Serving Students in Foster Care: Implications and Interventions for School Counselors

Hannah Brinser, Addy Wissel


Students in foster care frequently experience barriers that influence their personal, social, and academic success. These challenges may include trauma, abuse, neglect, and loss—all of which influence a student’s ability to be successful in school. Combined with these experiences, students in foster care lack the same access to resources and support as their peers. To this end, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their unique position within the school community to effectively serve and address the complex needs of students in foster care. This paper addresses the current research, presenting problems, implications, and interventions school counselors can utilize when working with this population.

Keywords: students, foster care, school counseling, support, interventions


In 2017, there were a total of 442,995 children and youth in the foster care system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). Given the number of these students in schools and communities, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their position within the school system to identify, respond to, and advocate for the needs of students in foster care to ensure equity and access in all areas. Although all students need positive relationships and stability to be successful, students in foster care often lack the same access to support, resources, and opportunities as their peers (McKellar & Cowen, 2011; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). These barriers and challenges contribute to gaps in achievement, relationships, and skills for these students (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Compared to their peers, students in foster care are more likely to be absent from school, repeat a grade, and change schools (Cutuli et al., 2013; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017; Unrau et al., 2012), which ultimately impacts their ability to establish and maintain relationships. Additionally, students in foster care are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, over three times as likely to receive special education services, and over 20% less likely to graduate from high school (National Working Group for Foster Care and Education [NWGFCE], 2018).

When it comes to higher education, students in foster care are less likely to enroll in college preparatory classes, attend college, and obtain a 4-year degree when compared to their peers (Kirk et al., 2013; Unrau et al., 2012). Research suggests that as little as 3%–10.8% of youth previously in foster care attain a 4-year degree, compared to the national college completion rate of 32.5% (NWGFCE, 2018). However, it is important for school counselors to realize that between 70%–84% of students in foster care desire going to college (Courtney et al., 2010; NWGFCE, 2018). Although students in foster care feel motivated to attend and complete college, academic achievement can easily become another barrier. On average, students in foster care receive both lower ACT scores and high school GPAs and perform lower on standardized tests compared to their peers—all of which influence one’s admission to college (O’Malley et al., 2015; Unrau et al., 2012).

Unfortunately, it is also common for students in foster care to experience other challenges that influence their success in school, such as trauma. Trauma can include abuse; neglect; and the loss of family members, friends, and communities (Scherr, 2014). Without adequate support, trauma can impact a student’s executive functioning and memory, ultimately affecting their ability to learn (Avery & Freundlich, 2009). Additionally, separation from family members, disrupted relationships, and frequent transitions lead to an increased risk for difficulties in expressing and regulating emotions, tolerating ambiguity, and problem-solving (O’Malley et al., 2015; Unrau et al., 2012). These interrelated and complex factors contribute to the achievement gap experienced by students in foster care as evidenced by lower academic achievement and less engagement in school (Pecora et al., 2006; Unrau et al., 2012).

Importance of Serving This Population


When considering interventions to support students in foster care, it is important to explore what they believe will be helpful for their growth and success. It is likely that the majority of students in foster care already feel a lack of control over what occurs in their lives (Scherr, 2014). Therefore, this is an opportunity to encourage student involvement while increasing student self-efficacy. Clemens et al. (2017) found that students in foster care emphasize the importance of having opportunities to connect with others in similar situations, learning practical skills, and implementing different strategies to better their lives. To provide a sense of normalcy and belonging, school counselors can advocate for interventions that promote connectedness and engagement with other students (Unrau et al., 2012).

Removing barriers, improving access to services, maintaining enrollment, improving attendance, and facilitating academic progress is critical in promoting success for students in foster care (Gilligan, 2007). Therefore, school counselors should be aware of the barriers related to access that exist for students in foster care and should be intentional in taking steps to remove any inequities. Working proactively and using a strengths-based approach that acknowledges the skills, strengths, and resiliency of students are ways in which school counselors can effectively meet the needs of students in foster care (Gilligan, 2007; Scherr, 2014). To illustrate, a strengths-based approach can be utilized with students who have anxious attachment patterns by acknowledging their ability to care for others, rather than focusing on the negative aspects of their attachment behaviors (e.g., being too “needy”). Although it can be easy to focus on the behaviors and disruptions that occur, school counselors have the opportunity to instead focus on these students’ accomplishments, strengths, and dreams. Ultimately, it is evident that students in foster care face many challenges that influence their ability to be successful. In an effort to address this need, the following section outlines interventions for school counselors to use when working with students in foster care.


School Climate
Positive school relationships are an essential part of school climate and can serve as a protective factor for students experiencing adversity (Furlong et al., 2011; O’Malley et al., 2015). Therefore, focusing on school climate may be an effective approach in supporting students in foster care, as positive school relationships can also help close achievement gaps between these students and their peers (Clemens et al., 2017). For example, positive school climate decreases rates of disruptive behaviors, truancy, fights, and suspensions at school (Hopson & Lee, 2011). In addition, Voight et al. (2013) found that students’ positive school climate perceptions also contributed to academic achievement as indicated by state standardized test scores. School counselors can enhance school climate by allowing student voices, utilizing empowerment strategies, implementing evidence-based programs, providing adult mentoring (O’Malley et al., 2015), and working to create a positive peer culture (Bergin & Bergin, 2009).

School Culture
It is particularly important to pay attention to school culture, as these shared norms, beliefs, and behaviors affect perceptions of school climate (MacNeil et al., 2009). To create a positive school culture, Ziomek-Daigle et al. (2016) recommended that school counselors implement interventions using a multi-tiered system of supports. For example, providing classroom lessons on topics such as kindness, empathy, and acceptance are Tier 1 interventions that work to cultivate a positive school culture (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Ziomek-Daigle et al., 2016). Additionally, school culture can be influenced by creating shared values and expectations for students throughout the school community (MacNeil et al., 2009). For example, school counselors can utilize empowerment strategies when teaching students in foster care to advocate for themselves and find autonomy in meeting their needs. The school counselor might say, “Last week, you worked so hard at learning to use ‘I statements’ when expressing your needs and feelings to others! In class, I even saw that you raised your hand to ask for a break when you started to get overwhelmed in math. How might you use similar skills to advocate for yourself when you get frustrated in social studies?” In this way, the school counselor is improving school culture by creating a shared expectation among students, teachers, and staff.

Educational Experiences
Moreover, school counselors can enhance school climate by facilitating enriching educational experiences that contribute to academic success (Gilligan, 2007). To ensure that students in the foster care system receive the same educational experiences as their peers, school counselors can screen, monitor, plan, communicate, and collaborate with other stakeholders (e.g., teachers, administration, staff, and foster families) to ensure equity and access for students in foster care (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Educating stakeholders about working with students in foster care can encourage inclusive assignments, promote an understanding of potential responses and reactions from students, and decrease negative behavioral perceptions (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Additionally, including students in decisions about their education, where they attend school, and the support they receive can increase their self-efficacy, goal development, and self-advocacy skills (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). This intentionality can also help them feel welcome, respected, and important—all of which increase their school connection.

Collaborating With Stakeholders
     School counselors should plan to accommodate and work with students who may enter school in the middle of the year, as 34% of students in foster care experience five or more school changes by the time they reach the age of 18 (NWGFCE, 2018). When these students arrive at school, it is important that school counselors welcome them, explain classroom and school procedures, show them around the school, and facilitate connections with other students (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). From the beginning, school counselors can prioritize involving the foster family by calling to welcome them, answering any questions they have, providing them with helpful information (e.g., teacher contact information), and following up with them after a few weeks. For example, packets can be sent home with students so foster families have access to any relevant documents or previous newsletters containing helpful information (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Additionally, it may be beneficial for school counselors to invite the foster family to meet with them in person to create a stronger foster family and school partnership. Furthermore, incomplete student records can have a significant effect on academic services for students in foster care. Therefore, school counselors should work diligently with other school districts to retrieve and maintain these records (McKellar & Cowen, 2011).

Along with planning, school counselors can provide all stakeholders with evidence-based information to effectively serve and address the needs of students in foster care (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). With this purpose in mind, school counselors can provide training to stakeholders on topics such as reflective listening, creating secure attachments, recognizing and responding to feelings and behaviors, and setting limits and boundaries (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). Informed stakeholders can more effectively support and respond to the unique needs of students in foster care, and in turn, students may be more successful in managing their emotions and behaviors (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). This awareness can also strengthen relationships that promote school success (Kerr & Cossar, 2014). Additionally, school counselors can be proactive in collaborating with stakeholders to create structured and supportive classroom environments where students in foster care feel safe while learning. For example, working with teachers to modify assignments that have the potential to be triggering (e.g., family-based assignments) is essential in promoting student–teacher relationships and academic achievement (C. Mitchell, 2010; Palmieri & La Salle, 2017).

     Students in foster care often experience triggers at school, whether it is from an assignment (e.g., family-based assignments), a topic discussed in class, or a community event that seems to be exclusively for biological parents (West et al., 2014). When these experiences occur, students in foster care do not always have the ability to self-regulate and utilize healthy coping skills (West et al., 2014). For this reason, it is essential to not only advocate for inclusive assignments and events but to also help students effectively manage their triggers so they can be academically and relationally successful. Additionally, it may be helpful to provide stakeholders with information about why certain activities lack inclusivity for students in foster care and offer possible alternatives or modifications for these experiences. To illustrate, events such as “Muffins with Moms” and “Donuts with Dads” can be altered for inclusivity by expanding the population to include anyone in the student’s support system (e.g., “Floats with Friends” or “Popcorn with Important People”).

