Continuing education for individuals in the counseling professions is often required for maintenance of licensure or certification status. Agencies that offer licensing or certification for counselors include state organizations, professional associations, and specialty or national affiliations. The term counselors applies to persons who are licensed or have received specialized training in mental health fields such as rehabilitation counseling, marriage and family counseling, and school counseling. Other professionals who practice counseling may include counseling and clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers.
Continuing education is intended to promote the maintenance and development of professional competency for counselors and other professionals. Not all regulating bodies require counseling professionals to complete continuing education activities, but required continued education has become increasingly common. States and other regulatory bodies typically mandate that counselors who hold licenses or certifications demonstrate their continued competency through completing continuing education activities. Counseling professionals seeking relicensure or recertification will receive, from the agency overseeing the process, details regarding expected continuing education content and format in addition to requirements for amount and frequency of continuing education hours. Completion of the requirements within the time frame gains the counselor certification or licensure for a time period specified by the state or professional organization.
Characteristics of Continuing Education
Continuing education serves to contribute to the sustained knowledge and skill acquisition of counselors beyond their terminal degree, licensure, or certification. Continuing education is referred to as both mandatory continuing education and as lifelong learning. These two perspectives on counselor knowledge and skill acquisition can certainly be related, but they represent different concepts. Mandatory continuing education is a required professional activity for counselors wishing to maintain licensure or certification. Depending on a counselor’s degree or certification, continuing education is mandated by state, agency, or organizational policies. Different governing bodies require different types and amounts of continuing education activities, but in general, continuing education serves to advance and maintain a counselor’s body of knowledge and skills. More specifically, mandated continuing education facilitates continued expertise in counselors’ field of study as well as awareness of new professional developments, and it protects consumers of counseling through instituting a regulated standard of minimum competencies. Lifelong learning, while an incidental effect of mandatory continuing education, can also be recognized as activities counselors engage in to augment preexisting knowledge for the purpose of personal and professional development rather than to fulfill a professional requirement. Although lifelong learning can be understood as a potential outcome of any continuing educational activity, the term continuing education is more commensurate with the formalized professional requirement and therefore mandatory continuing education will be the main focus of this entry.
The content of continuing education activities is sometimes mandated, but it is more often flexible in order to allow counseling professionals to self-select areas of interest or new specializations or skills. States, agencies, and other governing bodies often require licensees and those they certify to obtain knowledge in particular domains to enable counselors to keep their expertise current and to introduce counselors to areas of new professional development. For counselors, those domains vary considerably but can include child abuse, ethics, multiculturalism, and legal issues. Some counseling professionals may be required to access continuing education in a certain topic area for a certain period of recertification or licensure. Continuing education topics reflect the diversity within the fields of counseling and therefore have an extensive scope. For example, school counselors, career counselors, and professors in counseling education will likely choose different counseling-related education opportunities in order to tailor their continued learning. Most regulating agencies approve continuing education opportunities and content endorsed by major national organizations such as the American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, and American Association of Counseling and Development as well as state and regional organizations.
Continuing education opportunities are offered through a variety of organizations, institutions, and agencies. Continuing education activities commonly include attendance at conferences, professional meetings, and workshops; participating in professional activities such as roundtable discussions; teaching; and presenting or publishing professional work. Continuing education activities also encompass didactic activities, including specialized coursework, journal readings, and other independent study.
Literature on continuing education supports the assertion that counselors prefer to engage in local and regional workshops, readings, and independent study to meet continuing education requirements. Because continuing education costs are the responsibility of counselors, or less commonly counselors’ employers, cost may be a factor in counselors’ preferences for continuing education activity format. The format of continuing education may be mandated by state licensing boards or other regulating bodies. Like the content of continuing education activities, the counseling professional is often afforded a considerable amount of decision-making freedom when choosing formats that are most appropriate for accessing topics of interest or that contain required content.
Frequency and Amount
Activities for continuing education are often measured in hours, credits, or units. Formulas for continuing education units often involve a ratio of continuing education units per clock hour of activity. For example, one continuing education unit may equal ten clock hours of an activity. Some regulatory groups require specified numbers of continuing education units, credits, or hours on an annual, biannual, or triennial basis; a minority of regulatory groups have specifications for continuing education to be completed within a 5-year period. All licensing or certification regulatory bodies that require continuing education specify that professionals provide evidence that they have participated in the required number of hours, credits, or units. Some agencies further specify that professionals provide an assessment of whether or not the continuing education knowledge and skills have been learned. Common assessments include a content-specific measure, feedback from a workshop presenter, or reflective comments about the activity.
The amount and frequency of continuing education required varies for professionals within the counseling fields. Because state licensing agencies hold different specifications for continuing education requirements that may differ from a professional’s national affiliations, counselors must work to meet requirements for continuing education for their professional affiliations and their state licensure. There is much variability in the requirements themselves as well as in how professionals choose to meet them. For example, the National Board for Certified Counselors requires 100 hours of continuing education to be accrued within a 5-year period, and the National Association of Social Workers requires that professionals attain 90 hours of continuing education within a 3-year period. Alternatively, the majority of states require psychologists to document participation in 20 to 40 hours of continuing education every 2 years. Despite the range of continuing education requirements across professions within counseling, each governing body requires specific educational activities within a stated time frame for the professionals that the body continues to license or certify.
Current Trends and Future Directions
With the increased prevalence of mandated continuing education, counseling professionals have begun to discuss its impact on fields within counseling. Regulatory bodies and counselors have raised questions about whether or not continuing education should be mandatory, whether continuing education is effective, and whether counselors participate in continuing education activities without a requirement. Discussion has also been raised regarding the disparity between the concept of lifelong learning and mandated continuing education. Proponents in favor of lifelong learning argue that counselors should engage in professional activities and learning opportunities for their own professional and personal development rather than to meet a general requirement. Future research, theory, and discourse will continue to refine the way in which continuing education is used to ensure quality service provision to consumers, teach professionals about new developments within their field, and prevent decline of professional knowledge and skills.
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