Preparing Preservice School Counselors to Serve Students With Disabilities: A Case Study.
School-aged students with disabilities face many challenges when compared to their peers without disabilities, including higher rates of suspension and bullying, lower graduation rates, less representation in advanced courses and gifted programs, increased likelihood of retention, and higher rates of chronic absence from school (National Council on Disability, 2017; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2016). Many of these statistics are more severe for youth of color (e.g., African American, Hispanic, and American Indian), English language learners, and those living in low-income households (National Council on Disability, 2017; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2016). Despite federal laws requiring public schools to provide equitable opportunities for students with disabilities, many inequitable outcomes remain. To comply with ESSA (2015-2016), public schools must improve the educational results for students with disabilities.
According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), school counselors are among the school-based staff members charged with serving students with disabilities through the implementation of a comprehensive school counseling program, which includes serving students directly (e.g., counseling and advising) and indirectly (e.g., advocacy and parent/family collaboration; ASCA, 2016b). Specifically, ASCA (2016b) states that school counselors "strive to assist all students in achieving their full potential, including students with disabilities" (p. 1). Furthermore, the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016a) requires that school counselors "recognize the strengths of students with disabilities as well as their challenges and provide best practices and current research in supporting their academic, career and social/emotional needs" (p. 5). Despite the importance of their role in serving students with disabilities, many school counselors have communicated feeling unprepared and even anxious about serving these students (Kolodinsky, Draves, Schroder, Lindsey, & Zlatev, 2009; Milsom, 2002; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Romano, Paradise, & Green, 2009).
School counselors often become oriented to the profession through their preservice, graduate-level preparation programs (ASCA, 2018). The Ethics Standards for School Counselor Education Faculty (ASCA, 2018) states, "The curriculum for school counselor preparation includes an emphasis on social justice, advocacy, multiculturalism and preparing graduate students to work with a diverse population" (p. 2), such as students with disabilities (ASCA, 2016b). However, according to researchers, school counselor education programs have inconsistently and inadequately prepared preservice school counselors to serve students with disabilities (McEachern, 2003; Milsom & Akos, 2003).
School Counselor Preparation to Serve Students With Disabilities
Most of the existing empirical research examining school counselor preparation related to serving students with disabilities was conducted 10-15 years ago (e.g., Kolodinsky et al., 2009; Milsom, 2002; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Romano et al., 2009). Although the current status of school counselor preparation in this area is unknown, findings from the available research suggest more can be done to help school counselors feel prepared to serve students with disabilities. Specifically, researchers across several studies indicated that school counselors reported feeling unprepared to serve students with disabilities, often referencing gaps in their preservice, graduate-level preparation programs (Kolodinsky et al., 2009; Milsom, 2002; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Romano et al., 2009). In a state-level survey of school counselors' satisfaction (N = 155), Kolodinsky, Draves, Schroder, Lindsey, and Zlatev (2009) found the majority of school counselors reported that their overall graduate program satisfactorily prepared them for their school counseling role, but nearly half of these school counselors (41%) described being unprepared by their program to serve youth with disabilities. In another study, a sample of school counselors in the southern United States (N = 332) agreed with the importance of providing services to students with disabilities; however, their largest concern was feeling unprepared and even anxious about serving this population (Romano et al., 2009).
According to Nichter and Edmonson (2005), just over a third of the school counselors in their study (N = 100) did not feel prepared to serve students with disabilities. When asked about the most important aspects of their preparation to serve students with disabilities, participants indicated previous teaching experience (32%) and workshops and seminars (24%), with fewer (15%) attributing their preparation to preservice graduate programs (Nichter & Edmonson, 2005). In Milsom's (2002) national survey of school counselors (N = 100), participants reported being moderately prepared to serve students with disabilities. At the same time, their preservice graduate preparation was inconsistent: Some participants had disability-related content in every course, while others identified an absence of disability content in all courses (Milsom, 2002).
Reinforcing school counselors' reports of feeling unprepared by their preservice, graduate-level preparation programs to serve students with disabilities, researchers found similar trends when examining the programs directly (McEachern, 2003; Milsom & Akos, 2003). In a national study of preservice school counseling preparation programs spanning 43 states and 146 graduate programs, McEachern (2003) found that only 35% of programs required a course specifically related to students with disabilities and less than one third required preservice school counselors to complete disability-related clinical experiences. Although approximately 75% of counselor educator participants expressed the importance of courses and clinical experience related to students with disabilities, many noted the lack of program resources that adequately prepared preservice school counselors to serve students with disabilities (McEachern, 2003). More than half of the participants were dissatisfied with the extent to which their program prepared preservice school counselors to work with students with disabilities (McEachern, 2003). Milsom and Akos (2003) found that less than half (43%) of the preparation programs in their sample (N = 137) required preservice school counselors to take a course on disabilities. Further, the researchers found that merely 26% of the school counseling preparation programs required practical experience with students with disabilities, most often acquired through meetings (e.g., individualized education program (IEP) or 504 meeting), teacher consultation, and individual student counseling (Milsom & Akos, 2003). At the same time, nearly all (98.5%) of the programs included content on disabilities somewhere in their coursework; however, the study did not examine type and degree of disability content (Milsom & Akos, 2003).
