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Preservice counselors' knowledge of classmates' problems of professional competency.

Approximately 12% of students in any given mental health program (i.e., counseling, psychology, social work) will be perceived as having sufficient problems that would interfere with their ability to successfully complete the program (Oliver, Bernstein, Anderson, Blashfield, & Roberts, 2004). Gaubatz and Vera (2002) stated that as many as 10% of preservice counselors (PSC) may be ill-suited for the profession. A counseling trainee's problematic behavior is not just related to academic criteria but also to the student's personal qualities and characteristics as well as the student's ability to develop the techniques to facilitate an effective therapeutic client relationship (Duba, Paerz, & Kindsvatter, 2010; Frame & Stevens-Smith, 1995; Gaubatz & Vera, 2002). The ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005) states that "regardless of qualifications, supervisors do not endorse supervisees whom they believe to be impaired in any way that would interfere with the performance of the duties associated with the endorsement" (p. 14). Both the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP, 2009) require counselor educators to engage in an ongoing, systematic process of developmental assessment of each student's appropriateness for the field of counseling. Specifically, educators and supervisors are to engage in a gatekeeping process to ensure that all supervisees have the proper education, skills, attitude, and self-awareness to competently provide counseling services to the public. In particular, if a student is identified as not meeting the requirements of the program, then remedial assistance must be provided, and if the remediation process is not successful, the student is provided with due process according to the institution's policies and procedures.

Researchers have contributed significantly to the literature by providing counselor educators specific protocols and information to assist these educators in establishing gatekeeping and remediation procedures (Bogo, Regehr, Power, & Regehr, 2007; Forrest, Elman, Gizara, & Vacha-Hasse, 1999; Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Kerl & Eichler, 2007; Kress & Protivnak, 2009; Miller & Koerin, 2001; Russell, DuPree, Beggs, Peterson, & Anderson, 2007; Zoimek-Daigle & Christensen, 2010). However, little research has been done regarding how problematic behavior may affect other students in the program, may influence the overall learning environment of the counseling program, or should be reported by fellow PSC to faculty or administration (Gaubatz & Vera, 2006). Specifically, previous research has focused on problematic students and not on how these students affect other students in the program.

Observed PPC

Problems of professional competency (PPC) that result in a student being dismissed from a mental health graduate program are defined in three categories: (a) inadequate academic (Kerl & Eichler, 2007; Rosenberg, Getzelman, Arcinue, & Oren, 2005) or clinical skill levels (Bogo et al., 2007; Busseri, Tyler, & King, 2005); (b) personality and/or psychological unsuitability (Bogo et al., 2007; Busseri et al., 2005; Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Oliver et al., 2004); and (c) inappropriate moral character (Li, Trusty, Nichter, Serres, & Lin, 2007; Mearns &Allen, 1991; Rosenberg et al., 2005; Russell & Peterson, 2003). Typically, counselor educators can distinguish inferior academic performance, and for most students, the ability to complete course work is not the problem. The difficulty arises when students begin their clinical courses (Kerl & Eichler, 2007). Problematic clinical skills include students who overestimated their own abilities, who were reluctant to take risks, and who did not put the needs of the clients first (Bogo et al., 2007).

The area of personality and/or psychological unsuitability is often the most challenging area for counselor educators to define. Many mental health professionals enter the field because of particular, oftentimes traumatic, events that have happened in their own lives (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002; Kerl & Eichler, 2007). Some students may have preexisting conditions that would put them at risk of having or developing PPC (Remley & Herlihy, 2001). If trainees have not done the work to address their personal issues, then they may have difficulty in proficiently accomplishing their counseling duties (Gaubatz & Vera, 2002). Research in the field of psychology has indicated that common problems associated with a student's poor performance were personality disorders, depressive symptoms, adjustment disorder, anxiety symptoms, and alcohol use (Oliver et al., 2004). Gaubatz and Vera (2002, 2006) obtained similar findings in the field of counseling.

The third category of inappropriate moral character is related to ethical violations, unethical behavior, unprofessional demeanor, and poor judgment. An interview of 35 CACREP academic division leaders found that lying, manipulating clients, being disrespectful toward authority, and displaying abusive behavior toward others were indicators of PPC in students (Li et al., 2007). When fellow students were surveyed, it was found that the most common observed PPC in classmates related to inappropriate moral character were breach of confidentiality, cheating on examinations, and being involved in dual relationships (Mearns & Allen, 1991).