Additionally, an assignment about creating a family tree could be modified for inclusivity by focusing on the diversity of family structures. C. Mitchell (2010) offers the alternative of creating “The Rooted Family Tree,” in which the roots represent one’s birth family, the student as the trunk, and the foster or adoptive family filling in the branches. Similarly, “The Family Houses Diagram” utilizes houses instead of trees to allow for multiple places of living and the option to form a connection between birth, foster, or other family types (C. Mitchell, 2010). Another common assignment given in schools is to bring a baby picture to share with the class. This lacks inclusivity for students in foster care, as they might not have these pictures or there may be difficult memories attached to them. Additionally, this puts the student in the painful position of having to explain why they do not have these pictures (C. Mitchell, 2010). As a result, C. Mitchell (2010) recommends framing the assignment as a choice: Bring a picture of yourself as a baby or at a younger age, on a vacation or holiday, or engaging in any activity that you enjoy.

Knowing how to cultivate secure attachments with students in foster care is especially relevant for stakeholders, as positive student–adult relationships can influence other relationships in the student’s life by altering their internal working model (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Sabol & Pianta, 2012). Although it can be difficult to create and maintain secure relationships with students who experience insecure attachment (Bergin & Bergin, 2009), stakeholders have the opportunity to fill in attachment gaps that may exist for students in foster care. Secure attachment is related to higher grades and standardized test scores, increased emotion regulation, and higher self-efficacy (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013). Moreover, students with insecure attachment tend to show less curiosity (Granot & Mayseless, 2001), have poorer quality friendships, and exhibit behavior problems (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013).

Importantly, attachment to teachers, rather than just biological parents, is linked to school success (O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Sabol & Pianta, 2012). When students have healthy relationships with their teachers and perceive them as supportive, they show greater interest and engagement in school, which leads to improvements in academic achievement (Bergin & Bergin, 2009; Golding et al., 2013). Additionally, students who experience insecure attachment crave positive, warm, and trusting relationships but often lack the skills to create them. For this reason, stakeholders can help nurture secure relationships by being genuine, maintaining high expectations, and providing as much choice and autonomy as possible (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). Furthermore, noticing when these students are not at school, or when they return after an absence, can help them know they are valued and cared for.

To advocate, school counselors can help stakeholders understand why students with insecure attachment are behaving and reacting in certain ways, while also helping staff to respond in ways that disconfirm students’ insecure working models (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). In this way, staff can show that students’ particular beliefs about relationships with others may not always be true. To illustrate, not asking for help in the classroom, ignoring the teacher, or denying the need for assistance could be a manifestation of an insecure avoidant attachment style (Golding et al., 2013). This student does not want to become close or show vulnerability, as they fear that the teacher will reject or separate from them (e.g., their internal working model). For these students, it can be easier to not ask for help or engage in classroom projects at all than risk the hurt of rejection (Golding et al., 2013). A teacher who misunderstands this might believe they are unable to adequately support the student. As a result, they may stop trying to help, which confirms the student’s internal working model of fear and rejection. Instead, the teacher can disconfirm this student’s internal working model by providing reassurance of their consistency and availability (Golding et al., 2013). For example, the teacher conveying that they want to help, while also asking how they can help, offers healthy choice and autonomy. Encouraging small changes in how stakeholders respond to students in foster care provides a space for positive and secure relationships to develop.

Skill Development and Addressing Unique Experiences
Behavior Management, Emotion Regulation, and Social Skills
     Difficulties in behavior management, emotion regulation, and social skills are common among students in the foster care system, as they lack control over many events that occur in their lives (Octoman et al., 2014; Scherr, 2014). These students’ unique and complex experiences can impact their ability to appropriately manage their emotions, behaviors, and interactions with others. Unfortunately, these extreme emotions and behaviors often result in several different placements, the loss of relationships, and the loss of school and community connections (Octoman et al., 2014).

Given this information, school counselors can contribute to student success by collaborating with stakeholders to communicate appropriate behavior, identify boundaries, and explicitly state expectations. Providing behavioral support, management, and individual attention can help students engage in positive behaviors that facilitate their success at school and in the classroom (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Additionally, working with students to identify and manage emotions decreases externalizing behaviors, reduces stress levels, and improves relationships. Likewise, providing education about control, acceptance, coping skills, and distress tolerance are applicable emotion regulation interventions to utilize with students in foster care (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). Groups and interventions on topics such as social skills, problem-solving, making and keeping friends, and appropriate behaviors can help students develop healthy interpersonal relationships (Scherr, 2014; Zins & Elias, 2007).

Grief and Loss
Additionally, it is crucial that school counselors intentionally address the unique and complex experiences of students in foster care. For example, these students often experience non-death losses that go unacknowledged, including the loss of parents, siblings, friends, and communities (M. B. Mitchell, 2018). These losses may involve a lack of clarity and create confusion about a loved one’s physical or psychological presence, commonly referred to as ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999; Lee & Whiting, 2007). To illustrate, being separated from one’s family and placed into foster care can generate grief and loss reactions, including confusion, isolation, distress, uncertainty, helplessness, denial, extreme behaviors, and guilt (Lee & Whiting, 2007; M. B. Mitchell & Kuczynski, 2010). Disenfranchised grief occurs when others disregard and do not acknowledge a loss (Doka, 1989; M. B. Mitchell, 2018). Unfortunately, it is common for the child welfare system and society to ignore experiences of grief and loss in foster care (M. B. Mitchell, 2018; M. B. Mitchell & Kuczynski, 2010).

In an effort to address this, school counselors can begin by identifying, acknowledging, and validating losses that are not caused by death but produce many similar grief responses (M. B. Mitchell, 2016, 2018). Additionally, school counselors can educate stakeholders about ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief, as it is important for the entire school community to have an understanding about manifestations of grief and loss when working with these students (e.g., internalizing and externalizing). In general, school counselors can advocate for students in foster care by validating their experiences, equipping them with education and resources, helping others understand why their experiences embody grief and loss, and acknowledging the inherent confusion involved in their unique situations (Lee & Whiting, 2007).

Accessing School and Community Resources
School Engagement
     Students involved in their school community through extracurricular activities, leadership, and positions of responsibility often experience more motivation and engagement in learning (Gilligan, 2007). Additionally, such engagement is beneficial in creating a sense of normalcy, belonging, and community with other students. Unfortunately, these opportunities can seem limited to students in the foster care system because of cost, timing, and transportation barriers (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Therefore, it is critical that school counselors collaborate, advocate, and act to remove these barriers, as engagement in the school community can result in academic, social, and behavioral improvements (Scherr, 2014). School counselors can facilitate this involvement and engagement in the school community by collaborating with other stakeholders to provide opportunities. For example, encouraging and assisting students in foster care to navigate and obtain leadership positions (e.g., student government) will not only improve their engagement in school, but also increase their self-efficacy and sense of belonging within the school community. Additionally, school counselors can collaborate with other professionals (e.g., social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses) to identify and address different areas of support, resources, and opportunities for these students.

Group Counseling
With a national student–school counselor ratio of 455:1 (American School Counselor Association, 2019), group counseling is a promising approach to help school counselors meet the complex needs of students who are in foster care. Additionally, this is an effective way to encourage involvement and connectedness with students who have similar backgrounds, while providing these students with the skills that they need to be successful (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Involvement in group counseling can help create a sense of normalcy, belonging, and community with other students (Alvord & Grados, 2005) and can also result in academic, social, and behavioral improvements (Scherr, 2014).

Hambrick et al. (2016) found that children in foster care experienced improvements in behavior, academics, quality of life, attachment, placement stability, and emotion regulation following their participation in group-based interventions. Although participating in a small group with other students in the foster care system may provide the opportunity to feel understood and less alone, students may also benefit from engaging in group activities with typical peers. For example, students in foster care might participate in a “lunch bunch” group where they eat in community with the school counselor and other like-age peers. In these groups, students can play, learn from watching the interactions of peers, and develop the skills necessary for initiating and maintaining positive peer relationships.

Utilizing a reality therapy approach for group counseling seems particularly beneficial, as it addresses choice, control, and healthy ways of getting one’s needs met—all common issues students in foster care may struggle with (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009; Cameron, 2013; Kress et al., 2019). These components are essential in empowering students to choose how they respond to and face the challenges in their lives (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). In this approach, school counselors can assume the roles of teacher, advocate, and encourager by educating about responsibility, choices, and the importance of meaningful relationships (Kress et al., 2019). Utilizing the WDEP system (i.e., wants, doing, evaluation, and planning) to explore questions, including “What do you want?”, “What are you doing?”, and “Is it working?”, helps students assess if their current behaviors are getting them what they desire, and if they are not, how they can change in healthy ways (Wubbolding, 2011).

Because behavior is intentional, it is beneficial to look at each student’s behavior as an attempt to satisfy their needs (Glasser, 1984, 2000). Additionally, focusing on the here and now is helpful in guiding and educating students about effective and appropriate ways to get their needs met by others (Glasser, 1992, 2000). As many students in foster care have not always had their needs met in the past, they must learn to have their needs met in healthy and effective ways (Octoman et al., 2014). For example, a student who is grabbing and touching other students might be trying to get their need of love and belonging met. In this situation, it would be a helpful learning experience to guide this student to meet this need in a different way, such as asking the peer permission for a hug or setting aside time to spend with them later (Octoman et al., 2014).

When using this approach, school counselors can reframe behavior to emphasize student strengths, identify and celebrate students’ acceptance of choice and responsibility, create anticipation for change, and communicate hope about success (Kress et al., 2019). School counselors can also prioritize rapport building; creating safety through rules, goals, and expectations; and helping students realize that they are not alone in their experiences (Alvord & Grados, 2005; Gladding, 2016; Kress et al., 2019). Other small groups that address issues such as social skills, making and keeping friends, and college and career exploration may also be helpful for students in foster care.

