History of Counseling

The history of counseling field, though relatively new, is rich. It is important to note the influence of the broad field of psychology, and though much of the history of each is unique, counseling and psychology are branches of the same mental health tree. The counseling field developed from the guidance movement in response to recognition of a need for mental health and guidance counseling for individuals facing developmental milestones. This article provides a historical context for the development of the counseling profession, the key contributors to the profession, and the development of organizations providing professional context and accountability. An overview focuses on three threads: societal changes that influenced the profession in response to human need, changes in psychological theory, and educational reform.

Counseling in Early 20th Century

The counseling profession developed in many ways from responses to changes in society. In the early 20th century, when counseling was first emerging, humanistic reform, with an increased emphasis on the value of all human beings, was also emerging. Human qualities such as choice, creativity, self-realization, and ultimately the value of all people became the focus of human change and intervention. During this period of humanistic reform, society saw changes in conditions of prisons, asylums, and factories based on the humanistic principles noted above. The focus was toward treating all clients, regardless of circumstance, in a way that regarded and supported their potential for success and remediation. Concurrently, the school system was taking a lead in this transformation through its focus on humanistic education, including student-centered learning with the teacher as a facilitator, development of the self-actualized student, and student cooperation. Humanistic reform led to a new way of viewing the individual and the facilitation of human well-being.

Also during this time, America was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, a time of great change resulting in a shift in human need. One of the primary consequences of the dramatic changes occurring in American society was the movement from farms to the city. As a great influx of people moved to cities to work in industry and in the factories, people were severely overcrowded, which ultimately resulted in an increase in disease and the beginning of slums and poverty. An additional consequence was the disorganization of the family. Before the industrial revolution, families lived close to one another, worked together, and relied on one another for support. Once families moved to the cities to work in the factories, the family structure changed, and the human population became increasingly isolated. These changes created new needs for the individual and the family.

In education, this time period saw the ongoing development of progressive education led by John Dewey. The focus of this movement was child learning through real-world experience and an emphasis on schools reflecting the overall life of society. Also part of this movement was respect for the child and the implementation of a curriculum that allowed for children to develop personal interests; this curriculum included agricultural education, industrial education, and social education with an emphasis on the acculturation of immigrants. Progressive education coupled with the humanistic movement shed light on the growing need to attend to the overall well-being of children, beyond the walls of the school. Another key figure in the change of American schools was Horace Mann, who is often referred to as the father of American education. Mann believed in the development of a system of common schools: universal, free, and nonsectarian education.

These early forerunners (Dewey and Mann) were focused on training and advice, in particular education and vocational guidance, and on interpersonal relationships. To this point in history, the helping professions were dominated by mental health giants such as Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Viktor Frankl. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory had, and continues to have, a profound impact on counseling and psychotherapy.

The early 1900s saw the beginning of political support for compulsory education. Compulsory education allowed for education for all and is based on the fundamental principle that education is a basic human right. Specifically, compulsory education requires by law that children receive education and that government provide education to all. Educating children decreased the number of children in the labor force and was a primary force in the change of society.

During this time in France, Alfred Binet was part of a commission concerned with retardation in school children. Binet rejected some original tenets of intelligence testing and worked on the development of intelligence scales. With the changes in the educational system driven by education reform in a response to urbanization and industrialization, schools needed assistance to handle diverse learning capabilities. Binet developed a scale to differentiate children struggling to learn from those more capable of school demands. Binet collaborated with Theodore Simon, a physician, and together they developed a measure of intelligence. The primary intent of this 1905 intelligence scale was to discriminate between slightly “retarded” children and the normal school population.

Three key figures influenced the early roots of the counseling profession, specifically Jesse B. Davis, Frank Parsons, and Clifford Beers. A front-runner in the response to educational reform, Jesse B. Davis, was the first person to develop public school counseling and guidance programs. As a principal, Davis required his students to write about their vocational interests on a weekly basis. Davis believed that character development was central to preventing behavioral problems and to creating good relationships with other students. Davis was strongly influenced by Mann and Dewey and believed that if children were given proper guidance, the challenges of an increasingly industrialized society could be met. Therefore he advocated for the infusion of vocational development into traditional curriculum. The goals of the vocational focus were to assist students in understanding their character and in becoming socially responsible workers.

Parsons, often called the father of guidance, founded Boston’s Vocational Bureau in 1908. Parsons believed the more people understood themselves and the career choices available to them—specifically their aptitudes, interests, and resources, the more capable they were of making informed and reasonable occupational choices. In 1909 Parsons wrote Choosing a Vocation, a highly influential book that called for the designation of school teachers as vocational counselors. Other schools took Parsons’s example and began implementing their own vocational guidance programs.