Counselor Educator Responses to PPC

Counselor educators face specific challenges when responding to students' PPC; these include emotional conflict over their dual roles (Kerl, Garcia, McCullough, & Maxwell, 2002; Russell et al., 2007; Vacha-Haase, Davenport, & Kerewsky, 2004; Vasquez, 1999), lack of peer and institutional support (Bogo et al., 2007; Gizara & Forrest, 2004), and the threat of litigation or recrimination from students (Frame & Stevens-Smith, 1995; Gaubatz & Vera, 2002). Because counselors often embrace Rogers's (1951) core concepts of genuineness, accurate empathy, and unconditional positive regard, they may be inclined to embrace these same characteristics toward students and feel the need to empathize with students and their struggles rather than intervene with students who are showing signs of PPC (Kerl et al., 2002; Russell et al., 2007). This approach may be especially true when the difficulties facing students are of a personal or psychological nature. Kerl et al. (2002) stated that "it is our observation that faculty of counseling may place too much responsibility on themselves to help or change students who experience interpersonal difficulties" (p. 323).

Gizara and Forrest (2004) reported that educators described the process of interacting with trainees having PPC to be difficult, demanding, and complicated, which was directly related to lack of adequate training in dealing with these types of situations, lack of support received from their agency and colleagues, and the emotional cost to the educator. Counselor educators must balance the needs of the clients, the students, and the institution that employs them. Disagreement regarding faculty members of a counseling program about whether to intervene with a student exhibiting PPC may also be an obstacle. Vacha-Haase et al. (2004) found that 27% of the programs they surveyed reported that failure to intervene with a student was related to the faculty not being able to agree on the type of action to take. Furthermore, some educators did not discuss concerns about students with colleagues in their program because of their expectation that they would receive a negative response from their associates (Gizara & Forrest, 2004).

Another issue for counselor educators is concern over possible legal actions (Vasquez, 1999). Faculty in counselor education programs appear to be reticent to dismiss students for fear of possible litigation and personal recrimination (Frame & Stevens-Smith, 1995). Additionally, Gaubatz and Vera (2002) found that counselor educators are fearful about investigating student deficits because of their concerns regarding litigation and receiving unfavorable teaching evaluations. The fear of litigation has been, to some extent, alleviated by court findings that have favored universities when the institutions follow proper procedures and protocols (Herzog v. Loyola, 2009; Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley et al., 2010; McAdams, Foster, & Ward, 2007).

Preservice Counselors' Responses to PPC

There is limited research regarding how fellow students should respond to classmates who are exhibiting PPC and identifying standard protocols for students to report PPC of peers. The challenges for peers responding to classmates' PPC may be more difficult than those experienced by educators (Foster & McAdams, 2009). Only two studies have focused on students' responses to classmates' PPC (Oliver et al., 2004; Rosenberg et al., 2005), and two research projects were found that examined students' perceptions of peers' PPC and compared them to the educators' perceptions (Gaubatz & Vera, 2006; Mearns & Allen, 1991). Mearns and Allen (1991) found that 95% of students in clinical psychology programs accredited by the American Psychological Association were aware of a classmate having problematic behaviors, personality characteristics, or ethical improprieties that would prevent their classmates from functioning effectively as mental health professionals.

In a study focused on counseling programs, PSC reported that 22% of their classmates had PPC; however, the educators in these counseling programs reported only 9% of the master's-level counseling students had PPC (Gaubatz & Vera, 2006). These authors suggested that the difference between educator and student perceptions of PPC may be related to either students knowing their peers better or students being more judgmental of their classmates. This conclusion may be why PSC believed that 18% of their peers gateslipped through their programs, compared to educators who felt that only 3% of students gateslipped.

In a qualitative study of graduate students in clinical psychology training programs, Oliver et al. (2004) reported that students believed approximately 12% of their peers had behavior that would be considered not to meet their programs' expectations. The students expressed that they were unsure about how to handle these situations. Specifically, 53% of the participants were not aware of their programs' protocols for identifying and responding to classmates with PPC. Rosenberg et al. (2005) also examined graduate-level clinical and counseling psychology students concerning perceptions of classmates' PPC and found that the majority believed the program had no existing or established procedure for dealing with classmates with PPC.

In order to respond to a peer who is experiencing PPC, PSC must first be aware that their classmates have PPC and then be able to engage in ethical decision-making strategies to respond to this awareness. Although students receive instruction in ethics, this training may not be sufficient in helping students understand the strategies needed to respond to a peer with PPC (Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). Students should be provided with detailed information regarding how to intervene with a troubled peer (Forrest, Elman, & Shen Miller, 2008). Rosenberg et al. (2005) found that students did feel that they shared some responsibility in addressing PPC with peers; however, they were unclear about how to address these concerns.

