Standards and Competencies

Standards and competencies in counseling represent attempts to articulate tacit knowledge into criteria and to regulate professional behavior. They are also important as the foundation of efforts in personnel certification and program accreditation. Standards are ubiquitous across modern society. Transnational bodies regulate standards through a representation process. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) creates and manages standards development through technical committees and a six-step process for achieving consensus. The International Accreditation Forum then oversees implementation and conformity across the world through a system of conformity audits managed by disinterested third parties. The American National Standards Institute is the American representative to ISO. Standards, which govern many aspects of technology, exist for quality (ISO-9000 since 1987), for environmental management (ISO-14000 since 1996), and for personnel certification (ISO-17024 since 2003). The ISO/ANSI 17024 standard has implications because certification providers may wish to seek accreditation to document the quality of their programs. An inherent danger of standards and competencies is that they become checklists honored in letter rather than in spirit and replace innovation with adherence.

Nearly a decade ago, standards for career counseling were discussed using a three-C framework of colleagues, competencies, and credentials. Colleagues are often located within professional associations, whereas competencies specify clusters of personal attributes (knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes) related to effective performance of counseling duties and tasks. Credentials cover the traditional domains of government licensing and voluntary certification. Brooke Collison, writing in 2001, used a similar framework of professional associations, accreditation standards, and credentialing

Viewed from this perspective, standards and competencies are ways to develop agreements (and occasionally disagreements) about quality products, processes, programs, and personnel within the counseling profession. Standards are statements to which individuals and organizations can compare their actions, for example, in such key areas of professional performance as testing and assessment, ethics, and graduate education and training. Competencies are behavioral clusters reflecting application of knowledge and skill to achieve superior performance. The key assumption involved in creating and using standards and competencies that achieve quality in counseling products, processes, programs, and personnel will translate into improved counseling outcomes. Standards and competencies in counseling are developed by professional associations and groups, such as the American Counseling Association, the National Career Development Association, and the Council on Accreditation in Counseling and Related Educational Professions (CACREP). They are often the foundation of licensing and certification systems for individual counselors and accreditation systems for counselor education and training programs. The personnel credentialing function is fulfilled by the National Board for Certified Counselors together with its partner, the American Association for State Counseling Boards. The accreditation function is undertaken by CACREP.

Equally pivotal for the counseling profession are general standards in ethics and in testing. In ethics, the American Counseling Association issued its latest Ethical Code in 2005 as a set of eight standards. The American Psychological Association released its most recent set of standards in 2002. In testing, the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing were developed jointly by the American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education and released in 1999 (and are currently under revision). There are 264 testing standards presented with respect to test construction, subgroup bias, and applications of testing. A typical competency system is one developed and validated for Microsoft (by Lominger International), then modified and released free-of-charge to the education sector in six categories of results, courage, organizational skills, individual excellence, operating skills, and strategic skills.

Multicultural Counseling Competencies

In addition to traditional competencies in counselor education and training, a significant emerging set pertains to multicultural counseling competencies (MCC). Thirty-one competencies were developed in 1991 by the Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development and described by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo, and Roderick J. McDavis in 1992. These authors and others have called the counseling discipline to action. A sample competency statement is built around culturally competent counselors “seeking to understand themselves as racial and cultural beings and actively seeking a nonracist identify” (Sue, Arredondo, & Roderick, p. 482). The competencies are statements defined in a matrix framework with three psychological dimensions—beliefs and attitudes, knowledge, and skills—crossed with three characteristics: (1) counselor awareness of own assumptions, values, and biases; (2) understanding the worldview of the multicultural client; and (3) developing appropriate intervention strategies and techniques. In 2002, the American Psychological Association adopted a statement titled “Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists,” which is available at the Web site of that association. Practice and research accomplishments in MCC over the last 15 years are summarized in the 2006 Handbook of Multicultural Competencies in Counseling and Psychology edited by Donald Pope-Davis and colleagues. The handbook includes over 30 chapters in six sections of concepts and theories, assessment, research, practice, and teaching. Various authors provide descriptions and evaluations of scales developed to measure MCC, but the research support is not as robust as desired, or as indicated as in the concluding chapter by Donald Atkinson and Tania Israel. A 2006 meta-analysis reported by Timothy Smith, Madonna Constantine, Todd Dunn, Jared Dinehart, and Jared Montoya, however, shows a consistent effect for multicultural education and a larger effect for theory-based programs.

Developing Standards and Competencies

Finally, whenever standards and competencies are evaluated worldwide, the processes of creation and revision should be scrutinized. Among the important desiderata of quality are engaged stakeholders, a planned and iterative process, public comments, and an approval process involving the professional membership. Revision process and cycles should be considered as well. For example, the American Psychological Association in the mid-1990s revised the accreditation process and principles to counter critiques of a checklist mentality that had arisen. One response to those revisions was a normative or prescriptive training program in counseling psychology such as the one outlined in 1998 by Nancy Murdock and her colleagues.


  1. American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
  2. American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
  3. Collison, B. B. (2001). Professional associations, standards, and credentials in counseling. In D. C. Locke, J. E. Myers, & E. L. Herr (Eds.), The handbook of counseling (pp. 55-68). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Fitzgerald, L., & Osipow, S. (1986). An occupational analysis of counseling psychology: How special is the specialty? American Psychologist, 41, 535-544.
  5. Myers, J. E., & Sweeney, T. J. (2001). Specialties in counseling. In D. C. Locke, J. E. Myers, & E. L. Herr (Eds.), The handbook of counseling (pp. 43-54). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Pope-Davis, D. L., Coleman, H. L. K., Lie, W. M., & Toporek, R. L. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of multicultural competencies in counseling and psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  7. Smith, T. B., Constantine, M., Dunn, T. W., Dinehart, J. M., & Montoya, J. A. (2006). Multicultural education in the mental health professions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 132-145.
  8. Sue, D. W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and standards: A call to the profession. Journal of Counseling and Development, 70, 477-486.

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