University of Florida
SDS6411 & SDS6413
There are many different techniques and strategies that can be used in
counseling children. These techniques can range from the mundane to the
experimental and all points in between. When working with school
children, it is important to use a counseling approach that will keep
them attentive and interested. This should help the counselor achieve
the goals of a session. While there are no guarantees that any one
counseling intervention will be effective, the chances for success
increase when the child is genuinely involved.
The counseling approach I will discuss in this paper is the empty-chair
technique. The empty chair approach is a form of self-dialogue (Sharf,
1996) in which the client speaks to an empty chair as if someone were
sitting in it. The empty chair could represent a person (mother,
friend, teacher) or another aspect of the clients, self. The client is
then asked to switch chairs and change roles, responding as if he were
the other individual. The counselor may then call attention to what has
been said or how it was said. In this way the counselor helps the
client get in touch with feelings that they may not have been aware of.
The feelings and experiences of the person who is not present may also
be made clear to the client. This technique is commonly used in Gestalt
therapy, the main goal of which is awareness (Korb, Gorrell, & Van De
Riet). Awareness of self, others, and the environment can be achieved
to bring about growth and integration of the indivual.
The empty-chair technique can be used by school counselors in helping
students become more aware of their feelings and how their actions
affect others. One way I think this approach can be used in the school
is with disruptive students. Some students are constantly having
problems or confrontations with their teachers. The problems can be
minor (i.e. excessive talking during class) or of a more serious nature
(talking back or refusing to follow commands). Such a student may be
referred to a counselor who can then use the empty-chair strategy.
The first step is no different than with any other approach. The
counselor must build enough rapport with the student for the student to
feel comfortable with such an exercise (Smith, 1976). Once the
counselor has given the student ample time to discuss their side of the
issue, they can then suggest the activity. It is important that the
counselor receive the students, consent (Korb, et al.) since the
exercise obviously requires their active participation. The student is
asked to sit across from an empty chair and pretend as if his/her
teacher is there. The counselor tells the student he is free to say
anything he would like to the teacher with regards to their conflict,
preferably focusing on his feelings (Fagan & Shepherd, 1971). The
student is then asked to switch chairs and respond as if he were the
teacher. Again, the student is asked to focus on what the teacher might
say with regards to their feelings. The student then switches chairs
responding as himself again, and so on.
For counselors, the goal of the empty chair approach in this situation
is two-fold. One goal is to attempt to make the student aware of their
teachers feelings, hopefully realizing that the teacher is just trying
to do their job and that they make it very difficult for the teacher.
Another goal is to hopefully have the student gain some insight into why
they act up in class. If the student can be made aware as to why they
misbehave, the counselor can then offer alternatives toward filling
their needs. For example, if the student discovers that he acts up
because he wants attention, the counselor can suggest other, more
productive avenues (i.e. studying or extracurricular activities) toward
gaining attention .
The empty-chair can also be used with students who are bullies, with the
empty chair representing the students that they bully. The goals would
be similar, attempting to make the student more sympathetic towards
other students while also making them more aware of why they pick on
others. There could easily be other scenarios where this approach is
used; preferably with students who display insensitivity or disrespect
toward others in the school. I would recommended that the empty-chair
approach in the schools be used in individual counseling, although the
literature suggests it can also be used in group counseling (Kempler,
1974). Complete disclosure and focus are more likely to occur in an
There are some factors to consider when using the empty-chair
technique. Many Gestalt therapists suggest extensive training and
supervision before counselors use such an intervention (Smith, 1976).
Although this is not required, Sharf (1996, p.272) warns that "beginning
therapists need to be ready for strong emotional responses and know how
to keep the therapeutic process moving while keeping the therapeutic
role to a minimum." When an impasse is reached, the counselor should
move in small rather than large steps (Sharf, 1996).
Before using the empty-chair technique, I would recommend counselors
consider all factors that play into a students behavior. Some factors,
such as learning disabilities, broken homes, or abusive parents can be
the reason behind a students, disruptive or abusive behavior. The empty
chair would probably provide little help or relief for these students.
Also, this approach should not be used with students with low levels of
reasoning. Therefore, I would suggest this approach not be used with
the younger elementary children. It would probably be most effective
with third grade students and up.
Fagan, J., & Shepherd, I.L. (1971). Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory,
Techniques, Applications. Harper Colophon Books. New York.
Kempler, W. (1974). Principles of Gestalt Family Therapy. The Kempler
Institute. Costa Mesa, CA.
Korb, M.P., Gorrell, J., & Van De Riet, V. (1989). Gestalt Therapy:
Practice and Theory. Pergamon Press. NY.
Sharf, R.S. (1996). Theories of Psychotherapy and Counseling.
Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. CA.
Smith, E.W.L. (1976). The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy.
Brunner/Mazel, Publishers. NY.