Goals in counseling and psychotherapy; what makes an effective counseling treatment plan; tips for writing counseling goals and examples of counseling and psychotherapy goals in common treatment areas such as substance abuse, anger management and depression will be covered in this blog. Setting counseling goals is something almost all therapists do with their clients. But why do we do it? Is it because it looks good? Because it structures therapy? To get insurance off our backs? Although there are many different considerations, it is generally understood that making goals is associated with positive treatment outcomes. At least when you do it correctly.
What Makes an Effective Treatment Goal?
Creating counseling (psychotherapy) treatment goals can help clients improve their well-being but—when done poorly—it can also hinder progress. Here is what to do to make the most out of goals in counseling and keep insurance companies from serving you an audit.
A helpful way to make a productive treatment counseling goal is to use the acronym SMART:
You want to make sure that the goals you create are specific and easy to follow. They should not be too general. General goals have too many facets to complete successfully. Goals usually have objectives. Objectives are the specific actions the client will take to complete the goal. Sometimes creating objectives and deadlines is termed the “action plan”.
You need a way to track your efforts. That is only possible when the goal is measurable. Both you and the client need to be able to simply monitor their progress. This also helps when you have to provide evidence to an insurance company as to why your client is still in treatment.
A counseling goal needs to be attainable or it will be counterproductive. Too easy of a goal, however, is not a goal worth having. It is best when it is challenging but achievable within a certain time frame. It also needs to be under your control. If you have to depend on someone else for its success, it is not an effective goal.
Goals (counseling) should be aligned with the client’s values. If they don’t agree it is a meaningful goal that fits with their lifestyle, they won’t be motivated to follow-through. Also remember, these are the client’s goals and they need to have input in creating them.
Counseling goals need to have a reasonable deadline. The deadline can always be extended but it helps the client to stay motivated and make progress. It also shows the insurance company that you aren’t trying to continue therapy indefinitely.
The SMART framework is a valuable guide for making goals. Here are some other considerations:
You may have 10 areas you want to work on but it may not be realistic to complete them all in the foreseeable future. You need to decide which goals are most important and should be worked on first. When making a treatment plan you don’t want to have too many goals. That only makes it less likely you will complete them.
Long or Short-term?
Some counseling goals you will want to complete in the next five months and some you may want to complete in five years. While it is valuable to always keep long-term goals in mind, treatment is primarily meant to focus on what you are doing in the present and immediate future. Keep in mind, however, that some short-term goals may contribute to larger goals. For example, maybe an immediate goal is to decrease particular anxiety symptoms. And doing that will help you achieve the long-term goal of finding a romantic life partner.
Regularly Monitor Goals
Even when a goal has a set deadline, it is important to have checkpoints along the way. Make clear to your clients that the date of the deadline is not the only time you will be assessing their progress. It is also helpful to share how you will be monitoring their improvement. You can document progress of goals under SOAP notes.
Goal-Making Tips for Therapists
• A good way to figure out counseling (psychotherapy) goals is to ask the magic wand question: what would you change if you had a magic wand and could change five aspects of your life? Some of these ideas may be a bit outlandish but you can help the client make them more realistic. Besides figuring out what a client wants to work on, it is also important to understand what is preventing them from making those changes.
• Take at least a few sessions to set goals. There is pressure to make goals right away, especially when you want to make a diagnosis for insurance purposes. But let’s face it, you can’t know what is going on with a client in one session. Issues usually unfold over time. The great thing about goals (and treatment plans) is that you can update them as necessary.
• Don’t focus on too many objectives at once. Just as you don’t want to overload your client with goals, you don’t want to saddle them with ten objectives at one time. Keep in mind that you can have objectives in reserve. Once an objective is concluded, you can replace it with another that they need to complete to accomplish their goal.
• Set a deadline but allow sufficient time. As we mentioned, deadlines are important. But, when they are set unrealistically, they can be detrimental. It is crucial to give the client enough time to complete their goals in a manageable way. On the flip side, giving too much time will sap their motivation.
Examples of Treatment Goals Counseling (Psychotherapy)
Here are three examples of well-written goals in common treatment areas:
1) Substance Abuse
Goal: Build a healthy support system to aid in recovery from opioid abuse
• The client will make contact with friends and/or family three times a week
• The client will attend Narcotics Anonymous (NA) three times a week
• The client will get a sponsor within a month
2) Anger Management
Goal: Develop effective anger management techniques
• The client will walk away from situations that trigger strong emotions
• Learn three positive anger management skills and practice one daily
• Learn two ways to communicate verbally when angry
Goal: Decrease symptoms of depression through improved coping
• Learn three coping techniques to reduce depression and practice one each day
• Complete CBT thought record daily
• Identify three past ways of coping with depression that have not worked for you
Well written counseling goals are important aspect of counseling treatment plan and they help both clinicians and clients to stay focus on progress. In addition, well written goals will help you avoid insurance audits however one needs to also monitor progress towards goals as insurance may deny payments if no proof of functional progress is documented.
How to monitor goals once therapy begins? One way is to sign up for an EHR that allows one to enter goals and monitor them every session. TheraPlatform, (All in- one EHR, practice management and telehealth platform for mental health providers), has built- in library of treatment plan templates that can be modified according to your needs. TheraPlatform links your goals under treatment plan to your therapy notes so every session you see the goals under therapy note and can “score” them. Scored goals are also represented in a graphical format so you can see the progress of each goal overtime on the graph. TheraPlatform offers 30 day free trial (no credit card required) and their pricing is very affordable and scalable (starting at $39 per month)