Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Revisiting Basic Counseling Skills with Children

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Revisiting Basic Counseling Skills with Children

Article excerpt

Although education and training in counseling often focuses on adult clients, most counselors will face the child client at some point in their careers. The burgeoning literature in the field of play therapy suggests that counselors are indeed searching for ways to learn how to address the needs of children in counseling. The challenge to the practicing counselor is how to apply basic counseling skills used in working with adults to counseling with children. Erdman and Lampe (1996, pp. 374-377), in an earlier Journal of Counseling & Development article, offered some helpful ways for counselors to create a suitable physical environment, build trust in the relationship, maintain a helpful attitude, and use questions in work with children. The purpose of revisiting the topic of counseling children is to help counselors to further enhance their skill with the child client in two ways. First, counselors will gain knowledge of how to adapt their counseling microskills for work with children, and, second, they will become acquainted with some common stages and themes that surface in the counseling process with the child client. The overall objective is to expand on the information provided by Erdman and Lampe while sharing their goal of respecting children's cognitive, emotional, and psychological uniqueness.

USE OF MICROSKILLS WITH THE CHILD CLIENT

Experts in the counseling field stress the importance of basic skill acquisition as a foundation for effective counseling (e.g., Egan, 1998; Ivey, 1994). In acquiring basic skills, counselors learn to use microskills, or "communication skill units" (Ivey, 1994, p. 12), that help them to act more purposefully with their clients. These microskills are the threads that the counselor weaves into techniques to help form the intricate tapestry of counseling. The microskills reviewed here are relevant to child counseling and include reflecting client content and feeling as well as reflecting meaning, interpreting, and making use of metaphor. Although descriptions of how to apply these skills to counseling with children often include the acknowledgment that children have different cognitive levels and more limited vocabularies than adults, these descriptions often rely heavily on discovering ways to encourage the verbal communication of children (see Landreth, Baggerly, & Tyndall-Lind, 1999, for examples). The following information helps counselors to adapt their basic skills to meet the child where she or he is at any given moment--whether that is in the world of words (i.e., verbal communication) or in the world of experiencing (i.e., actions, play). Also included is a section on setting limits, a skill deemed by many experts as critical to work with children (James, 1997; Moustakas, 1997; O'Connor, 2000).

Reflecting Content and Feeling

Counselors reflect the content of a client's communications in order to convey an understanding of material explicitly expressed. With adult clients, this translates into reflecting the verbal message communicated. Because children's content may be expressed in actions or play, the counselor working with children must add behavioral tracking to his or her repertoire. In behavioral tracking, the counselor simply reflects to the child what he or she is doing at any particular moment (Kottman, 1995). For example, the counselor says to Jared, age 7, "You're building something," and to Jenny, age 6, "You decided to play with the sand," in response to the behaviors of each child. Behavioral tracking is a way for a counselor to communicate attentiveness to children when they are engaged in play or activities rather than conversation. When using behavioral tracking, it is important to realize that some children, especially those who do not feel safe around adults, may initially find this tracking threatening, in part because they may be accustomed to answering questions in their communications with adults. For example, early in the counseling process, Joshua, age 6, lay down on the floor to color, and the counselor tracked his behavior saying, "You are lying down on the floor to draw. …

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