During this same time Beers, author of A Mind That Found Itself in 1908, was the impetus for the mental health movement. This book was an autobiographical account of his experience with institutionalization following a suicide attempt. After discovering the condition of these facilities and finding the treatment of mental illness ineffective, Beers committed himself to changing the treatment of the mentally ill. In this book, he exposed the conditions of mental health facilities and eventually prompted national reform in the treatment of persons with mental illness. His work was the forerunner of mental health counseling.

The above professional forces were working toward the development of the counseling profession. Early changes across three professional movements— guidance counseling and educational reform, mental health reform, and the psychometrics movement— came together to create the foundation of the counseling profession.

As the 1900s progressed, several events occurred that impacted the profession. The first event was the founding of the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA) in 1913. In 1915, the NVGA published the first National Vocational Guidance Bulletin, and by 1921 it was publishing it regularly. In 1924, the title was changed to the National Vocational Guidance Magazine. The publication evolved over the years to eventually become the Journal of Counseling and Development, the publication’s current title. The development of the NCGA signified the first effort toward unifying those invested in the pursuit of scholarly information related to vocational guidance. Also during this time, the Smith Hughes Act of 1917 was passed by Congress. This act provided funding for public schools to provide vocational guidance programs and allowed schools to separate their vocational guidance programs from standard curriculum courses.

The beginning of World War I brought many new challenges to the United States and other countries involved in the war. The U.S. Army, in response to one of their challenges, commissioned the development of the Army Alpha and Army Beta intelligence tests. During this time, counseling became increasingly recognized as the army implemented these instruments to assist in selection, placement, and training practices for army personnel. After the war ended, these instruments were used with the civilian population; this marked the beginning of the psycho-metrics movement, one of the professional origins on which the counseling field was largely based.

Counseling in The 1920s

The 1920s saw the emergence of an even greater influence of school guidance. During this time, the profession was becoming increasingly focused, and vocational guidance became the primary focus of training programs, starting with Harvard University. The major influences on the profession at this time were theories of education and governmental support of guidance service for war veterans. Recognition of the importance of vocational assessment and guidance continued to pull the counseling field into more solid development and recognition of the need for increased professionalism. In response to this pull came the development of the first standards for occupational inventories and guidelines for their development and evaluation, providing further impetus for psychometric evaluation. The primary orientation during this time was the medical model and testing.

With the standards for development and evaluation of psychological instruments came an increase in the publication of these materials, most notably the Strong Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB), created and published by Edward Strong in 1927 (now called the Strong Interest Inventory). The Strong Vocational Interest Blank was developed based on the assumption that patterns of individual interests indicate likely occupational choices. The inventory indicated the occupations in which a person will be more likely to be satisfied and perhaps even continue with long-term employment.

Counseling in The 1930s

The Great Depression in the 1930s had a profound influence on both researchers and practitioners; specifically there was an increased need for helping processes and counseling for employment placement. During this time period, E. G. Williamson developed the trait-factor theory based on modifications of Parson’s theory. Williamson’s theory was direct and focused on the counselor’s direction, primarily through teaching and mentoring. The focus of trait-factor counseling was to define behavior by traits such as aptitudes, achievements, personalities, and interest, and based on these and a variety of factors, statistically evaluate them to assist an individual toward becoming an effective and successful individual. Williamson’s theory was most popular in the 1930s and 1940s when it was used by the military in World War II for selection.

In addition to the influence of the economic climate, the greatest influence on the counseling profession during this time may have been the government’s interest in supporting guidance and counseling efforts. In 1936, the George-Deen Act was approved by Congress; this act allowed for the creation of the Vocational Education Division of the U.S. Office of Education. An extension of this act was the introduction of the position of state supervisor of guidance in state departments of education. The George-Deen Act represented the first time funds were directly allocated for vocational guidance counseling, and guidance counselors saw an increase in support for their work.

Also during this time, the U.S. government instituted the U.S. Employment Service, which published the first edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT was the first publication to define jobs of all types. The DOT continues to serve individuals seeking employment to this day.

Despite great strides in the counseling profession during this time, some professionals in the fields of education and psychology were criticizing the narrow focus on the guidance movement. In particular, Edward Thorndike felt that the focus of the guidance movement was too narrow.

Counseling in The 1940s

The 1940s represented another decade of increased recognition for counseling and the ongoing development and definition of the profession. One of the most significant events was World War II. During the war, the U.S. government employed counselors and psychologists to assist in selection and training of specialists for both the military and industry. The war also brought with it a necessary increase in the number of women in the workforce. With so many men fighting in the military, women were needed to fill the vacant positions. The role of women in the workplace during such an important time for the United States radically changed the traditional sex roles formerly dominating the workforce.

