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Check Your Values at the Door
9/1/2008
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Monday September 01, 2008
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight


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My colleague has some strong feelings about U.S. involvement in the Iraqi war. As a result, this school counselor has refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who is applying for an ROTC scholarship. This seems unethical to allow those strong feelings about the war to influence helping a student.

Oftentimes our values conflict with those of others. However, we must continually be vigilant of the influence our values can have on students, who are vulnerable and impressionable. With that vigilance comes an ethical responsibility to maintain the delicate balance between the awareness of our own values and guiding students to make their own decisions.

People develop their values through a complex evolution of personal experiences, world views, culture and interactions with others. As adults, we have had the opportunity to develop our values based on a lifetime’s worth of experiences. However, our students have had fewer life experiences. Their vulnerability alone makes them easily susceptible to outside influences, whether bad or good. As professionals, we must be careful not to force our values on those malleable students but guide them toward making their own decisions.

Although there are some universal values, such as not killing, not having sex with a family member other than a spouse, telling the truth and respecting others’ property, there are some morals specific to the school counseling profession. As early as 1980, Strupp identified common essential counseling values. These values support that clients/students are: entitled to personal freedom; have responsibilities to others and responsibility for conducting their own affairs; have the right to have their individuality respected; and the right not to be dominated, manipulated, coerced or indoctrinated. Additionally, they are entitled to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

Their Values, Not Yours
Most school counselors entered this profession with the intention of honoring the preamble of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, which states that the students have the right to be respected, treated with dignity and gain access to a comprehensive school counseling program for all students. Unfortunately, we may sometimes allow our personal values to take over when working with students, which can then becomes an ethical concern. Although Ethical Standard A.1.1 states that a professional school counselor “respects the student’s values and beliefs and does not impose counselor’s personal values,” school counselors may make value judgments that can negatively affect the student, as in the situation described above. Regardless of how the school counselor feels about U.S. involvement in Iraq, that does not give the school counselor the right to harm a student’s chance of getting a scholarship.

Ethical Standard A.4 explicitly advises school counselors to “be aware of their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and how these apply in a diverse society. Additionally, this standard recommends avoiding harm and not imposing personal values on the students.

Despite the clarity of this ethical standard the question still arises, “How do school counselors know when they are putting their values on a student, and how do they avoid that pitfall?

Professional school counseling is not a form of indoctrination, nor are school counselors to serve as “proper behavior” police. Their job isn’t to teach students moral rules and values or to prevent students from making their own choices based on their values. Admittedly, it can be a fine line to walk between not imposing our values yet helping students develop social skills and self-understanding that will enhance their efforts to become successful adults.

The ethical concerns of imposing values should also include being culturally responsive. It is incumbent upon all school counselors to explore their own cultural identity and how that identity might influence the values and beliefs of the students served. Simply becoming aware of biased language or unwarranted labels and stereotypes may help school counselors become more aware.

School counselors must also begin to recognize areas of conflict between personal and professional values. They must clarify their personal core beliefs and values and ensure their values will not be exposed at the expense of students’ exploration of their own beliefs. Experts identify several considerations for the professional school counselor to explore in an effort to avoid imposing their values on students:

• Check your own values
• Check your power
• Become aware of student’s values and beliefs
• Consider the student’s developmental age
• Make every effort to be honest with yourself, and then be honest with the student
• Evaluate your cultural sensitivity
• Use unbiased language
• Seek supervision
• Seek consultation, especially with someone with different views
• Consider co-counseling
• Use referrals as a last resort as this could be seen as a values statement

Some self-reflection questions that might help school counselors assess their values include:

• What is my position on this issue?
• Where did I develop my views?
• Are my values open to modification?
• Am I open to being challenged by others?
• Do I insist that things remain the same?
• Do I feel so deeply committed to any of my values that I am likely to want my students to accept them?
• When would I feel the need to disclose my values to my students? Why?
• How can I communicate my values without imposing those values on students?
• Do my actions reveal that I respect the principle of clients’
• self-determination that is consistent with their culture?
• How are my own values and beliefs reflected in the manner in which I help my clients set their goals?

It is easy for school counselors to turn personal values and beliefs into an indoctrination forum because students are vulnerable and have less world experience than school counseling practitioners. We must be vigilant in our intentions and must be aware of how we display our own values through our body language, our voice and our behaviors, not to mention our verbal messages and biased language.

Professional school counselors are guides for young people, not recruiters seeking to validate their own values.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. Contact her for references to this article. Williams can be reached at rwilliam@uccs.edu.

To submit your questions for the Legal | Ethical column, e-mail them toethics@schoolcounselor.org.