Mentorship Programs
Students in the foster care system experience many transitions and losses, which can result in disruptions to the adult and peer relationships that support educational success. In this way, mentorship programs work to reduce risk and provide protective support to students in foster care (Scherr, 2014). These students value having a mentor who provides support and encouragement on topics related to academics, college, and life (Clemens et al., 2017; Dworsky & Pérez , 2010) and benefit from having a consistent, trustworthy, and non-familial adult in their lives (Benzies & Mychasiuk, 2009). Mentorship programs contribute to fewer behavior referrals, less school mobility, and improved graduation rates (Salazar et al., 2016). Additionally, the accountability of mentorship can motivate students to improve their attendance, achievement, and engagement in school. Given this information, facilitating connectedness and mentorship for these students is crucial in providing them with the support, consistency, and encouragement they need to accomplish their goals.

The Check and Connect Model is evidence-based and targets students who show warning signs of disengaging from school such as poor attendance, behavioral issues, and low grades (Tilbury et al., 2014), all of which are particularly relevant for students in foster care. Potential mentors can be natural (e.g., someone already present and supportive in the student’s life) or someone from the community interested in volunteering (Salazar et al., 2016). Utilizing natural mentors, if available, is beneficial in acknowledging the natural supports that already exist in students’ lives. For example, if a student already has a trusting relationship with a staff member, it is important to utilize this connection to maintain stability. However, if a student is unable to identify any natural mentors, working with volunteers in the community is also an excellent option. Both are impactful in different ways, and the quality of the connection is what is really crucial (Salazar et al., 2016).

It is essential that mentors are consistent, empathetic, authentic, and committed to supporting students in foster care. Mentors not only serve as a relational connection for these students but also help youth expand their social support networks, set goals, explore postsecondary options, and increase involvement in the school community (Salazar et al., 2016). School counselors can work with mentors to monitor student performance variables, such as absences, behavioral referrals, and grades, while helping students solve problems, identify skills, and reach their goals (University of Minnesota, 2019). Mentorship programs should be flexible and tailored to the needs of each student and their mentor, as some pairs might benefit from more or less time to connect (Salazar et al., 2016). Ultimately, these programs can be helpful in providing students in foster care with the connection and support they need to be successful, while also contributing to the development of other secure relationships in their lives (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017).

Community Partnerships
     For students in foster care, it is essential that support extends beyond the school community. To do this, school counselors can establish relationships and collaborate with the student, foster family, school, and foster care system (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). These home–school partnerships are critical in meeting the needs of students in foster care. Additionally, foster families feel more supported when they are involved and their input is valued (Palmieri & La Salle, 2017). Utilizing and forming plans around academic and behavioral expectations, attendance, flexibility with requirements, and communication with stakeholders can be helpful in promoting success (McKellar & Cowen, 2011). Furthermore, tangible and emotional support can act as protective factors and meet the needs of students through the provision of goods and services (Piel et al., 2017). For example, school counselors can create or utilize community-based food and nutrition programs to ensure that basic needs are being met.

Mental Health Services
Equally important, students in foster care often experience difficulties that affect their mental health. Evidence-based treatments such as trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT), behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and parent–child interaction therapy can be adapted for the school setting (Landsverk et al., 2009). These models of counseling are helpful in addressing symptoms, while also promoting healthy behavior and functioning. Combined with this, school counselors can also provide outpatient information to foster families and case workers about local resources and services available to students in foster care. In these cases, it is helpful to collaborate with the designated outpatient counselor to provide the most effective support and generalize learned skills across settings (Landsverk et al., 2009).


Students in foster care experience a number of barriers and challenges that influence their success in school, both academically and socially, as well as in adulthood. In addition, students in foster care lack the same access to resources and support as their peers, which contributes to gaps in academic achievement, relational success, and overall well-being. By enhancing school climate, planning, providing training to stakeholders, and promoting positive educational experiences, students in foster care can receive the foundational support they need to begin learning. Additionally, by utilizing group counseling, implementing mentorship programs, targeting specific behavior, addressing experiences of grief and loss, and accessing community resources, students in foster care can gain the skills they need to be successful in all areas. Despite the many challenges students in foster care face, school counselors have the opportunity to utilize their unique position in their schools and communities to advocate for these students, reach them through evidence-based interventions, remove barriers to learning, and ultimately equip them with the tools and skills they need to experience greater success.

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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Hannah Brinser is a master’s candidate at Gonzaga University. Addy Wissel, PhD, is an associate professor and program director at Gonzaga University. Correspondence may be addressed to Hannah Brinser, 502 E. Boone Ave., Spokane, WA 99258,

Online Counselor Education: A Student–Faculty Collaboration

Donna S. Sheperis, J. Kelly Coker, Elizabeth Haag, Fatma Salem-Pease


Online counselor education has been studied extensively since its inception, but the experiences of students within these programs have received limited attention. This collaborative view from faculty and students of online counselor education was developed to share the stories of students who have engaged in both synchronous and asynchronous distance counselor education programs at the master’s and doctoral level. Students talked about finding online programs to be viable options to work flexibly within their adult lives. In addition, they shared that they were more satisfied when there were efforts to foster connection through synchronous or other means found in a community of inquiry. Finally, their reports illuminate potential directions for research in exploring the experience of students in online counselor education programs.


Keywords: online programs, counselor education, synchronous, community of inquiry, students


Online counselor education has been a reality since the late 1990s, yet little is known about the training experiences of students in these programs. At the time of this writing, there are approximately 79 master’s and doctoral online counseling programs accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; n.d.) and several other distance counseling programs without CACREP accreditation. Potential students have many options to consider in the online counselor education environment, and distance programs continue to strive to differentiate themselves from an ever-growing landscape of educational offerings. What is it that students and recent graduates of different online programs reported were the experiences that fostered their growth as professional counselors and counselor educators? Who supported them and their growth (e.g., peers, faculty, supervisors)? How did they stay engaged, motivated, and focused on their goals in a distance environment?


The aim of this article was to explore these questions with students and graduates of distance counseling and counselor education programs. Current students and recent graduates of distance counseling and counselor education programs were invited to bring voice to their experiences through informal interviews and this collaborative account. Program faculty contacted the students and graduates who volunteered to share their perspectives about the programs and agreed to have their responses used in this article. Two of the students who provided their opinion also served as coauthors. This effort was not designed to create generalizable or transferable knowledge; thus, there was no formal sampling strategy in place. It should also be noted that because the goal was not to generate generalizable or transferable knowledge, these interviews did not fall under the purview of IRB review. Thus, student responses are not anonymized and are cited as personal communications, with the students’ permission.


To gather a broad range of information, we reached out to students from programs with a variety of characteristics, including both CACREP- and non–CACREP-accredited counselor education programs; private for-profit and private nonprofit programs; faith-based and secular programs; and programs employing a continuum of distance delivery methods ranging from asynchronous, to hybrid, to synchronous. However, the information provided is not exhaustive in terms of the types of programs available. Instead, we were interested in the views of students across diverse online counselor education programs. Throughout the article, we include direct quotes from students as well as references from the literature that relate to those experiences.


For our small group of students and graduates who shared their perspectives for this article, the average age was 41.4, with all contributors in their 40s except one. Given that distance education learners tend to fall into the category of “adult learner,” an exploration of motivators for choosing online education among this group was germane. In a survey of adult learners, the Education Activities Board (2019) indicated that today’s adult learners are “savvy, digital consumers who approach their education with a consumer-like mindset” (p. 2).


As indicated by Snow and Coker (2020), one might expect there would be a plethora of literature to assist in understanding experiences of students in distance education programs. Studies examining student perceptions of social presence, engagement, outcomes, and teaching strategies in online distance education have been conducted, but specific inclusion of student perceptions of distance counselor education is lacking (Bolliger & Halupa, 2018; Gering et al., 2018; Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2018; Murdock & Williams, 2011). This glimpse into the experiences of students and graduates from distance counselor education programs informs our understanding of how direct consumers view their counseling training and preparation experiences.


Choosing Online Counselor Education


It is a major decision to become a professional counselor or counselor educator. Another important decision is deciding where to train and by what learning method to receive training. To understand why a prospective student might choose a distance education program, we must first understand the characteristics of the online learner. Distance education students tend to skew older than their on-campus counterparts, and the average age of an online learner is 34 (Education and Careers, 2019).


With this fact in mind, we asked our five students to respond to the following prompt: “Provide us with a brief statement as to why you chose counseling and then online education.” Among our small group, reasons for choosing online counselor education clustered around family, work, and lifestyle. Two of our five students shared that being a single parent of one or more children with special needs was a driving factor. Another, also the parent of a child with special needs, needed the flexibility afforded by distance learning to be able to live overseas to accommodate her husband’s job. Keeping a particular job and work schedule were reasons for other students.


According to an Education Activities Board survey (2019), the number of graduate students taking online courses rose 47% between 2012 and 2017, suggesting that the appeal of flexible options for adult learners is a salient factor in their decision to pursue an online education. Amy Campos, a graduate of a large for-profit university with a CACREP-accredited program, summed it up well:


I was in my late 30s when I decided it was time to level up and begin the journey to a graduate degree. I was raising two neurodiverse children and had just entered the unfamiliar territory of single parenting! I knew I would need to find a program that not only supported my career and educational goals but blended with my personal and family needs as well. (personal communication, May 3, 2019)


Overall, students indicated that an online program offered the flexibility they needed to successfully navigate graduate training at the current stage of their lives.

