, are not specific to one racial or ethnic group, the impact of childhood adversity exacerbates the challenges experienced by male students of color at a biological, psychological, and sociological level. This article reviews the literature on how ACEs impact the biopsychosocial development and educational outcomes of young males of color (YMOC). A strengths-based perspective, underscoring resilience among YMOC, will be highlighted in presenting strategies to promote culturally responsive intervention with YMOC, focused professional development, and advocacy in the school counseling profession.

Keywords: adverse childhood experiences, development, school counseling, young males of color, strengths-based


Racial and ethnic disproportionality in academic success, exclusionary school discipline practices, and dropout rates contribute to the disproportionate representation of racial minority and disadvantaged youth in the prison system, also known as the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon (Belser et al., 2016). Higher expulsion and out-of-school suspension rates occur for Black and Latino students. In addition, African American students are almost four times as likely as European American students to experience a disciplinary referral (Bottiani et al., 2017; Skiba et al., 2011). Black and Latinx men are overrepresented within the U.S. prison system, with theoretical explanations for the school-to-prison pipeline including the influence of family poverty and socioeconomic status (SES) or racial disparities in school and social policy (Scott et al., 2017). Yet, resilience among young males of color (YMOC), a term that includes those from diverse backgrounds, provides a healing counternarrative for the well-documented deficit lenses often applied to YMOC (Harper, 2015). Therefore, we propose a contextualized understanding of biopsychosocial development that accounts for the influence of early exposure to adversity, as well as sources of resilience. In so doing, we highlight implications for school counselors who work with YMOC to foster equity in opportunity, achievement, persistence, and support.

School Experiences of YMOC
     School climate refers to students’ sense of belonging and experience of the academic environment. Further, school climate influences student engagement and peer relationships, as well as academic and social development (Konold et al., 2017). Aspects of school climate, such as safety and school liking, contribute to positive outcomes, including greater enrollment in higher education among Black and Latino adolescents (Garcia-Reid et al., 2005; Minor & Benner, 2017). However, Black students typically report lower levels of perceived care and equity in school than their White counterparts (Bottiani et al., 2016). Further, discrimination experiences based on race degrade perceived school climate, and as a result, students also experience lower GPAs and more absences from school (Benner & Graham, 2011). In addition to the effects on attendance and grades, perceived discrimination also negatively relates to psychological well-being and physical health (Hicken et al., 2014; Hood et al., 2017). Thus, YMOC’s differential experiences of school climate and discrimination result in social, academic, and physical correlates with lifelong consequences.

Bryant et al. (2016) identified risk and protective factors experienced by YMOC that inform their recommendations for practice and policy. Risk factors included a lack of mentors and counselors to advocate for education and employment training, disproportionate exposure to community violence, and inadequate access to health care and career opportunities. Further, racially diverse and economically disadvantaged individuals reported a higher likelihood of exposure to violence, abuse, and other forms of adversity as children (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 2013). Thus, Bryant et al.’s (2016) recommendations underscored the necessity for health and education professionals to seek cultural competence and make proactive efforts to mitigate the effects of exposure to violence and trauma. School counselors play an important role in the promotion of diversity and positive school climate for all students, as well as student academic success and social/emotional development (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2019).

Academically successful students from low-income families identified the importance of school counselors’ efforts to build caring, non-judgmental relationships that emphasize student strengths, goals, and a holistic view of student success (Williams et al., 2015). Similarly, L. C. Smith et al. (2017) theorized the utility of restorative practices as a way for school counselors to build caring and connected relationships, especially for students of color facing social inequities. Yet, school counselors’ unshared expectations and unclear roles with students of color can hinder the development of a trusting relationship (Holland, 2015). Some school counselors primarily address academic and college planning, yet schools with higher percentages of students of color indicate that school counselors primarily focus on behavioral concerns. Conversely, students in those schools experience greater acceptance of efforts to address issues of diversity and equity across stakeholder groups (Dye, 2014; Nassar-McMillan et al., 2009; Shi & Goings, 2017). As states work to decrease the student-to-counselor ratio, opportunities exist for school counselors to engage in meaningful ways and advocate for their students and YMOC with a holistic view of the related strengths, needs, and contextual stressors students experience.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
     Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are events experienced early in life that initiate a lifelong trajectory associated with negative consequences for development and health. Longitudinal examination of the correlates of exposure to ACEs includes deficits in physical, mental, and emotional health; educational attainment; financial stability; and social functioning, with increased risk for justice system involvement (Copeland et al., 2018). A higher prevalence of ACEs is reported by individuals who identify as having a multiracial ethnic background (Merrick et al., 2018). Similarly, racially and economically diverse samples report more ACEs and may therefore be more susceptible to the risk for poor physical and mental health outcomes (Cronholm et al., 2015; Wheeler et al., 2018).

The original ACEs screening tool includes 10 forms of adversity that respondents may have encountered prior to age 18 (e.g., abuse, neglect, household dysfunction); however, as new knowledge has emerged about additional types of adversity also associated with poor health, such as the complex and chronic stress posed by racially hostile or unwelcoming environments, ACEs screening tool development has continued to evolve (e.g., the ACE-IQ; Cronholm et al., 2015). Additionally, the need for improved understanding of protective factors that may interact with or even counteract ACEs has been identified. For example, researchers developed measures like the Health-Resiliency-Stress Questionnaire (Wiet & Trauma-Resiliency Collaborative, 2019) and Benevolent Childhood Experiences (Narayan et al., 2018) and Positive Childhood Experiences (Bethell et al., 2019) scales to identify positive childhood experiences that may also influence health and resilience amidst adversity. Such measures include factors associated with the individual student, such as self-acceptance, as well as systemic factors, including the community (e.g., culture, community traditions, fair treatment, opportunities for fun, resources for skill development and assistance), school (e.g., caring adults, sense of belonging), peers and supportive others (e.g., role models and non-parent adults), and family (e.g., home routine, safety, family cohesion, emotional expression), all of which may contribute to risk and resilience.

It must also be noted that the interaction of risk and protective factors experienced by an individual is also an important consideration in research and practice. For example, Layne et al. (2014) proposed the Double Checks Heuristic, which involves considering protective factors, vulnerability factors, and negative outcomes when conceptualizing clients. The Double Checks Heuristic helps clinicians and researchers consider risk factors as well as strengths and protective factors to find the best ways in which to intervene and support clients (Landolt et al., 2017).

Biological Development
     As is clear in the ACEs literature, childhood experiences have strong and significant relationships with biological development and physical health outcomes later in life (Copeland et al., 2018; Edwards, 2018). Specifically, childhood experiences are integral to brain development and gene expression (Anda et al., 2006). During this period, the brain is highly sensitive to the experiences a child has, adapts to these new experiences, and learns from them by adapting through growth and development. Chronic stressors, adverse experiences, and traumas disrupt equilibrium in the developing brain, especially during sensitive periods of development (Glaser, 2000). Consistent disruptions to the developing brain’s homeostasis create new, less flexible patterns of operation within the brain (Perry & Pollard, 1998).

Researchers have linked ACEs to impairment in brain development and neurological functions. Both structural and functional impairments occur in the brain as a result of traumatic experiences in childhood (Edwards, 2018). Specifically, sexual abuse, neglect, and other ACEs are believed to impede brain development because of insecure attachment and continued stress response in the body. Attachment in infants is linked to heartrate variability and the exposure to neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine in the brain (Glaser, 2000). Chronic stress is also linked to the death of hippocampal cells that contribute to memory, learning, and emotion. Further, Roth et al. (2018) examined the impact of severe neglect on brain development in the amygdala—the location in the brain responsible for emotion regulation. The authors found a relationship between right hemisphere amygdala volume, anxiety, and neglect in adolescents aged 9–15. Boys who experienced severe neglect showed increased amygdala volume, which contributed to higher instances of anxiety and fear response within the brain (Roth et al., 2018).

Psychological Development
     Childhood emotional and psychological development is paramount to success in children. Children who are not at economic risk and who exhibit higher levels of self-regulation are more likely to experience success in school (Denham et al., 2012). Parenting style also appears to be a major contributing factor to positive psychological development (Le et al., 2008).

Researchers have linked authoritative parenting styles to positive mental health and psychological development in children (Steinberg et al., 1989). However, much of the literature approaches parenting style from a perspective that pathologizes parenting in families of color, not considering contextual and cultural factors that impact parenting (Le et al., 2008). Specifically, parents from lower SES families may demonstrate more permissive or authoritarian parenting styles (Hoff et al., 2002). Yet, parents in low SES families in South Africa showed high knowledge of child development norms and milestones, which is linked to more confidence in parenting and to successful outcomes in children (Bornstein & Putnick, 2007; September et al., 2016). Therefore, researchers must consider contextual and cultural factors when examining YMOC’s psychological development.

Mental health outcomes for individuals with higher numbers of ACEs include greater instances of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Exposure to ACEs increases the odds of experiencing depressive symptoms by approximately three times (Von Cheong et al., 2017). Moreover, children who have experienced exposure to violence, poor parental mental/behavioral health, or racial/ethnic discrimination are at increased risk of depression and anxiety (Zare et al., 2018). Specifically, YMOC disproportionately experience community violence, which increases the likelihood of also experiencing depressive symptoms (Graham et al., 2017). Moreover, African American men have substantially reported PTSD symptoms, including hyperawareness, irritability, and avoidance, at an alarming rate (91%; Bowleg et al., 2014).

Social Development
     As psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, is prevalent among YMOC who have experienced adversity, ACEs lead to differences in social development as well. Social development is highly dependent upon attachment to caregivers (Gross et al., 2017). That is, children who experience secure attachment with caregivers are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviors. As children who experience neglect are more likely to have disorganized attachment styles, children with more ACEs may be less likely to fully develop prosocial and executive functioning skills (Matte-Gagné et al., 2018).

