History of Counseling

The history of the counseling field, although relatively young, is characterized by its depth and significance. Notably, the field of counseling draws heavily from the broader realm of psychology, and while their histories hold unique elements, counseling and psychology are interconnected branches stemming from the same tree of mental health. The emergence of the counseling field can be traced back to the guidance movement, which arose in response to the growing awareness of the necessity for mental health and guidance counseling aimed at aiding individuals facing pivotal developmental stages. This article delves into the historical backdrop that shaped the evolution of the counseling profession, highlighting key figures who contributed to its development, and shedding light on the formation of institutions that provided a professional framework and standards of accountability. The exploration of this history is guided by three distinct threads: the transformative societal shifts that influenced the profession in response to human needs, the evolution of psychological theories, and the reforms within education systems that played a pivotal role in shaping the counseling landscape.

Counseling in Early 20th Century

The emergence of the counseling profession was intricately intertwined with responses to evolving societal dynamics. In the early 20th century, as counseling was taking its initial steps, a wave of humanistic reform was also sweeping through. This reform placed an amplified emphasis on recognizing the inherent value of every individual. Human qualities like choice, creativity, self-realization, and the inherent worth of all individuals were thrust into the spotlight as focal points for fostering transformative change and intervention. This era of humanistic reform heralded transformations across various aspects of society. Institutions like prisons, asylums, and factories experienced shifts aligned with these humanistic principles, steering their focus toward treating all clients, irrespective of their circumstances, in a manner that acknowledged and nurtured their potential for success and healing. Simultaneously, the educational landscape embarked on a similar journey of transformation, embracing humanistic education. This approach encompassed student-centered learning, with teachers adopting the role of facilitators, nurturing the development of self-actualized students, and promoting student cooperation. The ethos of humanistic reform ushered in a fresh perspective on individuals and their well-being, guiding the trajectory of counseling.

In the midst of this period, the United States was undergoing the profound changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in shifts in societal needs. One of the significant outcomes of this transformative era was the mass migration from rural farms to urban centers. As people flocked to cities to engage in industrial work, overcrowding ensued, leading to escalated disease rates and the inception of slums and poverty. Concurrently, the family structure underwent disruption. Previously, families lived in close proximity, collaborating on work and providing mutual support. The migration to cities, however, upended this familial cohesion, contributing to the increasing isolation of the human population. These shifts engendered new and pressing needs for individuals and families.

In the realm of education, this era witnessed the ongoing advancement of progressive education under the leadership of John Dewey. Central to this movement was the concept of child-centered learning through tangible experiences, with an emphasis on schools mirroring broader societal life. The movement also underscored the significance of respecting the child’s autonomy and integrating a curriculum that enabled children to cultivate personal interests. This curriculum encompassed agricultural education, industrial education, and social education, with a focus on acculturating immigrants. Progressive education, in tandem with the humanistic wave, cast a spotlight on the imperative of addressing the holistic well-being of children, extending beyond the confines of the school environment. Another influential figure in reshaping American education during this period was Horace Mann, often dubbed the father of American education. Mann championed the establishment of a system of common schools—education that was universal, free, and devoid of sectarian bias.

The early trailblazers, including Dewey and Mann, directed their focus towards training, counsel, particularly in education and vocational guidance, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Up until this juncture in history, the mental health realm was predominantly shaped by towering figures like Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Viktor Frankl. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory wielded—and continues to wield—a profound influence over counseling and psychotherapy.

The inception of the 1900s marked the initial emergence of political support for compulsory education, a significant development that transformed the societal landscape. Compulsory education heralded education for all, firmly grounded in the core principle that education is an essential human entitlement. It mandated by law that children receive education, placing the onus on governments to provide education universally. This shift in education played a pivotal role in reducing child labor, leaving an indelible imprint on societal evolution.

Across the Atlantic, in France, Alfred Binet contributed to this changing educational landscape. He was part of a commission focused on addressing intellectual challenges among school children. Rejecting certain original principles of intelligence testing, Binet embarked on crafting intelligence scales. The evolving educational system, responding to urbanization and industrialization, necessitated tools to cater to diverse learning capacities. Binet, alongside physician Theodore Simon, designed a measure of intelligence—a 1905 intelligence scale primarily designed to differentiate slightly “retarded” children from the norm.

Three central figures were instrumental in shaping the early foundations of the counseling profession: Jesse B. Davis, Frank Parsons, and Clifford Beers. Davis, at the forefront of educational reform, established the first public school counseling and guidance programs. As a principal, he had students write about their vocational interests weekly. Davis believed character development was pivotal to averting behavioral issues and fostering positive peer relationships. He drew inspiration from Mann and Dewey, advocating for the integration of vocational development into conventional curricula. The vocational focus aimed to help students comprehend their character and evolve into socially responsible workers.