To help school counselors feel more prepared to serve students with disabilities, a plethora of scholars have suggested integrating specific pedagogical components into preservice, graduate-level school counseling preparation programs (e.g., Hall, 2015; McEachern, 2003; Milsom, 2002,2006; Milsom & Akos, 2003; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Studer & Quigney, 2005). For example, several scholars suggested that preservice school counselors have opportunities for direct interaction with students with disabilities, such as providing counseling (McEachern, 2003; Milsom, 2002; Milsom & Akos, 2003; Studer & Quigney, 2005), and experiences shadowing an SPED teacher and observing and interviewing a school counselor regarding their work serving students with disabilities (Hall, 2015). Researchers have also identified the importance of preservice school counselors gaining firsthand experience collaborating with families and allied professionals in the school and community, specifically by attending multidisciplinary team meetings (Studer & Quigney, 2005), while other researchers have suggested incorporating strategies to help increase disability knowledge, such as through guest lectures (Nichter & Edmonson, 2005) and targeted readings (Bell, 2012). Finally, Milsom (2006) addressed the importance of providing school counselors with opportunities to foster self-awareness about the beliefs and attitudes they hold toward students with disabilities.
Most of the strategies mentioned above closely align with Bandura's model of self-efficacy (1998). According to Bandura, self-efficacy refers to confidence in one's ability to successfully engage in a behavior or task. Bandura indicated that self-efficacy can be positively influenced in four ways: (a) mastery or performance accomplishments, which include successfully completing tasks; (b) vicarious experiences, observing others successfully engage in tasks; (c) social persuasion, or receiving encouragement; and (d) physiological states, mainly assisting people to identify and manage negative emotions such as anxiety through offering gradual exposure to situations. Considering the pedagogical strategies above, direct experiences could allow for performance accomplishments, social persuasion (through feedback), and psychological states. Observations might provide opportunities for vicarious experiences and social persuasion, while collaborative work could serve as vicarious learning opportunities. Activities to increase knowledge and self-awareness might tap into social persuasion and psychological states. Although none of the scholars mentioned above made specific connections to self-efficacy, Bandura's model seems appropriate to support the value of many of the pedagogical strategies they suggested in relation to helping preservice school counselors feel more confident and/or more prepared to serve students with disabilities.
Study Rationale and Purpose
Students with disabilities face myriad educational challenges (National Council on Disability, 2017; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2016), and school counselors are charged with providing comprehensive services to help address the needs of all students (ASCA, 2012, 2016b). At the same time, school counselors have described feeling unprepared to serve students with disabilities (Kolodinsky et al., 2009; Milsom, 2002; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Romano et al., 2009), and many preservice school counselor graduate programs have provided inconsistent, inadequate preparation regarding students with disabilities (McEachern, 2003; Milsom & Akos, 2003). Therefore, empirical research regarding school counselor preparation related to students with disabilities is needed, particularly given that the studies found were approximately 10-15 years old.
Scholars have recommended investigating "the most effective ways to prepare future school counselors to work with students with disabilities" (Milsom & Akos, 2003, p. 94) and exploring "the types of curricular experiences in school counseling preparation programs" (McEachern, 2003, p. 321). Most existing research in this area, described previously, has relied on survey methodology and none has described pedagogy or learner outcomes or experiences. Thus, to try to tap into those recommendations in a novel manner, and to examine the gaps in the literature, we used a case study approach to answer the following research question: How do preservice school counselors experience course content and activities related to serving students with disabilities?
According to Yin (2014), "a case study investigates a contemporary phenomenon ... in its real-world context" (p. 2). Likewise, the current case study examined preservice school counselors' experience of course content and activities related to serving students with disabilities, within the real-world context of a preservice, graduate-level school counselor preparation program. Further, case studies are commonly used in the social sciences and often include triangulating multiple data sources (e.g., quantitative and qualitative) along with in-depth descriptions (Yin, 2014). We subscribe to a relativist perspective, believing in the existence of multiple realities. Hence, we collected participants' unique perspectives through focus group interviews and reflection papers (Yin, 2014) and triangulated them with course pre-/postassessments. In the next section, we define the boundaries of the case and describe the pedagogical practices utilized.