Relatedly, childhood adversity is correlated with lower levels of relationship support and higher levels of relationship strain in adulthood. This association was particularly pronounced among Black men, who reported the strongest influence of childhood adversity as a contributor to increased relationship strain and decreased relationship support over time (Umberson et al., 2016). Further, ACEs that include family violence contribute to higher risk of dating aggression and intimate partner violence in future relationships (Laporte et al., 2011; Whitfield et al., 2003).

Educational Outcomes
     YMOC are at higher risk for the negative outcomes associated with ACEs at a biological, psychological, and social level. The impact of adverse experiences in YMOC specifically affects their abilities to engage in school. ACEs have been shown to adversely impact school success, learning and behavior, school engagement, and cognitive performance (Denham et al., 2012). Specifically, children who experience three or more ACEs have been shown to have adversely impacted language, literacy, and math skills, as well as increased attention problems (Jimenez et al., 2016).

YMOC are also disproportionately represented in the population of students being referred for out-of-school suspension or expulsion because of behavioral problems (Anyon et al., 2018). In a sample of predominantly ethnic minority children, children who experienced more ACEs were at higher risk of exhibiting behavioral problems (Burke et al., 2011). Moreover, children of color may experience behavioral problems that are exacerbated by peer rejection (Dodge et al., 2003). Education-specific outcomes of ACEs include academic, social, and emotional factors—direct areas of importance for school counselors. Thus, educational outcomes may play an important role in supporting success among YMOC.

Implications for School Counselors

School counselors are uniquely positioned to address this issue specifically because they work at the intersection of mental health and education. That is, school counselors are trained to provide preventive and responsive services in formats ranging from individual interventions to whole-school programming, making them well suited to address the issues of YMOC in various capacities (ASCA, 2019). The following sections highlight interventions and strategies that school counselors can utilize to both directly and indirectly help YMOC and increase equity. Whereas the literature review was structured to highlight prior research on biological, psychological, and social development and educational outcomes separately, these areas are inextricably linked. As such, the following sections will additionally highlight strategies and opportunities that school counselors can embrace and the biopsychosocial and educational implications of each area.

Fostering Nurturing Environments
     Fostering nurturing environments can hold promise for the biopsychosocial development of all students, with particular benefits to YMOC. Graham et al. (2017) reviewed literature on existing initiatives and programs and recommended trauma-informed school practices, school-based clubs and sports teams, and mentoring programs involving adult men of color as strategies that schools can utilize to promote connectedness and positive experiences in schools. Additionally, Graham et al. noted the importance of linking students to out-of-school sports, community activities, and mentoring programs, which could be a great opportunity for school counselors to bridge gaps between school activities and community programming, thus improving social and psychological development. Importantly, Shi and Goings (2017) found that African American students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to talk to their school counselor about personal problems if they felt a stronger sense of belonging within the school. Similarly, Carney et al. (2017) demonstrated that increased levels of school connectedness elevated the impact that improving social skills could have on relieving students’ emotional concerns. These studies suggest that school counselors should ensure that school counseling programming includes efforts targeted at YMOC, with the goals of interrupting or mediating the potential biopsychosocial effects of exposure to adversity and trauma, increasing help-seeking behaviors, and increasing social support networks.

Williams et al. (2015) interviewed a sample of academically successful low-income students, who reported that school counselors can foster resilience through tapping into students’ aspirational and social capital. The students further noted that school counselors can make an impact by showing they care and by challenging their personal biases about marginalized students. In schools dealing with the effects of gentrification, Bell and Van Velsor (2017) encouraged school counselors to engage the school community in conversations and interventions geared toward bridging the gaps between cultural groups. Similarly, Pica-Smith and Poynton (2014) suggested that school counselors can be instrumental in promoting interethnic friendships in students as a strategy to combat prejudice and racism.

Culturally Relevant Assessment and Screening
     Because of the complex nature of issues that can stem from exposure to trauma and adversity, school counselors should also use related screenings and assessments with caution and intention. Eklund and Rossen (2016) provided guidance for schools that wish to screen for trauma, noting specifically that schools should only proceed with trauma screening when they are adequately prepared to address the student concerns revealed in the data. They further posited that screening students with trauma exposure can further stigmatize these students and can, in some cases, re-traumatize the students (Eklund & Rossen, 2016). Moreover, Anda et al. (2020), some of the original ACEs researchers, caution practitioners from misapplication of global ACEs research for individual screening and decision-making for services or intervention. One person’s experience with ACEs may differ from another’s, even if they have the same score on an ACEs assessment. Therefore, the unique experience of ACEs, resilience, and the context of the individual are important considerations. ACEs may not always equate to trauma for the individual. Accordingly, rather than using the ACEs questionnaire to determine the presence and magnitude of students’ exposure to specific adversities, schools may be better off screening for specific psychosocial stress and trauma concerns, such as internalizing and/or externalizing behaviors, the presence of specific trauma symptoms, and help-seeking or coping behaviors. Schools that are equipped with school nurses or additional medical professionals may be better equipped to factor in more biological and medical screenings to provide a more holistic screening and intervention process. Whether using a simple or complex approach, school counselors are in a position to take a leadership role in these efforts, drawing from their training with developing a multi-tiered system of supports, utilizing data, and universal screening.

Reinbergs and Fefer (2018) discussed the importance of universal screening in recognizing trauma in schools, but they did not include specific implications related to students of color. Because universal screening relies more on objective measures rather than observation alone, it may reduce the influence of bias and oversight when assessing students of color (Belser et al., 2016). Another key consideration when developing a universal screening plan is to try to involve information provided by students, which can help ensure that their voices are heard and catch students who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks if teachers were unaware of circumstances happening in the students’ homes and communities (Eklund & Rossen, 2016). For YMOC whose voices are often marginalized or minimized, this step can be important in gaining buy-in and increasing their sense of belonging (Ngo et al., 2008). When selecting a screening tool, school counselors and school leaders must ensure that the tool has been adequately researched with minority populations and in varied settings (i.e., urban, suburban, and rural). Eklund et al. (2018) conducted a systematic review of screening measures focused on trauma in children and adolescents, as well as implications for their use in schools. Proper screening for traumatic experiences, as well as support systems and sources of strength, is a valuable step in the process of developing interventions.

Interventions for School Counselors
     Neuroscience and psychology research has linked chronic stress, often associated with trauma exposure and a higher number of ACEs, to negative impacts on self-regulation and emotional coping responses (Denham et al., 2012; Roth et al., 2018). Existing literature suggests programming that promotes adaptive coping and self-expression may show promise for YMOC, although many existing interventions have not been adequately researched with this population (Graham et al., 2017). The Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools program, a systematic approach involving students, teachers, and parents, was developed to help with a variety of types of trauma and has shown efficacy with African American students and other students of color (Jaycox et al., 2010; Ngo et al., 2008). Play therapy may provide a solution for younger students, as individual and group child-centered play therapy interventions yielded decreases in worrying, reductions in intrusive negative thoughts, and decreases in problematic behaviors that had been leading to classroom exclusion (Patterson et al., 2018).

Interventions that focus on fostering new and safe interethnic social bonds and repairing fractured bonds can promote interpersonal and intrapersonal growth, perspective taking, and self-concept (Baskin et al., 2015; Pica-Smith & Poynton, 2014). School counselors can model for students how to openly discuss issues of race, which can lead to greater bidirectional understanding of issues faced by students of color. Open, healthy communication about issues involving race/ethnicity can decrease the potential for students of color to suffer from perceived racism or discrimination in school; this can lead to fewer school absences, improved GPA, and improved psychological and physical well-being (Hicken et al., 2014; Hood et al., 2017). Pica-Smith and Poynton (2014) argued that modeling such conversations, as well as providing opportunities for intergroup dialogue in formal and informal school counseling interventions, can lead to increased personal and other-focused awareness, knowledge of privilege and racism, and empathy and perspective taking. Forgiveness interventions may have promise for African American students who have experienced emotional injury (Baskin et al., 2015). The model described by Baskin et al. (2015) involves getting in touch with feelings of anger and resentment, exploring how holding on to these feelings has been working in the past, examining how role models and others in the student’s life have navigated victimization, and finally “discovering the freedom of forgiveness” (p. 9). The focus of this intervention on reducing internal and external manifestations of anger has implications for benefitting students’ physical, emotional, and social health.

Interventions that focus on self-expression and storytelling provide YMOC with opportunities to verbalize thoughts, feelings, and experiences, as well as learn from the stories of others. Students of color can find socially relevant and empowering messages in hip-hop lyrics, and school counselors can utilize hip-hop and spoken-word interventions to promote positive outcomes for students of color (Levy et al., 2018; Washington, 2018). Integrating hip-hop and spoken-word interventions into counseling has the potential to bolster the counselor–client relationship (Elligan, 2004; Kobin & Tyson, 2006; Levy & Adjapong, 2020), reveal students’ existing coping and defense mechanisms (Levy, 2012), and identify ways to verbalize emotions that are socially and culturally relevant to students of color (Levy & Keum, 2014). Culturally affirming bibliotherapy is another trauma-related intervention that has shown efficacy with elementary-aged African American students (Stewart & Ames, 2014). Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have helped promote books written for children and teens that highlight the experiences, stressors, and traumas of YMOC. Incorporating these books into counseling interventions can provide a conduit for social and vicarious learning and developing a feeling of universality with characters who have experienced similar traumatic experiences, thereby opening doors for emotional release and expression, identifying adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and learning from the growth of others.

Building Knowledge of Unique Stressors and Traumas
     School counselors should also expand their knowledge of unique stressors and traumas facing YMOC and the potential associated outcomes. Henfield (2011) found that Black male middle school students felt that their primarily White environments stereotyped them, exposed them to microaggressions, and viewed them with an “assumption of deviance” (p. 147). Jernigan and Daniel (2011) noted that schools operate as microcosms of the larger society, implying that this setting may be a key place to help young Black males develop a positive racial/ethnic identity and agency to recognize and navigate discriminatory experiences. This same research should serve as an impetus for school leaders, especially counselors, to recognize and intervene in cases of microaggressions, microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations, which can lead to a harmful school climate for people of color (Sue et al., 2019).