Parsons, dubbed the father of guidance, founded Boston’s Vocational Bureau in 1908. His belief centered on the notion that a deeper understanding of oneself and available career paths—aptitudes, interests, and resources—empowered individuals to make informed occupational decisions. Parsons’s influential 1909 book, “Choosing a Vocation,” called for school teachers to assume the role of vocational counselors. This prompted other institutions to adopt similar vocational guidance initiatives.

Meanwhile, during this era, Clifford Beers catalyzed the mental health movement with his 1908 work, “A Mind That Found Itself.” This autobiographical account chronicled his institutionalization following a suicide attempt. Horrified by the state of mental health facilities and the ineffectiveness of treatment, Beers committed himself to reforming mental health care. The book exposed the deplorable conditions of mental health institutions, eventually leading to nationwide reform in the treatment of individuals with mental illness. This work laid the groundwork for what would become mental health counseling.

The aforementioned influential factors set the stage for the burgeoning counseling profession, catalyzed by transformations across three major professional movements: guidance counseling and educational reform, mental health reform, and the psychometrics movement. These distinct currents converged to lay the cornerstone for the evolving landscape of counseling practice.

As the 1900s unfolded, a series of events transpired that had far-reaching implications for the profession. The foremost milestone was the establishment of the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA) in 1913. This marked a pivotal step towards uniting individuals dedicated to the scholarly exploration of vocational guidance. In 1915, the NVGA issued its inaugural National Vocational Guidance Bulletin, a publication that quickly gained traction. By 1921, it became a regular publication under the name “National Vocational Guidance Magazine.” This periodical evolved over time, eventually evolving into its present-day incarnation, the Journal of Counseling and Development. The foundation of the NVGA symbolized the earliest endeavors to foster cohesion among those actively engaged in the scholarly pursuit of vocational guidance. During this era, the Smith Hughes Act of 1917 emerged from Congress, furnishing public schools with funds to establish vocational guidance programs independent of standard curriculum courses.

The advent of World War I brought forth a plethora of new challenges for the United States and other participating nations. Confronted with an array of challenges, the U.S. Army commissioned the development of the Army Alpha and Army Beta intelligence tests. These instruments played a vital role in the army’s selection, placement, and training practices for personnel. This marked a turning point, with counseling garnering increasing recognition, particularly as these tests were repurposed for civilian application post-war. This marked the inception of the psychometrics movement—a professional origin that significantly underpins the foundations of the counseling field.

The progressive alignment of these seminal events in guidance counseling, education reform, mental health reform, and psychometrics set the trajectory for the counseling profession’s development, enhancing its scope, influence, and ability to address the diverse needs of individuals and society as a whole.

Counseling in The 1920s


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.

The 1920s marked a pivotal period in the ascension of school guidance’s influence, cementing the profession’s trajectory toward increased specialization. During this era, the focus of training programs shifted, with vocational guidance assuming the forefront position, notably highlighted by Harvard University’s initiatives. The profession was propelled by the confluence of theories of education and governmental backing for guidance services aimed at war veterans. Within this milieu, the recognition of vocational assessment and guidance’s significance acted as a driving force, propelling counseling toward a more robust form of development while emphasizing the need for enhanced professionalism.

In response to this gravitational force, the first standards for occupational inventories took shape, accompanied by guidelines governing their development and evaluation. These milestones provided a substantial boost to the psychometric evaluation of psychological instruments, cultivating an environment conducive to their systematic refinement. During this epoch, the medical model and testing predominantly shaped the primary orientation of the field.

The advent of standardized development and evaluation protocols led to a surge in the publication of psychological assessment tools, most notably exemplified by the Strong Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB). Edward Strong, in 1927, created and introduced the Strong Vocational Interest Blank, a landmark achievement subsequently known as the Strong Interest Inventory. The foundation of the Strong Vocational Interest Blank was rooted in the premise that an individual’s patterns of interest could serve as a reliable indicator of potential occupational choices. The inventory offered insights into the occupations where individuals would likely experience satisfaction and perhaps pursue long-term engagement.

This confluence of developments during the 1920s, including the rise of vocational guidance, the formulation of standards for psychological instruments, and the creation of influential tools such as the Strong Interest Inventory, propelled the counseling profession into a new phase of focused growth and professionalization. This era laid the groundwork for the evolution of counseling practice and the subsequent expansion of its domains in the decades to come.