Another significant event for the field of counseling that occurred during the 1940s was a growing interest in psychotherapy. There was an emergence of diverse theories—Carl Rogers’s client-centered and nondirective theory in particular. Rogers grew in popularity after the publication of his book Counseling and Psychotherapy. He challenged Williamson’s directive way of working with clients and focused on the clients’ responsibility for their own growth. As is evident from the history to this point, the focus of counseling and guidance prior to Rogers was on testing, assessment, and vocations. Through Rogers’s influence, the focus of counseling shifted to relationship dynamics, counseling technique, training of counselors, and refinement of the goals of the counseling relationship. Rogers’s theory came to the forefront of counseling and psychology theories, but new counseling theories emerged as well.

Following the war, several events occurred that further promoted the counseling profession. The George Barden Act of 1946 was passed, which allocated vocational education funds for counselor training programs: This included funding for counselor educators, research, state program supervision, local guidance supervisors, and school counselors. Also during this time, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) gave grants for counselors and psychologists and paid for internships for graduate students. With the combination of the George Barden Act and support from the VA, graduate training programs began defining their curriculum more clearly.

Counseling in The 1950s

Building on the major changes that occurred during the 1940s, the 1950s saw great changes and the professionalization of counseling. As mentioned previously, the counseling profession developed in the context of historical events. The 1950s were a time of great change with such historical events as the launch of Sputnik, the baby boom, the women’s rights movement, and the civil rights movement. While these events were drastically changing the country, additional simultaneous events were occurring that changed the counseling profession. Specifically, these events were the passing of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), professional developments, the introduction of new guidance and counseling theories, and the emergence of diverse marriage and family counseling theories.

The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was initiated in response to Sputnik, a space satellite launched by the Soviet Union. The purpose of the NDEA was to promote studies in math, science, and foreign languages. The NDEA sought to identify children with particular abilities in these academic areas. Although this was the original intent of NDEA, this act also provided funding for improving school counseling programs and for training counselors. This decade saw the greatest increase in the number of school counselors in a decade.

Concurrent to the growing numbers of counselors nationwide, the profession itself was growing and changing. 1952 saw (1) the establishment of the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA), (2) the establishment of Division 17, the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association, and (3) the founding of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). A year after ASCA was founded, it became a division of the APGA.

Finally, the 1950s saw the emergence of many different theories. Prior to this time there were essentially four primary theoretical orientations: psychoanalysis, trait-factor theories, client-centered theories, and behavioral theories. Within these four primary orientations, practitioners worked with either nondirective or directive counseling, but during this time, new theories emerged, including cognitive theories, behavioral theories, learning theories, and career theories. Also, marriage and family therapy emerged to an even greater extent, and major theorists in the marriage and family therapy field, such as Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir, Jay Haley, Murray Bowen, Carl Whitaker, and Salvador Minuchin were solidifying the marriage and family movement.

Counseling in The 1960s

In the 1960s, the baby boomers were growing up, and the conservatism of the 1950s was changing to reflect a new way of thinking, thus radically changing American culture. The civil rights movement saw sit-ins, protests, and assassinations. During this time, women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, and the National Organization of Women was exposing the “glass ceiling.” Also during this time, crime and drug use were increasing, and the United States was once again at war, this time in Vietnam. The societal changes of the times contributed to many changes in the counseling profession, in particular a solidification of the profession and a focus on the needs created by the societal changes during this time.

In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act was enacted. This act provided federal funding for community mental health centers and was pivotal in changing the dissemination of services for the mentally ill. It allowed for individuals who would formerly have been institutionalized to live in the community and receive mental health support and services. The Community Mental Health Act also provided funding for building new community mental health centers through the National Institute of Mental Health, thus providing additional support for the provision of community-based care. In addition to major developments in the care for the mentally ill, this act provided employment opportunities for counselors.

This decade also saw increased professionalism in the field of counseling. Specifically, the APGA published its first code of ethics, providing guidelines for ethical practice and ultimately protecting the public and increasing professionalism. Also during this time, an APGA report was edited that defined the role of and the training standards for school counselors. The American Psychological Association, Division 17, continued to clarify the definition of the counseling psychologist and published its first professional journal, The Counseling Psychologist.

Another influence of the government on the development of the counseling profession was the 1966 establishment of the Education Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC). Specifically related to the counseling profession was the ERIC section on Counseling and Personnel Services (ERIC/CAPS) at the University of Michigan. The ERIC was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement through the U.S. Department of Education. The ERIC/CAPS provided a comprehensive resource on counseling activities and trends in the United States and internationally. In addition to the development of the database, conferences on counseling were sponsored, bringing together leaders in the profession.

In 1962, Gilbert Wrenn wrote a seminal piece that further defined the role of the school counselor. Specifically, Wrenn wrote that the school counselor should fill four functions: counsel students; consult with parents, teachers, and administrators; study the changing student population and interpret this information for administrators and teachers; and coordinate counseling services in the school and between the school and the community.