J. R. Smith and Patton (2016) interviewed young Black males who had been exposed to community violence and found that diagnostic criteria for PTSD emerged from their narratives. Such findings provide context on the magnitude of the impact that exposure to community traumas can have on YMOC. Diagnosis and treatment of PTSD would be outside the ethical scope of practice for school counselors, which increases the necessity for school counselors to aid students and families in accessing mental and behavioral health services, as well as other community resources, outside of the school. Whereas therapeutic treatment of trauma symptoms and PTSD may go beyond the role of school counselors, school counseling programs should include efforts to bolster nurturing school environments that augment students’ adaptive coping skills.

Changing Demographics in the School Counseling Profession
     Whereas the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016a) do not specifically address ACEs or trauma-informed care as an ethical imperative, several standards do apply for school counselors working with male students of color who have experienced childhood adversity or trauma. The code’s Preamble notes that school counselors are called to support the optimal development of underserved groups and provide equitable service delivery, a charge that is bolstered by ASCA’s position statements on cultural diversity (ASCA, 2015). Other ethical standards highlight the need for school counselors to stay abreast of best practices and research in providing services and programming for students. In 2016, ASCA adopted a position statement on trauma-informed practice delineating the roles of school counselors in providing trauma-sensitive initiatives and services in schools; these roles include delivering direct student services, ensuring that teachers and staff are trained and aware, and building relationships with community partners who can also help serve students who have experienced trauma and adversity (ASCA, 2016b).

Despite these calls for school counselors to provide equitable and culturally responsive interventions for students coping with traumatic experiences, the school counseling literature has not adequately addressed school counselors’ roles in working with the unique stressors and experiences faced by YMOC. Moreover, ASCA most recently reported their membership as being 85% female and 76% White (ASCA, 2021). With these demographic statistics in mind, it is vitally important for practicing school counselors to critically examine knowledge gaps and blind spots with regard to providing adequate services for male students of color. School counselors must maintain an up-to-date working knowledge of the impacts of chronic stress and trauma on the developing brain in order to advocate for students. Additionally, school counselors must incorporate trauma-sensitive interventions in their work with male students of color. The section that follows, as well as the Appendix, provides an overview of professional development, intervention, and assessment strategies for school counselors.

Developing Multicultural Competence in School Counselors
     School counselors have an ethical imperative to examine their own multicultural competence and practice if they are to adequately conceptualize and meet the needs of YMOC. This process is critical and must be approached from multiple avenues of activity as outlined in the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (Ratts et al., 2016), including counselor self-awareness; understanding for the client’s worldview; approaches utilized to form counseling relationships; and more broadly, the delivery of counseling and advocacy interventions.To begin, counselor self-awareness may be developed informally through reading, self-reflection, or journaling for racial understanding and healing and can be part of supervision or consultation practices (Singh, 2019). School counselors can also use more formalized instruments to assess their multicultural competence and practice. Such instruments include the School Counseling Multicultural Self-Efficacy Scale (SCMES; Holcomb-McCoy et al., 2008), the Multicultural School Counseling Behavior Scale (MSCBS; Greene, 2018), and the Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Survey-Counselor Edition (MAKSS-CE; Kim et al., 2003). By tying self-evaluative practices to one’s own multicultural professional development, school counselors can evaluate and reevaluate their growth. Such practices can be helpful as school counselors adopt new techniques or participate in structured training experiences.

Ratts and Greenleaf (2017) developed the Multicultural and Social Justice Leadership Form (MSJLF) as a tool to help school counselors evaluate specific issues that arise in a school, examine counselor- and client-level information pertaining to the issue, and develop both counseling and advocacy interventions. This model can serve as a way for school counselors to better understand and act on issues pertaining to YMOC in their schools. Moreover, the MSJLF may be particularly helpful in recognizing biases and blind spots in light of the demographic makeup of the school counseling profession discussed above.

Swan et al. (2015) evaluated outcomes of a multicultural skills–based curriculum for counselors working with children and adolescents. The participants saw increases in their ability to empathize, demonstrate genuineness, and impart unconditional positive regard to their young clients. Moreover, the clients’ perceptions of the counselors’ cultural competence increased. This study supports the need for school counselors, particularly White school counselors working with marginalized and minoritized populations, to participate in professional development opportunities centered on fostering multicultural competence.


ACEs and trauma are undeniably taking a toll on children and adolescents in the United States, and YMOC are particularly at risk. The negative impacts can be seen in academic, social, biological, and psychological development. School counselors are uniquely positioned in educational environments to recognize and intervene with trauma-related issues through assessment of both risk and resiliency, direct programming, mental health referrals, community engagement, and school culture building. As such, it is imperative for school counselors to advocate for adequate training for themselves and school staff in the areas of cultural competence and trauma-informed practices, as well as advocate for best practices in directly treating the impacts of trauma, including that caused by structural and systematic racism. Additionally, as a profession that is primarily White and female, school counselors and school counselor educators must take steps to diversify the profession in ways that match the demographics of students and society and must continue to explore the efficacy of culturally informed trauma interventions in schools.


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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Resources and Ideas for School Counselors Developing Multicultural Awareness

Self-examination and self-assessment
Self-reflection, journaling (Singh, 2019), seeking supervision, or consultation with peers

Formal assessment tools

School Counseling Multicultural Self-Efficacy Scale (SCMES; Holcomb-McCoy et al., 2008)

Multicultural School Counseling Behavior Scale (MSCBS; Greene, 2018)

Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Survey-Counselor Edition (MAKSS-CE; Kim et al., 2003)

Building knowledge of traumatic stressors and their impact
Impact of primarily White environments on Black youth, such as stereotypes, microaggressions, and assumptions of deviance aimed at Black boys (Henfield, 2011)

Importance of helping young Black males to develop a positive racial identity and agency to recognize and navigate discriminatory experiences (Jernigan & Daniel, 2011)

Impact of exposure to community violence on reported PTSD symptoms (J. R. Smith & Patton, 2016)

Access to resources (e.g., community, school, and intrapersonal resources) leading to decreases in behavioral health needs (Accomazzo et al., 2015)

Fostering a nurturing school environment
Link students to out-of-school sports, community, and mentoring programs (Graham et al., 2017)

Increase sense of belonging within the school (Shi & Goings, 2017)

Increase levels of school connectedness (Carney et al., 2017)

Foster resilience through tapping into students’ aspirational and social capital (Williams et al., 2015)

Bridge gaps between cultural groups through interventions with all stakeholders (Bell & Van Velsor, 2017)

Promote interethnic friendships in students to combat prejudice and racism (Pica-Smith & Poynton, 2014)

Assessment and intervention tools for use with students
Universal screening of trauma and behavioral health in schools (Belser et al., 2016; Reinbergs & Fefer, 2018)

Programming that promotes adaptive coping and self-expression (Graham et al., 2017)

Forgiveness interventions (Baskin et al., 2015)

Socially relevant and empowering messages in hip-hop lyrics (Levy et al., 2018; Washington, 2018)

Culturally affirming bibliotherapy (Stewart & Ames, 2014)

Play therapy (Patterson et al., 2018)


Shaywanna Harris, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at Texas State University. Christopher T. Belser, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans. Naomi J. Wheeler, PhD, NCC, LMHC, is an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Andrea Dennison, PhD, is an assistant professor at Texas State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Shaywanna Harris, Texas State University, CLAS Dept., 601 University Dr., San Marcos, TX 78666, s_h454@txstate.edu.

Promoting Doctoral Student Researcher Development Through Positive Research Training Environments Using Self-Concept Theory

Margaret R. Lamar, Elysia Clemens, Adria Shipp Dunbar


Conceptualizing doctoral training programs as research training environments (RTEs) allows for the exploration of theory to help counselor educators facilitate doctoral students’ development from practitioners toward counseling researchers. Researchers have proposed self-concept theory as a way to understand identity development. In this article, the authors applied self-concept theory to understand how researcher identity may develop in a counseling RTE. Organizational theory also is described, as it provides insight for how doctoral students are socialized to the profession. Suggestions are made for how counselor education programs can utilize self-concept theory and organizational theory to create positive RTEs designed to facilitate researcher development.


Keywords: doctoral students, development, researcher identity, research training environments, self-concept theory



Conceptualizing doctoral training programs as research training environments (RTEs) allows for the exploration of theories to help counselor educators facilitate doctoral students’ development from having an identity primarily focused on being a helper toward a research identity (Gelso, 2006). Gelso (2006) defined RTEs as all “forces in graduate training programs . . . that reflect attitudes toward research and science” (p. 6). The RTE includes formal coursework; interactions with faculty, other students, and staff; informal mentoring experiences; and institutional culture that promotes or devalues research. However, there is little information about how counselor educators can practically develop a systematic approach to creating positive RTEs that facilitate the development of counselor education and supervision (CES) doctoral student researchers.


It is important to attend to the RTE because it has an impact on the researcher’s identity, researcher self-efficacy, research interest, and scholarly productivity of CES doctoral students (Borders, Wester, Fickling, & Adamson, 2014; Gelso, 2006; Gelso, Baumann, Chui, & Savela, 2013; Kuo, Woo, & Bang, 2017; Lamar & Helm, 2017; Lambie, Hayes, Griffith, Limberg, & Mullen, 2014; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). Researchers have found that CES doctoral student research self-efficacy and research interest were related to productivity (Kuo et al., 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). Research self-efficacy is defined as the belief one has in their ability to engage in research tasks (Bishop & Bieschke, 1998). A related but separate construct, research interest is the desire to learn more about research. Lambie and Vaccaro (2011) found that doctoral students with scholarly publications had higher research self-efficacy and research interest, while Kuo et al. (2017) found that scholarly productivity can be predicted by research self-efficacy and intrinsic research motivation. Given that most CES doctoral students enter their programs with little research experience (Borders et al., 2014), the RTE likely contributes to a doctoral student’s ability to gain research and publication experience. However, much of the early exposure to research in counselor education rests primarily on research coursework, not extracurricular experiences, such as working on a manuscript with a faculty member (Borders et al., 2014). Though some programs provide systematic extracurricular non-dissertation research experiences, about half of the CES programs surveyed by Borders et al. (2014) offered no structured research experiences early in the program sequence or relied on doctoral students to create their own opportunities. Lamar and Helm (2017) found that the RTE, including faculty mentoring and research experiences, was an essential part of CES doctoral student researcher identity development. Given prior findings (Borders et al., 2014; Kuo et al., 2017; Lamar & Helm, 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011), it seems crucial for CES doctoral faculty to systematically create an RTE that is conducive to CES doctoral student researcher identity, research self-efficacy, and research interest development.