Counseling in The 1930s

The 1930s witnessed the profound impact of the Great Depression on both researchers and practitioners within the counseling field. This tumultuous period spurred an increased demand for helping processes and employment-focused counseling. Amidst these circumstances, E. G. Williamson formulated the trait-factor theory, building upon Parsons’ concepts with modifications. Williamson’s theory took a direct approach, emphasizing the counselor’s guidance primarily through teaching and mentorship. At its core, trait-factor counseling aimed to characterize behavior through attributes such as aptitudes, achievements, personalities, and interests. By statistically evaluating these traits in conjunction with various factors, the theory aimed to empower individuals towards effective and successful self-development. The prominence of Williamson’s theory peaked during the 1930s and 1940s, notably during its application by the military for selection purposes in World War II.

Parallel to the economic backdrop, the government’s involvement significantly influenced the trajectory of the counseling profession during this era. In 1936, Congress approved the George-Deen Act, enabling the establishment of the Vocational Education Division within the U.S. Office of Education. This act was pivotal in introducing the role of state supervisor of guidance within state education departments. It marked a milestone as it directly allocated funds for vocational guidance counseling, leading to an increased level of support for guidance counselors and their pivotal work.

The U.S. government’s initiatives also included the establishment of the U.S. Employment Service, which published the inaugural edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). This groundbreaking publication comprehensively defined jobs across various sectors. Remarkably, the DOT continues to serve as a valuable resource for individuals seeking employment opportunities to this day.

However, amidst these notable advancements, certain professionals within the education and psychology realms voiced criticisms of the guidance movement’s narrow focus. Notably, Edward Thorndike emerged as a prominent critic, expressing concern that the emphasis on the guidance movement was overly restrictive in its scope. This introspection and external critique provided valuable insights that contributed to the ongoing refinement and expansion of counseling practices in subsequent years.

Counseling in The 1940s

The 1940s marked another decade of heightened recognition for counseling, characterized by continued progress and the crystallization of the profession’s identity. Notably, World War II emerged as a pivotal event that significantly shaped the course of counseling during this era. The U.S. government enlisted counselors and psychologists to play instrumental roles in the selection and training of specialists for both military and industrial purposes. The war effort also necessitated a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce. With a considerable number of men engaged in military service, women were called upon to fill the resulting employment gaps. This shift in roles disrupted traditional gender norms and had a profound impact on the evolving workforce landscape.

Concurrently, the 1940s witnessed a burgeoning interest in psychotherapy that further propelled the field of counseling. This period saw the emergence of diverse theoretical perspectives, with Carl Rogers’s client-centered and nondirective theory standing out prominently. Rogers gained prominence following the publication of his influential work, “Counseling and Psychotherapy.” His approach challenged the directive approach advocated by figures like Williamson, emphasizing clients’ responsibility for their own personal growth. Up to this point in history, the counseling and guidance field had primarily centered around testing, assessment, and vocational guidance. However, Rogers’s influence steered the focus towards dynamics within therapeutic relationships, counseling techniques, counselor training, and the redefinition of counseling objectives. Rogers’s theory spearheaded a significant shift in counseling and psychology, although new counseling theories also emerged in tandem.

Post-war developments further bolstered the counseling profession. The passage of the George Barden Act in 1946 played a crucial role by allocating vocational education funds for counselor training programs. This encompassed financial support for counselor educators, research endeavors, state-level program supervision, local guidance supervisors, and school counselors. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) extended grants to counselors and psychologists and facilitated internships for graduate students. The synergy between the George Barden Act and VA support prompted the refinement of graduate training program curricula, thereby providing clearer definition and direction to counseling education.

Counseling in The 1950s

The 1950s marked a period of significant evolution and professional maturation for the counseling field, building upon the transformative changes of the preceding decade. As previously noted, the development of the counseling profession unfolded in tandem with major historical events, and the 1950s were no exception, characterized by pivotal occurrences such as the launch of Sputnik, the baby boom, the women’s rights movement, and the civil rights movement. Amidst these national transformations, the counseling profession underwent further transformative shifts, including the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), advancements in professionalization, the emergence of novel guidance and counseling theories, and the establishment of diverse marriage and family counseling approaches.

Prompted by the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was enacted to enhance education in mathematics, science, and foreign languages. While its primary goal was to identify students with aptitudes in these disciplines, the NDEA also allocated funds for the enhancement of school counseling programs and the training of counselors. Consequently, the 1950s witnessed a substantial increase in the number of school counselors across the nation.