Impact of Problems of Professional Competency on PSC

Researchers have agreed that students are affected by their peers' behaviors and conduct in mental health training programs (Forrest et al., 2008; Gaubatz & Vera, 2006; Loney, 2010; McAdams et al., 2007; Mearns & Allen, 1991; Oliver et al., 2004; Rosenberg et al., 2005; Schwartz-Mette, 2009; Vacha-Haase et al., 2004). However, few studies have been focused on how PPC affect peers in a mental health program. The limited literature available indicates that PSC are affected by peers' PPC in three dimensions: disruption of learning environment (Oliver et al., 2004; Rosenberg et al., 2005), emotional consequences (Mearns & Allen, 1991; Rosenberg et al., 2005), and relationships with counselor educators (Forrest et al., 2008). In terms of disrupting the learning environment, students found that peers with these difficulties interfered with class functioning, limited their participation in class discussions, and affected cohesion in group supervision (Rosenberg et al., 2005). Oliver et al. (2004) found that students viewed their classmates' PPC as increasing their workload and that learning opportunities were lost because too much attention was focused on the troubled peer or educators ignored the problems the peer was causing in the classroom.

The findings of Oliver et al. (2004) suggest that students were resentful of problematic peers for the following reasons: when (a) PPC increased their workload or emotionally exhausted them; (b) learning opportunities were lost because too much attention was focused on the troubled peer; (c) they felt that the faculty was putting off addressing PPC; or (d) a student was allowed to pass through the program without meeting the minimum standards. Rosenberg et al. (2005) found that the most common emotional responses to classmates' PPC were anger and frustration. Students have reported emotional consequences to peers' PPC that included anger, feeling conflicted, frustration, apprehension, annoyance, worry, confusion, helplessness, and guilt (Mearns & Allen, 1991).

Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of PPC on peers is the effect PPC has on the relationship between the students and their educators. Rosenberg et al. (2005) reported that over half of the students in their study were frustrated with faculty for accepting problematic students in the program and not screening them out. Graduate students have been reported to believe that PPC among peers was often inadequately addressed by faculty and university administrators (Loney, 2010; Oliver et al., 2004) and may lose trust in faculty decision making if students perceive that no action is being taken with a peer who is exhibiting PPC (Forrest et al., 2008).

Given the limited research on this issue, the purpose of this study was to answer the following research questions: What types of classmates' PPC do PSC perceive have the greatest impact on them? What do PSC believe is the most significant impact on them as a result of having classmates with PPC in their programs? and What is PSC's knowledge of their programs' protocol for addressing a classmate with PPC? In this study, PPC refers to attitudes and/or behaviors that could interfere with the professional competence of a PSC, including (a) a lack of ability or opposition to acquire and integrate professional standards into one's professional counseling behavior; (b) a lack of ability to attain professional skills and reach an acceptable level of competency; (c) a lack of ability to manage one's stress, psychological dysfunction, or emotional responses that may have an impact on professional performance; or (d) engagement in unethical behavior (Falender, Collins, & Shafranske, 2009).


Participants and Procedure

Recruitment of participants was conducted by an e-mail to the department chairs for each of the CACREP-accredited programs in the United States and an e-mail sent via COUNSGRADS electronic mailing list. The e-mail directed participants to an online survey titled Problems of Professional Competency Survey (PPCS). The precise number of PSC enrolled in CACREP-accredited programs is not known or accessible; therefore, it is impossible to report the response rate for this study. Given the inability to determine the size of the population, we wanted to ensure that the sample size was sufficient. When the size of the population is over 5,000, sample size becomes irrelevant and 400 is adequate (Gay, Mill, & Airasian, 2009). Therefore, researchers estimated the population for this study to be over 5,000; as a result, a sample size of at least 400 was satisfactory to represent the population of this study. A total of 413 PSC responded to the invitation to take part in this study; thus, the target sample size was met, resulting in a response rate of 8%. Respondents with missing or invalid data (n = 24, less than 6%) were eliminated using listwise deletion, leaving a total number of 389 participants for this study. Listwise deletion involves eliminating participants with missing data on any of the variables and is the appropriate mechanism for the removal of missing data due to this study's sufficient sample size, and the missing values were randomly distributed across the data set (Sterner, 2011).

Of the 389 participants (346 women, 43 men), 317 self-identified their cultural/racial background as Caucasian, 35 as African American, 12 as Hispanic/Latino, 12 as multiracial, 11 as Asian/Pacific Islander, and two self-identified as Native American. A total of 221 participants reported that they were between 20 and 29 years, 84 were between 30 and 39 years, 47 were between 40 and 49 years, and 37 were 50 years old or older. The majority of the respondents identified as heterosexual (n = 360), 17 as bisexual, and 12 as gay or lesbian. Regarding the participants' counseling programs' location in the United States, 160 indicated that their programs were in the South, 122 were in the Northeast, 85 were in the Midwest, and 22 were in the West.