Leadership in the counseling field has stressed the importance of research in furthering the profession by stating that “expanding and promoting our research base is essential to the efficacy of professional counselors and to the public perception of the profession” (Kaplan & Gladding, 2011, p. 372). Therefore, it is essential to strengthen the training of future researchers so they are successful at achieving this vision. Thus, there are two primary purposes of this manuscript: 1) propose that the state of research in the field of counselor education is a reflection, in part, of an RTE issue; and 2) provide practical ways for programs to facilitate researcher development among doctoral students. The authors provide insight on how self-concept theory and organizational development theory may be a useful means for conceptualizing researcher development and facilitating change in RTEs.


Self-Concept Theory


Self-concept theory provides a framework for conceptualizing the way a person organizes beliefs about themselves. Purkey and Schmidt (1996) defined self-concept theory as “the totality of a complex and dynamic system of learned beliefs that an individual holds to be true about their personal experience” (p. 31). Learned beliefs are subjective and not necessarily based on reality but instead are reflections of individuals’ perceptions of themselves. These perceptions are related to past experiences and expectations about future goals. Purkey and Schmidt (1996) suggested conceptualizing the self-concept using the following categories: (a) organized, (b) learned, (c) dynamic, and (d) consistent. Discussions of each of these categories are presented in the context of applying self-concept theory to researcher development.


Current counselor training literature has discussed the development of student professional counselor identity (e.g., Prosek & Hurt, 2014); however, until recently (e.g., Jorgensen & Duncan, 2015; Lamar & Helm, 2017), counseling professional identity literature has not included a focus on how research is integrated into a student’s identity. Self-concept theory can be used to conceptualize the inclusion of researcher identity into the professional identity of CES doctoral students.


Organization of the Self-Concept

Purkey and Schmidt (1996) used a spiral as a visual representation of how the self is organized (Figure 1). They referred to the sense of self, or overarching view of who you are, as the central I, and placed it at the very center of the spiral. In addition, people also have other specific identities, or what Purkey and Schmidt termed me’s, that inform their global identity. These multiple identities can be considered hierarchical, meaning that one of the me identities might be more important to a person than another aspect of their identity and is placed more proximal to the central I on the spiral than more distal me’s. Developmentally, it makes sense that a beginning CES doctoral student, for example, may have a stronger counselor me (located closer to their central I), whereas their researcher me might be located closer to the periphery of the spiral. This is confirmed through previous research findings suggesting that CES students enter doctoral programs with stronger helper identities and integrate research into their self-concept throughout their academic experience (Gelso, 2006; Lamar & Helm, 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). It would be expected that these me’s would be more likely to shift throughout the course of a doctoral program with greater exposure to a positive RTE. The relative importance of these identities to a doctoral student’s professional identity is illustrated for exemplary purposes in Figure 1. Faculty have a significant role in creating positive RTEs so that a doctoral student’s researcher me can be strengthened and become more fully integrated into their self-concept.

Figure 1. Self-Concept Spiral




Learning for a Lifetime

     Developing the self-concept is a task that takes a lifetime of learning (Purkey & Schmidt, 1996). Self-
concept learning occurs in three ways: (a) exciting or devastating events, (b) professional helping relationships, and (c) everyday experiences. Individually, and in combination, these experiences can reorganize and shape a person’s self-concept. For example, receiving a first decision letter from an editor can be an exciting or devastating event that influences a doctoral student’s self-concept. Faculty members can process and contextualize the experience so a doctoral student’s researcher self-concept is positively promoted (e.g., a lengthy revise and resubmit letter can feel overwhelming but is a fantastic outcome; Gelso, 2006; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Similarly, the counseling RTE can promote positive research attitudes for doctoral students on a daily basis (e.g., displaying examples of student and faculty research).


Dynamic and Consistent Self-Concept Processes

Self-concept is dynamic; it is constantly changing and has the potential to propel doctoral student researchers forward (Purkey & Schmidt, 1996). Change occurs when a doctoral student incorporates new beliefs into existing ones. When new information is presented to the doctoral student, contrary to what they currently believe about themselves (e.g., ability to understand the methods section of an article), they are challenged to merge the new information with their current beliefs (e.g., “I’m a clinician,” and skip to the implications section). As they revise their belief system, they may be able to behave in new ways (e.g., making connections between the methods section and clinical application or engaging in critical discussions of research). However, reconciling new beliefs about their self-concept and demonstrating new research skills can be challenging. Consistency is highly valued by doctoral students faced with a need to adopt new ideas into their self-concept (Purkey & Schmidt, 1996). A doctoral student may experience what is commonly known as imposter syndrome, which occurs when a student is unable to internalize their accomplishments and attributes their success to good luck (Parkman, 2016). As CES doctoral students become proficient in research pursuits, they may still have difficulty seeing themselves as researchers (e.g., articulating hesitancy to share findings with peers or at professional conferences). They might tell others they are a counselor, a teacher, or a supervisor and they also conduct research, thus distancing that identity from the core of their self-concept (Lamar & Helm, 2017). They may need to repeatedly have their new researcher identity confirmed by faculty and their own personal experiences before they can communicate a fully integrated self-concept to others.


As learning occurs, the self-concept reorganizes toward a more stable professional identity. Incorporation of a researcher identity into their self-concept is likely to be dynamic, with consistency increasing throughout the doctoral students’ academic program. As CES doctoral students move into new stages of their career, their researcher identity is likely to become a more fixed aspect of their self-concept.


Development of the self-concept occurs in a CES doctoral program, which exists within the larger academic culture. Doctoral students are initially presented with the challenge of navigating a new culture. The culture of academe has its own processes, language, and roles. In addition to development of their researcher self-concept, doctoral students also must integrate their roles within higher education into their self-concept.


Organizational Development


A primary goal of doctoral education is to prepare and acculturate doctoral students to their future professional life as counselor educators (Austin, 2002; Johnson, Ward, & Gardner, 2017; Weidman & Stein, 2003). Many doctoral students in CES programs will pursue a CES faculty position within higher education organizations. Higher education organizations demonstrate various forms of culture and socialization processes (Tierney, 1997). University cultural norms include expectations for how to act, what to strive for, and how to define success and failure. Graduate education literature has included discussions on helping doctoral students transition into faculty life and university organizational culture (e.g., Austin, 2002; Austin & McDaniels, 2006). This socialization process has not been extensively discussed in the counselor training literature, yet there is potential for it to be useful in creating positive RTEs.


Socialization Into the Academy

     Socialization is the process by which doctoral students learn the culture of an institution, including both the spoken and unspoken rules (Johnson et al., 2017). The process of socializing doctoral students to graduate school is a part of a greater socialization to higher education (Gardner & Barnes, 2007). Weidman, Twale, and Stein (2001) described four stages and characterized three elements of socialization—knowledge acquisition, investment, and involvement—that are experienced over the four stages. These stages provide insight for doctoral programs looking to provide intentional support for their students acclimating to the RTE within higher education.


Anticipatory stage. Doctoral students begin developing an understanding of the organizational culture even before they start a program of study (Clarke, Hyde, & Drennan, 2013; Weidman et al., 2001). During recruitment and introduction to the program, doctoral students gather information about the program (knowledge acquisition), decide to enroll (investment), and begin to make sense of organizational norms, expectations, and roles (involvement). CES doctoral students are, therefore, entering counseling programs with preconceived ideas about their roles as students, including their function as student researchers.


 Formal and informal stages. The formal and informal stages co-occur but are differentiated in that the formal stage is more faculty or program driven, whereas the informal stage is peer socialization (Gardner, 2008; Weidman et al., 2001). Some of the formal stage methods of socialization can include classroom instruction, faculty direction, and focused observation. Courses grounded in the 2016 Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) standards related to doctoral professional identity or research are part of the formal socialization process. Out-of-classroom conversations with faculty and other university staff orient doctoral students to the value of research in the program and university. Doctoral students learn through faculty direction and observation about networking at conferences, publishing, and what types of research are considered valuable in the field. Students also observe faculty working around obstacles to keep their own research active. These examples are all consistent with knowledge acquisition.


Informal socialization happens as new doctoral students observe and learn how more advanced students and incoming cohorts define norms (Gardner, 2008). This stage has many parallels to existing research about how faculty acculturate to new organizations. Tierney and Rhoads (1994) proposed new faculty members learn the culture of the organization in mostly informal ways. As they observe the established tenured faculty, new faculty learn what is important to the department and develop understanding about the institution’s priorities. This acculturation process is important because it is likely to impact the RTE faculty create for doctoral students.


Similarly, doctoral students learning about culture, investment, and involvement in research are likely guided by the knowledge they acquire through observing and engaging with more advanced doctoral students in their programs of study (Gardner, 2008; Gelso, 2006). Acquisition of knowledge, occurring “through exposure to the opinions and practices of others also working in the same context” (Mathews & Candy, 1999, p. 49), creates norms among doctoral students. Norms regarding participation in research, such as whether it is done only to meet degree requirements or with more intrinsic motivation, may be conveyed across cohorts. Lamar and Helm (2017) found CES doctoral students were intrinsically motivated by their research when it was connected to their counselor identity and they could see how their research would help their clients. Jorgensen and Duncan (2015) identified external facilitators, such as faculty, coursework, and program expectations, that shaped the researcher identity development of master’s counseling students. Faculty communicated the culture of the institution and indirectly communicated their own intrinsic motivation, or lack of it, through their research activity. New students also gain insight from advanced doctoral students about the degree to which research should be aligned with faculty members and the more subtle messages about departmental expectations. For example, is qualitative research supported and valued as much as quantitative? Are certain research methodologies prioritized by faculty or the institution? The combination of formal and informal socialization leads to an understanding of the academic organization and counselor education profession.