Structure and Process of Online Counselor Education Programs


When we started training in online counselor education programs, there were limited options in terms of program structure and student experiences. In the early 2000s, the delivery of curriculum in counseling programs was an either–or proposition: students either enrolled in a traditional face-to-face (F2F) program or in an online program that was solely asynchronous except for an on-campus skills training component (i.e., residency). Asynchronous learning simply means that students do not attend required meetings of the class during a given week, although they likely have assignments with required dates. The early adopters of online counselor education were able to meet and achieve CACREP accreditation through a blend of asynchronous learning experiences in learning management systems such as Blackboard with asynchronous assignments, readings, and discussion posts, and F2F, on-campus training residencies to practice and demonstrate clinical skills.


Given that most early online counselor education training programs followed this same format, much of the early literature regarding the efficacy of online learning focused on the comparisons between two instructional modalities: F2F or on-campus vs. online, asynchronous instruction. In a comparison of levels of learning and perceived learning efficiency of on-campus and online learning environments, Smith et al. (2015) found that levels of learning (i.e., student participants’ perceptions of learning) between online and on-campus students were essentially the same, while the efficiency of learning outcome (i.e., student participants’ perceptions of time devoted to learning activities and achieving learning outcomes) favored the online modality.


Other studies have shown little difference in academic outcomes between on-campus and online delivery methods in psychology programs (Hickey et al., 2015) and counseling programs in Australia (Furlonger & Gencic, 2014). Examinations of blended learning models similarly have shown that students can benefit from both on-campus and distance modalities (Karam et al., 2014). More and more, teasing out the different kinds of learning opportunities across the ever-widening spectrum of distance education is becoming the focus. The use of videoconferencing, interactive media, and a blend of synchronous and asynchronous deliveries is increasingly common in counselor education (Snow et al., 2018).


Our students discussed a variety of delivery methods and structures from their online learning experiences. According to Fatma Salem-Pease, a coauthor who was also interviewed as a student at a private nonprofit university with a non–CACREP-accredited program,


some courses are lighter than others, with more focus on practicing counseling skills, and will therefore have more synchronous activities. Other courses focus on psychology and counseling fundamentals and therefore require more reading, research, and involve writing more papers. A big majority of the learning is done individually. (personal communication, April 25, 2019)


Two of the students’ programs were structured with required weekly, synchronous class meetings, and the students indicated that these components positively impacted their sense of engagement and learning. According to Michelle Fowler, a graduate of a private nonprofit university with a CACREP-accredited program, “group projects and small group breakouts through Zoom were a good way to get to know people. The best way to really get to know people was through assigned weekly meeting groups” (personal communication, April 10, 2019). Similarly, Libby Haag, a student at a private nonprofit religious university with a CACREP-accredited program, shared that the synchronous nature of her program was her favorite part (personal communication, April 16, 2019). She felt that being connected in that fashion to faculty and peers allowed her to practice the relational elements essential to becoming a competent counselor. There was a definite enthusiasm for these relationships from students whose programs offered the synchronous environment online.


Two other students interviewed for this article were in programs that followed the more traditional online format of asynchronous classes with F2F residency experiences. Interestingly, comments from one of our students who attended a program with an asynchronous learning model identified a potential need to include other modes of training and delivery in addition to asynchronous learning. Shawn Clark, a graduate of a public university with a large CACREP-accredited program, wrote:


We have to meet once a week at night as a class during the internship processes but not during any other classes. I enjoyed the interaction during these meetings because we were able to critique each other’s skills, which helped me develop professionally. If we could have met as a class online during all my classes, I believe I would be more prepared as a counselor. (personal communication, April 22, 2019)


From all of our students’ observations, a blend of formats, deliveries, and experiences seemed to benefit them most. These observations support the emerging literature concerning different deliveries of distance education. According to Harris (2018), a combination of modalities, including F2F, online, asynchronous, and synchronous, tap into a variety of learning styles and together can create a learning experience that positions students for success.


Community of Inquiry


Allen et al. (2016) suggested that about 77% of institutions with distance offerings find them critical to their long-term strategy and the future growth of their institutions. An important element in online education is the community of inquiry, which is a framework for teaching and learning that is built on aspects of constructivist pedagogy. Specifically, the community of inquiry is comprised of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence (Richardson & Ice, 2010). Akyol and Garrison (2008) defined these types of presence as follows: social presence is the experience of connection in online learning, cognitive presence is the exchange of information and ideas, and teaching presence is the facilitation and shaping of the discourse. For the purpose of this article, we asked students to talk with us about how they experienced these in their interactions with peers and faculty.


Interactions With Peers

     Researchers who have studied the community of inquiry model have found that a lack of interaction between online students results in an experience of loneliness and an increase in students dropping courses (Ozaydın Ozkara & Cakir, 2018). All of the students we spoke with talked about developing deeper connections during the residency component of their curriculum and how meaningful those relationships were. But there were other areas for connection provided as well. Students who were in programs with a synchronous online component commented on the use of breakout rooms in virtual platforms such as Zoom and how helpful they were to developing community. Additionally, the use of virtual groups during the group counseling course increased opportunities to interact with peers. None of the students participating in our discussion cited online discussion boards as a way to increase or improve interactions with peers, but some did share that simply seeing the same students’ names in multiple classes was helpful.


Interactions With Faculty

Within the community of inquiry, teaching presence is comprised of both the way the faculty member sets the stage for learning and the way they generate a focus for the online discourse (Walsh, 2019). Unfortunately, faculty tend to view their teaching presence more favorably than students (Blaine, 2019). As such, it was important to get the student perspective on interactions with faculty.


     Students’ interaction ranged from being in the classroom to taking advantage of opportunities to connect out of class. Within the class, students found instructor videos to be helpful, sharing that in some fully asynchronous programs, students may never see their faculty members’ faces or hear their voices as lectures are developed at the institutional level and prepopulated in each course shell. Faculty members who took the use of video even further, such as using the video feedback options in the learning management system, were appreciated even more. But it was the interactions outside of the classroom that seemed to be the most impactful to students.


Students discussed having email, phone, and video chat communication with faculty and how important that was to their experience. These interactions felt personal and “helped me rebuild my self-esteem and acknowledge my self-worth” as well as student self-efficacy while serving as a professional model (F. Salem-Pease, personal communication, April 25, 2019). Students who did not have more personal interactions outside of class reported less satisfaction in this area. A clear takeaway is that the more students can interact with each other and with their faculty both in and out of the classroom, the more fulfilling their experience is with online education.


Practicum and Internship


Having taught in counselor education programs for a combined 40 years, we recognize that whether on-campus or online, the experience of practicum and internship is one of the most anxiety-provoking elements of counselor training. Whether the anxiety is about finding an appropriate site, securing sufficient direct client hours, or struggling with insecurity around skills and abilities, students entering field experience need additional support (Nease, 2013). The experience of online students is no different. Those who live in towns with a large, campus-based program reported some challenges helping sites understand their status. One student talked about needing to make a case for her program when the site was primarily accustomed to dealing with the hometown university. However, students who had lived in their hometown for a while and had good connections, or who lived in areas that are highly populated and have multiple agency opportunities, reported less stress.


Faculty connections were also found to be helpful. Just as students may come from all areas of the country or the world, so may faculty. Having faculty familiar with state requirements and who have peers in the towns where students are trying to gain a site can be helpful. All students reported a willingness to be persistent, make the necessary calls, know their program and training, and take on the hurdles of a human resource department as necessary qualities for success in finding practicum and internship sites.


Counselor Licensure


Counselor educators are well aware that state licensure requirements are not uniform, can be tricky, and are challenging to even the most seasoned licensure candidate. But students often enter counseling programs assuming that licensure is similar across states and territories (Buckley & Henning, 2016). To this end, most of the students we spoke to talked about having discussions about state licensure requirements early in their training. Students were advised to look for any challenges or deficiencies posed by their program of study:


The only concern I had with my license was from not having a human sexuality course from my university. The state of Florida requires this class. However, when I reached out to my university and told them of my dilemma, they found the course in another program and offered it to me. I will be taking it this summer. (S. Clark, personal communication, April 22, 2019)


In addition, many students reported having early assignments that required them to review their state board requirements.


We are required to research the state requirements and write several papers about them during the very first term. After that, we are constantly reminded of our state requirements, especially as we head into practicum and internship, and also when selecting elective courses. (F. Salem-Pease, personal communication, April 25, 2019).


Students seemed to benefit from programs that began the licensure discussion during admissions and kept it at the forefront throughout their training.


Motivation in Online Training


We started this paper with a premise that many learners in distance education programs need to be self-motivated to be successful. Even programs that have synchronous and on-campus portions still generally require students to engage in some amount of self-paced and self-guided learning. As early as 1986, Moore was writing about the importance of self-directed learning in distance education environments. He suggested that the self-directed or autonomous learner is motivated to “set their goals and define criteria for achievement” (Moore, 1986, p. 13).


Our students were asked to consider any strategies that have helped them remain motivated through their training program. All of the students mentioned some combination of the need to stay organized, make and keep a schedule, and set realistic goals for success. Fatma Salem-Pease offered that it is a combination of having an organized weekly schedule and self-care routines that helps to maintain motivation: “One significant aspect of my self-care has become planning ahead and giving myself the appropriate amount of time to complete an assignment well before the deadline.” She went on to say, “Self-care is an important component of any journey and is absolutely necessary to maintain stamina until the end” (personal communication, April 25, 2019). Two students discussed the roles their professors played in their ability to stay motivated. Michelle Fowler shared that “[a] big challenge was dealing with the different formats teachers used” (personal communication, April 10, 2019). Libby Haag discussed how being an independent thinker and problem solver goes hand-in-hand with being mindful and respectful of professors’ time: “I make sure my email communications are respectful, clear, and concise. I believe these relationship-focused skills have helped me to have better connections with my professors and peers in an environment that often feels isolating” (personal communication, April 16, 2019).