The parameters of this case study included a preservice, graduate-level school counselor preparation program focusing specifically on (a) two sections of the course School Culture, Learning, and Classroom Management; (b) the preservice school counselors enrolled in the named course during fall 2015 and fall 2016 semesters; and (c) the corresponding course content, activities, and pedagogical strategies pertaining to students with disabilities. The first author served as instructor for both sections of the course, which was taught in a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) at a large, public university in the Southeastern United States. The course included content on the school counselor's role in building a safe, equitable, and culturally responsive school climate; schoolwide programs; classroom management; and serving special populations such as students with disabilities. To provide further context, the current course addressed myriad CACREP (2016) standards; those most relevant to this study include advocacy related to reducing institutional and social barriers (2.F.1.e), how diverse clients seek help (2.F.2.f), understanding differing abilities and differentiation strategies (2.F.3.h), and the school counselor's role on multidisciplinary teams (5.G.2.d).
In preparing preservice counselors to work with students with disabilities, we integrated into the course many pedagogical recommendations described in the literature review and aligned with Bandura's self-efficacy model (1998), with an emphasis on mastery, vicarious learning, social persuasion, and psychological states. As part of the course requirements, the preservice school counselors completed the following activities: (a) interviewed a school counselor regarding their role serving students with disabilities and wrote a related reflection paper; (b) conducted a 10-hr observation of an SPED teacher working directly and indirectly with students with disabilities, interviewed the SPED teacher, and completed a related reflection paper; (c) created a psychoeducational classroom lesson and described strategies to differentiate content for various youth, including those with disabilities; (d) gave an in-class presentation regarding the needs of and counseling interventions for students with disabilities; and (e) attended a community event for families of students with disabilities. The preservice school counselors also (a) watched a narrated PowerPoint lecture by a school psychologist regarding the SPED assessment process and related stakeholder collaboration; (b) attended a guest lecture by the second author about her experiences as a previous SPED teacher and current parent of two youths with disabilities; and (c) completed relevant readings, lecture content, and in-class reflection discussions. The written and verbal reflection exercises consisted of students describing the activity, their related feelings and thoughts, and future application of the knowledge and skills they gained. Last, participants completed pre-/postassessments at the start and end of the semester, to determine their perceived confidence in their ability to serve students with disabilities (see the Data Collection section below for information on the pre-/postassessments).
Participants in this case study included preservice school counselors who took the School Culture, Learning, and Classroom Management course over the two semesters (N = 20); participants were female (n = 19) and male (n = 1). Of the participants who provided their age (n = 18), the average was 28.5 (SD = 3.9, range = 24-38). Participants described themselves as White (n = 10, 50%), Black/African American (n = 5, 25%), multiracial or multiethnic (n = 3, 15%), and Hispanic/Latina (n = 1,5%); one participant did not respond to that item. Some participants were enrolled in the master's degree program (n = 17, 85%), others were in the educational specialist degree program (n = 2, 10%), and one did not indicate specific degree program (5%).
Regarding their self-reported level of training regarding disabilities and SPED, the participants indicated none (n = 1, 5%), low (n = 17, 85%), or high (n = 2, 10%). Some participants (n = 13, 65%) indicated having completed previous coursework that included disability content, and others (n = 3, 15%) indicated having completed workshops or trainings on disabilities or SPED. Regarding their self-reported level of experience with students with disabilities, the participants indicated none (n = 3, 15%), low (n = 16, 80%), or high (n = 1, 5%). None of the participants reported having a disability, but more than half (n = 13, 60%) indicated having a family member with a disability. The majority of participants (n = 16, 80%) had been employed in jobs where they had opportunities to work with students with disabilities, and some (n = 6, 30%) indicated having volunteer or service learning experiences with this population. Half of participants (n = 10, 50%) indicated having participated in an IEP meeting, and one quarter (n = 5, 25%) were involved in implementing SPED services.
The research team included three faculty members who met over approximately 3 years for study preparation, data collection and analysis, and writing. The first author is an associate professor in counselor education and a previous school counselor and SPED teacher. She earned a master's and a doctoral degree in a CACREP-accredited counselor education and supervision program and currently works in an urban public institution in the southeast. The second author is an associate professor in SPED, a previous SPED teacher, and the mother of two youths with disabilities. She earned a master's and a doctoral degree specializing in SPED and works in the same institution as the first author. The third author is a professor of counselor education and a former school counselor who has worked with and conducted extensive research about students with disabilities. She earned a master's and a doctoral degree in counselor education and currently works at a rural public institution in the southeast. All authors identify as female and White. Throughout the study, the research team discussed their assumptions such as (a) content on disabilities should be included in counselor education program course content and (b) wondering if preservice school counselors would become more comfortable serving students with disabilities after related coursework and practical experiences.
