Readiness to serve students with disabilities: a survey of elementary school counselors.
The changes created challenges, including the necessity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed in order to meet changing demands (Neely, 1982). For instance, providing services to students with disabilities contributed to the challenges confronting school counselors over the past half century. Students with disabilities are defined in this article as students who are identified by federal legislation as eligible for mandated services. Categories of students with disabilities include mental retardation, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, deaf-blindness, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, autism, and traumatic brain injury (Snyder & Hoffman, 2001).
Two decades ago, Parker and Stodden (1981) noted that approximately 15% of the school-aged population in the United States had special needs. More recently, Parrish (1999) found that enrollments of these students have continued to rise virtually every year since data were first collected in 1976-1977. He reported that the proportion of these school-age children increased by about 19% over the decade of 1987-88 to 1997-98. Parrish's data appear to lead to a current estimate of at least 18% of the school-aged population as having special needs. Snyder and Hoffman (2001) reported that 6,055,343 children were served under the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-476, 104 Stat. 1103 (1991) in 1998-99. This figure represents 13% of the entire population who were disabled in 1998-99 and a 27.2% change, birth to 21 years of age, from 1990-91 to 1999-98.
These changes were primarily induced by federal legislation. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Pub. L. No. 94-142, 89 Stat. 773 (1977) mandated counseling services for students with disabilities and their parents. Concern about so called "pull-out programs" that seemed to defeat the mainstreaming principle of PL 94-142 led to passage of the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-476, 104 Stat. 1103 (1991) in 1990. PL 101-476 espoused inclusion, a unified, coordinated system in which every student, no matter the severity of their disability, would be included in all aspects of school life (Greer, Greer, & Woody, 1995).
PL 101-476 specified expectations that influenced school counseling. School counselors are often members of multidisciplinary teams that attempt to develop appropriate educational plans for students with disabilities. In so doing, they may engage in advocacy; consultation; diagnosis; assessment; development of a delivery system; and provision of support services for students, parents, and teachers. Teachers may benefit from consulting with school counselors about modifying their expectations of students with disabilities who differ with their peers intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Parents of students with disabilities may need consultation about working successfully with the educational system and support in dealing with their attitudes and expectations.
Special services are required for working with students with disabilities, their parents and teachers, and school administrators (Reynolds, 1989). School administrators often assign coordination of the mechanics of school services for students with disabilities to their counselors. Accordingly, school counselors are challenged to be familiar with the resources available, to be able to contact and engage those services, and to understand the developmental needs of the students for whom they are coordinating the services (Baker, 2000; Neely, 1982).
As advocates for students with disabilities, school counselors are challenged to be aware of their own attitudes. Successful advocacy, consultation, diagnosis, assessment, delivery of programs, and provision of support services are contingent upon being able to accept students with disabilities. This is an ethical requisite (Herlihy & Corey, 1996).
Although the federal mandates about serving students with disabilities are clear, the role of counselors has been less clear. As noted, there is a place for school counselors in the process of implementing the federal mandates regarding students with disabilities. Several counselor educators suggested how school counselors can be involved. For example, Helms and Katsiyannis (1992) recommended that school counselors be familiar with the overall procedural safeguards of PL 94-142 and characteristics unique to students with disabilities. Hosie (1979) identified 14 areas of which counselors must have knowledge in order to provide comprehensive services to students with disabilities, assuming that well-prepared school counselors would be flexible enough to incorporate the new skills into their counseling techniques. In that vein, Tucker, Shepard, and Hurst (1986) assumed that counselors who are more able to understand the challenges for students with disabilities are also able to provide the students, their parents, and their teachers with accurate information. Parette and Hourcade (1995) offered a set of common courtesies counselors may use when interacting with students with disabilities and for helping other students, teachers, administrators, and parents develop their own forms of disability etiquette.
Yet, formal preparation for school counselors seems to lack consistency. According to Frantz and Prillaman (1993), only 11 of 50 states require courses in special education for school counselor certification/licensure. Because federal regulations are vague on this issue, the states are left to make their own regulations. Increased involvement with students with disabilities since the enactment of PL 94-142 has created new accountability challenges for school counselors. Over a decade ago, Tucker et al. (1986) called for at least minimal preparation during graduate programs.
