Ethical Dilemmas during Training: Students' Perspectives

By Goforth, Anisa N.; Hayter, Carolyn A. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethical Dilemmas during Training: Students' Perspectives


Goforth, Anisa N., Hayter, Carolyn A., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Graduate students are uniquely challenged to learn how to apply ethical codes and principles during practica and internships. The profession of school psychology is driven by a series of ethical codes and principles, including NASP's (2000) Principles for Professional Ethics and APA's (2002) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. These principles guide practicing school psychologists when they encounter ethical dilemmas such as experiencing administrative pressure to act unethically or issuesrelated to assessment confidentiality. Graduate students, however, must understand and apply these principles in the context of their training.

To prepare school psychologists to handle ethical dilemmas, training programs dedicate significant portions of their courses to teaching graduate students the importance of these ethical codes. The greatest learning opportunities, however, often occur during field-based training where the students' ethical decision-making skills are tested. During practica or internships, graduate students often come across ethically challenging situations, including issues of confidentiality, seeing unethical behavior by colleagues, or involvement in multiple relationships with parents or supervisors. These situations are not dissimilar to ethical dilemmas experienced by credentialed school psychologists; however, graduate students experience such dilemmas while under supervision, adding an extra level of complexity to the problem-solving process.

In this article, we provide a discussion of the challenges that some graduate students experience when they encounter ethical dilemmas during school-based practica or internships. Then, based on our perspectives as current graduate students, we provide suggestions to facilitate a positive training experience.

CHALLENGES WHEN FACING AN ETHICAL DILEMMA

Compared to practicing school psychologists, graduate students face unique ethical dilemmas for several reasons. First, ethically challenging situations are often vague, and students may not make the best decision without support from supervisors. For example, as part of her practicum, one of the authors provided group counseling to adolescent girls. During a session, the girls disclosed that they were frequently using drugs and tobacco and having unsafe sex.

It was unclear whether these behaviors should be disclosed to parents or the principal. On the one hand, legal and ethical guidelines may suggest requiring the reporting of underage sex; on the other hand, counseling may help the girls change these behaviors. Sharing confidential information might negatively impact the therapeutic relationship. With support from her supervisor, she came to the conclusion that keeping the information confidential would be important to maintain the relationship, but that she would also monitor the girls' behavior. This situation was complex, and continued supervision helped the intern work through tough ethical decisions.

Second, when facing an ethical dilemma, we may be unsure of how to properly respond. During training experiences, graduate students are often encouraged to be relatively independent and embrace challenging learning opportunities on their own. Consequently, we may hesitate to discuss issues with our supervisors. For example, in our experiences in practica, we came across situations in which children were placed in inappropriate settings, IEPs were written without measureable goals, or there were errors (e.g., incorrect chronological age) in psychoeducational reports. As graduate students, we may avoid discussing these issues with our supervisors because we are worried about critiquing the supervisors' colleagues, or are unsure of the implications. However, choosing not to discuss these issues may be detrimental to children's educational outcomes.

Although attempting challenging situations independently is important for our development as school psychologists, choosing not to inform our supervisor is problematic.

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