In parallel with the burgeoning population of counselors, the counseling profession itself underwent dynamic growth and transformation. The year 1952 marked significant milestones, including the establishment of the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA), the creation of Division 17—Counseling Psychology—within the American Psychological Association, and the founding of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). The ASCA, formed a year before, soon became a division of the APGA, cementing its role in the professional landscape.

The 1950s also witnessed the emergence of a plethora of novel counseling theories. While the primary theoretical orientations until then included psychoanalysis, trait-factor theories, client-centered theories, and behavioral theories, this era saw the introduction of cognitive theories, learning theories, and career theories. Additionally, the field of marriage and family therapy experienced significant growth, with influential figures like Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir, Jay Haley, Murray Bowen, Carl Whitaker, and Salvador Minuchin further solidifying the movement. The marriage and family therapy domain saw profound development as these theorists contributed to shaping the approach’s foundations.

In sum, the 1950s were characterized by multifaceted developments within the counseling profession, underpinned by historical events and marked by advances in educational policy, professionalization, theoretical diversity, and the consolidation of marriage and family therapy.

Counseling in The 1960s

The 1960s witnessed a period of profound societal transformation, fueled by shifting ideologies and monumental events. As the baby boomers entered adulthood, the cultural landscape underwent a seismic shift, departing from the conservatism of the preceding decade. The era was marked by the civil rights movement, characterized by protests, sit-ins, and tragic assassinations. Simultaneously, women were breaking barriers in the workforce, revealing the barriers of the “glass ceiling.” Crime rates and drug use surged, and the nation found itself engaged in the Vietnam War. These transformative societal changes had a ripple effect on the counseling profession, leading to its solidification and a focus on addressing the challenges stemming from these shifts.

In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act was enacted, a pivotal piece of legislation that provided federal funding for community mental health centers. This act revolutionized mental health care by shifting away from institutionalization, offering individuals the chance to receive support within their communities. The act also facilitated the construction of new community mental health centers through the National Institute of Mental Health, creating a foundation for community-based care and opening up employment opportunities for counselors.

The 1960s witnessed a strengthening of professionalism in the counseling field. The American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) published its first code of ethics, enhancing ethical guidelines to protect the public and elevate the standards of practice. The definition of the role and training standards for school counselors were delineated in an APGA report, and the American Psychological Association’s Division 17 continued to refine the role of the counseling psychologist, publishing its inaugural professional journal, The Counseling Psychologist.

Government initiatives also played a significant role in shaping the counseling profession during this period. The establishment of the Education Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC) in 1966, particularly the ERIC section on Counseling and Personnel Services (ERIC/CAPS) at the University of Michigan, provided a comprehensive resource on counseling activities and trends. Conferences on counseling were sponsored, bringing leaders in the field together for collaboration.

Gilbert Wrenn’s seminal work in 1962 further defined the role of the school counselor, highlighting four key functions: counseling students, consulting with parents and educators, analyzing changing student demographics, and coordinating counseling services between schools and communities.

As the profession grew and training standards became more rigorous, the focus on providing quality services intensified. The group counseling movement gained momentum, emphasizing small group interaction, interpersonal growth, and awareness. Influential figures like Abraham Maslow and his humanistic counseling theory, as well as behavioral counseling with its emphasis on learning, contributed to the evolving landscape of counseling theories.

Parallel to societal changes, the counseling profession diversified its employment settings, extending into mental health centers and community agencies. The expansion of counselor training programs led to increased competition for jobs, prompting counselors to seek specialized training. The term “community counselor” emerged, signifying a professional with diverse roles and responsibilities in response to the diversification of job opportunities.

A significant movement during this era centered around state and national licensure for counselors. The challenge of acquiring psychology licensure prompted the APGA to establish a task force focused on counselor licensure. Success was marked by the passage of licensure legislation in Virginia in 1976, with Alabama and Arkansas also implementing licensure by the decade’s end.

Counseling in The 1970s

The 1970s marked a period of increasing strength and consolidation for the counseling profession. The headquarters for the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) found its establishment in Alexandria, Virginia, and a slew of robust divisions were chartered, signifying the profession’s growing cohesion. Among these divisions were 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 known as 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. This diversification of divisions underscored the profession’s multifaceted nature and expanding scope.

During this era, ACES played a pivotal role by releasing its first set of standards for master’s degree programs in counseling. Additionally, ACES approved guidelines for doctoral education in counseling, further advancing the field’s educational standards. The profession’s collective strength was evident in these efforts to establish consistent benchmarks and promote excellence in training and education.

