Developmental Counseling

Developmental Counseling and Therapy. Psychology Fanatic feature image

Developmental Counseling and Therapy

Developmental Counseling and Therapy is a specialized clinical approach, focusing on supporting clients in their individual developmental journey, utilizing Jean Piaget’s stages of development. This theoretical model for therapy is largely drawn from Allen Ivey’s book Developmental Therapy: Theory Into Practice (1986).

Ivey created the developmental counseling and therapy (DCT) as an integrative link between theories of human development and theories counseling. DCT is “based on a metaphorical interpretation of concepts introduced by Plato and Piaget” (Sweeney, Myers, & Stephan, 2006). DCT uses a four cognitive-emotional developmental styles to assess clients and select appropriate interventions to match the client’s level and style of development.

Key Definition:

Developmental counseling is a type of counseling that focuses on supporting individuals in their personal, social, and emotional development. It aims to promote personal growth, increase self-awareness, and enhance overall well-being.

Understanding Ivey’s Developmental Therapy

Fundamentally, developmental counseling and therapy begins with the foundational theory that psychological problems begin with adaptation. Ivey explains, “the problems clients present in therapy are outcomes of their past and present environments. Their behavior, thoughts, feelings, and symptoms are structures that were originally developed to achieve future survival, despite their now obvious ineffectiveness” (Ivey, 1986). Basically, we dynamically develop within our environments, adapting for survival. However, while the original purpose of an adaptation may pass, the adaptation remains, interfering with effective behavior in the present.

Ivey describes that developmental counseling and therapy is “an integrated, contextual model for counseling and therapy which provides an educational/developmental explanation for what occurs in the interview and beyond” (1986). He explains that the “task of the counselor and the counselor supervisor is to identify client developmental level and then apply developmentally appropriate interventions” (Ivey & Goncalves, 1987).

Ivey’s explains that his developmental counseling and therapy “is best viewed as a multi approach to problem definition and resolution.” He continues, “we develop as ‘beings-in-relation’ and that our individuality is the result of an interaction between our genetic make-up, social history, and current contextual environment” (1986).

Four Key Perspectives in Constructing Developmental Counseling and Therapy

Ivey’s constructed his theory around four key perspectives:

  • A philosophical position That is based on an alternative reading of Plato, which considers the paradox of development
  • A theory of human development in the counseling and therapy process that is a unique synthesis of the work of Plato, Piaget, and other developmental theorists.
  • A practice of therapy and counseling that is based on my previous work in the skills and structure of counseling and psychotherapy
  • A co-constructed model of the therapy session in which the therapist is aa impacted by the client as the client is by the therapist. Underlying this model is a belief in which the construction of reality, a dialectical model in which truth comes not from one source but through a coevolution with the client in the therapeutic environment.

Four States of Cognitive/Emotional Development in Developmental Counseling and Therapy

Drawing from Piaget’s developmental theory, DCT points out that clients may be enmeshed in different levels of development. The four primary styles are:

  • Sensorimotor/elemental
  • Concrete/situational
  • Formal/reflective
  • Dialectic/systemic

Ivey departs from Piaget somewhat in defining these states as circular and spherical rather than hierarchical or linear. Ivey viewed the four states as different perspectives (Sweeney, Myers, & Stephan, 2006). Accordingly, one of the techniques of DCT, then, is to help clients to utilize all the stages, freeing themselves from the limitation of a one style. Ivey stresses that a therapist is more effective in helping a client when they understand the client’s thinking style. Basically, understanding “how they process information and make decisions based upon their unique perception of themselves, life, and others” (2006).

Sensorimotor Style

In the sensorimotor style, individuals focus on the elements of immediate experience. This style refers to the ability to the “experience, awareness, and meaning of felt body experiences, and emotions (Sweeney, Myers, & Stephan, 2006). Clients that process the world in the sensorimotor style experience emotions and cognitions holistically in the here and now. The feeling aspects of stimuli overwhelm, entangling the self in the moment without separation. In higher levels of sensorimotor style, “some magical or irrational thinking may appear” (Ivey & Goncalves, 1987).

Potential Developmental Blocks of Sensorimotor Style

When an individual is overwhelmed with feeling sensations, the emotional experience interferes with their ability to create a narrative, describing what has happened in linear form. Narratives are essential for reflection and self-improvement. When a client is primarily locked in sensorimotor style of processing, emotional patterns and behaviors are common.

Treatments to Strengthen Sensorimotor Style

Body-oriented therapy, imagery, relaxation training, mindfulness, Gestalt exercises

Concrete-Situational Style

In the concrete-situational style, clients relate experiences with concrete linear descriptions and stories, providing supporting details. They incorporate some causal reasoning. Notably, this reasoning is exemplified with if…then constructions. “If I do this then that will happen.” Concrete style is helpful in therapy, amicable to behavior changes.

In this style, clients struggle to name different emotions. Their linear descriptions may miss emotional components. Essentially, Concrete-Situational thinking styles may lose some of the strengths of the sensorimotor style, losing contact with experiencing events in the here and now. Thinking style dominated by the concreate/situational style may be devoid or detached from emotion, displaying elements of alexithymia.