Before data collection began, the first author's Human Subjects Review Committee gave permission to conduct this study. Students were provided with information about the research study prior to class via e-mail and through an in-depth verbal discussion during class, including a description of the study's purpose, informed consent, preassessment, demographic questionnaire, focus group questions, and the syllabus detailing all assignments. Students were given the option to participate without impact to their grade; all students volunteered to participate. Specifically, although all students completed the pre-/ postassessment and assignments as part of the course, each student decided whether or not their assignments were included in the study. Pre-/postassessment documents were anonymous and we collected demographic data separately, to promote deidentification. The demographic questionnaire included questions on gender, age, race/ethnicity, graduate program, and disability status of self and immediate family. It also addressed training, education, and experiences regarding disabilities and SPED (e.g., employment, volunteering/service learning, and completed courses, workshops, and trainings).
Data collection. Case studies use multiple types of quantitative and qualitative data such as interviews, documents, and archival records (Yin, 2014). Similarly, we utilized both quantitative and qualitative data.
Quantitative. We collected quantitative data in a pre-/postassessment format at the beginning and end of the semester through the School Counseling Special Education Confidence Instrument, which was developed for the course. A similar approach was used by Moran and Milsom (2015), who published a case study (N = 15) in Counselor Education and Supervision that involved the use of a mid- and end-of-semester Likert-type scale instrument they created for their course. The instrument in the present study was based on professional recommendations, including the ASCA position statement on school counselors serving students with disabilities (ASCA, 2016b). We piloted the instrument with preservice school counselors (N = 9) at the same university prior to use in the case study; feedback resulted in modifying instrument questions for clarity and format (Nardi, 2014). The instrument consisted of 11 items for which participants were asked to rate their level of confidence to engage in or complete activities related to working with students with disabilities. Items were rated via a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (very low confidence) to 6 (very high confidence; see Table 1).
Qualitative. The research team also collected qualitative data through two means: (a) focus groups and (b) student reflection papers, described previously in the context section. Focus group participants were given the option of using a pseudonym, and the group interviews were audio recorded and transcribed through a secure service. We then compared transcripts to the audio and checked for accuracy. All identifying information were removed from the transcripts and reflection papers before data analysis.
The first author conducted 1-hr focus groups with each class at the end of the semester. One group contained 9 students and the other 11 students. Patton (2015) described focus groups as often including 6-11 participants and lasting 1-2 hr; the groups in this case study fell within those recommended guidelines. The focus group interview included semistructured questions based on the literature review and the study's research question. Sample questions/prompts included "Please tell us about your experiences this semester learning to serve students with disabilities" and "How do your initial reactions/perceptions compare to your current reactions/perceptions regarding working with students with disabilities?" Next, we analyzed the content of participants' individual reflection papers related to disabilities; reflection paper content was described above. In their case study example, Moran and Milsom (2015) analyzed data collected through open-ended student responses.
The third author calculated the quantitative descriptive statistics in Microsoft Excel; the first and second author analyzed the qualitative data using Braun and Clarke's (2006) thematic analysis. According to Braun and Clarke, thematic analysis is a distinct, six-step method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting themes across qualitative data. We followed these six steps: (a) increasing familiarity with the data, (b) systematically creating codes across the data set, (c) developing initial themes, (e) reviewing themes, (f) defining and naming themes, and (g) creating a research report (Braun & Clarke, 2006). First, the research team individually reviewed the qualitative data (i.e., focus group transcripts and reflection papers) multiple times to gain familiarity, making individual notes regarding their reactions and potential codes; we discussed these notes in research meetings. Second, we coded each transcript or paper independently, "working[ing] systematically through the entire data set, giving full and equal attention to each data item-identify[ing] interesting aspects in the data items that may form the basis of repeated patterns" (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 18). After reviewing the documents independently, research team members met for lengthy, in-depth research meetings in which we compared each researchers' independent codes, talking through each discrepant code until reaching complete consensus. Thus, through this consensus coding or researcher triangulation (Hays & Singh, 2012), we reached consensus or intercoder agreement for all codes, across all transcripts and papers. Next, we compiled a lengthy list of codes in an initial codebook. Throughout the coding process, we modified the codebook, adding, collapsing, and expanding codes as needed and agreed on by the research team to reflect the consensus coding. For the third step, researchers individually grouped similar codes together and created themes, then met to discuss potential themes and reach consensus on all themes. Fourth, after deciding on preliminary themes, we reviewed the themes, ensuring that they fit with the codes and data, solidifying the codebook, also known as a thematic map (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Fifth, we defined and named the themes, and last, we wrote and edited the results. Hence, the thematic analysis results comprise findings across multiple types of qualitative data sources (i.e., focus group transcripts and reflection papers), also known as triangulation of data sources (Hays & Singh, 2012).