Other ways our students described their ability to be self-motivated in a distance learning environment included being disciplined, intrinsically driven, resourceful, dedicated, and having a sense of self-efficacy. As one student stated, “self-efficacy is an important factor that determines the student’s perception of her ability to achieve certain tasks” (F. Salem-Pease, personal communication, April 25, 2019). This observation is supported by inquiries that have examined the relationships between self-efficacy, confidence, and attainment in online formats. Watson (2012) found that students in online learning environments have higher self-efficacy beliefs than students in traditional, on-campus programs and that online learning environments may in fact increase personal motivation and self-efficacy.


A framework for understanding motivation in educational environments is self-determination theory, which makes a distinction between autonomous (self-determined) motivation and controlled (externally pressured) motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2008). Ryan and Deci (2008) posited that individuals are more likely to engage in positive change, whether in therapeutic, educational, or family settings, when there are external supports in place that promote autonomy. Autonomous motivation is achieved when the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met (Baeten et al., 2012). Learning environments that strive to create conditions where students can feel they have some level of autonomy balanced with a clearly formulated structure, as well as opportunities for involvement and engagement with faculty and peers, have a combination of factors that are conducive to student motivation (Baeten et al., 2012).


Watson (2012) explained that “one of the common concerns often voiced has been whether or not ‘skills-based’ or ‘techniques’ courses could be offered sufficiently online” (p. 143). This aspect is often addressed in CACREP-accredited programs through the F2F residency experience and synchronous video activities that allow students to practice counseling skills and get helpful feedback and guidance from professors (Snow et al., 2018). Online students report that course materials generally make use of a variety of videos, including full counseling session videos and those incorporating certain techniques, which fosters vicarious learning. Fatma Salem-Pease indicated that the level of attention she received while pursuing her online degree was higher and more personalized than when she was pursuing an on-campus degree. She attributed this distinction to the fact that group sizes were small and her belief that there may be a benefit to professors reviewing video recordings in the comfort of their own office or home space where they are not pressured to assess the skills of multiple individuals in one sitting.


“What I Wish I Had Known Before Starting an Online Program”

The students who shared their perspectives were asked to talk about what they wish they had known coming into an online program. Many wished they had truly understood the importance of developing relationships with faculty and fellow students. Generating groups using Facebook or other social media was suggested as a way to facilitate this. In addition, some wished they had known that developing teams to practice skills would have been helpful to the online counselor-in-training.


A primary area of consideration on this topic was the financial cost of online education. Because many online programs are housed in private institutions, it was suggested that students


look long and hard at the expense associated with the program and the entry-level jobs they will get with their degree. The amount of debt in relation to that salary can be overwhelming, and while it may prove to work out in the long run, [online private institutions] may not be the wisest choice. (S. Clark, personal communication, April 22, 2019)


Whether in private or public universities, students were pleased that the online programs allowed them to pursue the education they wanted and needed while still maintaining a full-time job.


Student Perspectives of the Literature


We offered our two student coauthors and graduate interviewees the opportunity to each identify a relevant article from the literature that resonated, in some way, with their experiences as online learners and to contribute to this article by outlining the impact of that article on their learning experience. The student authors of this manuscript found that building relationships was reflected in the literature as an essential element, just as it was in their own experiences.


Building Relationships in Online Counselor Education Programs—Libby Haag

At the essence of counseling is relationships (Hall et al., 2010). Online education can often remove the humanistic quality by an absence of F2F instruction, resulting in a lost opportunity to connect with peers, professors, and future counselors and thus lacking an essential component in personal growth. Relationship-building skills are imperative for developing effective counselors, maintaining professional integrity, and implementing gatekeeping, and online learners often can feel detached from their professors and peers. Although on-site schooling offers the humanistic relationship-building aspect, online formats have the ability to educate underserved and diverse individuals to give them the opportunity to become professional counselors (Hall et al., 2010). Online counselor education combines the best aspects of technology with traditional campus education, which may create a more accessible, relational, and humanistic approach to the development and training of counselors.


Humanistic Framework

     According to Hall et al. (2010), a more effective online education for counselors is a humanistic framework that includes both technology and consistent F2F video interaction while maintaining a student-centered focus. This interactive model can effectively solve the problem of how to reach many underserved students to promote diversity in growing our profession while still teaching effective counseling skills to nurture the important humanistic, personal relationship aspect that is paramount to our profession. This humanistic framework to create a more effective and personal online experience has four principles: “the importance of viewing and valuing students holistically, the importance of maintaining meaningful relationships, an emphasis on valuing intentionality, and the recognition that people are goal oriented and creative beings” (Hall et al., 2010, p. 47).


Viewing and Valuing Students Holistically. Online educators need to view each student holistically as a distinctive individual and not use a reductionist approach (Hall et al., 2010). It is essential that the student feel important and valued while being viewed phenomenologically. A suggestion for viewing and valuing students in a more holistic manner would be to do video interviews as part of the application process. This would help establish a relationship with a professor before school even begins to create a meaningful, intentional, and relationship-driven curriculum.


     Maintaining Meaningful Relationships. According to Hall et al., “a good relationship is the basis of counseling and education” (2010, p. 48). Therefore, personal relationships need to be developed in an online program for both teachers and peers. Some suggestions to foster a positive relationship begin with sending emails before class starts and encouraging an open-door policy for communication. In addition, professors can approach an online class with group counseling techniques. For example, when beginning class, the professor could have all the students introduce themselves in the video forum using an icebreaker. At the next class, they can have the students reintroduce one another. Small group projects are also encouraged with some group counseling techniques (Hall et al., 2010).


     Valuing Intentionality. Intentionality, as defined by Hall et al., is “a sense of purpose in guiding and choosing one’s behavior” and “our capacity to reach out, take care of, and tend to others in purposeful ways” (2010, p. 48). Online professors could begin to guide students into becoming intentional learners, with an emphasis on self-awareness and deliberate reflection of their considerate interactions with others. This will help foster and model the connection online counseling students need for effective relationship skills in the future.


     People Are Goal-Directed and Creative Beings. Personal growth is a primary characteristic of a holistic, humanistic online education. Professors need to be willing to nurture creativity, drive, and resourcefulness within the classroom. Having a personal growth-based curriculum will only increase the student’s online experience. Hall et al. (2010) asserted that opportunities for growth and intrinsic motivation exist in creating an environment that promotes self-actualization, self-realization, and self-enhancement. It is suggested that teachers use a variety of techniques to match unique learning styles of a diverse student body for fostering creativity in online counselor education.


From a Personal Perspective

In examining and analyzing Hall et al. (2010) above, Libby Haag shared that her personal experience with a humanistic online framework has helped her to become a more rounded counselor. She feels as if she thrived in this environment, which was rooted in a very CACREP-driven curriculum with an emphasis on personal and professional growth. The relationships she created with teachers, peers, and supervisors were invaluable, and the F2F interaction helped to develop better social skills and a sense of community. She indicated that she made sure to reach out and let peers and professors get to know her personally. These actions helped her to feel connected and valued in a system that can sometimes lack a human element. She found that her most influential professors were those who were very personable and patient and who used humor and modeled authenticity with a focus on fostering relationships. They were available for personal consultation and they always offered a good deal of feedback. Overall, concurrent with the literature, Libby Haag’s experience was that a relationship-focused online program was essential in creating competent counselors.


Self-Efficacy and the Online Learner—Fatma Salem-Pease
Fatma Salem-Pease discovered that the 2012 article by Watson, “Online Learning and the Development of Counseling Self-Efficacy Beliefs,” supports a lot of the viewpoints she had previously shared in her personal communications. First, the article discussed the importance of practicing learned skills in real-life F2F situations and expressed the concerns voiced by many counselor educators about the efficacy of an online program that does not incorporate F2F learning components. As discussed earlier in this article, Watson (2012) explained that “One of the common concerns often voiced has been whether or not ‘skills-based’ or ‘techniques’ courses could be offered sufficiently online” (p. 143). This aspect is often addressed through residency experiences and through synchronous video activities that allow students to practice counseling skills and receive helpful feedback and guidance from professors. Course materials also have a variety of videos, including counseling sessions and how certain techniques are used, which foster vicarious learning.


Watson (2012) noted that “academic coursework, assigned readings, classroom discussions, self-reflection, modeling, supervision and hands on experiences associated with practica and internships” are required elements to enhancing competency and perception of self-efficacy (p. 145). The study hypothesized that F2F students have higher levels of perceived counseling self-efficacy than online students. The researcher administered the Counseling Self Estimate Inventory to 373 graduate students, 207 of which were F2F students, while 166 reported having taken the core skill development courses online. The results of the study disproved the hypothesis and showed that online counseling students have stronger counseling self-efficacy than F2F students.


These results support Fatma Salem-Pease’s and other students’ thoughts that online students have the opportunity to individualize their learning to their specific needs, helping them feel more confident in what they know and more aware of what they need to work on further. Structured F2F educational programs, she believes, burden students with an extensive and specific schedule to follow daily, which leaves minimal time for students to reflect on what is being learned and how to maximize the learning experience. Online students can be more actively engaged in their learning and have more freedom to choose what to accomplish and learn with their time.



     Although much has been written about the online learning experience in counselor education, it is rare to hear faculty and students work together to share their experiences in online education and training settings. What we have captured here first and foremost is that online counselor education provides a positive option for many students and faculty. Online counselor education allows students to blend academic pursuits into their current family and career lives in a way that is more accessible than traditional on-campus programs. When embarking on this journey, students value the connections they are able to foster with faculty and with peers, many of which occur through the synchronous parts of a program. Given that many programs are fully asynchronous, further research into the use of synchronous components would benefit the field of online counselor education.