As the profession’s foundation grew stronger, the APGA found itself grappling with questions surrounding professional identity. The focus on personnel and guidance, while historically significant, began to appear increasingly outdated and narrow given the evolving landscape of counseling. This introspection prompted the exploration of broader perspectives that encapsulated the profession’s diverse roles and responsibilities.

The 1970s were characterized by the profession’s rise to prominence, as divisions within the APGA addressed specific areas of expertise. These divisions contributed to the formulation of standards and guidelines, reinforcing the field’s commitment to education, training, and professionalism. Amidst these advancements, the profession’s growing strength and maturity led to a reevaluation of its identity, setting the stage for continued evolution and expansion in the decades to come.

Counseling in The 1980s

The 1980s marked a period of societal challenges, as divorce rates, violent crime, and drug use surged, while new threats like the AIDS epidemic demanded attention. Amidst these complex dynamics, the counseling profession continued its growth and evolution, adapting to address the diverse needs of society.

In 1981, a significant development occurred with the formation of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP). Building on the groundwork laid by ACES in the previous decade, CACREP standardized training programs for counselors at both master’s and doctoral levels across various specializations such as school, community, mental health, marriage and family counseling, and personnel services. This move toward standardized training programs was pivotal in ensuring consistent quality across the profession.

Simultaneously, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) was established in 1983, aiming to provide national certification for counselors. This effort involved the creation of a comprehensive standardized exam covering a range of subject areas crucial to counseling. Successful completion of the exam, along with meeting educational and experiential prerequisites, allowed individuals to attain the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential. The implementation of these accreditation and certification standards attracted more individuals to the counseling field.

The 1980s also witnessed a significant shift in professional identity. The American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD) emerged from the recognition that the previous label “personnel and guidance” no longer encapsulated the multifaceted work of counseling professionals. This change reflected the profession’s growing commitment to a more inclusive and representative identity. This era also saw the establishment of Chi Sigma Iota, an academic and professional honors society founded by Thomas J. Sweeney to promote excellence within the counseling field.

AACD’s membership and divisions expanded during this time, highlighting the profession’s increasing diversification. As developmental theories gained prominence, particularly those of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, there was a growing focus on addressing developmental issues across the lifespan. This era also saw the formation of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD), signifying a heightened emphasis on acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges faced by individuals from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The 1980s were characterized by the counseling profession’s proactive response to the changing societal landscape. As the profession embraced standardization, certification, and an inclusive identity, it solidified its role as a vital contributor to individual well-being and societal progress.

Counseling in The 1990s

The 1990s were marked by a confluence of technological advancement, economic growth, and widely publicized instances of violence, including events like the Los Angeles riots, the World Trade Center bombing, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, and tragic school shootings. Within this complex backdrop, the counseling profession continued its journey towards professional maturity, adapting to new challenges and asserting its role in addressing diverse consumer needs, all while navigating financial constraints.

The decade witnessed the advent of the technology boom, which profoundly impacted various aspects of society. Alongside this, the 1990s saw relatively low unemployment rates, but also grappled with increased incidents of violence that deeply affected public consciousness. Amid these external factors, the counseling profession was undergoing a process of further defining its professional identity and addressing the diverse needs of its consumers. The profession was also grappling with issues like appropriate supervision and restricted funding.

A pivotal moment in the evolution of the profession occurred in 1992 when the American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD) changed its name to the American Counseling Association (ACA), reflecting a more inclusive and comprehensive identity. This shift was symbolic of the profession’s ongoing efforts to align its name with its evolving scope and purpose. During the same year, counseling achieved recognition as a primary mental health profession when it was included in healthcare human resource statistics compiled by the Center for Mental Health Services and the National Institute of Mental Health. Another significant development in 1992 was the formulation of multicultural counseling standards and competencies by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo, and Roderick McDavis, underscoring the profession’s commitment to addressing cultural diversity and competence.

A notable trend during this era was the return to a holistic approach to counseling, emphasizing the importance of understanding the whole person within the context of their life, including factors such as spirituality, family, and occupation. The profession was shifting towards a more comprehensive perspective that considered societal influences on an individual’s well-being.

As the 1990s progressed, organizations established in the previous decades, such as CACREP, Chi Sigma Iota, and NBCC, continued to experience growth and development. More states were enacting licensure legislation for counselors, further legitimizing the profession and ensuring consistent standards of practice. Additionally, both ACA and APA were actively publishing articles and books focused on various aspects of counseling, contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and the enrichment of the profession’s collective understanding.


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