Strategies for Trustworthiness
To increase the trustworthiness or rigor of the study, first the research team followed case study-specific strategies outlined by Yin (2014): construct validity, internal validity, and reliability. We increased construct validity by gathering and triangulating multiple data sources and gained internal validity by finding patterns in data and addressing rival explanations. We addressed reliability, thereby aiding in replication, by providing a thick, rich description of case study protocol, analysis, and findings. The team also engaged in member checking: reflecting and summarizing participant meaning in focus groups and sending transcripts to participants for accuracy, corrections, and expansion. Common in qualitative studies, the researchers kept an in-depth audit trail including field notes, meeting notes, reflexive journals, coded transcripts, and a codebook (Hays & Singh, 2012). The audit trail was reviewed by an external auditor, a doctoral student with qualitative research training, who provided feedback. As previously described in the Data Analysis section, the research team engaged in lengthy research meetings to consensus code, or reach intercoder agreement, and to discuss biases and strategies to bracket assumptions (Hays & Singh, 2012).
From this case study, the researchers analyzed data to understand how preservice school counselors experience course content and activities related to working with students with disabilities. We discuss quantitative and qualitative data separately in the findings, then explore in the discussion how they triangulated or converged.
Due to the small number of preservice counselors in the classes and lack of statistical power to conduct more sophisticated types of quantitative analyses, the researchers provide descriptive data here. Regarding the School Counseling Special Education Confidence Instrument and per recommendations for analyzing Likert-type scale data (Boone & Boone, 2012), we present frequency (Table 1) and modal data (below). Table 1 includes frequency counts of preassessment responses, followed by postassessment responses in parentheses. The descriptive modal response for all School Counseling Special Education Confidence items are as follows: very low (n = 1 [pre], n = 0 [post]); low (n = 2 [pre], n = 0 [post]); low average (n = 8 [pre], n = 0 [post]); high average (n = 2 [pre], n = 6 [post]); and high (n = 0 [pre], n = 7 [post]). Overall, regarding their experiences with course content and activities related to working with students with disabilities, participants self-reported increased levels of confidence to serve students with disabilities from preassessment to postassessment. They indicated highest confidence to provide support to general education teachers in relation to implementing IEPs or 504 plans, collaborate with SPED teachers, and consult with school psychologists. They reported lower levels of confidence to identify the postsecondary transition needs of students with disabilities.
As a result of thematic analysis, we determined two themes describing how preservice school counselors experienced the course content and activities related to working with students with disabilities. Specifically, these themes were (a) positive experiences and (b) increased knowledge.
Positive experience. Overall, participants described the course content and activities on disabilities positively, which was further described using five subthemes: (a) beneficial, (b) practical, (c) feeling more equipped, (d) gaining a new perspective, and (e) the related counternarrative concerns. First, participants conveyed the beneficial nature of their course experiences as "sincerely rewarding and beneficial," "really eye opening," and providing "important and useful knowledge."
Several participants lauded the applicable, practical nature of their learning experience. One participant stated, "I appreciated being able to see first-hand the concepts and methods we talk about in class," while another reported, "The observation piece was the most meaningful, because it's practical. It's one thing to look at the literature and hear other people's stories, and it's another to ... see it ... that's where I gained the most knowledge."
Participants often conveyed feeling more equipped or knowledgeable and confident in their ability to serve students with disabilities due to "all our presentations, all the readings, and from the observation." For instance, a participant said, "Initially ... I had no experience working with special education. This semester I feel like I have learned so much ... and it doesn't seem as intimidating." Another participant shared: "The fear and apprehension I had initially has dissipated through learning about SPED students as well as observing a SPED teacher."
Many participants discussed obtaining a new perspective as a result of completing this course. One participant said, "My perception is just way different [now]." Comments from two other participants also addressed this: "At the conclusion of my observation, I found that my perception of working with special education students had shifted" and "I really enjoyed this experience because I was able to gather a different perspective on students with disabilities."
Although overall the participants described the course and their perception of increased knowledge and confidence positively, this insight led them to realize the wealth of skills and knowledge needed to adequately serve students with disabilities, which was, at times, intimidating. This counternarrative, or rival explanation (Yin, 2014), included concerns with having enough knowledge to fulfill these responsibilities adequately. One participant was concerned with "not knowing [enough] about a child's disability," another communicated fear "that I might not be able recognize and always get the help needed for all of my students," and a third worried "that I won't have enough education/information on SPED [students] and make a mistake." Thus, participants emphasized many benefits to completing course content and activities on serving students with disabilities and also realized the magnitude of knowledge needed to do so successfully.
Increased knowledge. Participants reported an increase in their knowledge related to disabilities as a result of completing this course, including knowledge pertaining to (a) students, (b) families, (c) procedures, and (d) school staff and community resources. First, participants conveyed greater knowledge about students with disabilities. For instance, several participants described having a better understanding of the spectrum of disabilities: "At the school I observed, there were various types of SPED students from lower level of functioning students ... to those who are higher functioning." Another participant relayed,
My perception originally was that students in special education had very severe disabilities, and it's definitely not that. There's a lot of inclusion classes.... I observed a teacher who co-taught in a special education class, and a lot of those students are average students that needed a few accommodations. My perception is just way different [now].
