Growing Your Counseling Skills: Giving Good Homework

I think it is always good to be reminded of the 6 key elements of counseling regardless of how long you’ve been counseling. I oversee a men’s residential addiction ministry and am frequently helping people with their counseling skills and looking to train up new counselors. The 6 key elements are very important to keep in mind. If you’ve been counseling for a while you could say them with me…couldn’t you? Well, let’s just say them together:

  • Build loving involvement
  • Share biblical hope
  • Gather relevant data
  • Evaluate the problem/data biblically
  • Provide biblical instruction
  • Assign practical homework

All 6 of those aspects are incredibly important in the counseling process. I want to focus on element number 6–assign practical homework. My contention is that you could be really good at 1–5 and not so good at number 6, or maybe even completely ignore giving homework and completely hamstring the process.

Homework is Essential to Growth

Unless you were one of those odd people that loved homework in school I’m assuming you were excited to finish high school, college, and graduate school because you were ready to get paid for working and also so that you could be done with homework! But even though being done with homework was an exciting prospect of finishing school there’s no doubt that without homework the learning process would have been pretty futile. Without homework and the effort it takes to individually learn how to apply what we are learning in the classroom on our own outside of the classroom we wouldn’t have benefited all that much from school. Class is important, but so is homework.

The same is true for counseling. The counseling room is very important but so is homework.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you are crafting homework for your counselees:

1. Homework should be purposeful

Like everything we do, we should be purposeful (cf. Col. 3:17, 2 Cor. 5:9). The whole counseling session should have a clear focus of seeking to help them become more like Christ. It shouldn’t be an aimless conversation, simply a time for the counselee to vent or a time for you to talk about what is most interesting to you. The goal should be to focus on what is most important for the counselee to process, reframe their thinking and change their behavior in order to become more like Christ. There are a thousand things that probably need to change, but you want to address the most important changes first.

The homework should be directly connected to helping your counselee take the next step forward that is going to put them in the best position to take the next step of growth. All that to say, the Bible reading, Scripture memory, journaling, prayer, and practical application should be focused on making those changes.  You should be able to concisely and clearly answer the question for each item on the homework, “What are you hoping the counselee will learn/change based on this assignment?” If you can’t clearly and concisely answer that question, then the counselee probably can’t either!

A math teacher could assign addition and subtraction exercises to her class, which would make sense for elementary age children. But if the teacher assigns that for her college calculus class that’s just busy work. Don’t assign your counselees busy work!

2. Homework should be practical

Many counselors struggle with assigning practical homework. You may be good at assigning scripture reading, prayer, scripture memory, and things that are directly connected to the spiritual disciplines, but what about practical steps that help people put theology into everyday life? My experience with many counselees is that they know some Bible and religious language. Therefore, assigning some Bible and some prayer without practically helping them put that into everyday life might be reinforcing some kind of feeling that God is stiff arming them or against them.

For example, if you’re working with a husband to help him in his marriage, memorizing 1 Peter 3:7 might be part of the homework, but along with that something measurable and practical should be given like:

Make a list of the top 5 challenges in her relationship with you that you think she would list. Then discuss this list with her and ask if those are the things that rise to the top for her. Based on your conversation, update your list and record 3 ways you acted in order to address those concerns.

An assignment like that, along with 1 Peter 3:7 gets at the “learning” aspect of the husband’s role as well as the “living” part–actually acting based on what he’s learned. Then if that husband comes back with the verse memorized, but with no movement on applying 1 Peter 3:7, you have the opportunity to teach/remind how the change process actually works and why all the homework is so important (cf. Eph. 4:22–24).

3. Homework should be stretching

Homework should also be crafted to stretch your counselees. Some counselees will find Scripture memory and study very easy. Some will find journaling and writing very simple. Some will find prayer easy. Others will trend towards practical steps and shy away from the spiritual discipline side of the equation. You need to learn your counselee so that you can craft homework that is stretching specifically for them. Without being stretched, there won’t be any growth. This means that you have to tailor your homework to each counselee, which takes additional effort and work. Do not get into the habit of just cookie cutter homework that you assign to everyone at the same rate and at the same times in counseling.[1]

4. Homework should be tailored to each counselees’ ability

This point pairs with the last one. Even though HW is designed to stretch counselees, sometimes you’ll find that you gave homework that was just too much. Admittedly, it is very challenging to give the right amount of HW. But it is something we should be asking the Lord for help with and that we should be striving to do. If we give too much HW and just drown our counselees that also can hinder the growth process.

A simple example would be teaching someone to swim. You could throw them in the water without any training whatsoever. Some people might be able to fight through and stay afloat. For others, that might lead to drowning rather than learning to swim. Make sure you are tailoring the amount of homework to each counselees’ ability.

5. Homework should be checked next session

Finally, if you’re going to assign it they should be held accountable on that item. If you treat the homework like it doesn’t matter then don’t be surprised if your counselee does as well. I realize that often counselees can come in with problems that take the counseling session away from what the focus was last week and what the homework was focused on. That’s okay from time to time. But if that’s an every session reality, then I think you need to evaluate if you are really prioritizing what is most important and leading the counseling or if the counselee is leading the counseling.

Conclusion

Homework matters. And if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of work.” Can I let you in on a not so secret, secret? IT IS A LOT OF WORK! The Lord hasn’t called us to an easy calling in the great commission of winning people to Jesus and teaching them to be more faithful disciples (Cf. Matt. 28:19–20). Counseling is a skill that needs to be developed and constantly worked on. And because God has commissioned you for it, he also intends to help you grow to become a better and better counselor for His glory.

So “whatever you do in word or deed (like assigning homework), do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

Join the conversation:

What resource or habit or help of any kind has been the most helpful as you’ve sought to grow in assigning good homework? Your answers could help the rest of us, so please share!


[1] This doesn’t mean you can’t reuse individual assignments or adapt other homework from past counselees. But it does mean you should be putting in careful thought to each assignment based on the person sitting in front of you.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Greg WetterlinGreg Wetterlin
Pastor of Men's Ministries at Faith Church. Blessed to be married to the woman of my dreams in order to serve the Savior we both are unworthy to have.