We could not identify a developed instrument that would allow us to answer the research questions for this study; therefore, we developed the PPCS. The survey items were derived from the literature regarding PPC in the counseling, psychology, and social work professions. The PPCS is a four-section self-report instrument. Section I was Demographic Information. Section II, PSC Knowledge of Classmates' PPC, included evaluation of the number of classmates observed with PPC with specific information regarding one classmate with PPC that had the greatest impact on the participant. Section III, PSC Perceptions of the Impact of Classmates' PPC, was divided into three subscales: (a) Subscale 1--what types of classmates' PPC participants felt had the greatest impact on them, (b) Subscale 2--how participants were specifically affected by classmates with PPC, and (c) Subscale 3--participants' perceptions as to how gatekeeping procedures regarding classmates with PPC have affected them. The answers to all these questions were based on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Section IV, PSC Knowledge of Program's Protocol for Addressing Problems of PPC, included questions relating to responsibility for being aware of PPC and programs' protocols for addressing PPC. The first nine questions were evaluated on a 5-point Likert scale. The 10th item was unstructured to provide a place for the participants to provide additional information.

To establish content validity and reliability, the first author conducted an expert review and two pilot studies of the survey. The input from two professors who have expertise in the areas of ethics, supervision, and gatekeeping was solicited to determine the appropriateness of the survey content, design, and format. The first pilot study included recent graduates from a master's program in counseling who were asked to look for clarity and conciseness of the survey questions and provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Based upon the responses of the pilot participants and the results of data analysis, the survey was edited to provide a more concise and efficient design. Subsequently, a second pilot study was conducted with recent graduates of master's programs. Participants reported no significant problems completing the online survey; therefore, no changes were made.

Data Analysis

The Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS, Version 18.0) software was used to screen the data, gather descriptive data, analyze the data, and determine frequencies and percentages for the demographic variables. To answer the research questions, we analyzed data by creating tables using SPSS to determine frequencies, averages, and percentages. Furthermore, a principal components analysis (PCA) was used to reduce the survey items in Section III of the PPCS to principal components. A PCA is typically the preferred method of factor extraction "when the underlying structure is truly exploratory" (Mertler & Vannatta, 2010, p. 234).


Of the 389 participants, the majority (74%, n = 288) reported that they had observed classmates with PPC in their programs. Five percent (n = 19) of the respondents did not know if there were classmates with PPC in their programs; 21% (n = 82) had not observed any classmates with PPC. Of the 288 respondents who had observed classmates with PPC, 53% (n = 152) believed that they were affected by a problematic peer or peers.

Research Question 1: What Types of Classmates' PPC Do PSC Perceive Have the Greatest Impact on Them?

For the 152 PSC who identified a particular classmate with PPC, the type of PPC that had the greatest impact on them was assessed. The PPC that most affected them were related to difficulty regulating emotions (19%), inadequate academic skills (15%), psychological unsuitability (15%), inadequate clinical skills (13%), unprofessional behavior (10%), poor moral character (3%), ethical violation (3%), personality disorder (2%), and other PPC (i.e., racism, multicultural insensitivity, substance use/abuse, lack of self-awareness, immaturity, unkindness, forcing religious beliefs; 9%). In addition, when the results were analyzed for all participants (N= 389), it was found that 68% (n = 264) indicated that they had been affected by classmates' specific type of PPC. The PPC that had the greatest impact on most respondents were related to difficulty regulating emotions (58%), inadequate academic skills (56%), unprofessional behavior (54%), inadequate clinical skills (44%), poor moral character (37%), psychological dysfunction (31%), ethical violations (29%), and personality disorders (18%).

Research Question 2: What Do PSC Believe Is the Most Significant Impact of Having Classmates With PPC in Their Programs?

Of the 152 participants who reported that they believed they were affected by a specific peer with PPC in Section II, 53% (n = 81) believed the most significant impact on them was a disruption in the learning environment, 15% (n = 23) believed that it affected their relationship with this student away from class, 12% (n = 18) believed that it increased their workload, and 6% (n = 9) believed that the most significant impact was receiving less attention from faculty. Furthermore, 14% (n = 21) of the respondents believed that the most significant impact on them was related to other concerns (i.e., questioned credibility of program and/or profession, created interpersonal conflict, resulted in a lower standard of learning, helped the respondent realize how not to behave).