According to the participants, their experiences in this course also helped normalize their perceptions of students with disabilities. They explained, "I've learned to minimize the perception that this group is so 'different'" and "After learning about this population ... my fears of the unknown have lessened. I've realized that the skills needed to work with this population are no different than any other skills to work with any other group."
The participants valued obtaining greater knowledge about families so that they could better serve students with disabilities and their loved ones. For instance, one participant valued "getting the parents' perspective, so you have that ability to be empathic ... really understanding what they're going though." Another participant communicated, "The good counselors, they just help to make the parent feel warm and kind of normalize it, putting things in their language." Another participant said,
Sit with them [parents] and their feelings while they process. Some can be relieved and are great support systems for their kids, some are in denial.... We experience things at different paces, to be with them, and to facilitate growth." A participant reported increased confidence to assist parents: "The educational piece for parents ... I felt like I could really help parents navigate this.
Another participant mentioned "getting to know how the particular disability has maybe affected the family ... if that's affected them financially, that is definitely something where we could [suggest] services."
Participants also appreciated gaining a greater understanding of disability-related procedures, mentioning "This semester has given me a better understanding of the educational support systems and programs that are in place for special needs students" and "Observing how an IEP meeting is conducted, who is involved, and the accommodations ... [were] the most valuable aspects." A different participant conveyed greater confidence in assisting with SPED procedures:
Just learning about the process ... I knew nothing about it [before] ... was this huge light bulb for me.... Now I feel like I can readily spout to anyone ... especially a parent who [asks]: 'My child has just been diagnosed with a disability, what do I do?'
Finally, participants relayed gaining more disability-specific information about school staff and community resources. For instance, one participant said, "I know who all is working in the schools [with students with disabilities]. I know the staff, the admin, the stakeholders ... I had a lot more clarity on that." Participants voiced their increased awareness of different stakeholders' roles, "realizing about psychologists, social workers, SLPs [speech language pathologists], OTs [occupational therapists], PTs [physical therapists], us counselors, everybody involved," and acquiring "clarity regarding the role of the special education teacher, their day-to-day activities, and their collaboration with the other school [stakeholders]." The participants also gained information on community resources as evidenced by statements such as "I learned that community colleges have transition specialists, rehabilitative services and agencies [that] have job and life skills training to help with the school-to-work transition" and "I enjoyed that you had us go out into the community ... to gain knowledge of what is in our community and to build that list of community resources." Other participants reported learning to "provide community resources.... There's a brochure that a lot of times the school counselors will give out. It lists all of the resources in the city for parents with children with autism or intellectual disabilities" and providing parents with information on support groups: "If we know there's a group that meets in the city ... letting them [parents] know.... They may need to vent or talk to other parents."
As a result of this case study, the researchers learned how a sample of preservice school counselors experienced course content and activities related to serving students with disabilities. To start with, participants described exposure to the disability-specific course content and activities as a positive experience in which they reported gaining greater knowledge and confidence to serve students with disabilities. Their increase in perceived confidence was also verified in the pre-/postassessment. Due to the substantial number of students with identified disabilities in schools (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2016) and the school counselor's role to address these students' complex, school-based needs (ASCA, 2016a, 2016b), feeling knowledgeable about and confident to serve students with disabilities is imperative for practicing school counselors. Although previous studies documented school counselors often feeling unprepared to serve students with disabilities (Kolodinsky et al., 2009; Milsom, 2002; Nichter & Edmonson, 2005; Romano et al., 2009) and related gaps in preservice preparation programs (McEachern, 2003; Milsom & Akos, 2003), the current study produced novel findings, filling a void in the literature. These results also provide some empirical support to McEachern's (2003) recommendation that exposing preservice school counselors to disability-specific course content and experience increases knowledge, comfort, and confidence to serve students with disabilities.
Next, in facilitating the course, the researchers implemented pedagogical recommendations from the literature, also aligned with Bandura's (1998) self-efficacy model. Participants appreciated the pedagogical approaches and, in particular, the practical aspects of the course content and activities. Although numerous researchers suggested the importance of school counselors gaining practical experiences regarding students with disabilities (McEachern, 2003; Milsom, 2002; Milsom & Akos, 2003; Studer & Quigney, 2005), the present study is the first to provide corresponding empirical support. Further, this study extends the literature by providing a thick, rich description of preservice school counselors' related experiences, following recommendations by McEachern (2003) and Milsom and Akos (2003).
The positive outcomes that preservice school counselors reported from the course content and activities indicated that they gained knowledge and confidence even with limited direct interaction with students who have disabilities. That is, the majority of class activities did not require the preservice school counselors to provide counseling or related services directly to students with disabilities. Rather, the participants often observed others engaging in tasks and learned through interactions with various school stakeholders (e.g., school counselors, SPED teachers) and by completing readings, and written and verbal assignments. Assuming that those types of experiences provided opportunities for vicarious learning and social persuasion, and helped decrease anxiety or fears, the results also offer some support for Bandura's (1998) model and the factors that can increase self-efficacy or feelings of confidence.