Additionally, students strongly supported the fact that the path to success is smoother when programs attend to the various field experience and licensure requirements of their students across states. It is clear that an online counselor education program requires skills in both self-motivation and self-care to provide the maximum benefit to the student. Although this paper addressed the student experience in a non-empirical manner, a more research-driven approach to understanding student experience in distance counselor education programs is needed. Overall, online counselor education is functional, effective, and preferred by many students who are now pursuing their own careers in the profession of counseling.


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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Donna S. Sheperis, PhD, NCC, ACS, CCMHC, LPC, is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. J. Kelly Coker, PhD, NCC, LPC, is an associate professor at Palo Alto University. Elizabeth Haag was a graduate student at the University of the Cumberlands. Fatma Salem-Pease was a graduate student at Southern New Hampshire University. Correspondence can be addressed to Donna Sheperis, 5150 El Camino Real, Los Altos, CA 94022,

Counselor Educators and Students With Problems of Professional Competence: A Survey and Discussion

Kathleen Brown-Rice, Susan Furr

It has been found that 10% of counselors-in-training are ill-suited for the profession (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002). In that, they have problems of professional competence (PPC) that impede their ability to function as professional counselors (Elman & Forrest, 2007). These PPC include skill competencies, ethical behaviors and appropriate personal functioning (Kaslow et al., 2007). To evaluate students in terms of professional competence and prevent those with inadequate skills and dispositions from entering the profession, gatekeeping is utilized. Counselor educators are required to be transparent in their gatekeeping procedures with students. Students are to be informed of “the levels of competency expected, appraisal methods, and timing of evaluations for both didactic and clinical competencies” and be provided “ongoing feedback” (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014, p. 15). There has been significant research to provide counselor educators with information to establish gatekeeping and remediation procedures (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Homrich, DeLorenzi, Bloom, & Godbee, 2014; Hutchens, Block, & Young, 2013; Kerl, Garcia, McCullough, & Maxwell, 2002; McAdams, Foster, & Ward, 2007; Pease-Carter & Barrio Minton, 2012; Vacha-Haase, Davenport, & Kerewsky, 2004; Zoimek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010). However, little research has been done to examine the impact on counselor educators when interacting with students who have PPC and the roadblocks that impede educators’ ability to gatekeep.


Gatekeeping Procedures


Gatekeeping is a mechanism for counselor educators to determine the fitness of students to enter the counseling profession (Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). Gatekeeping begins as part of the admission process of a counseling program (Kerl & Eichler, 2007). During the admission process, counselor educators do not allow entry to prospective students who show traits, qualities or behaviors that would result in them not being able to meet professional competencies or who lack the prescribed academic requirements (Lumadue & Duffey, 1999; Swank & Smith-Adcock, 2013). However, gatekeeping is not just part of the admission process. Ziomek-Daigle and Christensen (2010) found that gatekeeping is a progressive activity that includes four phases, including preadmission screening, postadmission screening, remediation plan and remediation outcome.


Informing Students of Program Expectations

The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2014) provides that counseling students be aware of what type and degree of skill and knowledge will be required of them to be successful in the program, specific training goals and objectives, what students’ evaluations are based on, and the policies and procedures for students’ evaluations. One of the most important methods of ensuring understanding of expectations is informing students of the program’s expectations at the beginning of the program. Once clearly defined behaviors are established, sharing these expectations with students can result in fewer problematic situations (Kerl et al., 2002; McAdams et al., 2007). Furthermore, not providing students with clear expectations for conduct may be viewed as unfair to those wanting to become counselors (Homrich et al., 2014).


It is recommended that professional standards be made clear to students and applied consistently (Hutchens et al., 2013). Using multiple methods of distributing information is desired by students who have stated they want information shared both orally and in written form, and want the information presented throughout the program (Pease-Carter & Barrio Minton, 2012). Pease-Carter and Barrio Minton (2012) found that students desired information not only about academic expectations but also wanted to know about self-disclosure, reflection, personal growth and student rights.


Assessing Students’ PPC Behaviors

Individual programs have developed standards for evaluating students on professional competencies and use these evaluations to provide formative feedback (Kerl et al., 2002). Historically, the most commonly cited problematic behaviors have been inadequate clinical skills, defensiveness in supervision and deficient interpersonal skills (Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). Efforts to identify criteria for evaluating students in terms of professional behaviors, interpersonal behaviors and intrapersonal behaviors have recently been undertaken (Homrich et al., 2014), and these criteria provide a platform for developing clear expectations for counseling trainees.




Roadblocks to Gatekeeping


There are a variety of reasons that counselor educators do not engage in the gatekeeping process. Gateslipping rates have been reported as higher in programs where faculty members reported that their colleagues were concerned about being sued or receiving less than favorable teaching evaluations (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Jacobs et al., 2011). In some settings, colleagues and administration provide support for engaging in gatekeeping; however, lack of clear evidence and bias toward leniency lead to gateslippage (Brear & Dorrian, 2010). Absence of well-defined program policies may make it difficult to initiate gatekeeping conversations with a student as well (Jacobs et al., 2011).


Gatekeeping demands a great amount of time and energy, and situations involving PPC often seem unending (Gizara & Forrest, 2004). Not only do PPC have to be identified and communicated to the student, remediation plans need to be developed. Such plans may include helping the counselor-in-training obtain remedial assistance, providing intensified supervision, documenting the activities of the plan and ensuring the student understands due process options (Ziomek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010). When remediation plans are not successful, decisions about dismissal must be made, and the actions taken must be transparent (Kaslow et al., 2007).


There may be occasions where the gatekeeping responsibility is diffused among different entities. In a review of ethical issues around professional competence problems (Johnson et al., 2008), Johnson labeled this issue as the “hot potato game” (p. 589), where the last entity engaged with the problematic student is stuck with the issue. If a student is allowed to gateslip through the graduate program, then the training facility and licensing board now become involved. Rather than address the issue when it is first recognized, the student may be allowed to move to the next stage of training with the hope that the problem disappears or that that it is addressed at the next level. Addressing issues early in the training may help avoid more serious issues, like the empathy veil, later when students go to clinical sites.


The Empathy Veil

This term was coined by Brown-Rice and Furr (2014) and refers to the counselor educator’s need to empathize with the counselor-in-training, which can result in reluctance to engage in gatekeeping activities. Role tension may be one factor in developing an empathy veil. This term evolved from work by Sue and Sue (2012) where a person’s worldview is seen as having an invisible veil that is created by cultural conditioning and is believed to operate outside of consciousness. Forrest et al. (2013) found that empathy may contribute to avoiding confronting student issues for fear of damaging the relationship. Because of the role that faculty play in fostering growth and development, which often involves compassion and support, it may become difficult to provide accurate summative evaluations of trainees’ behaviors (Johnson et al., 2008). Given that many faculty members also are professional counselors, they may view their role as assisting the student in behavior change and thus work with the student to address interpersonal issues that interfere with developing counseling skills (Kerl et al., 2002). This empathy can be both a support and a challenge when difficult conversations about problematic professional, interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviors need to take place (Jacobs et al., 2011). Although empathy can create a safe environment in which to discuss difficulties, an educator’s empathy also can lead to overprotective behaviors that may actually interfere with the student’s development (Gizara & Forrest, 2004).


Role of Diversity

Another important area of consideration is how cultural differences intersect with PPC. When there is a cross-cultural student PPC situation, a complex power differential arises that not only is associated with the faculty–student relationship, but also related to cultural differences (Goodrich & Shin, 2013). Kaslow et al. (2007) proposed that consideration should be given to the impact of beliefs, values and attitudes when assessing competence problems. Fear of appearing biased may complicate identifying trainees with PPC and how decisions are made regarding students (Shen-Miller, Forrest, & Elman, 2009). The counselor educator’s own cultural background may influence how counselors-in-training are evaluated, and it is recommended that cultural dynamics be assessed when addressing PPC (Rust, Raskin, & Hill, 2013). Shen-Miller, Forrest, and Burt (2012) identified two approaches that often are used by faculty in assessing students—culture-attentive (i.e., approaches that include attention to aspects of diversity) or colorblind (i.e., inattention or minimization of differences associated with diversity). These views represent two ends of a “continuum of conceptualizing intersections between diversity and professional standards” (Shen-Miller et al., 2012, p. 1207). In trying to find a place on this continuum to address PPC, do counselor educators underidentify PPC because of fear of being biased? Or, are counselor educators more prone to overidentify PPC because of not examining contextual factors that influence competence? In this study, an attempt is made to examine counselor educators’ views of what interferes with their ability to address issues of counselor education student PPC.


Other Barriers

Previous research has found that educators believe that they have not been provided with sufficient training related to gatekeeping and remediation procedures, and they do not feel supported by their agency and colleagues (Gizara & Forrest, 2004; Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). Additionally, counselor educators may be reluctant to dismiss a student for dread of potential litigation and personal recrimination (Crawford & Gilroy, 2012; Hutchens et al., 2013) and receiving poor teaching evaluations (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002). Recent court cases have increased awareness about the legal consequences of gatekeeping. The Ward and Keeton cases have highlighted the need for counseling programs to establish clear statements about student expectations (Herlihy, Hermann, & Greden, 2014). Other cases have taught faculty members the importance of providing regular process evaluations and thorough documentation (McAdams & Foster, 2007). Reflection on the results of facing a court challenge includes the significance of having a measure of performance that helps faculty retain objectivity and the importance of adhering to established procedures (McAdams et al., 2007).


