Counselling troubled adolescents in New Zealand secondary schools: counsellors’ experience of assessment

Rethfeldt, Stefan
Thorpe, Mark
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This research investigated New Zealand secondary school counsellors’ experience of assessment with troubled adolescents. A sequential transformative design was employed in which an initial quantitative data gathering phase informed subsequent decisions in the qualitative main data gathering phase of the research project.

School counsellors, who are in a unique position to support a large number of adolescents, are expected to accurately identify complex student needs. This project aimed to address the paucity of research on how individual school counsellors actually identify complex student needs in their daily practice by investigating secondary school counsellors’ practice, views and experiences of assessment in New Zealand secondary schools.

The methodology of this project evolved as the enquiry progressed: a national online survey in Phase I informed subsequent in-depth interviews, case vignettes and practice reflections in Phase II. The survey was sent to 482 schools in New Zealand. The survey’s aim was to investigate secondary school counsellors’ practices in relation to common student issues, counsellors’ educational and professional backgrounds, assessment practices, their use of counselling and assessment theory, and barriers to practice. Due to a low response rate, the national survey was utilised as a pilot study which informed data gathering strategies of Phase II.

The outcome of Phase I was used to design three case vignettes and to refine the content of the in-depth interviews and practice reflections of Phase II. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) was employed in order to capture and analyse in-depth data on secondary school counsellors’ experience of assessment. Ten secondary school counsellors were interviewed twice and five of these ten an additional third time because of their elucidation of unforeseen data. Case vignettes were used in the first set of interviews and participants were encouraged to self-reflect in-between subsequent sets of interviews.

The explication of the protocols showed that in the process of ‘becoming a counsellor’ the professional and personal identities of participants gradually merged over time. Rich descriptions were provided of how the participants utilised their personal strengths and used their human side to build rapport, develop the therapeutic relationship and enter the client’s world. From these descriptions several reflective models were developed. Each participant’s environmental, theoretical, practical and personal influences on the experience of assessment were summarised. An abstract meta-framework of ‘the experience of assessment’ and the model of ‘theory integration’ were developed.

The lens of complexity sciences was used to make sense of the multifaceted and highly complex nature of the phenomena. By combining the understanding of the complexity with participants’ rich descriptions of the human dimensions the explanatory concept of ‘theatre of experiences’ was postulated. This was described as the hub in which participants’ deeply intertwined theoretical, practical and personal elements interacted. The ‘theatre of experiences’ played a central role in conceptualising the experiences of assessment. Based on this understanding, a model of ‘assessment as a complex system’ was designed.

The participants’ rich descriptions combined with the models developed by the researcher could prove to be useful for counsellors, supervisors and counsellor educators to acknowledge complexity, reflect on personal and professional influences on practice and consequently become more aware of the strengths, resources and possible gaps in their individual assessment practices.

Assessment , Interpretative phenomenological analysis , School counselling , Qualitative research , Sequential transformative design , Theatre of experience
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