April is Counseling Awareness Month! Let’s look at just what goes in to the emergence of a new counselor: the essential field of counselor education.

Millions of Americans receive mental health care from licensed professional counselors every year. Under licensure laws enacted in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, there are over 120,000 currently licensed professional counselors in the US.

But among these many thousands, what differentiates one counselor from another? What quality makes a counselor truly great? Is it empathy, or the ability to work out a client’s issue and develop a personalized course of treatment? Advocacy, where a counselor tirelessly works on the side of the client? Or perhaps flexibility, and the understanding and awareness of a client’s boundaries?

Inevitably, these are all essential to good counseling practice, and it’s in a counselor education program that students are not only able to cultivate these skills, but gain mastery.

Upon entry into a program, most graduate-level counseling students will start with the basics: study via book work, case studies, journal articles, and educational videos linked to introductory courses in Guidance, Career Development, and Professional Issues, as well as more specific course tracts such as Substance Abuse Intervention and Child Development. Paired with skill development exercises, these are theory-heavy components of counselor education.

More advanced students will begin to practice their counseling skills through role-play. During role-play, one student acts as the counselor while another student acts as a client – both roles are necessary for a comprehensive educational experience as the students experience both sides of the counseling practice. The students provide feedback to one another, and the departmental faculty or administrators assess and score the students’ performance. If the session is recorded via a counseling education management system, the students also can review their work and pick out specific areas for improvement.

It isn’t until students are nearing the end of their degree program that they see actual clients. By that point, they’re better able to display empathy, advocacy, and flexibility, and the client will benefit from quality treatment for a free or reduced fee. Review and assessment will have prepared the student to work with a diverse client base in need of specialized treatment.

Counseling is a calling, but counseling practice is learned. Students achieve success through the tutelage of excellent faculty members and a strong curriculum. Even students’ most inherent, intuitive qualities must be cultivated before they can become great counselors.

Follow along with the hashtag #CounselorsHelp and click here for more information on ways to participate in Counseling Awareness Month!

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