The purpose of this study was to answer the following research questions: (a) What types of master’s students’ PPC do Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) counselor educators perceive have the greatest impact on them as educators? (b) What do CACREP counselor educators perceive are roadblocks that interfere with their ability to engage in the gatekeeping of master’s students with PPC? and (c) What is CACREP counselor educators’ knowledge of their programs’ protocol for addressing a student with PPC? In this study, student refers to a master’s student enrolled in the participant’s counseling program, colleague is another counselor educator teaching in the participant’s counseling program, and impact means to have a strong effect. PPC refers to attitudes and behaviors that could interfere with the professional competence of a counselor-in-training, including: (a) a lack of ability or opposition to acquire and integrate professional standards into one’s professional counseling behavior; (b) a lack of ability to attain professional skills and reach an acceptable level of competency; (c) a lack of ability to manage one’s stress, psychological dysfunction or emotional responses that may impact professional performance; or (d) engagement in unethical behavior (Falender, Collins, & Shafranske, 2009).




Participants and Procedures

Prior to initiating the study, institutional review board approval was obtained. Recruitment of participants was conducted by an e-mail to all faculty employed at CACREP-accredited programs in the United States. The researchers of this study obtained a list of accredited programs from the official CACREP Web site and then visited each program’s Web site to obtain the e-mail addresses of the program’s counselor educators. Seven programs did not list faculty e-mails on their university Web sites. The exact number of educators teaching in CACREP-accredited programs is not known, as the programs’ Web sites might have imprecise or out-of-date information. Based upon the e-mail addresses gathered from the university Web sites, a list of 1,584 faculty members was created. Thereafter, one e-mail solicitation was sent to all identified faculty that directed participants to an online survey entitled, Problems of Professional Competency Survey – Counselor Educator Version (PPCS-CE), which was located on Of the 1,584 e-mails that were sent, 71 were undeliverable due to lacking a valid address or security issues, 15 were returned with automatic responses that the faculty member was absent (e.g., on sabbatical, no longer at university, ill, professor emeritus), and five responses indicated that the receiver of the e-mail was not a counselor educator. This left a total sample size of 1,493 CACREP counselor educators. For a population of 1,500, a sample size of 306 is adequate to generalize with a confidence interval of 95% (Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2009). A total of 382 participants completed the survey; however, respondents with missing or invalid data (n = 12, less than 4%) were eliminated via listwise deletion, leaving a total number of 370 participants included in this study. This resulted in an adequate sample size of 370 participants and a final response rate of 25%. Frequencies and percentages of the demographic variables in this study are reported in Table 1.



Table 1  Numbers and Percentages of Demographic Variables
Variable  Number Percentage









  African American









  Asian/Pacific Islander



  Native American



  20 years to 29 years



  30 years to 39 years



  40 years to 49 years



  50 years to 59 years



  60 years or older



Sexual Orientation:






  Gay or Lesbian



Description of Program:
  Predominantly on Campus



  Predominantly Online



  Hybrid of Online/on Campus



Location of Program:












Highest Degree:
  PhD – CACREP Program



  PhD – Non-CACREP Program



  EdS in Counseling



  PhD – Counseling Psychology



  PhD – Clinical Psychology



  Other (doctoral in another discipline ormaster’s in counseling or related field)



Academic Rank:
  Assistant Professor



  Associate Professor






  Clinical Instructor



  Adjunct Instructor






Years Teaching in a CACREP-Accredited Program:
  Less than 2 years



  2 to 5 years



  6 to 10 years



  11 to 15 years



  16 to 20 years



  Over 20 years



Licenses and Certifications Held:
  Licensed Professional Counselor



  Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor



  Provisionally Licensed Professional Counselor



  Licensed Marriage & Family Counselor



  Licensed Psychologist



  Licensed Social Worker



  Certified School Counselor



  National Certified Counselor









The survey for this present study was designed based upon the Problems of Professional Competency Survey – Master Student Version (PPCS-MS) developed by Brown-Rice and Furr (2013), related to determining master’s students’ enrolled in CACREP-accredited programs knowledge of classmates with PPC. The PPCS-MS was constructed based upon the literature regarding PPC in psychology, counseling and social work. To establish content validity and reliability, the PPCS-MS underwent an expert review process and two pilot studies to provide clarity and conciseness of the survey questions. Additionally, a principal components analysis created components representative of what the review of the literature provided on these issues (Brown-Rice & Furr, 2013). The questions and format of the PPCS-MS were used and adjusted to create a self-report survey entitled the Problems of Professional Competency Survey – Counselor Educator Version (PPCS-CE). This instrument was divided into three parts: Part I – Demographic Information, Part II – Counselor Educators and Students with PPC, and Part III – Counselor Educators’ Knowledge of Colleagues’ PPC (removed from this analysis). Part II included three sections. Section I, Counselor Educators’ Knowledge of Students’ Problems of Professional Competency, included one question to determine whether participants have observed students with PPC and two questions to determine participants’ knowledge of the type of students’ PPC and the impact of the problematic behavior. Each PPC was rank ordered from 1 being the most common and 9 being the least common observed behavior, and the impact of having a student with PPC was ranked ordered with 1 having the most impact and 9 having the least impact. Chi square analyses of each of the rank ordered items led to a rejection of the null hypotheses of the categories of the item occurring with equal probabilities.


Section II of Part II of the survey investigated counselor educators’ reactions to students’ PPC and consisted of seven questions. The answers to all these questions were based on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Section III, Counselor Educators’ Knowledge of Counseling Program’s Protocol for Addressing Problems of Professional Competency, included questions relating to responsibility for being aware of students PPC and programs’ protocols for addressing PPC. The first nine questions were evaluated on a 5-point Likert scale. The tenth item was unstructured to provide a place for participants to provide additional information.




Types and Impact of Students’ Problematic Behavior

Of the 370 participants, the majority (91%, n = 338) reported that they had observed students with PPC in their programs. Additionally, 2% (n = 8) of the respondents indicated they did not know if there were students with PPC in their programs, leaving 7% (n = 24) who had not observed any students with PPC. To answer the first research question regarding the types and impact of master’s students’ PPC observed by CACREP counselor educators, the responses for the 338 participants who reported observing a student with PPC were examined according to the rank order question regarding the types of PPC that participants most observed with counselors-in-training in their programs. The most frequently identified problematic behaviors included inadequate clinical skills (M = 2.90, SD = 1.88), inadequate interpersonal skills (M = 3.15, SD = 1.69), inadequate academic skills (M = 3.38, SD = 2.29), inability to regulate emotions (M = 4.16, SD = 1.88), and unprofessional behavior (M = 4.29, SD = 2.13). Those behaviors ranked as less impactful were unprofessional behavior (M = 4.29, SD = 2.13), unethical behavior (M = 5.63, SD = 2.03), psychological concern (M = 6.20, SD = 1.84), personality disorder (M = 7.60, SD = 1.61), and substance use disorder (M = 7.69, SD = 1.68).


The responses for the rank order question regarding the type of impact of having counselors-in-training in their program with PPC focused on the behaviors having the most impact on the faculty member. Included in this list were disrupted the classroom learning environment (M = 2.99, SD = 1.86), negatively affected other students (M = 3.26, SD = 1.52), increased participant’s workload (M = 3.29, SD = 2.05), and increased participant’s stress (M = 3.39, SD = 1.64). Additional items that were ranked as less impactful included negatively affected client care (M = 5.06, SD = 2.44), negatively affected relationship with students (M = 5.47, SD = .87), negatively affected relationship with colleagues (M = 6.59, SD = 1.42), negatively affected reputation of the program (M = 6.81, SD = 1.90), and a grievance or litigation occurred (M = 8.25, SD = 1.94).


Roadblocks to Gatekeeping

All participants (n = 370) completed Section II, Part II of the PPCS-CE, and these participants’ responses for strongly agree and agree were combined to report the subsequent findings. Each of the participants reported degree of agreement or disagreement regarding beliefs around the roadblocks that interfere with their ability to engage in the gatekeeping of master’s students with PPC. Fifty-three percent (n = 197) reporting struggling emotionally to balance being empathetic with a student demonstrating PPC and their gatekeeping duties. When looking at addressing PPC with a student who is culturally different from the participant, 38% (n = 141) stated they were reluctant to do so due to the fear they would appear culturally insensitive, and 36% (n = 137) were reluctant to do so due to the fear of allegations of discrimination. Regarding being supported by others, 13% (n = 47) provided they did not feel supported by their chair to address a student who demonstrated PPC, and 13% (n = 47) stated they did not feel supported by their colleagues to address a student who demonstrated PPC. Further, 92% (n = 339) were concerned about the counseling profession when a student with PPC was allowed to pass through the program. Additionally, 30% (n = 110) provided they were reluctant to address a student demonstrating PPC for fear of recrimination (e.g., negative teaching evaluations, legal action).


Protocol for Addressing Students with PPC

When the participants’ responses for strongly agree and agree were combined, 99% (n = 368) believed it was their responsibility to be aware of students with PPC, 91% (n = 335) believed that it was their chair’s responsibility, and 96% (n = 354) believed it was both their chair and respondents’ responsibility to be aware of students with PPC. Additionally, 94% (n = 347) were aware of their programs’ procedures regarding how to address problematic behavior, 71% (n = 263) reported their chair had discussed their programs’ procedures regarding addressing PPC with them, and 38% (n = 140) stated they had received training from their program regarding how to intervene with a student who they believe is demonstrating PPC. Further, 87% (n = 321) were aware of the appropriate intervention to take with students with PPC, 51% (n = 189) would like more information regarding how to identify students with PPC, and 61% (n = 226) of the participants would like more information on how to respond to a student with PPC.


