Ask alumni about their time at Saskatchewan Polytechnic and they’ll probably have a story about one special class. For current students in the Addictions Counselling diploma program, that one class may very well be COUN 155-Addictions Counselling Practice.
“Individual counselling is the cornerstone of an addiction counsellor’s work, and Addictions Counselling Practice gives students the skills they will need in the workplace,” says instructor Joy Friesen. “It’s a lab class where students practice the counselling model with each other, but we thought providing them with simulated clients would be an outstanding experience.”
Simulated clients? Friesen is referring to actors hired by Sask Polytech’s Simulation Centre to portray different clients. Each client had a different presenting problem, level of motivation and way of sharing their story.
“It’s difficult to simulate the dynamic that happens in real life between a client and a counsellor. When students are practicing with their peers or instructors, there’s a degree of comfort because you know it’s not a real client,” Friesen says.
Using live actors to simulate the client-counsellor interaction was designed to give students an opportunity to work through the first stage of the counselling model, while at the same time adapting each client’s defense mechanisms, types of storytelling and process of building rapport. Students also practiced building cultural safety and being culturally responsive with clients.
COVID-19 prevented students’ from having face-to-face interactions, so Benn Hart and Wendy Wilson, both simulation technicians at Sask Polytech, stepped up to help develop an experience that was as real as possible.
“With COVID, Sask Polytech had to move a lot of things to virtual platforms very quickly, so it’s been really busy in the Simulation Centre,” Hart says. “What we do often looks easy, but there’s a lot we have to do in the background to make it happen.”
The first step was meeting with Friesen to discuss her goals. “This was our first time working with the Addictions Counselling program, so we had a Zoom meeting with Joy to get a clear understanding of what she was looking for,” says Wilson. “We hired actors to fit her scenarios and brought them to our simulation centre in Saskatoon, where we could ensure contact and social distancing guidelines were followed. We worked with the actors on their roles and set up the rooms.”
Friesen met with the actors to brief them on the counselling model and the goals of the clinical lab. “I also encouraged them to ad lib. I wanted our students to learn to trust themselves, because a counsellor never knows what a client will say or how they will act,” she says.
The simulation rooms were equipped with cameras and the necessary technology to allow remote log in to the virtual counselling sessions. Wilson and Hart provided onsite technical support, while Friesen and her students logged in from their homes. Each student completed a 30 to 40-minute simulated counselling session, followed by feedback from observing students and the actor. Friesen was able to view each session as it happened.
Based on student feedback, the virtual counselling sessions were a big success. “Our students loved having this opportunity,” Friesen says. “They say it really helped them understand the importance of staying grounded, of building the therapeutic alliance and of meeting the client where they are at. The whole simulation experience was rich in learning and really built their confidence.”