As a result of their course experiences, participants conveyed a greater understanding of and comfort regarding (a) serving students with a range of disabilities and their families, (b) the role of school- and community-based allied professionals, (c) awareness of available resources, and (d) navigating disability-specific procedures. First, participants reported gaining a more accurate perception of existing disabilities in the public schools, as many had preconceived disability as referring mainly to severe types of disabilities. This finding corresponds with the literature in that the majority of students with disabilities receive services for a specific learning disability (34%) and speech or language impairment (20%; National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Second, the participants' reported increase in knowledge related to collaboration, resources, and procedures may position them well to meet the needs of students with disabilities. According to the literature, school counselors are called to consult, collaborate, and provide resources to families and allied school- and community-based professionals pertaining to disabilities (Milsom, 2006; Studer & Quigney, 2005). In fact, supporting families is especially crucial because caregivers can experience several barriers related to having a child with a disability, including financial, emotional, and familial stressors; challenges coping with diagnoses; and accessing related resources and services (Resch et al., 2010). When discussing available services with these stakeholders, school counselors' understanding of how to navigate disability-related procedures is important, including IEP development and implementation, and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as Section 504 plans (Berens & Erford, 2018).
Finally, in addition to describing positive aspects of the course, participants also expressed some apprehension to serve students with disabilities. Specifically, participants reported that learning about the knowledge and skills needed to adequately serve this population was, at times, daunting. Coleman (2006) described similar findings in their study of counselors' and psychologists' reactions to their preservice multicultural preparation, in which participants reported both benefits and challenges to gaining multicultural experiences. Challenges included grappling with the complexities and depth of their new knowledge. For instance, one participant in Coleman's (2006) study stated, "I've always known that there's a lot I need to learn about groups different from my own--but it's overwhelming sometimes to realize just how much I don't know." Participants in the current study communicated gaining a more accurate perception pertaining to the complexities to adequately serve students with disabilities.
Implications and Future Research
Although the goal of this study was not generalization, the research team suggests overarching implications for school counselor educators to consider when preparing preservice school counselors to serve students with disabilities; we also provide future research suggestions. In regard to preparing preservice school counselors to serve students with disabilities, we suggest that counselor educators be mindful of recommendations from previous empirical research coupled with the results of the current study. First, the results of this study suggest that opportunities to learn about students with disabilities through observation and interaction with stakeholders were valuable. As such, we recommend that counselor educators consider incorporating opportunities for students to observe and interact with school counselors, allied professionals, and SPED teachers as they work directly with students with disabilities. The participants also benefited from time spent with parents, both in formal and informal settings, so facilitating opportunities for parent interaction might be helpful. Finally, based on the research team's results, counselor educators might consider including course readings specific to disability, inviting guest speakers who can offer unique perspectives on disability-related topics, and integrating assignments that allow for application of acquired knowledge. In this case study, we incorporated these types of activities into one course. We posit that infusing disability content in similar ways across multiple courses might lead to even higher levels of perceived confidence.
Research on disability-specific school counseling preparation program content is limited and increasingly outdated. Hence, future research can reevaluate the current trends in preparing preservice school counselors to serve students with disabilities. This could be done through surveying preservice school counseling preparation programs and faculty, utilizing a large, national sample. As such, researchers can determine how programs meet the newly created Ethics Standards for School Counselor Education Faculty (ASCA, 2018) pertaining to students with disabilities. Next, we suggest a need for longitudinal research, although it would be complicated to conceptualize and implement, examining relationships between school counselor preparation specific to disabilities and actual school counselor interactions and effectiveness when serving this population, such as the examination of K-12 student outcomes (e.g., suspension, attendance, graduation). Finally, future research could examine preparing preservice school counselors for working with students who have specific types of disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities, autism, visual impairments) rather than all disability categories.
The results of the study must be considered with limitations of the research methods kept in mind. First, case study research is not representative of samples, and findings should not be generalized to larger populations (Yin, 2014). Thus, the goal of this study is to provide a description of the case under investigation (a preservice, graduate-level school counselor preparation program). Further, although focus group participation can encourage deeper reflection and expansion due to interaction among participants, participants may be less likely to disclose dissimilar perspectives due to social desirability (Hays & Singh, 2012; Patton, 2015). Social desirability may have been a factor in participants' responses because they were in a course led by the first author, although the research team made efforts, as described previously, to mitigate this power differential. As is common in the case study approach, the team created an instrument for this study and its psychometric properties were not assessed (e.g., Moran & Milsom, 2015). Further, as is the case with all research, the present study was affected by the researchers' bias, which was present, however minimized through the previously described trustworthiness strategies.