All participants completed Section III of the PPCS, and their responses for strongly agree and agree were combined to report the subsequent findings; therefore, percentages and sample size do not equal 100 or 389. Each of the participants reported the degree of agreement or disagreement regarding their belief of the specific type of impact on them by a classmate with PPC. Eighty-five percent (n = 330) believed that a classmate with PPC would increase their workload during group projects, 78% (n = 303) were concerned about the counseling profession when a classmate with PPC is allowed to pass through the program, and 70% (n = 273) were frustrated with their counseling programs for allowing classmates with PPC to pass through the program. Additionally, 65% (n = 252) believed that a classmate with PPC would disrupt the learning environment, 65% (n = 251) were frustrated with their faculty for not addressing peers with PPC, 61% (n = 236) were resentful of classmates with PPC, and 56% (n = 216) would feel stressed by a classmate with PPC. Furthermore, respondents believed that a peer with PPC would (a) interfere with their ability to learn (40%, n = 155), (b) decrease the amount of attention other students received from faculty (33%, n = 129), (c) increase their workload in the classroom (33%, n = 127), and (d) lead to difficulty concentrating and completing their own work (30%, n = 118).

Principal Components Analysis (PCA)

In order to perform PCA of the data, the number of valid cases (N= 389) must be greater than 10 times the number of items (10 x 19 = 190; Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). Therefore, the criterion for this study was met to run this analysis. The extraction method of PCA with a varimax with Kaiser normalization rotation using 19 items in Section III of the PPCS yielded three factors that exceeded the criterion eigenvalue of 1.00 (Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin [KMO] = .900, p < .05). The three factors accounted for 56% of the variance. Factor 1 had an eigenvalue of 6.98 and accounted for 36% of the variance. Factor 2 had an eigenvalue of 2.41 and accounted for 13% of the variance. Factor 3 had an eigenvalue of 1.34 and accounted for 7% of the variance.

Tabachnick and Fidell (2007) stated that .32 was the minimum structure coefficient for an item. Therefore, for each of the factors, any item that loaded less than .32 was dropped. Factor 1 appeared to measure the type of classmates' PPC that affected participants and included eight items having a Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .90. Factor 2 appeared to measure the impact of being in a program with peers having PPC and included eight items with a Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .85. Factor 3 appeared to measure programs' responses to PPC and included three items having a Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .73. The 19 items and their rotated structure coefficients are presented in Table 1. PCA requires that the KMO measure of sampling adequacy (MSA) be greater than 0.50 for each individual variable (Pett, Lackey, & Sullivan, 2003). The MSA for all of the individual variables included in the analysis was greater than 0.5, supporting their retention in the analysis.

Research Question 3: What Knowledge Do PSC Have of Their Programs' Protocol for Addressing a Classmate With PPC?

When the participants' responses for strongly agree and agree were combined, 96% (n = 374) believed it was the responsibility of faculty to be aware of students with PPC, 61% (n = 237) believed that it was faculty and respondents' responsibility to be aware of classmates with PPC, and 44% (n = 167) believed that it was their responsibility to be aware of peers with PPC. Additionally, 73% (n = 285) of the participants would like more information from faculty on how to respond to a classmate with PPC, and 62% (n = 239) would like more information from faculty regarding how to identify PPC. Furthermore, 42% (n = 165) were aware that their programs had procedures regarding how to address problematic behavior, 36% (n = 140) reported that faculty had discussed their programs' procedure regarding addressing PPC with them, 26% (n = 100) were aware of the appropriate intervention to take with classmates with PPC, and 13% (n = 49) had received training regarding intervening with a peer who demonstrated PPC.


This study has four main limitations. First, the sample was obtained from master's-level counseling students enrolled in CACREP-accredited counseling education programs and the invitation to participate in this study was done via e-mail. This approach omitted participants who were not enrolled in CACREP-accredited programs and who did not have computer access. Therefore, generalizability of the results is limited to PSC in CACREP-accredited programs who had computer access. It would be beneficial for future research to be focused on looking at all PSC. The second limitation of this study is that volunteers may have answered the survey questions differently than members of the population who did not agree to participate. The third limitation is related to the utilization of a researcher-created survey. Although the PCA did indicate that the items were representative of the literature regarding PPC, a reworking of the order of the sections and rephrasing some of the questions may result in clearer results. The final limitation is associated with the survey being a self-report measure. There is a risk that participants provided answers they considered to be socially desirable. Although the participants were informed in advance that their answers would be kept anonymous, they may still have responded in a manner that would not be representative of their true feelings or knowledge.


