Career Counseling "At-Risk" College Students: Providing Direction and Support

By Michael E. Remshard

The Context


Recently I acted as a substitute teacher in a career development class when a faculty member fell ill during the middle of the academic semester. With only seven weeks of the semester remaining, the students and I were faced with a challenge -- 19 out of 22 students were failing. Not surprisingly, a sense of hopelessness, ambivalence, and a simmering anger pervaded the classroom atmosphere.

This situation was an appropriate setting to implement the Adaptive Counseling and Therapy (A.C.T.) model. Previously, I had implemented the A.C.T. model during a four year tenure working with Don Nance, Ph.D., Director of Wichita State University's Counseling and Testing Center and father of the A.C.T. model.

A.C.T. - The Model

The A.C.T. model proposes that to be successful with students the counselor or teacher needs to adjust his or her behavior to fit the students' mindset. A.C.T. is an integrative meta-theoretical model supporting counselors and teachers of all types operating from a variety of theoretical perspectives. The A.C.T. model makes obvious its utility to those practitioners operating within a distinct theoretical perspective. The A.C.T. model in practice operates corresponding with, not as a substitute to, traditionally accepted theoretical counseling and teaching perspectives.

Pre-Teaching Variables: Emotions, Givens, and Goals

Before counseling or teaching results in learning, a relationship develops as the conduit. Initially I spoke with the students about their feelings regarding the class, the positives and negatives of their experience, and options moving forward. I sought their cooperation and suggestions for change. With genuine curiosity, I subsequently explored their cultures - what they had learned from their families, schools, and communities about careers. Next, "givens" were identified. Given that the students were predominantly failing, given that the students were reluctant to trust me, given that the students were considering dropping the course, and given that we had seven weeks left - what were we to do? I addressed and acknowledged these "givens". Additionally, I asked them about their original goals for the career development course. In their words, they said they had wanted to learn:

1. "how to jump-start their career,
2. what path to take,
3. skills for getting a better job,
4. what careers fit for their personalities,
5. how to explore different careers,
6. how to research companies, and
7. to build a resume and develop better interviewing skills."

At this point, I clarified my position. I took no responsibility for their previous grading, assignments and experience. I suggested that we collaboratively reconstruct the class, emphasizing their option to stay or withdraw from the course. We discussed roles and responsibilities from the present moving forward. We agreed upon realistic goals, assignments, new grading, timelines, and classroom manners. Every student gambled on staying in the class as opposed to quitting the class. They appeared both excited and suspicious of this unexpectedly reciprocating and collectively agreed upon endeavor.

We moved to a discussion of revised learning objectives for the remaining seven weeks. I translated their goals into class objectives that were defined as follows:

1. Understand the basic framework of occupational decision-making and vocational planning

2. Familiarize themselves with basic forms of self-exploration to increase self-knowledge

3. Learn processes, resources, and technology for gathering career information

4. Identify personal attributes and environmental variables that influence career choices

5. Enhance their ability to think critically about career options

6. Communicate professionally through a resume, cover letters, interviews, and technology.

With my direction and suggestions, as well as with student input, we developed weekly class activities, objectives, and assignments. As a teacher with no clear plan entering the classroom, my fears of potential chaos were alleviated by the students and their willingness to genuinely work with me. Focusing on the events and their expression of feelings about the situation increased their trust. They were motivated by the unexpected opportunity for a fresh start. By intentionally inviting them to help construct the learning that would occur, while highlighting their freedom to opt out, they had become eager to learn. Not feeling coerced, ambivalence decreased and their resistance was lowered. They were now willing.

ACT I - Readiness: Willingness, Ability and Confidence

My next concern was ― could they handle it? In the first meeting I was not only building a relationship, but also hoping to increase their willingness to authentically engage. Now my job was to move with their willingness and teach skills so they could master the class learning objectives. Confidence grew with their willingness. Apparently, an artificial confidence took hold of the class based on their initial good feelings. Through the subsequent classroom activities and assignments I focused on building their abilities and confidence to do what they said they had wanted to do in the class.


ACT II - Direction and Support

Within the A.C.T. structure the behavior of the teacher is guided by the markers of "direction" and "support." Direction is focused on assignments and classroom activities and their successful completion. If activities and assignments are not satisfactorily completed, the teacher needs to consider what factors or barriers are hindering their completion. For example, are the assignments and activities being evaluated appropriately? What is the perception that students have regarding assignments? Do they understand the steps involved? How is achievement experienced by the students?

Supportencompasses attending to the emotional lives of students. It is important that teachers communicate empathy and positive regard, and exhibit a caring presence. Additionally, support does not exclude positive and negative consequences. Choices regarding teaching behaviors are determined by answering two questions:

  1. How much direction and support is generated by the students?
  2. How much direction and support is provided by the teacher?

The teacher's behavior can vary in the following styles:

  1. Instructing - Very directive with little emotional attendance.(low willingness, low confidence, low ability)
  2. Teaching - Directive with emotional connection and encouragement.(high willingness, low confidence, low ability)
  3. Supporting - Attendance to the emotional climate of the class without being overly directive. (high willingness, low confidence, high ability)
  4. Delegating - Little direction or support needed. Completion of assignments and activities rests with the students. They can do it. (high willingness, ability, and confidence)

ACT III - Match and Move

With each passing week, my students' willingness to learn was high, but their ability and confidence was low. They lacked information, knowledge and skills. They lacked belief in themselves to master the learning objectives. They articulated a concern for competently completing the assignments. The students were providing me with critical information. Based on the A.C.T. model, teacher direction and support behaviors are varied depending on the students' levels of willingness, ability and confidence. What they were saying to me was that they needed higher levels of both direction and support. Therefore, they needed more of the "teaching" style. We spent more time reviewing assignments in class and walking through each part of assignments. Positive reinforcement for successful completion of assignments included recognition on paper, in class and outside of class. As the weeks passed, my direction and support varied depending on their ability and confidence. Clearly, willingness was present. What changed over the weeks was my level of reinforcement. Ensuring that the students utilized their own resources as much as possible, it was at that particular intersection of honesty, support and direction between the students and me that real learning occurred. Most students passed the class, showing exceptional resourcefulness and a renewed enthusiasm. I learned that teachers never control the outcome, but they do influence the process.


Nance, D. W. & Associates (1995). How therapists act: Cases combining major approaches to psychotherapy and the adaptive counseling & therapy model. Accelerated Development: Washington D.C.



Michael E. Remshard, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Community Collegeof Philadelphia. Dr. Remshard, a licensed Psychologist with 15 years of experience as a teacher, trainer, consultant, and counselor, has been involved in teaching and counseling with a focus on achieving academic and careersuccess. He may be reached at: mremshard@ccp.edu.

An NCDA conference presentation on this topic will go into further detail on use of the A.C.T. model, particularly with urban multicultural college students (Saturday, July 7, 2007at 1:50-3:00 p.m.- SkillsBuildingSession #3).

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