Anecdotal data acquired by the first author as a teacher and counselor led her to conclude that many elementary school counselors may be uneasy about their ability to be accountable when working with students with disabilities. For example, counselors in the three schools where she taught were unable to answer questions or help locate strategies for enhancing the academic performance of specific students with disabilities. As a school counselor, she found herself having to engage in extensive research efforts upon receiving similar requests from teachers. If this is true on a broader scale, then recommendations for constructive responses may be appropriate.
Since anecdotal information leads to questionable generalizations, a quantitative empirical study was designed. The goal was to acquire information about the actual and perceived role elementary school counselors in North Carolina have in working with students with disabilities, how well informed they are in this domain, the expectations they believe others have of them, and the expectations they have of themselves. The following questions served as a foundation for the study: (a) How much formal education that focuses on serving students with disabilities have elementary school counselors had? (b) How are elementary school counselors distributing their time between students with disabilities and the regular students? (c) How well do elementary school counselors report understanding mainstreaming and inclusion legislation? (d) What do elementary school counselors think teachers, parents, administrators, and students expect of them when working with students with disabilities? (e) What do elementary school counselors expect of themselves when working with students with disabilities? (f) How compatible are the elementary school counselors' expectations of themselves and their perceptions of expectations of significant others?
A multi-stage sampling procedure stratified according to geographical regions of the state identified and randomly selected 355 North Carolina elementary school counselors; 168 responded after two requests (47%). There were 22 (13.6%) men and 140 (86.4%) women in the sample. Twenty (12.1%) participants were African American, 6 (3.6%) were Native American, 138 (83.6%) were Caucasian, and 1 (0.6%) was Hispanic. The mean age was 40.8 years with a range of 25 to 61 years. Two participants (1.2%) had bachelor's degrees with a provisional school counselor license, 6 (3%) had a master's degree with a provisional license, 138 (83.6%) had master's degrees with continuous licenses, and 19 (11.5%) reported other types of degrees and licenses. The participants reported an average of 13.7% students with disabilities in theist schools with a range of 1% to 84%.
The first author developed a survey designed to assess the research questions addressed by this study. The first step was to establish goals for the purpose and content of the study. Next, topical areas to be addressed in the survey were derived from the goals. The topical areas were: (a) amount of formal education acquired, (b) distribution of time, (c) knowledge about mainstreaming and inclusion, (d) perceptions of expectations of significant others, and (e) expectations of counselors themselves. An item pool was then developed for each topical area. Then, the items were revised and enhanced. Next, a panel of experts in counseling and special education analyzed the questions to determine whether they represented the topical areas appropriately, providing evidence of content validity data for the survey items. Finally, after follow-up consultation with the panel of experts, the final revision of the survey was completed.
The Survey of Elementary School Counseling Services to Students with Disabilities consists of seven sections. The first section provides descriptive data about the participants. The second section consists of five questions designed to determine how much formal education related to serving students with disabilities the participants had. Questions such as "Did you take specific coursework related to special education populations as an undergraduate?" led to "Yes" or "No" responses. Follow-up questions such as "If yes, please state how many courses" provided numerical data.
The third section focused on the amount of time participants devoted to serving students with disabilities and with regular education students. Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of their time spent on consultation, direct services, observation, and paper work. The fourth section was designed to assess how well the participants felt they understood mainstreaming and inclusion legislation. Participants responded to six stimuli such as "Knowledge and understanding of PL 101-476 (Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1990), which initiated mainstreaming/inclusion IEPs" by placing an "X" in one of five boxes (High, Above Average, Average, Below Average, Low). In the statistical analysis, these terms were valued as 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 respectively.
The fifth and sixth sections offered the same set of 28 descriptors, each accompanied by different directions, to the respondents (see Table). In the fifth section, participants were asked to circle the descriptors that best described what teachers, parents, and students believed about the role of elementary school counselors in relation to working with students with disabilities. In the sixth section, participants were to select the descriptors that best indicated what they believed about the role of the school counselor when working with students with disabilities. The descriptors were allowed to overlap (e.g., tester; evaluator) because the panel of experts in the content validity study believed respondents will have different beliefs about defining their roles. For example, one participant may believe she is a tester and not an evaluator while another believes he is more of an evaluator that a tester; yet, what they actually do may be very similar.
