Counselor education professor heads Down Under to conduct research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The tendency to make judgments toward others is a common human trait, and it's one that can have negative effects, especially for therapists who are treating clients. To better understand and help therapists-in-training deal with these problematic reactions, a Penn State researcher will travel to New Zealand and Australia to study a training model he's developed based on 30 years of research.

Throughout his career, Jeff Hayes, professor of education (counselor education), has focused much of his research on therapists’ problematic reactions to their clients, or the tendency to place judgment or react negatively to information and behaviors shared by clients. These reactions, in turn, can have a negative effect on client care.

"There's nothing to be ashamed about in terms of a mental health professional struggling with their own psychological issues. We all do," Hayes said. "We just need to be honest about what those issues are and how they can be addressed effectively so that we can continue helping clients."

All therapists have their own problematic reactions to clients, he said, but learning how to recognize and address them so they do not interfere with a client's therapy can be challenging, especially for counselors-in-training. Many times, graduate students training to become therapists are afraid to acknowledge that they have a problematic reaction for fear that it makes them an incompetent therapist or they will be evaluated negatively by their clinical supervisor. But, Hayes said, that is not true.

"There's this general myth that a good counselor doesn't have problematic reactions or that we shouldn't. But just like a seasoned teacher knows that you're going to have certain reactions to specific kids in the classroom, the seasoned counselor recognizes that you can’t pretend that those reactions don't exist. The question is, what do you do about a problematic reaction so that it doesn't interfere with effectively educating or counseling someone?"

— Jeff Hayes, professor of education (counselor education)

"There's this general myth that a good counselor doesn't have problematic reactions or that we shouldn't," he said. "But just like a seasoned teacher knows that you're going to have certain reactions to specific kids in the classroom, the seasoned counselor recognizes that you can’t pretend that those reactions don't exist. The question is, what do you do about a problematic reaction so that it doesn't interfere with effectively educating or counseling someone?"

But how do therapists recognize their own problematic reactions and what can they do about them? To answer this question, Hayes has partnered with Claire Cartwright, associate professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, to test a training model they developed that incorporates both of their research. In February 2018, he will travel Down Under where he and Cartwright will work with graduate students from eight universities across New Zealand and Australia. They expect to work with a cohort of approximately 125 doctoral students in psychology.

"I'll be introducing the students to a model that I've developed based on my 30 years of research in this area," Hayes said. "I'll combine that with Dr. Cartwright's use of reflective practice to train graduate students to manage their problematic reactions to clients."

The model is based on a theory Hayes developed in the 1980s that identifies five therapist attributes that assist in the management of problematic reactions — self-insight, self-integration, anxiety management, empathy and conceptualizing ability.

"We're going to integrate the model that I've developed and the training that Dr. Cartwright has provided in the past where students will keep a weekly log in which they reflect on the psychotherapy they are providing to a client," he said. "The model asks them to identify specific problematic reactions they had, where those reactions stemmed from in terms of their own unresolved issues, what happened in the session specifically to trigger problematic reactions, how they tried to manage them during the session and how the reaction seemed to affect the session."

To test the effectiveness of the model, Hayes and Cartwright will have two experimental conditions — one where half of the participants do not receive any feedback on their weekly logs until the end of the semester and one where participants receive feedback on a weekly basis.

"We want to know if feedback on log entries is necessary," he said. "That is, does it enhance client outcomes and does it affect supervisors' ratings of students’ ability to manage their problematic reactions to clients?”

Although Hayes has been utilizing his evidence-based model for 30-plus years and it has proven effective, this will be the first time he will conduct training on the model and assess the degree to which that training is effective.

"This is a first for me," Hayes said. "The idea is to take advantage of a network that Dr. Cartwright has developed in New Zealand and Australia, and then try to figure out the necessary and more superfluous parts of the training model and then bring it back and teach students here in the states, as well as experienced counselors and therapists."

Hayes will host his first training at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He also will visit seven other universities and collect data as he trains future counselors. He is looking forward to traveling to the other side of the globe and continuing to build upon research he began as a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.

"I'm looking forward to returning to my research roots and connecting with international colleagues, and then bringing the training back here and refining it based on what we learn from our study," he said, admitting that he also is looking forward to experiencing the 80-degree weather in Australia while State College will be dealing with the effects of winter.

"I think what I am most looking forward to is coming back renewed," he said. "I love the research that I conduct, the classes that I teach and the journal (Psychotherapy Research) that I edit. Having a semester off from teaching to focus on this research project, I think I'll come back with that much more energy for everything that we do here at Penn State."

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Last Updated January 10, 2018