Potential Developmental Blocks of Concrete-Situational Style

Clients may repeatedly relate similar narratives without identifying behavioral patterns creating the disappointing narratives. This style is excellent at retelling events in linear progression. However, fail to integrate the story into overall life occurrences. Accordingly, life experiences fails to provide notable lessons for forecasting consequences associated with behavioral choices. These clients struggle to see different perspectives or over-arching meaning beyond their narratives.

Example Treatments to Strengthen Concrete-Situational Thinking Style

Concrete story telling, social skills training, rational-emotive behavior therapy

Formal-Reflective Style

In formal-reflective style, individuals reflect on patterns of thought, emotion, and action. This is a form of abstract thought. In this style, clients relay experiences from multiple perspectives. In more advanced formal-reflective thinking, individuals recognize commonalities in behavioral thoughts and actions. Clients are capable of discussing feelings and patterns of emotions.

Potential Developmental Blocks of Formal-Reflective Style

Some clients that present at the formal-reflective style may recognize patterns but struggle to provide concrete examples. They may reflect on themselves and specific situations but miss the underlying beliefs structuring and biasing the reflections.

Example Treatments to Strengthen Concrete-Situational Thinking Style

Reflecting on narratives and stories, Rogerian person-centered work, thought REBT thought patterns, psychodynamic dream analysis

Dialectic-Systemic Style

The systemic thought style is a wider perspective, observing the larger systems at work in our lives. In this style, a client may take note of the many systems at work and the many possible alternatives. Through the dialectic-systemic thought style, a person understands that environments greatly impact thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. A person adept at dialectic-systemic thought may acknowledge their complexity without dissonance over the natural conflicts.

Potential Developmental Blocks of Dialectic-Systemic Style

In this style, clients may have a tendency to over-analyze. Life presents a never ending flow of possibilities. We can intellectualize our problem to infinity without ever addressing obvious core causes. The process of analyzing becomes a form of avoidance, without ever venturing into the weeds of solving the problems harassing our lives. Over analyzing often replaces essential experiences of feeling the moment (sensorimotor style), creating a workable narrative (concrete-situational style) or reflection on personal roles in the outcomes (systemic reflective style).

Principles and Techniques for Developmental Counseling

The therapy process involves a comprehensive evaluation to identify the specific developmental areas that require attention. Ivey wrote that developmental counseling and therapy “stresses that learning how to recognize cognitive-developmental level is an important part of any interview or treatment plan.” He explains that therapists must use “concrete approaches with some clients and abstract approaches with others” (Ivey, 1986, p. 24).

In 2005, Ivey presented the Standard Cognitive/Emotional Developmental Interview (SCDI) as a technique to unmask how clients make meaning of experiences through the four cognitive styles. Once a therapist understands how a client processes experience they can work better with the client. Ivey explains that “the goal is for clients to become equally adept at using each style when dealing with the issues in their lives” (Sweeney, Myers, & Stephan, 2006). To accomplish this goal, developmental counselors may lean upon a variety of therapy techniques to assist clients grow in the different thinking style domains.

Ivey suggests that clients come to therapy with lives that are messy and disorganized, stuck and immobilized. The job of the therapist is to free the client so they can intentionally grow and develop. By developing alternate thinking styles, the client may learn to live a successful life. Sweeney et al explains that “when a person has a block or incapacity to use one or more of these developmental cognitive styles” they experience distress.” Accordingly, the therapist pans and uses “appropriate interventions tailored to the clients cognitive styles and blocks” (2006).

A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic

In conclusion, Ivey’s Developmental Counseling and Therapy is a comprehensive and individualized approach to therapy that aims to support individuals in reaching their developmental milestones. Through a combination of tailored interventions, family involvement, and collaborative efforts, this therapy approach offers significant benefits and empowers individuals to thrive. Whether it’s addressing physical, cognitive, emotional, or social needs, Ivey’s Developmental Therapy plays a crucial role in promoting growth and facilitating progress for individuals of all ages.

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Clemens, Elysia (2007). Developmental Counseling and Therapy as a Model for School Counselor Consultation with Teachers. Professional School Counseling, 10(4), 1. DOI: 10.1177/2156759X0701000408

Ivey, Allen E. (1986). Developmental Therapy: Theory Into Practice. Jossey-Bass; First Edition.

Ivey, Allen E.; Ivey, Mary Bradford; Myers, Jane E.; Sweeney, Thomas J. (2005). Developmental Counseling and Therapy: Promoting Wellness over the Lifespan. Houghton Mifflin; 1st edition.

Ivey, Allen; Rigazio-Digilio, Sandra A. (2009). Developmental Counseling and Therapy: The Basics of Why it is Helpful and How to Use It. Turkish Psychological Counseling and Guidance Journal, 4 (32), 1-11. DOI : 229681

Ivey, Allen E.; Goncalves, Oscar (1987). Toward a Developmental Counseling Curriculum. Counselor Education and Supervision, 26(4). DOI: 10.1002/j.1556-6978.1987.tb00728.x

Sweeney, Thomas J.; Myers, Jane E.; Stephan, Julie B. (2006). Integrating Developmental Counseling and therapy Assessment with Adelaerian Recollections. Journal of Individual Psychology, 62(3), 251-269.

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