The seventh section asked the respondents to compare the role that emerged in section five (attributed to significant others) with that which emerged in section six (expectations of themselves) in 25 words or less. A thematic analysis of this information was employed to determine how compatible was the role attributed by the participants to significant others with their own expectations.
Data collection. A five-step, multistage, data collection process was used. First, a pool of elementary school counselors was identified from information provided by the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction (N = 1420). The list was stratified according to geographical regions of the state: Mountain Region (n = 277), Piedmont (n = 838), and Coastal Plain (n = 305). Second, a statistical consultant recommended sending surveys to 25% of the population of prospective participants in each region in order to achieve a sufficient sample size. The recommended number of prospective participants from each region was 69 from the Mountain Region, 76 from the Coastal Plain, and 210 from the Piedmont for a total of 355 prospective participants. Third, a stratified sample of prospective participants for each region was selected randomly from the original listing. Fourth, surveys accompanied by an informed consent letter were mailed to the prospective participants at their school addresses. The surveys and consent letters were each accompanied by a stamped, return envelope addressed to the first author, and an inspirational book mark serving as a token of thanks for their participation. Fifth, a second mailing of the entire packet was sent to the 355 prospective participants 10 days later in an effort to enhance the response rate.
Data analyses. Data from the first four sections of the survey were analyzed descriptively. Percentages, means, and standard deviations were determined where applicable. The McNemar test for two or more independent samples (Sheskin, 1997) was used for the inferential comparison estimates between responses in parts five and six.
In the qualitative analysis, the first author read the participants' responses to the request that asked them to describe their role and how significant others would describe their role in working with students with disabilities in 25 words or less. Her goal was to identify themes across the responses. The themes were identified as follows. The investigator jotted down the themes that occurred to her at first reading. She read the responses again. Some of the responses remained in the categories to which they were first assigned, and the others led to designations of additional themes. Categories that seemed to overlap were combined into broader themes. Two of the investigator's school counseling colleagues then read over the responses, and this led to their corroborating some of the investigator's decisions and to negotiating some new ones. Finally, two counselor educators and one special educator reviewed the themes and suggested that they may be generally categorized as either positive or negative.
Preparation for Working with Students with Disabilities
Approximately 61% of the participants indicated they had coursework as graduate students (M = 1.88 courses; SD = 1.53). Thirty-seven percent indicated they had coursework as undergraduates (M = 2.25 courses; SD = 1.17); 25.8% had coursework as postgraduate, nondegree students (M = 1.73 courses; SD = 0.98); and 76.8% had participated in sponsored professional development activities (M = 4.67 activities; SD = 4.49). Seventy-eight percent had engaged in independent activities to enhance their preparation. The average amount of time spent in researching information about students with disabilities was 48.69 hours (SD = 63.81). The relatively large standard deviation indicated that there was a broad range of differences in the amount of time devoted to these activities by the respondents.
Distribution of Time Devoted to Students with Disabilities and to Regular Education Students
The participants were asked to indicate the percentage of their time that was devoted to (a) consultation with parents, teachers, and other adults; (b) direct service with students; (c) observations; and (d) paperwork when working with regular students and when working with students with disabilities. The average time allocations for working with regular students were as follows: 20.4% devoted to consultation, 46.6% to direct services, 7.7% to observations, and 18.7% to paperwork. The averages for working with students with disabilities were 13.8% for consultation, 23.8% for direct services, 6.9% for observations, and 14.7% for paperwork. Direct service was the most time-intensive category for both student populations with observations being the least time-intensive category for both student populations as well. While the ratio of time devoted to consultation versus that devoted to paperwork slightly favored consultation for regular education students (20.4% versus 18.7%), the reverse was true for students with disabilities (13.8% versus 14.7%).