The majority of the PSC in this study had observed classmates with PPC in their programs, and 39% of the participants reported that they were affected by being in a program with a specific problematic peer. However, when asked regarding a specific type of PPC, more participants (68%) reported being affected by a classmate. It is important to address the discrepancy in the number of participants who responded in Section II of the PPCS that they were affected by a classmate with PPC (n = 152) and the number of participants who responded in Section III of the survey that they were affected by a specific type of PPC (n = 264). The difference in these numbers may be a result of the design of the survey. The first question in Section II asked if the participants had observed a classmate with PPC, the second question asked how many classmates they had observed, and the third question inquired if they had been affected by a classmate with PPC. Although a definition of PPC was provided to participants at the top of each page of the survey, they might not have had a complete understanding of what PPC meant. Therefore, they did not perceive that they had been affected by a classmate with PPC. In Section III of the survey, when the respondents were asked about specific behaviors that represented types of PPC, they may have realized that they had indeed been affected by this type of behavior and, therefore, responded in the affirmative. Another consideration is a lack of training PSC received regarding this issue. Oliver et al. (2004) stated that "if programs have done an adequate job of training their students, trainees should be able to recognize" classmates with PPC (p. 146). It may be that programs have failed to sufficiently address this issue with students and, thus, participants were confused regarding what it meant for classmates to experience PPC.

For both data sets, difficulty regulating emotions was the most prominent problematic behavior cited by participants. Given that difficulty regulating emotions relates to a personal trait of a classmate, this trait may be especially complicated for PSC to address. Specifically, counselor educators often feel the need to empathize with students and their personal struggles, which might make them reluctant to intervene with students who are showing signs of PPC (Kerl et al., 2002; Russell et al., 2007). If educators are hesitant to address this kind of issue, it may be even more challenging for PSC who do not have the education or training to address PPC.

It is important to acknowledge that some PSC may have been affected by a classmate's inability to regulate emotions when the two classmates had divergent viewpoints. Discussions in counseling courses are often related to subject matter that may elicit strong feelings and emotions. These differences could result in students becoming very passionate, even emotional, regarding a specific issue. Some students may equate this passion with an inability to regulate emotions. It is important for educators to create a learning environment that is conducive to allowing all students to share their perspectives in respectful ways. Consequently, professors need to distinguish between a productive discourse and an emotional diatribe and to manage the interaction in ways that shield students from harm.

Based on the literature, PSC are affected by peers' PPC in three dimensions: disruption of learning environment (Oliver et al., 2004; Rosenberg et al., 2005), emotional consequences (Mearns & Allen, 1991; Rosenberg et al., 2005), and relationships with counselor educators (Forrest et al., 2008). The results of this study support previous findings. The most significant impact on PSC of being in a program with a classmate with PPC appears to be a disruption of the learning environment. Counselor educators must ensure an environment conducive to learning for all students. Therefore, impediments to learning must be identified and addressed. The results of this research support the idea that the learning environment is being affected in several ways by classmates with PPC. First, on a personal level, PSC believe that a peer with PPC can interfere with their own ability to learn as well as cause them to feel stressed and resentful of the problematic classmates. In particular, a third of the respondents believed that such a classmate would make it difficult to concentrate and complete their own work. Second, PSC perceived that the impact would be reflected in an increased workload during group projects. In addition, the learning environment would be affected because PSC would receive less attention from faculty, thereby interfering with the educator--student relationship. Although this issue needs to be addressed by educators, how this topic is addressed with PSC has not been sufficiently addressed in the literature.

We believe it would be beneficial to infuse the issue of students and PPC in the curriculum of counseling education programs; in particular, a detailed procedure to assist PSC in having a better understanding of this topic needs to be implemented. The curriculum could include (a) discussions of what comprises professional competencies, (b) explanations of the negative impact of PPC on clients, (c) details regarding the ethical responsibility of PSC to be aware of PPC and to address peers with PPC, (d) examinations of a detailed procedure for PSC to address classmates with PPC, and (e) limitations of information that faculty members are allowed to share with students regarding their classmates. These discussions could be conducted during an introduction to counseling course or an ethics course. Faculty who initiate discussions regarding this issue may provide an opening for students to approach faculty members when students are struggling with a peer with PPC; faculty members can then provide them with an ethical mechanism for intervening. Additionally, given the power differential that is innate in the educator-student dynamic, it is the obligation of the faculty to initiate discussions regarding challenging topics. Specifically, faculty who are proactive in addressing this topic with students can assist in removing some of the mystery surrounding how to deal with students with PPC. As some of the participants stated in their responses to the open-ended questions, they did not want to judge their peers nor did they want to be judged. When faculty address this issue in an open and transparent manner, they may assist PSC in gaining a more positive perspective and help them see that identifying and addressing students with PPC can be beneficial to them, the problematic students, the clients they serve, and the counseling profession.

