What Counselors Need to Know About Continuing Education

The field of psychology is dynamic; it is one in which you can never stop learning. As theories and therapies evolve, counselors must stay abreast of the latest research, practices, and new ways of thinking. Continuing education is learning beyond an undergraduate and graduate degree. 

Once you are a licensed professional counselor, each state requires additional study hours to maintain licensure (American Counseling Association [2014] under C. 2 Professional Competence C.2.f. Continuing Education). 

Even if you are not licensed, it is beneficial to know the latest advances in psychology and further your professional development.

Counselors recognize the need for continuing education to acquire and maintain a reasonable awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity. Counselors maintain their competence in their skills, are open to new procedures, and remain informed regarding best practices for working with diverse populations.

The Cost of Being Educated

The American Counseling Association states, 

“Whether it’s for license or certificate renewal, career development, or to increase job opportunities, the need for continuing education is a very real demand every counseling professional faces. But while the benefits of continuing education are clear, the costs can be high—from constraints on time and expenses to conflicts with work and personal schedules.”

Choosing which continuing education training to attend can be based on your interests, financial ability, and your schedule. 

There are a few ways to decrease costs. Some organizations counselors work for will reimburse the counselor for the training or pay for the training upfront. It is a good idea to ask your employer if they cover continuing education expenses as part of your benefits package. Other employers bring in providers to conduct training for the staff, at no cost to the counselor. A few online providers offer one or two continuing education hours for free each year. 

As a counselor, looking around and shopping for the best deals is wise. For counselors in private practice, you can deduct educational expenses for your business on your year-end taxes. Consult a tax professional on the latest regulations and rules for how to do so.

Types of Continuing Learning

Continuing education can be offered in a variety of forms. Some of these are in-person or virtual training, a recorded video, online materials, and even reading a book. Counselors can choose which types of learning modes they enjoy best. 

Since the pandemic, virtual learning has gained popularity with the convenience of being at home. Some offer the ability to ask questions via a chat box or interactively. There are pros and cons to each type of learning. Some cons of virtual learning are counselors miss having in-person interactions and networking with other counselors.

Licensure programs require a certain amount of hours to be devoted to in-person or live training vs. home study. Pay attention to your specific requirements. Also, each state program entails different hours to maintain licensure. You can find your state here on the American Counselors Association Licensure Requirements for Professional Counselors, A State by State Report. 

Considerations for the Type of Continuing Education

When looking for continuing education, make sure you notice the accreditations and approvals section. This tells you whether the education will apply towards credits for your licensure, in your state. Sometimes you can take an unapproved provider’s training and apply for credit through your licensing body. Each body has specific criteria that must be met to consider approval.

The National Board of Certified Counselors website states, 

“NBCC ACEP approval is not required; however, the courses must meet NBCC guidelines for continuing education. A certificate, verification form or letter verifying attendance is required for documentation and needs to be submitted to NBCC. The documentation must include your name, date attended, hours completed, program title and signature of presenter/provider.” 

In your search for training, you may find continuing education listed as CEU (continuing education unit) or CE (continuing education). It is important to recognize what equals a clock hour when calculating hours spent in study. 

Additional Variables

You will find a list of learning objectives in the continuing education materials. All continuing education training has learning objectives that describe to the learner what they can do after the course is completed. Each objective begins with behavioral terms such as explain, list, cite, identify, define, discuss, or evaluate. If you pay attention, you will see each learning objective follows the order of the written text. You will want to pick educational courses that meet your professional goals and needs.

Many counselors chose courses that strengthen their current skill set or that they have a personal interest in. Choosing topics you are passionate about is a great way to increase your professional competency. Some counselors take courses which include certifications for specialized skills, which could lead to an increase in pay or a promotion. It will also help you to consider courses or training that stretch you by learning about an area of psychology you have little experience with.

From the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2014) C.2. Professional Competence:

C.2.a. Boundaries of Competence

Counselors practice only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience. Whereas multicultural counseling competency is required across all counseling specialties, counselors gain knowledge, personal awareness, sensitivity, dispositions, and skills pertinent to being a culturally competent counselor in working with diverse client populations.

C.2.b. New Specialty Areas of Practice

Counselors practice in specialty areas new to them only after appropriate education, training, and supervised experience. While developing skills in new specialty areas, counselors ensure their work’s competence and protect others from possible harm.

It is a good idea to take an ethics course in your licensure cycle. Resnick 2020 states, 

“Many different disciplines, institutions, and professions have standards for behavior that suit their particular aims and goals. These standards also help members of the discipline to coordinate their actions or activities and to establish the public’s trust of the discipline. For instance, ethical standards govern conduct in medicine, law, engineering, and business.”

The American Counseling Association Code of Ethics (2014) cites, Professional values are an important way of living out an ethical commitment. The following are core professional values of the counseling profession:

  1. Enhancing human development throughout the lifespan;
  2. Honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts;
  3. Promoting social justice;
  4. Safeguarding the integrity of the counselor–client relationship; and
  5. Practicing in a competent and ethical manner

What to Expect After the Training

At the end of the continuing education training, you will receive a post-test to assess your new knowledge and an evaluation of the program. Upon a passing grade of the post-test and receipt of the evaluation, you will receive a certificate of completion.

How to Apply What You Learn

A few days after attending the training, look through your notes or the outline of what you have learned. This can be a great way to refresh your mind and remind you of important concepts.

Counselors can apply what they have learned at a training by sharing it with clients who could benefit from the information. Simply state, “At a recent training I heard or I learned…”  This can not only help your client but also reinforce the learning within your own brain.

Share what you have learned with a colleague. At times, we cannot attend the same training as others in the field but are still interested in the highlights. This is a good way for others in the office or the field to share what they have learned with you.

Some counselors may choose to blog about what they have learned. It is important to quote the speaker as the source of any direct material or the research cited. Counselors can apply a general scenario or if they feel comfortable sharing a personal experience using what they have learned.

Where to Store Certificates of Completion

It is important to save these certificates along with the general course material for at least six to ten years if your licensing board conducts an audit. If this occurs, you will want an easy way to access your certificates of completion. Most trainings provide you with a paper copy; if you attend online, you can download and print the certificate. These hard copies can be stored in a file cabinet.  

You will also want to have an online copy. If you attend a virtual event, you can save the email and put it in a folder marked continuing education for easy access. When you attend an in-person training, you will not be given an electronic copy, but you can scan the paper copy and save it to your computer.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 20 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.