Understanding of Basic Information About Students with Disabilities and Mainstreaming and Inclusion Legislation
Responses to the statement requesting an estimate of "general familiarity with various special education populations" averaged 3.81 (SD = 0.78) on a scale ranging from 1 to 5. For "competence in dealing with students with disabilities," the average was 3.72 (SD = 0.83). Responses to "competence in dealing with parents of students with disabilities" averaged 3.74 (SD = 0.84). On these three items, which represented general familiarity, the average participant rated his or her status as above average.
The averages were a bit lower for the items that represented knowledge and understanding of the legislation and the respondents' role in the implementation of that legislation. For knowledge and understanding of The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (PL 94-142), the average was 3.43 (SD = 0.98); and for knowledge and understanding of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (PL 101-476), the average was 3.28 (SD = 0.91). For "familiarity with the counselor's role in implementation of PL 94-142," the average was 3.20 (SD = 1.01). The average for "familiarity with the counselor's role in implementation of PL 101-476" was 3.05 (SD = 0.96).
On a five-point scale, the means were in the "Above Average" to "Average" categories. The means for the general familiarity subset were higher than for the knowledge and understanding of the legislation and familiarity with the counselor's role subset, and the standard deviations were larger in the second subset. This seems to indicate that the respondents were more certain of their general knowledge than about the legislation. Also, there was a broader range of self-reported differences among the participants when considering the legislation and less variance when they thought about their general understanding.
Perceived Expectations of Counselors and of Significant Others Concerning Counselor Roles
Of the 28 descriptors, participants circled those they thought best described what significant others such as teachers, parents, administrators, and students believe about the counselor's role in working with students with disabilities. Then they circled those descriptors that best described what they believed about their role in working with students with disabilities. The McNemar test identified significant differences between 18 of the 28 comparisons (64%). The McNemar statistic indicates that the probability that there is a difference between the percentage of participants who circled "Advocate" for themselves and those who circled it for significant others is 999 in a thousand. On the other hand, "Director" was circled as a descriptor for themselves by 5.95% of the participants and for significant others by 5.36% of the participants. The McNemar statistic indicates that, statistically, the two percentages are the same. (See Table for the 28 descriptors, the percent of participants who circled them for both significant others and themselves, and the McNemar probability statistics.
The eight descriptors identified most often by the participants when thinking about their own role were Counselor, Advocate, Listener, Team Member, Consultant, Liaison, Communicator, and Problem Solver. Each was circled by more than 50% of the participants. The descriptors attributed to significant others by over 50% of the participants were Counselor, Team Member, Advocate, Listener, Problem Solver, Consultant, and Liaison. The two lists are virtually the same. Communicator is missing from the second list.
Themes from Responses to the Role Description Request
Of the 168 participants, 141 (84%) responded to "Describe your role and how significant others would describe your role in relation to students with disabilities." Ten themes were identified. They seemed to fit into two broad categories that were then labeled as positive or negative attitudes about the participants' role in working with students with disabilities. The positive themes were advocating for students with disabilities, being responsible for coordination and consultation for those involved with the process, serving as team members engaged in work behind the scenes, working in a teaching role, and sharing similar views of the counselor's role with significant others. These themes seemed to represent what the respondents thought were legitimate expectations. The negative themes were being viewed as the primary authority or expert while lacking proper training, being responsible for testing and for paperwork associated with individual education plans (IEP), being viewed as a fix-it person or problem-solver, feeling overwhelmed because of time constraints, and having little or no direct involvement with special education for a variety of reasons. These themes seemed to represent expectations that the participants believed were inappropriate.
Many of the elementary school counselors in the present sample had some sort of formal education for serving students with disabilities, albeit modest for most, and a relatively large percentage of the sample had engaged in postgraduate education independently. On the other hand, the amount time for those who did engage in postgraduate professional development was uneven. Some participants had much more than others.