School counselors are called to address the academic, career, and social/emotional needs of all students--including students with disabilities--through a comprehensive school counseling program (ASCA, 2016a, 2016b). School counselor educators have a similar responsibility to ensure that preservice school counselors receive adequate preparation to serve this unique population, as described in the newly created Ethics Standards for School Counselor Education Faculty (ASCA, 2018). As demonstrated in the present case study, through preparation, school counselor educators may be in a position to help preservice school counselors feel more knowledgeable and confident in meeting the needs of students with disabilities. This increased knowledge and confidence was demonstrated by one participant, who expressed, "These students are just like any other student.... My job is to meet them where they are, take their specific circumstances/needs into consideration, and help them reach their fullest potential."
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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Emily Goodman-Scott is an associate professor, graduate program director and sSchool counseling coordinator in the Counseling Program at Old Dominion University. Prior to that, she was a school counselor and special education teacher, and also provided mental health counseling to youth and their families; she is a licensed school counselor and professional counselor (VA) and a NCC, NCSC, and ACS. Currently she is Chair/President of the Virginia School Counselor Association (2019-2020) and can be followed on Twitter: @e_goodmanscott.
Jonna Bobzien is an associate professor and graduate program director in the Department of Communication Disorders and Special Education at Old Dominion University. She has an emphasis in the areas of severe disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Prior to that she spent 10 years as a special education teacher.
Amy Milsom is a professor and department chair in the Human Development and Psychological Counseling department at Appalachian State University. She holds elementary and secondary school counselor certification as well as LPC, LPC-Supervisor, and NCC credentials. She was named an American Counseling Association Fellow in 2017 and is a past editor of Professional School Counseling.
Emily Goodman-Scott , Jonna Bobzien , and Amy Milsom 
 Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA
 Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA
Emily Goodman Scott, PhD, Old Dominion University, 2128 Education Building II, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA.
Table 1. Participants Pre- and Postassessment Responses to "Check your level of confidence in your ability to ..." Very Low High Item Low Low Avg Avg Identify relevant 3 (0) 5 (0) 9 (3) 2 (14) individual counseling interventions for students with disabilities Identify relevant group 3 (0) 7 (1) 9 (4) 0 (8) counseling interventions for students with disabilities Identify the 4 (0) 9 (0) 4 (9) 3 (10) postsecondary transition planning needs of students with disabilities Identify differentiation 3 (0) 7 (1) 6 (3) 4 (9) strategies for classroom lessons in order to meet the learning needs of students with disabilities Identify school policies, 2 (0) 4 (0) 9 (2) 5 (9) programs, and services that enhance a positive school climate specifically for students with disabilities Serve on a 2 (0) 1 (0) 11 (2) 6 (8) multidisciplinary team to identify students with disabilities Provide support to 3 (0) 3 (0) 7 (3) 6 (4) general education teachers in relation to implementing IEPs or 504 plans Collaborate with SPED 1 (0) 2 (0) 7 (0) 8 (7) teachers to assist students with disabilities Consult with school 1 (0) 3 (0) 5 (2) 9 (4) psychologists regarding students receiving SPED services Explain to a parent how 5 (0) 4 (0) 6 (3) 5 (5) the SPED referral process works Explain to a parent the 5 (0) 4 (0) 7 (1) 4 (6) different types of accommodations that might be available to a student with a disability Provide services to a 2 (0) 5 (0) 8 (2) 4 (12) parent regarding how to support their child with a disability Provide school counseling 2 (0) 2 (0) 9 (1) 6 (8) services in general to students with disabilities Very Item High High Identify relevant 1 (3) 0 (0) individual counseling interventions for students with disabilities Identify relevant group 1 (7) 0 (0) counseling interventions for students with disabilities Identify the 0 (0) 0 (1) postsecondary transition planning needs of students with disabilities Identify differentiation 0 (6) 0 (1) strategies for classroom lessons in order to meet the learning needs of students with disabilities Identify school policies, 0 (6) 0 (3) programs, and services that enhance a positive school climate specifically for students with disabilities Serve on a 0 (7) 0 (3) multidisciplinary team to identify students with disabilities Provide support to 1 (12) 0 (1) general education teachers in relation to implementing IEPs or 504 plans Collaborate with SPED 2 (9) 0 (4) teachers to assist students with disabilities Consult with school 2 (11) 0 (3) psychologists regarding students receiving SPED services Explain to a parent how (8) 0 (4) the SPED referral process works Explain to a parent the 0 (11) 0 (2) different types of accommodations that might be available to a student with a disability Provide services to a 1 (6) 0 (0) parent regarding how to support their child with a disability Provide school counseling 1 (10) 0 (1) services in general to students with disabilities Note. N = 20. School Counseling Special Education Confidence Instrument results. Preassessment responses are followed by postassessment responses in parentheses. SPED = special education.
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|Title Annotation:||Featured Research|
|Author:||Goodman-Scott, Emily; Bobzien, Jonna; Milsom, Amy|
|Publication:||Professional School Counseling|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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