Personal stage. During this final stage, doctoral students internalize and act upon the role they have taken within their organization (Gardner, 2008; Weidman et al., 2001). They solidify their professional identity at the student level and have, perhaps, begun to integrate their researcher identity into their self-concept. They also can use the knowledge they have acquired to make purposeful decisions about investment and involvement in research. Doctoral students make decisions about their course of study and the amount of time dedicated to developing as a researcher compared to other aspects of counselor education such as teaching, supervision, and service. In this stage, it is important for faculty to attend to whether doctoral students feel caught in the role they occupy within the program. Some doctoral students might more quickly adopt research into their self-concept and find opportunities to engage in research, while others take longer to develop their researcher identity and might not find themselves with as many options to get involved in faculty research projects. Additionally, those students’ strong helper identities might make them valuable doctoral-level supervisors or clinicians that programs can lean on to train master’s-level students. They may feel stuck in their clinical roles and miss out on opportunities to gain informal research experience. This is not to diminish doctoral students who are primarily interested in a CES degree with the goal of strengthening their clinical work. It is the position of these authors that scholarship is an integral part of all clinical work and, therefore, programs should provide equitable opportunities for all doctoral students, regardless of their professional goals, to engage in the research process.


Implications for Counselor Education RTEs


Thinking about CES programs as RTEs allows for a programmatic approach to researcher identity that can be informed by self-concept identity theory and organizational development literature. Specifically, there are implications for the RTE connected to fostering researcher identity, increasing both research self-efficacy and research interest, and attending to the process of socializing doctoral students to academia (Gelso et al., 2013). The strategies presented in this section are written with the goal of integrating self-concept identity theory and organizational development theory. They are designed based on the assumption that programs want to train researchers and celebrate that aspect of counselor education identity.


Transparency Regarding Identity Development

Formal socialization of doctoral students to the program should include intentional conversations about identity development (Lamar & Helm, 2017; Prosek & Hurt, 2014). Programs can choose to be transparent about the expectation that part of the transition from counseling to counselor education is strengthening their researcher identity. Attending to doctoral student development and class-based activities can be part of monitoring this transition.


Much like counselor educators assess and address the identity development of master’s students through student learning outcomes (CACREP, 2015), programs might choose to intentionally include researcher development in the systematic review of doctoral students’ progress. This could be accomplished through advising conversations, faculty feedback forms, and standardized instruments such as the Interest in Research Questionnaire (Bishop & Bieschke, 1998), Research Identity Scale (Jorgensen & Schweinle, 2018), or the Research Self-Efficacy Scale (Bieschke, Bishop, & Garcia, 1996). Considering this information at the program level, in addition to individual student level, can provide insight into opportunities to improve the RTE for program-level assessment and to impact the broader professional understanding of doctoral research education (e.g., does research interest or research self-efficacy consistently shift at identifiable points in a CES doctoral program?).


One class-based strategy is to use Purkey and Schmidt’s (1996) self-concept spiral to raise doctoral students’ awareness of professional identity transition. Counselor educators can consider asking students as a class to brainstorm all of the me’s that are part of counselor education. Individually, doctoral students can then create a list of me’s that are part of their identity in general (e.g., parent, musician). Once the counselor education and personal identity lists are generated, invite doctoral students to depict on the spiral the me’s from both lists that apply to their identity today and organize them relative to the central I (or center of the spiral). Next, encourage students to indicate with a star or asterisk aspects of their identity they want to remain stable throughout their doctoral program. Use a triangle, which symbolizes delta or change, to identify aspects of their identity they would like to shift as they progress through their doctoral program. Doctoral students might want to indicate in a space near the spiral counselor education me’s that are not currently part of their identity but that they would like to incorporate. Figure 1 is an example of a completed self-concept spiral. This spiral helps doctoral students visualize how their researcher identity relates to their other professional and personal identities. Faculty can facilitate conversation with doctoral students about their hopes, fears, concerns, and anticipation around their researcher identities. It would be even more valuable for doctoral students to hear their faculty’s researcher development using the spiral (e.g., draw one representing their years as a student and draw one where they see themselves now or at other points in their professional development).


Counselor educators can consider assigning research articles that address different aspects of counselor researcher development. Students can read about CES doctoral student researcher identity development (e.g., Jorgensen & Duncan, 2015; Lamar & Helm, 2017), RTEs (e.g., Borders et al., 2014; Gelso, 2006; Gelso et al., 2013), research self-efficacy and research interest (e.g., Kuo et al., 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011), and counseling research competencies (Wester & Borders, 2014). These articles provide insight for a doctoral student’s individual development and also demonstrate the applicability of research in the profession.


Sequencing of Research Experiences

Most incoming CES doctoral students have little or no research experience, which means their research self-efficacy and research interest is likely to be low and vary substantially (Borders et al., 2014; Gelso at al., 2013; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). This makes the sequencing of coursework and extracurricular research experiences important to consider (Borders et al., 2014; Gelso et al., 2013). Students on the extreme ends of research self-efficacy and research interest may see a quicker transition into a stable identity. Those with a higher research self-efficacy and research interest might more quickly identify as a researcher, while those with a lower research self-efficacy and research interest can move away from research toward other areas of focus. It is important, therefore, to sequence research experiences that can help doctoral students with higher levels of both research self-efficacy and research interest capitalize on that momentum without further disenfranchising students with lower research self-efficacy and research interest. The strategies presented in this section are described with the modifiers of higher and lower self-efficacy and interest for clarity purposes; however, individual doctoral student’s research self-efficacy and research interest could be anywhere on the continuum from very high to very low.


Determining a doctoral student’s sequence of research coursework or experiences can be accomplished through advising with the student (Kuo et al., 2017). A positive RTE is one in which care is taken to create developmentally appropriate research opportunities for all doctoral students (Borders et al., 2014; Kuo et al., 2017). Students with higher research self-efficacy and research interest might be ready to engage in a statistics sequence at the start of their program and then transition quickly into conducting independent research or engaging in data analysis. Doctoral students with lower research self-efficacy and research interest might benefit by first being exposed to research in a conceptual rather than technical environment, such as a counseling research seminar. Focusing on developing research ideas and reviewing the literature might be a better introduction to research for lower self-efficacy or interest doctoral students than a statistics course (Gelso, 2006). Kuo et al. (2017) found that it was important for CES programs to offer research opportunities that presented a small risk to doctoral students in order to foster researcher development.


For the optimal researcher development, it is important to provide doctoral students research experiences outside of their coursework (Borders et al., 2014; Kuo et al., 2017; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Providing doctoral students with opportunities to do “minimally threatening” research early in their program is consistent with a positive RTE (Gelso, 2006, p. 6). What each student might consider to be minimally intimidating research is likely connected to research self-efficacy (Kuo et al., 2017). Engaging in conversations with doctoral students about what might be a good first research experience is a way to help students intentionally sequence their experiences. Faculty can take an active role in connecting doctoral students with opportunities that are developmentally appropriate (Borders et al., 2014; Kuo et al., 2017; Lamar & Helm, 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). Lambie and Vaccaro (2011) found that doctoral students with published work had higher levels of research self-efficacy than those who did not. This is an important finding for faculty to consider when creating research opportunities for doctoral students. One possible explanation for this result could be that doctoral students with a published work already have higher levels of research self-efficacy prior to their publication. If this is the case, it is important for researchers to investigate what other factors are contributing to their research self-efficacy. Nevertheless, an RTE that facilitates doctoral student confidence around research, regardless of their pre-existing research self-efficacy, is one where faculty are helping students publish, either on their own or in or in partnership with faculty actively engaged in research (Gelso, 2006; Kuo et al., 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011).


It is important to consider a doctoral student’s level of autonomy when planning sequencing of research experiences. Early experiences might be more positive if there is a community or social aspect to the research experience, rather than independent research projects, which can be isolating (Gelso et al., 2013). Additionally, Cornér, Löfström, and Pyhältö (2017) found that having an increased sense of a scholarly community helps doctoral students feel supported during their dissertations. Love, Bahner, Jones, and Nilsson (2007) found positive social interactions in research teams could positively influence research self-efficacy. Additionally, Kuo et al. (2017) found that the advisory relationship was instrumental in a doctoral student’s engagement in research, suggesting that faculty can make research a fun, social process in which students want to continually engage. It is evident that doctoral students can benefit from experiencing research as a social activity throughout their studies. Therefore, faculty might consider structuring research opportunities that encourage research as a social activity throughout the doctoral program. For example, first-year doctoral students can be encouraged to join research groups that are already in place or join a faculty member working on a manuscript for publication, while students working on a dissertation might create a weekly writing group.


Faculty should be intentionally thoughtful of doctoral student dynamics, including individual student need, research self-efficacy, and research interest, when designing research partnerships. Research partnerships can take the form of class research projects, informal research dyads, or research mentorships (Lamar & Helm, 2017; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011). When deciding class research groups, faculty can connect doctoral students who can create a positive research group environment for each other (Love et al., 2007). Groups may be based on research interests or personality variables. Advisors might have insight into certain doctoral student characteristics that would negatively impact a research partnership. Negative group experiences, such as group conflict, do not contribute positively to research self-efficacy (Love et al., 2007). However, it is important for faculty to balance letting research groups form organically with formal assignment of such partnerships.


Attending to Subtle Messages About Research

Socialization to a doctoral program occurs formally through faculty- and program-driven processes and informally through interactions with peers (Gardner, 2008; Weidman et al., 2001). Neither formal nor informal socialization is synonymous with intentional socialization. There are likely subtle messages occurring through the socialization processes that contribute to the RTE and impact researcher development (Gelso, 2006). It is important to point out that program faculty and administrators might also send messages about research that are not subtle. These messages (e.g., a good dissertation is a done dissertation, or just get through your stats classes) are likely sent with the best of intention to help a student complete their degree successfully, but communicate values around research that can damage a doctoral student’s researcher identity development, research self-efficacy, and research interest. Recognizing and intentionally attending to all messages sent by students, faculty, and the program are part of shaping the RTE.