The number of counselors in the present study who enrolled in preparatory courses during their undergraduate or graduate years or received postgraduate education was greater than was reported in previous studies by Novak, Wicas, and Elias (1977) and Helms and Katsiyannis (1992). Since North Carolina does not require course work in special education for those seeking a school counselor license, the number of counselors who acquired education specific to working with students who have disabilities might be viewed as encouraging. On the other hand, among the themes acquired from responses to the final item on the survey was an expressed need for more professional development. For example, one participant stated, "I do not feel that my counseling training prepared me for dealing with exceptional children's issues. I am beginning to learn more about exceptional children, but only because I am choosing to learn more for myself."
The data from the present study seem to depict a situation in which many school counselors acquired some formal education about students with disabilities prior to entering the profession. Yet, many may also have found that the demands for them to possess expertise in this domain while working in the schools exceeded their perceived level of knowledge. These feelings appear
to lend themselves to their believing that more structured formal in-service education is needed in order to enhance their expertise and self-confidence.
The average amount of time spent on direct services and consultation was quite a bit more for regular students than it was for students with disabilities. This seems reasonable since the regular student population outnumbered students with disabilities considerably. On the other hand, the relative closeness in the averages for observation and paperwork, even though the proportions among the total student population are quite different, suggests that the counselors devote proportionally more time to paperwork and observations for students with disabilities.
Given the special challenges associated with serving students with disabilities, this finding is not surprising. The somewhat heightened emphasis on observation skills and paperwork may also provide an explanation about why many counselors in this study had some feelings of inadequacy when working with students with disabilities. They may have less confidence in their preparation for some of the demands associated with observing these students skillfully and completing required paperwork successfully. Therefore, two possible areas for planning structured, proactive development programs for school counselors by school districts or state departments of education may be the enhancement of observation and documentation skills. Another suggestion may be to modify the paperwork demands for school counselors by making it simpler or providing clerical or paraprofessional assistance.
It was not surprising to learn that the participants felt they knew more about the attributes of students with disabilities than they did about the related legislation. Yet, helping counselors to become more informed about the legislation that mandates the services they are trying to provide to students with disabilities may help them to be more confident and effective. This then may be another content area for structured proactive development programs delivered by school districts or state departments of education.
Interestingly, counselors attributed virtually the same set of role descriptors to themselves as they did to significant others. Even though a significantly larger number of counselors attributed these descriptors to themselves than they did to significant others, the same six descriptors; were attributed most often both to counselors and to significant others. Thus, the majority of the participants appeared to indicate that they and significant others believe elementary school counselors should draw on their preparation as counselors, especially their listening and consultation skills. In addition, advocacy and problem-solving skills emerged as important in working with students with disabilities. Being able to work with teams of service providers, especially as liaisons between various service providers and students with disabilities and their families, also emerged as an important component of the counselor's role.
These six descriptors are covered to some degree in programs for preparing elementary school counselors (Baker, 2000). We believe some may be more widely emphasized than are others. Therefore, it appears as if students with disabilities may be better served if school districts and state departments of education provide opportunities for elementary school counselors to enhance their advocacy, team building, problem-solving, and liaison skills in proactive development programs. In this context, we defined liaison as establishing and maintaining mutual understanding and cooperation between involved parties.
Important themes that were discovered from the participants' responses indicated a desire to be of service, especially in familiar domains for school counselors such as advocacy, coordination, consultation, teamwork, and service efforts undertaken behind the scenes. Other themes indicate possible frustration over being assigned too much responsibility for noncounseling functions, high expectations of others based on inaccurate perceptions of the counselors' level of expertise in this domain, and too little time for these services within the context of the entire range of responsibilities and duties.
The service themes indicate areas in which school counselors believe they are most proficient and point the way to planning programs that take advantage of those proficiencies. The themes identifying frustrations indicate areas that need attention in order to help counselors be more effective.
The present study reported responses from a sample of elementary school counselors in the state of North Carolina. This limits generalization of the findings. Also, the findings do not take into account the amount of counseling experience the participants had. Further research might be focused on learning about the effect of experience on attitudes and on efforts to acquire additional knowledge and competence. Several suggestions for enhancing the performance of elementary school counselors through proactive development programs sponsored by school districts and state departments of education were recommended. Assessing the effectiveness of such efforts in advance of broad scale implementation seems to be a cost-effective approach. For example, prototypical programs designed to enhance advocacy, team building, problem-solving, and liaison skills for elementary school counselors could be evaluated and enhanced according to the findings.
