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To simulate real life experiences, acting students assume client roles for student counselors

An unlikely pairing of disciplines celebrated a semester-long experiment last week that involved students from Performing Arts and Human Service Studies who assumed convincing roles as clients and their counselors.

Judy Esposito from Human Service Studies and Richard Gang from Performing Arts congratulated acting and counseling students for the semester's accomplishments.

Judy Esposito, Associate Professor of Human Service Studies, needed a way to provide realistic counseling experiences for students in her human services counseling course. She wanted students to realize that real-life clients may be hesitant about revealing their problems, and often try to mask details about themselves because of fear, shyness, or to avoid embarrassment, or confrontation.

She approached Richard Gang, Associate Professor of Theater Arts to see if student actors might fill the need for realistic clients. He agreed, and from there, the idea gained momentum, and an experiment in co-teaching across disciplines was born.

Acting students assumed characters based upon pre-assigned client roles, some as elderly, physically or mentally infirmed, or acutely stressed from dysfunctional relationships with partners or families. Counseling students called upon principles and tools that enable a counselor to establish a safe and non-threatening environment, which makes it easier for the client to open up about their problems or challenges.

In order to assume roles as clients in therapy, acting students were given character descriptions, complete with “back stories”, which included intimate, specific details such as a break-up, divorce, car accident, homesickness, death of a spouse, loneliness, old age, back problems, or disease. These “clients” were then assigned to a counselor, who had no preview of the client’s characteristics. “Discovery is part of the therapeutic process”, said Esposito. “It’s beneficial to the client because they begin to share their story and reveal their emotional state, and it helps the counselor to gently encourage this sharing by applying reflective listening and other counseling tools.”

Each counselor and client met twice during the semester for brief sessions outside of class. The first meeting was introductory, to establish rapport, and to encourage the client to tell their story. It also provided practice for how to summarize what they’ve heard from the client, and how to effectively end a session, after making plans for action to review at the next meeting. The last session checked on progress and planning the next steps or goals in therapy.

According to Gang, students approached the assignment like any other acting job. He observed that counseling students found the experiences very realistic, sometimes forgetting that their “clients” were actors.

Patrick Cunningham, a human services student who assumed a role as a counselor said, “This exercise was particularly helpful because it gave tangible experiences to both the actors and counselors. The counseling students learned that they should not go into a session thinking they have the client ‘figured out’ and instead focus on being present with them.”

He added that “the actors learned that they can never have too much of a back story and that their back story will continually be pushed and challenged. Also the counseling students learned a lot about the acting world and how their sessions had an impact on the lives of their clients because the actors became so invested in their [characters].”

The therapeutic “laboratory” also enabled students to practice with ethical issues just like those experienced by professional licensed counselors. Knowing how to deal with confidentiality, conflict of interest, or relationships with clients is extremely important, according to Esposito.

Generally, counseling students felt ready for the challenge, and expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to apply theory beyond the textbook to simulate real life experience. There were some counseling students, however, who expressed feelings of vulnerability, of not being adequately prepared for the sessions, but afterwards felt accomplished and more confident of their own capabilities and how to apply tools learned in class.

“Feedback from students has been tremendous,” said Esposito. “This experience has affirmed career paths for some students, and created new paths for others.”

At their final meeting, students reviewed videotapes of their counseling sessions, which often allowed them to see important cues previously missed by counselors and provided a snapshot of their acting for the theater students. Abbi Hattem a professional counselor and adjunct instructor from Chapel Hill offered feedback and commentary based on experience from her own practice. “The students were wonderful”, she said. “They certainly demonstrated an understanding of what it’s like to be a client or counselor in real life”, she added. At one point, she acknowledged a student’s difficulty in establishing rapport with her client. “That happens to me too”, said Hattem.

Sometimes real emotions emerge for the counseling students, even while playing assumed roles. Esposito says she hopes this experience will encourage the student to get help for him or herself, and therefore experience what a client might go through. “There’s no experience like life experience”, she said.

Beginning in fall, 2011, Dr. Esposito will begin research based on this teaching strategy, with plans to refine the methods used and develop ways to assess its effectiveness and affect on learning. “Most of my feedback from students has been positive and anecdotal, supported by genuine enthusiasm”, she said. “I believe that these are indicators of success, but I want more data to demonstrate that it improves learning.”

Prof. Gang provides feedback as students demonstrated some of their interactions as client and counselor.
Ben McFadyen,
5/17/2011 1:37 PM