     Student messages. Individual doctoral student and cohort dynamics may impact students’ research identity development both positively and negatively (Lamar & Helm, 2017). Different career aspirations among cohort individuals can also impact the RTE. For example, doctoral students who are interested in pursuing academic careers might have a higher level of motivation to involve themselves in research early in their graduate program. Students who plan to pursue other careers and do not have a strong interest in research might receive subtle messages from their peers or faculty about a hierarchy within the doctoral student body of “researchers” versus “practitioners.”


It is important for faculty to encourage positive interactions regarding research and to intervene should negative messages damage the RTE (Gelso, 2006; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Continuing with the above example, faculty can facilitate doctoral student discussions around the science–practitioner model. Focusing on the importance of integrating research into practice (and vice versa) can motivate all doctoral students in their research endeavors. The majority of students enter their doctoral program with their identities structured around helping others (Borders et al., 2014; Gelso, 2006). This value can be reinforced throughout the research process (Wachter Morris, Wester, Vaishnav, & Austin, 2018). For instance, faculty can facilitate discussion about how a doctoral student’s research can impact practitioners’ work and, ultimately, a client’s life. Additionally, faculty can reinforce subtle messages that contribute to the development of a positive RTE. For example, intentionally developing a culture of supportive inquiry, talking with each other about idea development, and celebrating each other’s research achievements can be encouraged and lauded (Gelso et al., 2013).


     Faculty messages. Subtle messages faculty send about doctoral students’ abilities may influence students’ research self-efficacy and researcher identity development (Gelso, 2006; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Reflecting on the patterns of how research opportunities are provided to doctoral students may yield opportunities to improve the RTE. Consider if the culture to disseminate research-related opportunities includes all doctoral students or if opportunities are offered more frequently to a subset of students. If the latter proves to be true, faculty can send a subtle and unintentional message. Borders et al. (2014) found that doctoral students in many CES programs get involved in research opportunities by coincidence rather than by program intentionality. Students can receive a subtle message that not all doctoral students are welcome to participate in research or that faculty do not engage in research themselves. Similarly, messages about research ability can come in the form of differential faculty responses to doctoral students’ research-related work. Heightening awareness around the balance of feedback that is given to doctoral students when discussing their research ideas can contribute to an improved RTE. In addition, reflection on the rigor of the discussion helps faculty become more intentional about the messages they are sending.


     Program messages. While programs often tout research-related accomplishments, faculty can contextualize those celebrations by talking about their process, not just the final products (Gelso, 2006; Gelso et al., 2013; Lamar & Helm, 2017). Orienting doctoral students to the substantial amount of time it takes to conduct research and to write for publication is part of intentionally socializing students to academia. Making the process more visible can be as simple as having a research project list visible in faculty offices or indicating blocks of time on office hour sign-ups that are set aside for writing. These are subtle messages that are designed to indicate that research takes dedicated time and that productivity is more than one manuscript at a time but having a variety of projects at different points in the pipeline. Similarly, Gelso (2006) recommended faculty share their failures as well as successes, as this sends doctoral students a message that research is a process. When faculty are transparent about research outcomes, both good and bad, and still maintain positive attitudes, they communicate subtle but important messages about the process of research (Gelso, 2006; Gelso et al., 2013; Lamar & Helm, 2017).


Directions for Future Research


Researchers (Gelso et al., 2013; Lambie et al., 2014; Lambie & Vaccaro, 2011) to date have focused primarily on identifying constructs that relate to research engagement and productivity of CES doctoral students. Increasing attention to understanding doctoral student researcher developmental processes and connecting those investigations to theory are important next steps. This could come in the form of investigations that explore experiences of doctoral students in the context of their RTEs. It also is important to increase understanding about how counseling master’s-level students and practitioners develop as researchers, specifically around the constructs of researcher identity, research self-efficacy, and research interest, as they provide important information about the state of researchers in the field and of doctoral students entering CES programs. As mentioned above, it would be valuable to understand if researcher identity, research self-efficacy, or research interest develops at specific points in a doctoral program or if certain doctoral benchmarks (e.g., comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal) contribute to the development of those variables. Researchers can look at educational interventions designed to increase research self-efficacy, research interests, and researcher identity for both doctoral and master’s counseling students. This is valuable for program evaluation and for informing the profession at large. Researchers also can test the relevance of the theoretical frameworks applied in this manuscript to the outcomes of the research competencies suggested by Wester and Borders (2014).




Counselor education doctoral programs as RTEs are the foundation for creating a programmatic climate that fosters the development of strong researchers. Faculty members are encouraged to take an intentional approach to promoting the development of researcher identity and research self-efficacy of doctoral students. This intentionality includes assessing the formal and informal socialization that occurs in a doctoral program. Program faculty can actively engage in the research identity development of doctoral students through the use of interventions, including attending to subtle messages, sequencing developmentally appropriate research experiences, and encouraging research as a social activity. Additionally, program faculty should be transparent about the research identity development process and attend to research self-efficacy beliefs through providing interventions designed to boost research self-efficacy and research interest.



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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Margaret R. Lamar, NCC, is an assistant professor at Palo Alto University. Elysia Clemens is Deputy Director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab. Adria Shipp Dunbar is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Margaret Lamar, Palo Alto University, 1791 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304, mlamar@paloaltou.edu.






Development of Counseling Students’ Self-Efficacy During Preparation and Training

Patrick R. Mullen, Olivia Uwamahoro, Ashley J. Blount, Glenn W. Lambie

Counselor preparation is multifaceted and involves developing trainees’ clinical knowledge, skills and competence. Furthermore, counselor self-efficacy is a relevant developmental consideration in the counseling field. Therefore, the purpose of this longitudinal investigation was to examine the effects of a counselor preparation program on students’ development of counseling self-efficacy. The Counselor Self-Efficacy Scale was administered to 179 master’s-level counselors-in-training at three points in their counselor training and coursework, including new student orientation, clinical practicum orientation and final internship group supervision meeting. Findings indicated that students’ experience in their preparation program resulted in higher levels of self-efficacy.


Keywords: counselor preparation, counselor training, self-efficacy, development, internship



The practice of counselor training is a complex, intentional process of reflective educational and experiential activities to promote the development of knowledge and skills (Bernard & Goodyear, 2013; Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2009; McAuliffe & Eriksen, 2011). As such, the primary goal of counselor preparation programs is to educate and train students to become competent counselors by equipping them with necessary skills, knowledge and experiences (American Counseling Association, 2014; Bernard & Goodyear, 2013; CACREP, 2009). Furthermore, students training to be counselors increase their self-awareness and reflective practice throughout their educational experience (Granello & Young, 2012; Lambie & Sias, 2009; Rønnestad, & Skovholt, 2003). Increased understanding regarding counseling trainee development may aid educators’ ability to develop and deliver educational and supervision interventions.


Self-efficacy represents an individual’s beliefs or judgments about his or her ability to accomplish a given goal or task (Bandura, 1995). Furthermore, self-efficacy is a recognized measure of development in the counseling field (Larson & Daniels, 1998), has a positive influence on work-related performance (Bandura, 1982; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998), and consequently works as an outcome and developmental consideration for counselor training. In addition, there are assortments of published research examining counseling trainees’ self-efficacy (e.g., Barbee, Scherer & Combs, 2003; Cashwell & Dooley, 2001; Kozina, Grabovari, Stefano, & Drapeau, 2010; Melchert, Hays, Wiljanen, & Kolocek, 1996; Tang et al., 2004); however, limited research examines counseling trainees’ development of self-efficacy in a longitudinal fashion based upon their experiences from start (e.g., educational courses) to finish (e.g., initial clinical experiences) in counselor preparation programs. Therefore, the purpose of this longitudinal investigation was to examine counselor trainees’ self-efficacy as they progressed through the educational and experiential components of a counselor preparation program.


Counseling Students’ Self-Efficacy


Bandura (1995) described perceived self-efficacy as “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (p. 2). Self-efficacy is considered an appropriate scientific lens for examining individuals’ beliefs regarding their ability to accomplish professional goals (Bandura, 1997) and is a common research topic in counseling literature (e.g., Larson & Daniels, 1998). Specifically, Bandura (1997) suggested that individuals’ ability to accomplish a task or goal not only necessitates skill and ability, but also the belief in oneself that provides the confidence and motivation to complete a task. Larson and Daniels (1998) stated that counseling self-efficacy is “one’s beliefs or judgments about her or his capabilities to effectively counsel a client in the near future” (p. 180). Self-efficacy is appropriate for the selection and training of counselors because of the construct’s stability and reliability (Beutler, Machado, & Neufeldt, 1994).


Self-efficacy is important in relation to counselor competence (Barnes, 2004; Larson & Daniels, 1998). Larson (1998) suggested that self-efficacy is a critical influence on one’s self-determining mechanisms and as a result is a critical variable in supervision. The importance of self-efficacy in the counseling field is documented by the development of measures of self-efficacy for various research constructs (e.g., Bodenhorn & Skaggs, 2005; Mullen, Lambie, & Conley, 2014; Sutton & Fall, 1995). Melchert and colleagues (1996) developed the Counselor Self-Efficacy Scale (CSES) to examine counselors’ and counselor trainees’ level of confidence in knowledge and skills regarding counseling competencies. Melchert and colleagues (1996) found that counseling students’ (N = 138) scores on the CSES varied based on their experience in their preparation program, with second-year students reporting more confidence than students in their first year of training. Additionally, Melchert and colleagues (1996) found that counselors (N = 138) with more years of clinical experience also reported greater levels of self-efficacy.


Counselors’ training, initial clinical experiences and supervision relates to their self-efficacy beliefs. Hill et al., (2008) found that skills training impacted undergraduate students’ confidence regarding the use of helping skills. However, Hill and colleagues (2008) noted that as students faced more difficult skills, their confidence decreased, but eventually increased upon gaining experience using the skill. Barbee and associates (2003) found that trainees’ (N = 113) participation in service learning had a positive relationship with counselor self-efficacy. However, these researchers also found that total credits of coursework (i.e., time in the preparation program) and prior counseling-related work were stronger predictors of self-efficacy as compared to service learning.


