Social-Cognitive Development, Ethical and Legal Knowledge, and Ethical Decision Making of Counselor Education Students

Article excerpt

Counselors are required to have high levels of social-cognitive development, significant knowledge regarding ethical and legal practice, and sound ethical decision-making processes to provide effective and ethical services to their clients. This study investigated the effect of two counseling ethics courses on 64 master's-level counselor education students' levels of social-cognitive development, ethical and legal knowledge, and ethical decision making. Students' ethical and legal knowledge scores increased significantly, and precourse social-cognitive maturity predicted postcourse ethical and legal knowledge scores. Implications for counselor education and development are discussed.

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Many dynamic processes are inherent to the field of counseling. To effectively negotiate the fluid interactional processes that occur in counseling, professionals are required to navigate a complex knowledge base of ethical and legal tenets that underlie their practice, as well as engage in informed ethical decision making. Theoretically, counselors' ethical and legal knowledge and ethical decision making should be influenced by their level of social-cognitive development. A primary component of counselors' preparation, therefore, is the purposeful promotion of counseling students' social-cognitive development, which is associated with greater empathy, flexibility, perspective-taking, self-care, and wellness (Borders, 1998; Lambie, Smith, & Ieva, 2009; Noam, Young, & Jilnina, 2006; Walter, 2009), while at the same time increasing their abilities to process ethical and legal dilemmas with which they will be faced as professionals. As Sheaffer, Sias, Toriello, and Cubero (2008) noted, "As social-cognitive growth occurs, individuals are better able to be responsive to the clients they serve" (p. 148).

Counselors-in-training begin the development of their ethical and legal knowledge base and decision-making skills while enrolled in counselor education programs; thus, such programs are tasked with disseminating this information in a competent and comprehensive way. In fact, for counselor education programs that are accredited through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2009), activities that foster student development in these areas are a requirement. Likewise, state licensing boards and departments of education that credential/license counselors require that applicants be able to demonstrate a base of ethical and legal knowledge and skills, evidenced by a passing score on licensing or certification examinations (e.g., National Board for Certified Counselors [National Counselor Examination], Virginia Board of Counseling [National Mental Health Counselor Examination], North Carolina State Board of Education [Praxis School Guidance and Counseling Test]). Given that accreditation and licensing/certifying organizations require the development of these counseling competencies in both counselors-in-training and practicing counselors, counselor education programs are tasked with a large responsibility. Therefore, this study sought to determine the impact of counseling ethics courses on students' social-cognitive development, ethical and legal knowledge, and ethical decision making.

Social-Cognitive Development, Ethical and Legal Knowledge, and Ethical Decision Making

The literature notes the importance of social-cognitive development, ethical and legal knowledge, and ethical decision making at both the preparation and the practice levels for counseling. It is important to define each of these constructs to set an accurate context for the

study that follows.

Social-Cognitive Development

Social-cognitive development, also referred to as ego development (Loevinger, 1976, 1998), draws from other stage theories of human development (e.g., Kohlberg, 1981; Piaget, 1926/1955). In Loevinger's (1976, 1998) developmental theory, the ego is a holistic and comprehensive personality construct that incorporates cognitive, moral, sell interpersonal, and character development (Lambie, 2007; Manners & Durkin, 2001). …