Integrating discussions of PPC in counseling programs may also assist in diminishing the frustration students experience regarding problematic classmates. A significant number of the PSC reported that they were frustrated with faculty and their programs for not addressing classmates with PPC. In particular, the respondents were concerned with the quality of the counseling profession because classmates with PPC were being allowed to gateslip and graduate from their programs. These results suggest that participants perceived that gatekeeping and remediation procedures were not being implemented by educators. Although it appears that some CACREP-accredited programs are addressing this topic with their students, 62% of these participants wanted more information from faculty regarding how to identify PPC, and 73% of the participants wanted to have more information from faculty on how to respond to a classmate with PPC. Specifically, it appears that PSC believed that they were not receiving sufficient information and guidance from counselor educators regarding this issue. This information seems to further substantiate the need to have this topic addressed by faculty during an introduction to counseling course or an ethics course.

It is important to consider that faculty may have addressed PPC with a student and initiated gatekeeping and remediation protocols; however, classmates may not be aware of any interventions by faculty due to privacy considerations. This lack of knowledge regarding faculty addressing the problematic student may result in PSC losing of confidence in faculty members' decision-making (Forrest et al., 2008). Therefore, it seems all the more important to have a clear and documented procedure that provides PSC with a specific protocol regarding peers with PPC and clearly states the confidentiality limits of information that can be provided to them.

* Implications for Counselors

The results of our study help to bridge the gap in research regarding understanding the impact on PSC when they must interact with peers having PPC. This empirical research provides counselors, counselor educators, and supervisors needed information to enhance learning and professional environments, better attend to all members of the organization, and provide competent services to clients. Having an understanding of the types of PPC that have the greatest impact on PSC and the ways in which they are affected will assist counselors, counselor educators, and supervisors in being more responsive. When an educator or supervisor is aware that a PSC is struggling with certain PPC, this educator/supervisor will have knowledge about how this student/supervisee may affect other students/ supervisees and the overall learning/training environment. It is crucial to not discount the impact of colleagues' problematic behaviors on professional counselors. Educators need to provide practicing clinicians with information on how to ethically address peers with PPC and strategies that assist with self-care when dealing with these difficult situations. A recent Delphi study of experts regarding current ethical issues in the counseling profession found that the most important ethical issues for counselors was practicing in an ethical manner and abiding by the profession's ethical codes (Herlihy & Dufrene, 2011).

Furthermore, it is important to utilize the information provided in this study to develop and implement an ethical protocol to assist PSC and practicing counselors in identifying and addressing peers with PPC. According to the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005), counselors and PSC should expect their peers to act in an ethical manner and are required to take appropriate action with a peer who is acting in an unethical way. Counselor educators and supervisors must provide guidance to individuals under their direction to assist them in understanding their responsibility to act in accordance with these ethical codes. Setting the precedents in counselor education programs to provide PSC the skills, education, and knowledge to manage situations with problematic peers will prepare them for their roles as professional counselors.

However, training and education regarding this issue should not just be related to PSC in counseling education programs but should also be facilitated through continuing education for professional counselors. Johnson, Brems, Warner, and Roberts (2006) surveyed 164 psychologists and 228 mental health counselors (licensed professional counselors, psychological associates, and licensed marital and family therapists) to ascertain what type of continuing professional education programs they believed would be most beneficial. Among all participants, the topic of highest interest was how to manage colleague misconduct (i.e., identify and address clinical mistakes, deal with impaired colleagues, deal with professional misconduct of colleagues, and resolve professional conflicts between colleagues). It appears that problematic behavior continues to affect counselors and needs to be addressed by not only counselor educators but also supervisors in the professional environment. The results of this study can assist in bringing attention to this issue and facilitating discussion in the professional environments to better assist professional counselors in dealing with it.

* Recommendations for Future Research

This research study has offered contributions to and discussed implications for counselor educators, supervisors, and professional counselors regarding PPC. The results suggest important considerations for future research. First, the majority of research has focused on students in mental health education program. Consequently, examining professional counselors' knowledge of colleagues with PPC, how these professionals manage interactions with problematic peers, and how the working environment is affected would be beneficial. A second research consideration is to examine the relationship of diversity related to PPC. Substantial research has been conducted in multicultural competencies; however, little research has been completed in the area of multicultural competency related to PPC. Thus, educators are not able to develop the needed tools to address problems with peers when differences exist in culture, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or race (Forrest et al., 1999). Therefore, additional research is needed in this area.

