The Basis of Play Therapy Standards
The word competencies is becoming increasingly used in the education, health and social services fields in general and in the psychological professions in particular. Other play therapy professional organisations have also started to talk about competencies. PTI who pioneered the application of a competency framework to play therapy standards and training in 2002 is concerned that a ‘dumbing down’ process has started. Just throw in the word ‘competencies’ in a set of standards and everything will be alright. In the interests of ‘don’t be left out - but don’t be taken in’ we are explaining the development of the application of competencies to play therapy so that are readers may take a fully informed view on this aspect of standards setting.
Who Invented the Competency Model?
In the early 1970s, a Harvard professor David C. McClelland, a distinguished psychologist with a particular interest in motivation and achievement, developed a set of personality tests to identify which attitudes and habits were shared and demonstrated by high achievers. A delegate at one of McClelland’s workshops presented him with a challenge: Could he identify the attitudes and habits of an outstanding candidate so that his agency could begin selecting employees on the basis of more relevant criteria than the screening tests currently being used?
McClelland said ‘yes’. He began by asking for the names of their most out, standing employees. He also asked for the names of people whose jobs were secure but who were in no way outstanding. To find the difference between the two groups, McClelland and his colleague Charles Dailey initiated a series of intensive interviews with every name on their lists. They asked fifty people to describe three incidents where they felt they had performed outstandingly and three where they felt they had really messed up. McClelland and Dailey asked minutely detailed questions to establish a clear picture of what was said, what was done, when and where it all happened, who else was there, and so on. These detailed descriptions enabled them, when analyzing the stories, to find a pattern: what competencies the out' standing performers had demonstrated that the others hadn't. Some favorable competencies were far beyond the straightforward management skills that might have been expected.
Interestingly, many of the skills that the panel of experts had identified as crucial to job performance turned out to be irrelevant to the everyday duties of the people interviewed by McClelland and Dailey. To validate his conclusions about which competencies were necessary, McClelland tested them on another group of staff who had been identified as outstanding and a group who fell into the mediocre category. Using psychological tests that had been developed to assess an individual's degree of social sensitivity, as well as tests for other key competencies, he and Dailey found that the officers identified as outstanding consistently performed very well on such tests, whereas those rated mediocre performed poorly. Thus it became clear that social sensitivity and the other key competencies they had identified were indeed relevant to job performance.
In 1973, McClelland wrote about hiring practices for civil service jobs. He pointed out the incongruity of using standardized psychological and intelligence tests, such as IQ tests and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, for certain jobs. How necessary is it, he asked, for a prospective policeman to be able to spot the correct definition of the word "lexicon"? Does anyone really believe that a talent for finding analogies to words will make someone a good fire, fighter? Yet the tests for civil service positions were typically com, posed of such items. McClelland argued for the use of competency testing in place of standardized tests. As he put it: "If you want to test who will be a good policeman, go find out what a policeman does. Follow him around, make a list of his activities, and sample from that list in screening applicants" (McClelland, 1973, pp. 1-14).
This is exactly our approach to defining competencies for the job of a Play Therapist.
The same recommendation, of course, could have applied to any organisations' use of standardized tests, which were then designed to predict academic performance rather than performance on the job. In fact, McClelland had chaired a panel of the Social Science Re, search Council that found that less academically successful students were not necessarily poorer performers in life. PTI has also experienced this with some of our students.
Like most good ideas, McClelland's recommendations were not wholly new. As far back as the 1920s, Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management, argued that the task of the management scientist was to break down the subject into its component parts, in other words, into competencies, (Raelin and Cooledge, 1996, p. 25). And during the second World War, psychologist John Flanagan developed what he called the critical incident interview, which attempted to identify crucial traits and skills required for successful performance by gathering data on the behavior and observations of people in relevant situations, such as job events, crises, key prob, lems, and the like (Flanagan, 1954, pp. 327-358).
Unlike McClelland's approach, however, the critical incident technique did not pay attention to the interviewees’ thinking patterns or feelings. It confined itself primarily to behavior that was generated and witnessed by the interviewee and other items deemed significant. But the behavioral approach McClelland used on his initial project, which later became a key step in the process of developing competency models, expanded the focus to include individual experiences and perceptions of events.