Supporting the findings from Barbee and colleagues (2003), Tang and colleagues (2004) found that students with more coursework, internship experience and related work experience reported higher levels of competence regarding counseling skills. Regarding self-efficacy during clinical experiences, Kozina and colleagues (2010) found that the counseling self-efficacy of first year master’s-level counseling students increased during initial work with clients during clinical experience. Additionally, Cashwell and Dooley (2001) found that practicing counselors receiving supervision, compared to those not receiving supervision, reported higher levels of self-efficacy, indicating that supervision supports increased beliefs of counseling efficacy. However, no published studies were identified examining counseling students’ longitudinal change in self-efficacy as a result of their participation in a counselor preparation program from the start of the program through their clinical experiences.


Purpose of the Study


The development of trainees is a vital topic for counselor education. Counselor educators and supervisors need a comprehensive understanding of student development with the aim of assessing student learning outcomes and facilitating pedagogical and supervisory interventions that support development. Enhancing counseling students’ self-efficacy regarding clinical skills is an important developmental goal within preparation programs, with higher self-efficacy suggesting increased likelihood of efficient and effective counseling services (Bandura, 1982; Bandura, 1997; Larson & Daniels, 1998; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998). Research on counselor self-efficacy is common; however, no studies have investigated change in master’s-level counseling students’ self-efficacy over the course of their preparation program (i.e., longitudinal investigation). Therefore, we investigated the following research questions: (1) What is the relationship between counseling students’ demographic factors and self-efficacy at three key times during their preparation program? (2) Does counseling students’ self-efficacy change at three points during their graduate preparation program?




Participants and Procedures

Participants included 179 master’s-level graduate students from a single CACREP entry-level counselor education program at a university in the Southeastern United States. Specifically, participants included several cohorts of entry-level counselor trainees who started the counselor training program during the spring 2008 through fall 2011 semesters and completed the program by the Summer 2013 semester. Institutional Review Board approval from the university was obtained prior to data collection and analysis. To protect the rights and confidentiality of the participants, all identifying information was removed and the data were aggregated.


The study was introduced to the participants during the counselor preparation program’s new student orientation (NSO; a mandatory information session prior to the start of trainees’ coursework). At this point, students were invited to be part of the study by completing a paper-and-pencil packet of instrumentation. Participants were invited to complete the second data collection point during a mandatory clinical practicum orientation (CPO) occurring prior to their initial clinical and supervision experience (approximately midpoint during the students’ program of study). The final data collection point was at the participants’ final internship group supervision meeting (FIGSM; end of students’ program of study).  A total accessible sample consisted of 224 students who fit the selection criteria for participate in this study. The selection criteria included the following: (a) started the program in the beginning of the spring 2008 semester and (b) graduated by the end of the fall 2011 semester. However, due to incomplete instrument packets, missing items (listwise deletion) or student attrition, 179 participants completed the instruments across all three data collection points, yielding a 79.91% response rate.


The participants included 151 females (84.4%) and 28 males (15.6%). Regarding age, 162 participants (90.5%) fell between the ages of 20 and 29, 13 participants (7.3%) were between the ages of 30 and 39, two participants (1.1%) fell between the ages of 40 and 49, and two participants (1.1%) were over 50 years of age. Participants’ ethnicities were as follows: 133 (74.3%) Caucasian, 36 (20.1%) African American, seven (3.9%) Hispanic American, one (0.6%) Asian American and 2 (1.1%) other ethnicity. Participants program tracks included mental health counseling (MHC; n = 78, 43.6%); marriage, couples and family counseling (MCFC; n = 46, 25.7%); and school counseling (SC; n = 55, 30.7%).


Counselor Preparation Program Experience

Students participating in this study were entry-level counseling trainees attending an academic unit with three CACREP-accredited master’s-level programs. The students were enrolled in one of the following three programs of study: (a) MHC; (b) MCFC; or (c) SC. Students’ early coursework in the counselor preparation program included core curriculum courses that focused on content knowledge and initial skill development required for advanced clinical courses. The course prerequisites for initial clinical practicum experience for all students included: (a) Introduction to the Counseling Profession, (b) Theories of Counseling and Personality, (c) Techniques of Counseling, (d) Group Procedures and Theories in Counseling, and (e) Ethical and Legal Issues. Additionally, students in the MHC and MCFC tracks were required to complete a Diagnosis and Treatment in Counseling course. Students in the MHC and MCFC tracks were required to complete 63 credit hours, while students in the SC track were required to complete 60 credits hours (if they did not have a teaching certificate) or 51 credit hours (if they had a valid teaching certificate). Courses were delivered by a diverse set of counselor educators who determined course content and style based on their individual pedagogical approaches.


Students participated in their clinical practicum course after their course prerequisites were met. SC students completed their internship after a single semester of clinical practicum (100 total clinical hours in practicum). Students in MHC and MCFC tracks completed their internship experience after two consecutive experiences in clinical practicum (200 total clinical hours in practicum). During their internship experience, SC students completed 600 clinical hours over one or two semesters and MHC and MCFC students completed 900 clinical hours over two semesters. Overall, students progressed through their course and clinical experiences over 2.5–3.5years, depending on their course load and time commitment preferences. Importantly, it was not required for all coursework to be completed prior to initial clinical experiences. Students completed non-prerequisite coursework at the time most accommodating to their schedule, but were required to complete all coursework by the time of graduation, with the FIGSM being one of the last class-based tasks in the program.



We utilized the CSES (Melchert et al., 1996) in this investigation to gather data on counseling trainees’ level of self-efficacy. In addition, a demographic questionnaire was used to collect data regarding participants’ biological gender, age, ethnicity and program track (i.e., MHC, MCFC or SC). The following section introduces and reviews the CSES.


Counselor Self-Efficacy Scale. The CSES is a 20-item self-report instrument that assesses counseling trainees’ competency regarding key counseling tasks for group and individual counseling (Melchert et al., 1996). The CSES was developed based upon a review of the literature with the goal of identifying key types of counseling competencies for counselors. The CSES uses 5-point Likert scale responses that indicate an individual’s level of confidence in his or her counseling ability, including “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” “Frequently” or “Almost Always” answer options. Half of the items are worded in a negative fashion to avoid acquiescent response bias, requiring reverse coding. The total score of the CSES ranges from 20–100 and is calculated by adding the responses to all 20 items with consideration given to the reverse coded items. Some sample items from the CSES include the following: (a) I am not able to accurately identify client affect, (b) I can effectively facilitate appropriate goal development with clients, and (c) I can function effectively as a group leader/facilitator.


Melchert and colleagues (1996) reported a Cronbach’s alpha of .91 and a test-retest reliability (r = .85; p-value not reported) in their initial psychometric testing of the CSES with counseling psychologist students and licensed professional psychologists. In addition, Melchert and colleagues (1996) tested for convergent validity and reported an acceptable correlation (r = .83; p-value not reported) between the CSES and the Self-Efficacy Inventory (Friedlander & Snyder, 1983). Constantine (2001) found that the CSES had an acceptable internal consistency, with a Cronbach’s alpha of .77 with counseling supervisees. Additionally, Pasquariello (2013) found that Cronbach’s alpha ranged from .85–.93 with doctoral psychology students. For the current study, the internal consistency reliability for the CSES was acceptable, with a Cronbach’s alpha of .96 (Sink & Stroh, 2006; Streiner, 2003).


Data Analysis

A longitudinal study design was employed for this investigation. After completion of the data collection process, participants’ responses were analyzed using descriptive data analysis, one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA), repeated measures ANOVA, paired-samples t-test and mixed between/within-subjects ANOVA. Prior to analysis, the data were screened for outliers using the outlier labeling method (Hoaglin & Iglewicz, 1987; Hoaglin, Iglewicz, & Tukey, 1986), which resulted in identifying 11 cases with outliers. Therefore, Windsorized means were calculated based on adjacent data points to replace the outliers (Barnett & Lewis, 1994; Osborne & Overbay, 2004). The resulting data were checked for statistical assumptions and no violations were found. A sample size of 179 graduate counseling students was deemed appropriate for identifying a medium effect size (power = .80) at the .01 level for the employed data analysis procedures (Cohen, 1992).




Counseling Trainees’ Self-Efficacy

Several one-way between-groups ANOVAs were conducted to examine the impact of each trainee’s age, gender, ethnicity and program track (i.e., SC, MHC or MCFC) on his or her level of self-efficacy at each of the three data collection points. There was no statistically significant relationship between self-efficacy and trainees’ age at the NSO data collection point (F[3, 178] = 1.35, p = .26), at the CPO data collection point (F[3, 178] = .39, p = .76) or at the FIGSM data collection point (F[3, 178] = .71, p = .55). Similarly, there was no statistically significant relationship between self-efficacy and trainees’ gender at the NSO data collection point (F[1, 178] = .48, p = .49), at the CPO data collection point (F[1, 178] = .02, p = .88) or at the FIGSM data collection point (F[1, 178] = .001, p = .97). There was no statistically significant relationship between self-efficacy and trainees’ ethnicity at the NSO data collection point (F[4, 178] = 1.03, p = .39), at the CPO data collection point (F[4, 178] = .82, p = .51) or at the FIGSM data collection point (F[4, 178] = .03, p = .97). Finally, there was no statistically significant relationship between self-efficacy and trainees’ program track at the NSO data collection point (F[2, 178] = .03, p = .97), at the CPO data collection point (F[2, 178] = .40, p = .67) or at the FIGSM data collection point (F[2, 178] = .04, p = .96).