The majority of the PSC who completed the PPCS were female, Caucasian, and heterosexual. This is a very homogeneous sample. A third consideration would be to focus on PSC from underrepresented racial and cultural backgrounds. Some respondents in this study commented that peers with PPC showed cultural insensitivity toward other students. Therefore, future research could examine minority PSC and their observations and knowledge of peers' PPC. In particular, more data are needed on minority students' perceptions of how they were affected regarding cross-cultural considerations. The fourth research consideration is to determine the frequency of the observations made by PSC of peers' PPC. Was the problem with the peer continuous, or was the issue with the peer a one-time occurrence? Identifying the number of situations that PSC were affected by a specific type of PPC may assist in understanding the degree to which students are affected.

Another recommendation is related to developing procedures and protocols for assisting PSC in identifying and addressing classmates with PPC. There has been significant research and effort in developing gatekeeping and remediation procedures to address the PSC with PPC; however, there is no documented protocol for addressing the issue of identifying and responding to classmates' PPC. Future research should be conducted to assist in developing specific practices that will create an ethical procedure for PSC to address peers with PPC. Counselor educators and supervisors should provide an environment that is conducive to all students' learning. A final research consideration, therefore, is to create and validate instruments that can be used to assess both PSC and professional counselors' observations and knowledge of peers with PPC and how they are affected by these peers. The results of this study are just the beginning, and there is a need for continued empirical research, which will result in expanding the understanding of how PPC affect not only PSC but also learning and working environments.

* Conclusion

The counseling profession has grown significantly in the last 30 years. This growth has resulted in a considerable increase in counselor education programs and a rising number of PSC. Although counselor educators have been diligent in establishing gatekeeping procedures to ensure that PSC meet the minimum requirements of professional competence, students continue to display competency issues. This research has shifted the focus to the impact that problematic peers have on other students in a counseling program.

The results of this research study indicate that PSC are aware of classmates' PPC and are affected by being in a same program with these students. Specifically, the results support that PSC are frustrated with faculty and their programs for not addressing these classmates and want faculty and/or the institution's administration to provide them with guidance on how to identify PPC and address peers with PPC. In particular, PSC are concerned about the impact peers with PPC have on the quality of the counseling profession. Therefore, it would be prudent for counselor educators to develop and implement procedures to assist PSC in identifying classmates who do not meet the minimum standards of professional competency and an ethical device for students to report problematic peer behavior. Continued research in this area is needed to assist in enhancing the learning environment for all students in counseling education programs.

DOI: 10.1002/j.1556-6676.2013.00089.x

Received 10/03/11

Revised 02/24/12

Accepted 04/02/12


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Kathleen A. Brown-Rice, Department of Counseling and Psychology in Education, University of South Dakota; Susan Furr, Department of Counseling, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kathleen A. Brown-Rice, Department of Counseling and Psychology in Education, University of South Dakota, UED Delzell Education Center, 210E, 414 East Clark Street, Vermillion, SD 57069 (e-mail:

Structure Coefficients for Section III of Problems
of Professional Competencies (PPC)


Item                                               1       2       3

Type of classmates' PPC that affected
    Ethical violation                            0.81#   0.10     0.18
    Psychological unsuitability                  0.80#   0.15     0.01
    Personality disorder                         0.79#   0.12    -0.03
    Unprofessional behavior                      0.77#   0.18     0.15
    Inability to regulate emotions               0.73#   0.21    -0.01
    Poor moral character                         0.73#   0.12     0.11
    Inadequate clinical skills                   0.66#   0.19     0.23
    Inadequate academic skills                   0.61#   0.28     0.24
Effect of being in a program with peers
  with PPC
     Difficulty concentrating and completing
      own work                                   0.22    0.71#    0.05
    Disrupted learning environment               0.10    0.70#    0.22
    Interfered with ability to learn             0.18    0.70#    0.12
    Received less attention from faculty         0.06    0.68#    0.10
    Felt stressed                                0.29    0.67#    0.13
    Increased workload in classroom              0.12    0.67#    0.07
    Increased workload during group
      projects                                   0.10    0.64#    0.21
    Felt resentful of classmate                  0.35#   0.59#    0.21
Programs' responses to PPC
    Frustrated classmate allowed to pass
      through program                            0.10    0.25     0.84#
    Concerned about quality of counseling
      profession                                 0.09    0.12     0.72#
    Frustrated with faculty for not addressing
      problem                                    0.20    0.28     0.71#

Note. Structure coefficients have been rounded to the nearest
hundreth. Boldface values indicate structure coefficients greater
than .32 for an item.

Note: Boldface values indicate structure coefficients greater
than .32 for an item indicated with #
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Brown-Rice, Kathleen A.; Furr, Susan
Publication:Journal of Counseling and Development
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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