As is the case with most surveys, one is limited to the information that is generated by the specific survey questions. The data analysis indicated that some survey questions could be improved prior to future uses of the instrument in order to assure more accuracy and less variation in the participants' responses. Yet, the findings suggested potential avenues for further research and useful recommendations for practice and in-service programming. Therefore, the findings seem to provide valuable insights about the role that elementary school counselors play in the provision of services to students with disabilities and also suggest areas related to those services that seem to be most in need of strengthening.
Percentage of Participants Who Circled Descriptors of Perceived Expectations of Themselves and Significant Others When Working with Students with Disabilities Descriptors Significant Counselors McNemar Other Statistic Advocate 72.02 90.48 24.64 *** Communicator 42.26 61.90 23.17 *** Contributor 27.38 44.64 21.56 *** Chairperson 32.74 16.67 19.70 *** Tester 41.67 25.60 17.78 *** Listener 69.05 82.74 16.03 *** Counselor 81.55 92.86 13.37 *** Coach 7.74 15.48 11.27 *** Mentor 16.67 27.98 10.94 *** Consultant 66.07 78.57 9.38 ** Consultee 27.38 37.50 7.05 * Problem Solver 66.67 55.36 6.56 * Assessor 31.55 23.21 6.53 * Student 4.17 9.52 6.23 * Team Member 71.43 79.76 5.77 * Evaluator 33.33 25.00 5.16 * Specialist 26.19 18.45 5.12 * Facilitator 38.10 45.83 4.12 * Liaison 55.36 62.50 3.00 Appraiser 12.50 16.67 1.82 Decision Maker 26.19 22.02 1.49 Coordinator 45.24 41.67 0.82 Correspondent 11.90 14.29 0.73 Instructor 12.50 14.88 0.67 Case Manager 23.81 21.43 0.50 Advisor 44.64 42.26 0.33 Director 5.36 5.95 0.09 Teacher 24.40 25.00 0.03 Note. Numbers in columns represent the percentage of participants who circled the descriptors as best describing what they believe either significant others or they themselves believed about the role of school counselors in relation to working with students with disabilities. McNemar statistics indicates whether or not the differences between integers in each row are significantly different. * p < .001 ** p < .01 *** p < .05
Baker, S. B. (2000). School counseling for the twenty-first century (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
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Hosie, T. W. (1979). Preparing counselors to meet the needs of the handicapped. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 58, 271-275.
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Novak, B. J., Wicas, E. A., & Elias, G. S. (1977)..The school counselor and retarded youth: Opportunity or threat? Personnel and Guidance Journal, 56, 131-133.
Parker, L. G., & Stodden, R. A. (1981). The preparation of counseling personnel to serve special needs students: A statewide assessment. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 16, 36-41.
Parette, H. P., Jr., & Hourcade, J. J. (1995). Disability etiquette and school counselors: A commonsense approach toward compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The School Counselor, 42, 224-232.
Parrish, T. B. (1999). Special education at what cost to general education? Palo Alto, CA: Center for Special Education Finance, American Institutes for Research.
Reynolds, D. (1989). Effective schooling for children with special needs: Research and implications. In A. Ramasut (Ed.), Whole school approaches to students with special needs: A practical guide for secondary school teachers (pp. 63-78). London: Falmer.
Sheskin, D. (1997). Handbook of parametric and nonparametric statistical procedures. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Snyder, T. D., & Hoffman, C. M. (2001). Digest of education statistics, 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (NCES 2001-034)
Tucker, R. L., Shepard, J., & Hurst, J. (1986). Training school counselors to work with students with handicapping conditions. Counselor Education and Supervision, 26, 56-60.
Natalie A. Wood Dunn is a former school counselor at the Knightdale Elementary School in Knightdale, NC. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stanley B. Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of Counselor Education at North Carolina State University at Raleigh. E-mail: stanley_baker@NCSU.edu
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|Author:||Baker, Stanley B.|
|Publication:||Professional School Counseling|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2002|
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