Counseling Trainees’ Self-Efficacy Over the Course of the Program

A one-way within-subjects repeated measures ANOVA was conducted to examine participants’ (N = 179) CSES scores at the three data points (i.e., NSO, CPO, FIGSM). Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics. Mauchley’s Test indicated that the assumption of sphericity was violated, χ2(2) = .53, p < .001; therefore, the within-subjects effects were analyzed using the Greenhouse-Geisser correction (Greenhouse & Geisser, 1959). There was a statistically significant effect of time, F(1.3, 242.79)= 404.52, p < .001, Partial η2 = .69 on participants’ CSES scores. Sixty-nine percent of the variance in CSES scores can be accounted for by the time participants spent in the program (large effect size; Sink & Stroh, 2006; Streiner, 2003). Therefore, trainees scored higher on the CSES at each interval during their counselor preparation program.


Table 1


Descriptive Statistics for Self-Efficacy Across Data Collection Points

Data Collection Point






New student orientation





23–84 (61)

Clinical practicum orientation





53–99 (46)

Final internship group supervision meeting





66–95 (33)

Note. N = 179.



Several paired-samples t-tests were employed to evaluate the impact of time in the program on trainees’ self-efficacy. There was a statistically significant increase in trainees’ CSES scores from NSO to CPO, t (178) = 18.41, p < .001; η2 = .65. The mean increase in CSES scores between NSO and CPO was 20.33, with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 18.15–22.51. There was a statistically significant increase in trainees’ CSES scores from NSO to FIGSM, t (178) = 23.19, p < .001; η2 = .75. The mean increase in CSES scores between NSO and FIGSM was 25.94, with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 23.74–28.15. There was a statistically significant increase in trainees’ CSES scores from CPO to FIGSM, t (178) = 10.37, p < .001; η2 = .38. The mean increase in CSES scores between CPO and FIGSM was 5.61, with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 4.54–6.68. Overall, these results provide additional support indicating that trainees’ CSES scores had a statistically significant increase from the start of the program (NSO) to the end of the program (FIGSM). In addition, the span from the start of the program (NSO) to their initial clinical experience (CPO; i.e., completion of the core curriculum required for clinical work) had the largest increase in scores amongst consecutive time ranges (i.e., NSO to CPO and CPO to FIGSM).


A mixed between/within-subjects (split plot) ANOVA was conducted to assess the interaction effect of trainees’ degree track (i.e., SC; MHC; and MCFC) on their CSES scores across the three data points (i.e., NSO, CPO, FIGSM). Mauchley’s Test indicated that the assumption of sphericity was violated, χ2(2) = .53, p < .001; therefore, the effects were analyzed using the Greenhouse-Geisser correction (Greenhouse & Geisser, 1959). There was no significant interaction between trainees’ degree track and the data collection points, F(2.72, 239.58)= .12, p = .94; indicating that trainees’ track did not have an effect on their CSES scores across the data collection points, despite the differences in their program requirements.




We examined the relationship between entry-level counseling trainees’ demographic characteristics and their reported self-efficacy at three key points during their graduate preparation program. The findings from this investigation indicated no relationship between participants’ age, gender, ethnicity or program track and their reported self-efficacy at any point in the program. These results are similar to Tang and colleagues’ (2004) findings, which identified no relationship between counseling trainees’ self-efficacy and their age. However, Tang and colleagues (2004) did find that total coursework and internship hours completed had a statistically significant impact on trainees’ counseling self-efficacy.


The current investigation is unique in that it longitudinally studied master’s-level counseling trainees’ self-efficacy at developmental points from the beginning to the end of their preparation program, while other studies have examined the construct of counseling self-efficacy through a cross-sectional framework or focused on clinical experiences (e.g., Barbee at al., 2003; Cashwell & Dooley, 2001; Kozina et al., 2010; Melchert et al., 1996; Tang et al., 2004). The results of this investigation identified differences in trainees’ self-efficacy at the three collection points (large effect size), indicating that trainees had an increase in self-efficacy as a result of their participation in the program. Additionally, the results identified mean differences in trainees’ self-efficacy as a result of time in the program from NSO to CPO and CPO to FIGSM. These findings are logical given the theoretical framework of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986); however, these findings are important and relevant as they provide innovative empirical evidence for Bandura’s (1986) theory of self-efficacy.


Trainees’ self-efficacy increased the most between NSO and CPO, indicating that completing initial prerequisite content coursework had a larger impact on trainees’ development of efficacy compared to their time spent on initial clinical experience. This finding is important, considering that prior research has shown that initial clinical work increases self-efficacy (Kozina et al., 2010), whereas the findings in this investigation indicate that the majority of efficacy is developed prior to initial clinical experiences. The present results are consistent with those of Tang and colleagues (2004), who found that trainees with more completed coursework and more completed internship hours reported higher levels of self-efficacy. The findings of the current study builds upon Tang and colleagues’ (2004) findings, identifying the specific time within a counseling preparation program (i.e., initial coursework versus clinical experience) when the most growth in efficacy belief occurs.


The findings from the present investigation support models of education and supervision that utilize a social cognitive framework (e.g., Larson, 1998). Counselor self-efficacy represents a practitioner’s judgment about his or her ability to effectively counsel a client (Larson et al., 1992). Therefore, knowledge regarding counseling trainees’ development of self-efficacy during their preparation program prior to their clinical experiences affords supervisor practitioners and researchers insight into student development. Much of the existing literature focuses on trainees’ initial clinical experiences, neglecting the large impact that early coursework has on the development of self-efficacy.


Implications for Counselor Education and Supervision

We offer several implications for clinical supervisors based on the results from this investigation. First, our findings demonstrate that master’s-level counseling trainees’ self-efficacy increases as a result of their experiences in their preparation program, providing further evidence for Bandura’s (1986) theory of self-efficacy. Counselor educators are expected to monitor trainees’ progress and development throughout their training (Bernard & Goodyear, 2013), and self-efficacy is an established measure of development (Larson & Daniels, 1998); therefore, it serves as an appropriate outcome consideration for counselor preparation programs. Counselor educators can make use of available self-efficacy measures that focus on competency (e.g., CSES; Melchert et al., 1996) and evaluate trainees at milestones in their program as a measure of student learning outcomes. It is logical that trainees entering counselor preparation programs need high levels of instruction, modeling and guidance due to their inexperience in the discipline. Opportunities for modeling counseling skills across topic areas, along with occasions for practicing skills, provide chances for trainees to build mastery experiences early in their program. As noted by Kozina and colleagues (2010), giving feedback on the discrepancy between trainees’ skill competency and perceived efficacy may promote reflection and development at key times throughout their training program (Daniels & Larson, 2001; Hoffman, Hill, Holmes, & Freitas, 2005).


In addition, our findings identified the importance of trainees’ counselor preparation coursework. Specifically, increased student course requirements to meet accreditation standards (e.g., Bobby, 2013; CACREP, 2009; Hagedorn, Culbreth, & Cashwell, 2012) are likely to improve trainees’ self-efficacy (Tang et al., 2004). Prior research indicates that increased coursework as a result of higher accreditation standards has an effect on counselor knowledge (Adams, 2006). Our findings build on existing literature by indicating that coursework has an impact on trainees’ self-efficacy prior to their initial clinical experiences. Counselor educators should be strategic and identify prerequisite courses to enhance students’ self-efficacy on vital topics (e.g., counseling skills, group counseling, diagnosis and treatment courses) prior to students’ initial work with clients.


An additional implication relates to trainees’ level of self-efficacy as they enter initial clinical experiences. Participants in this study entered practicum with high levels of self-efficacy regarding clinical competence; and furthermore, participants had low to moderate increases in self-efficacy between practicum and the end of their internship. As such, our findings challenge the notion that growth in self-efficacy occurs during the clinical work phase of preparation (e.g., Kozina et al., 2010), because the majority of growth in self-efficacy for this study’s participants occurred prior to initial clinical experiences. On the other hand, participants’ reports of self-efficacy due to coursework may have been inflated, given that they had yet to complete their clinical work. Therefore, counselor educators should examine supervisees during their initial clinical work to assess their perceived efficacy and actual competence.



As with all research, the present study has limitations. First, this study took place at a single counseling preparation program whose individual systemic factors may have influenced the participants’ experiences. Therefore, future studies should replicate the current investigation to confirm these findings. Second, this study utilized a single instrument that we identified based upon the research objectives for the study; however, more recently developed or validated instruments or a collection of instruments measuring the same construct may produce results that have different findings or implications. Additional limitations include the following: (a) potential unknown/unseen extraneous variables, (b) practice effects of participants retaking the same instruments three times, (c) participant attrition (i.e., 79.91% response rate), (d) cross-generational differences and (e) test fatigue (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007). Nevertheless, longitudinal research is considered a complex and comprehensive method of examining individual participants’ change over time (Gall et al., 2007), offering a contribution to the counselor education and supervision literature.


Recommendations for Future Research

Future research might expand this study to examine changes in postgraduate practitioners’ self-efficacy over an extended period of time (longitudinal study). Additionally, future researchers may examine: (a) the impact of self-efficacy on clinical outcomes, (b) the impact of clinical supervision on trainees’ self-efficacy and (c) the impact of initial clinical experiences (e.g., practicum) on trainees’ self-efficacy. Furthermore, researchers may examine other factors associated with counselor development (e.g., emotional intelligence, application of knowledge and theory, cognitive complexity). Researchers may examine the impact of specific pedagogical interventions on counseling trainees’ self-efficacy. Lastly, the findings from this study should be replicated in other institutes that train counseling professionals.


Counselor educators and supervisors promote counseling trainees’ professional competencies, enhancing their ability to provide effective counseling services to diverse clients. Research on counseling trainees’ development is imperative for understanding and attending to their counseling students’ educational and supervisory needs. The findings from this study indicate that counseling trainees experience an increase in their self-efficacy during their preparation programs.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of

interest or funding contributions for

the development of this manuscript.




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Patrick R. Mullen, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University. Olivia Uwamahoro, NCC, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida. Ashley J. Blount, NCC, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida. Glenn W. Lambie, NCC, is a Professor at the University of Central Florida. Correspondence can be addressed to Patrick R. Mullen, 225A Ragsdale Bldg., Mail Stop 121, Greenville, NC 27858, mullenp14@ecu.edu.