I used to think that counselling was an inappropriate intervention for children... but I have changed my mind.
When I trained as a counsellor and then started teaching counselling back in the 1990s, students on the diploma course would sometimes ask for my approval to take up a placement working with children in schools. Placements were hard to come by and schools seemed keen to have counsellors but I did not think it was either ethical or safe to offer counselling to children. While I was prepared to consider 16 as the cut-off point rather than 18 (the usual legal definition) my professional judgement at the time was that counsellors should not be working with children.
This was not just because those wanting to work with children were trainees but because I did not see how counselling, which is essentially about exploring autonomy and choice, could work with children. Furthermore, I did not see how the logistics of managing boundaries and confidentially when working within the child's wider system of family and networks could be managed. This aspect in particular seemed complex and insurmountable. Nor was I competent to prepare students for working with children or supervising them once in placement. This was a good ethical decision which I hold to but almost every other aspect of my early views on counselling children have changed.
This week I reflected in this shift within myself as part of the changing landscape. Counsellors are working in schools and this is now a statutory requirement in Wales. In March 2015 the Department for Education launched Counselling in Schools: a blueprint for the future, a guidance document which set out the coalition Government's expectations that over time all schools in England should make counselling services available to their pupils. Moreover there is compelling evidence that early intervention is both powerful and effective. In Wales, for example, research shows that 86% of children and young people who received counselling did not require an onward referral to further services after completing their sessions.
I have worked closely with Place2Be - a major charity that provides counselling in schools - and I have been inspired and moved by individual stories charting the transformational change and meaningful support that counselling can offer to children. I have understood more clearly what kinds of skills and interventions are helpful and appropriate. In addition, Place2Be's own research shows positive outcomes. In short, counselling children is effective, makes economic sense and is making an enormous difference to the lives of many people.
Some things however have not changed. The need for counsellors to work ethically and safely is still paramount. The need to manage complex boundaries and statutory requirements for safeguarding are indeed complex but they are also surmountable. The need for those working with children to have the necessary specialist skills, knowledge and understanding is critical - and this is the aspect that still needs more effort and focus by all those engaged in delivery, supporting and accrediting this work.
The best organisations like Place2Be offer specialist training to their counsellors and a career progression. There are now also other specialist courses and trainings around the country but there are still far too many counsellors and trainees moving into work with children and young people who do not have the necessary training or competencies and this needs to change. We need a way of benchmarking these required competencies to national standards and a way of ensuring that counsellors working with young clients are working ethically and safely within their scope of practice.
The signs of a national approach to this challenge are already there. The BACP (British Association of for Counselling and Psychotherapy) have produced competencies for 11-18 year olds and the work on competencies for primary school children is almost complete. The BACP's commitment to 'differentiated scope of practice' articulated in their new strategy published in 2016 offers a way forward and signals a long term direction of travel. The vision is that in future professional registers will identify those with the right competencies and experience for working with children and young people - benchmarked against common national standards - rather than therapists self-identifying their areas of expertise beyond their core training.
This is what we must all commit to now as well as celebrating what has already been achieved.
Fiona Ballantine Dykes is Head of Qualifications at the Counselling and Psychotherapy Central Awarding Body (CPCAB), and a judge for Place2Be's Wellbeing in Schools Awards
Place2Be's Wellbeing in Schools Awards, held on Tuesday 22 November, celebrate and recognise ambassadors of positive mental health and highlight the unique contribution that school communities make to the wellbeing of local communities. For more information, visit Place2Be's site