Discussion and Implications


     The PPC identified in this study as being observed most frequently are consistent with those problematic behaviors identified in other studies. Vacha-Haase et al. (2004) also identified that inadequate clinical skills and deficient interpersonal skills were most commonly cited as problematic behaviors. In a study examining a proposed set of standards for clinical training, Homrich et al. (2014) identified three categories of behaviors needed by graduate students in clinical training, which included professional behaviors, interpersonal behaviors and intrapersonal behaviors. The types of PPC counselor educators observed in this study parallel the findings of Homrich et al. (2014) in that inadequate clinical skills and unprofessional behavior are similar to their theme of professional behaviors, and the category of inadequate interpersonal skills is comparable to their theme of interpersonal behaviors. Inability to regulate emotions is analogous to their theme of intrapersonal behaviors. Because they were examining clinical training standards, there was no mention of academic skills, yet this type of PPC was cited as a concern by many of the respondents in this study.


Examination of these data leads to questions about how counseling programs admit students. Both academic skills and interpersonal skills are areas that can be addressed through the admissions process. Smaby, Maddox, Richmond, Lepkowski, and Packman (2005) found that undergraduate GPA and GRE Verbal scores could be predictive of scores on the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE), which focus on knowledge, but were not highly predictive of personal development. Given the level of concern over academic skills, using these cognitive measures is important, but expanding the way of assessing academic ability also needs to be sensitive to issues around diversity and bias in standardized measures.


In a survey on admission screening measures, training directors indicated that the personal interview was the most effective screening measure (Leverett-Main, 2004). Using creative group strategies during the admission process has been advocated to help assess academic potential as well as dispositions (Swank & Smith-Adcock, 2013). Smith, Robinson, and Young (2007) found that an assessment of wellness might uncover issues around psychological distress that could affect performance in a counseling graduate education program.


Previous research has indicated that faculty members have concerns about addressing PPC because of their desire to be supportive of students (Johnson et al., 2008; Kerl et al., 2002), which would support the concept of the empathy veil (Brown-Rice & Furr, 2014). In this study, 53% of respondents reported struggling emotionally to balance empathy with their gatekeeping duties to intercede with a counselor-in-training with PPC. When the open-ended responses were reviewed, participants’ responses supported this empathetic struggle. For example, one respondent stated, “I have heard many times how a grade should be considered through compassion for student circumstances rather than demonstrated competency.” Another participant provided, “Our empathy wants to give them another chance, but our ethics don’t necessarily allow for it. It’s a struggle for me. It is not a part of the job that I anticipated. Although I remember learning the concept in my doctoral program, I wasn’t prepared to address it.” Therefore, it would appear that these counselor educators are struggling with empathy veils.


When looking at other roadblocks (e.g., lack of peer and institutional support, diversity in gatekeeping, threat of litigation or recrimination from a counselor-in-training), there were some interesting findings. Previous research has found a lack of support for counselor educators from administration and colleagues in dealing with problematic students (Gizara & Forrest, 2004; Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). This concern has been found to be especially true for field supervisors (Bogo, Regehr, Power, & Regehr, 2007; Homonoff, 2008). However, the results of the current study found that only 13% stated they did not feel supported by their chair or colleagues to address a student who demonstrated PPC. The open-ended responses supported these findings. For example, participants stated, “We have a culture and climate of supporting our gatekeeping role in the counseling profession”; “My colleagues and I work as a team in addressing student concerns”; and “I feel supported by my chair and department when dealing with such issues. We deal with these issues as a department. No one is alone in addressing such issues.” Therefore, for this study, lack of institutional and peer support do not seem to be roadblocks. This could be due to the fact that all the participants in this study worked at programs that were accredited by CACREP. CACREP (2016) requires a procedure for addressing student professional and personal development. Counselor educators at programs that are not CACREP-accredited may report different findings. A limitation of this study is that only faculty from CACREP-accredited programs were contacted. Future research focusing on non-CACREP programs and site supervisors regarding this issue may be beneficial. Those working in the field may not have a deep understanding of the role of gatekeeping and may need to develop clear guidelines for their role as supervisors for both counselors-in-training and for counselors seeking licensure.


When the counselor-in-training was from a different cultural background than the counselor educator, 38% of the respondents expressed concern about appearing culturally insensitive, and 36% were concerned about allegations of discrimination. Because this survey was a self-report measure, there is risk that some participants provided answers they considered to be socially desirable (which is a limitation of the study). The field of counseling is committed to multicultural competence in skills, knowledge and awareness, which could make it difficult for counselor educators to acknowledge problematic behaviors in students who are different from themselves. Research has indicated that White counselors tend to favor the colorblind approach in disposition cases (Neville, Lilly, Duran, Lee, & Browne, 2000). Yet fear of responding in a way that appears insensitive may have contributed to responding in socially desirable ways on this instrument. More exploration is needed in this area. While recent literature has addressed how to be culturally responsive when intervening with counseling students’ problematic behavior (Goodrich & Shin, 2013), there is a lack of research regarding culturally responsive performance standards. Until the counseling profession establishes clear performance expectations that are culturally sensitive, the tension between colorblind and culture-attentive expectations will continue to complicate responding to PPC. For example, class performance often has an evaluation component concerning class participation. If a student is from a culture where students do not contribute unless called upon by the professor, then this student may perform poorly because of not understanding expectations. The professor needs to be sensitive to this type of difference and work with the student to develop ways of being successful.


Few participants reported involvement in a legal action related to gatekeeping and remediation with a student demonstrating PPC; however, 30% stated they were reluctant to address a student for fear of retaliation from the student. Given that counselor educators who have been involved in such cases have disclosed the emotional toll these processes take on a program and its faculty members (Dugger & Francis, 2014; McAdams et al., 2007), it seems understandable that there is concern. Therefore, support from ACA, resources in the form of consultation with other campuses and endorsement of gatekeeping processes from one’s own campus are essential in navigating this demanding process. Although legal actions are not common, developing appropriate gatekeeping procedures will help prevent negative outcomes (Dugger & Francis, 2014).


In addition, Brown-Rice and Furr (2014) provided that counselor educators and supervisors should “maintain appropriate ethical boundaries and avoid dual relationships with counselors-in-training, inform and educate themselves regarding the proper gatekeeping protocols and limit their own hypocrisy regarding acting in a competent and ethical manner” (p. 5). There has been substantial research and discussion regarding ethical boundaries, dual relationships and establishing proper gatekeeping procedures (Brown, 2013; Kolbert, Morgan, & Brendel, 2002; Morrissette & Gadbois, 2006; Ziomek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010). However, there seems to be a lack of attention to the competence of counselor educators and how counselors-in-training perceive educators’ professional and personal competence. Do students see faculty members engaging in the same attitudes, skills, behaviors and self-awareness that they are required to adhere to? Are counselor educators modeling the behaviors they want to see in their students or do they hold students to different standards?


Almost all the participants (94%) provided they were aware of their programs’ procedures regarding how to address problematic behavior, and 87% were aware of the appropriate intervention to take with students with PPC. However, only 38% stated they had received training from their program regarding how to intervene with a problematic student. In the open-ended responses, participants stated that their programs had established procedures and all faculty members were aware of them; however, they also reported that PPC were minimized or not addressed. For example, one participant provided, “while there is often a policy in place . . . I find that colleagues fail to follow that policy in practice.” Another respondent stated, “It is also up to the adviser to address the issue with the student and create a plan of improvement. Not all faculty do this and this leads to students receiving different treatment.” Additionally, a participant shared that colleagues were resistant to “address inappropriate student attitudes, dispositions, personality characteristics, and behaviors unless they reach such a critical threshold that they pose a significant threat to clients or, in some cases, faculty egos.” It also appears that how a student is addressed may be related to faculty dynamics. For example, “Political alliances among faculty play a major role in determining which students are targeted for intervention.”


Participants overwhelmingly reported they were aware of their programs’ procedures and the appropriate interventions to take when they encounter counselors-in-training with PPC. However, they also reported that they struggle with their gatekeeping duties due to empathy, diversity issues and fear of recrimination; half of the participants (51%) stated they would like more information regarding how to identify students with PPC, and 61% would like more information on how to respond to these students. Apparently, counseling programs are doing a good job developing procedures and communicating these procedures to faculty members, as recommended by Gaubatz and Vera (2002). But there remains a disconnect between knowledge about procedures and the ability to implement a response to PPC that may be related to the roadblocks identified in this study.


Counselor educators and supervisors know what they are supposed to do if a PPC has been clearly delineated; however, they struggle with identifying problematic behavior that reaches a threshold of needing to be formally addressed and taking action related to problematic student behaviors. The gap between the recognition that a student is not meeting expectations and the point where formal action is initiated may be filled with the counselor educators’ own beliefs about how they can fix the problem as well as their own anxieties related to the barriers discovered in this study. The recognition of and intervention with students with PPC can be further complicated by counselor educators having to negotiate faculty politics. It would seem that more attention is needed on assisting counselor educators in negotiating these barriers to ensure students do not gateslip.




     The results of this current study provide insight that educators are aware of counseling students with problematic behaviors, and these behaviors are impacting the learning environment, other students in the program and personal stress. It also appears that the largest roadblock present and impacting counselor educators’ ability to engage in gatekeeping procedures relates to their empathy veils. The authors of this article perceive that there is a struggle for counselor educators between balancing compassion for students’ life circumstances and developmental level with holding them to an acceptable level of professional competence. Counselor educators know it is their responsibility to engage in ethical gatekeeping procedures; however, they do not want to be excessively critical of students. Having an understanding of the empathy veil will assist educators in finding the balance between challenging and supporting students. Counselor educators must not accept students with PPC into their programs or allow them to move on without confronting and remediating their problematic behaviors. Educators need to do their due diligence and be willing to lift their empathy veils and engage in their gatekeeping responsibilities.


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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Kathleen Brown-Rice, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota. Susan Furr is a Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Correspondence can be addressed to Kathleen Brown-Rice, 114E Clark Street, Vermillion, SD 57069,