As the profession grew and training standards became more rigorous, the provision and regulation of quality services also increased. This decade saw considerable growth in the group movement and a shift toward small group interaction and interpersonal growth and awareness. Other major influences on the profession during this time were the emergence of Maslow’s humanistic counseling theory and of behavioral counseling, which emphasized learning as the root of change.

The counseling profession was paralleling the societal changes of the times. Specifically, counselors were being employed in more diverse settings, such as mental health centers and community agencies. Counselor training programs were also increasing in number, meaning that more counselors were competing for jobs as the programs graduated students. Along with the increased availability of training and more diverse employment opportunities, counselors were seeking and receiving specialized training. The term community counselor began to be used, paralleling the diversification of employment opportunities, with the new title implying a professional with diverse roles and responsibilities.

A pivotal movement in the counseling profession during this decade was for state and national licen-sure. Restrictions on counselors’ ability to acquire psychology licensure led to this movement. The APGA started a task force to address licensure for counselors, and a benchmark for its success was the passing of successful licensure legislation in Virginia in 1976. Two additional states, Alabama and Arkansas, also had licensure legislation by the end of the decade.

Counseling in The 1970s

In the 1970s the profession became increasingly strong. Headquarters for the APGA were established in Alexandria, Virginia, and several strong divisions were chartered, including the Association of Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), the American Mental Health Counseling Association (AMHCA), the Association for Religious and Value Issues in Counseling (now ASERVIC), the Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW), the Association for Non-White Concerns in Personnel and Guidance (ANWC), and the Public Offender Counselor Association. During this time, ACES published its first standards for master’s degree programs in counseling, and it approved guidelines for doctoral education in counseling. As the profession became stronger, the APGA began questioning professional identity, as the personnel and guidance focus seemed increasingly outdated and narrow.

Counseling in The 1980s

The 1980s saw divorce rates increasing, violent crime increasing, and prisons overflowing. Drug use was considered an epidemic with the emergence of crack cocaine, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was claiming lives and demanding attention. The counseling profession continued to grow and to become a distinct profession, ultimately changing in response to divergent societal needs.

In 1981, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) was formed. CACREP revised the original standards developed by ACES in the 1970s. With those standards, they standardized counselor training (counselor education) programs for both master’s and doctoral students in the areas of school, community, mental health, marriage and family counseling, and personnel services.

At the same time, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) was formed in 1983. The initial intent of the NBCC was to certify counselors on a national level. A large part of this process included developing a standardized test covering eight major subject areas: (1) human growth and development, (2) social and cultural foundations, (3) helping relationships, (4) groups, (5) lifestyle and career development, (6) appraisal, (7) research and evaluation, and (8) professional orientation. Passing the exam, meeting experiential and educational requirements, and character references allowed a person to earn the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential. Accreditation and certification standards attracted many to the profession.

A conversation continued from the late 1970s became more prevalent during the 1980s, as leaders in the APGA recognized that “personnel and guidance” no longer fit in describing the work of the members. In response, the APGA was changed to the American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD). Professional identity and commitment was increasingly important to members of AACD. Representative of this commitment was the formation of Chi Sigma Iota, the academic and professional honors society for counselors. Chi Sigma Iota was formed by Thomas J. Sweeney to promote excellence in the counseling profession.

AACD saw an increase in membership and an increase in the number of divisions, highlighting the diversification in the counseling field. Throughout this decade, the focus on developmental issues across the life span was led by developmental theorists such as Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. A new division of the AACD, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) represented an increased focus on recognizing the challenges of counseling individuals from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Counseling in The 1990s

The technology boom, low unemployment rates, and highly publicized violence (the Los Angeles riots, the World Trade Center bombing, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, and school shootings) marked the 1990s. During this time the counseling profession was continuing to define itself professionally, was demanding appropriate supervision in response to the diverse needs of counseling consumers, and was dealing with restricted funding. Two primary influences in the 1990s, in addition to advances in technology, were managed care and an increase in accountability.

In 1992, the AACD instituted another name change, this time to the American Counseling Association (ACA). Also in 1992, counseling was included in the healthcare human resource statistics compiled by the Center for Mental Health Services and the National Institute of Mental Health, marking counseling as a primary mental health profession. A final key event that occurred in 1992 was the writing of multicultural counseling standards and competencies by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo, and Roderick McDavis.

Finally, during this time there was a return to emphasizing counseling the whole person; this meant counselors took into consideration the importance of societal influences and the context of a client’s life, such as his or her spirituality, family, and occupation. Organizations established in the 1970s and 1980s such as CACREP, Chi Sigma Iota, and NBCC experienced continued growth during this time, more states were passing licensure legislation for counselors, and both ACA and APA were publishing articles and books on counseling.


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