Early on in my counseling practice it was common for me to give homework simply because that was the expectation. I would assign Scriptures to study or books to read. In truth, however, the work had very little focus and the counselees often felt like it was busy work. I was missing a key ingredient to crafting effective homework: a clear purpose. Homework should always have a specific goal in mind, in this way we can craft work that targets specific designs. It’s not only much easier to evaluate homework when this is done, but its more directly beneficial to the counselee. There could be any number of goals for homework, but I have found the following four to be the most common purposes.
An initial purpose might be Relationship-Building. In order to be effective in counseling we need to build a relationship of trust and compassion with our counselees. They need to believe that we have heard them and understood them. They need to believe that we are FOR them. One way we can build trust is by giving homework that reflects our understanding of them and invites them to share more. Homework that reflects we have heard their concerns and hurts, and demonstrates a willingness to learn more is an invitation to believe us. This type of homework may also seek to motivate them to hope, to see and believe God’s goodness and commitment to them. Some types of homework that do this work might be reading Biblical narratives of God’s involvement in sufferings of others (David, Joseph, Paul, etc.). Or, we might encourage meditation on their identity in Christ. Or we might seek to normalize their problems, reminding them that their situation is not uncommon (1 Cor. 10:13). We might give a counselee the homework to reflect on the character of God. I recall one counselee who, in the midst of our counseling process, simply lost hope that he could change. My assignment for him was to meditate on a handful of Scriptures that spoke of God’s role in our sanctification. He was required to write them out, and summarize them in his own words. The statement he brought back to counseling the following week revealed the work that God had done in his heart: I can change because God will change me!
A second purpose for homework might be data-gathering. This type of homework does exactly what it says, it attempts to gather more information. There are times in the counseling process where we don’t know what to do next, where to go, or how to be helpful. In most cases this is because we don’t have enough information. So we give assignments that seek to understand people, situations, and problems better. We might ask a counselee to fill out a journaling assignment or to answer several of David Powlison’s very helpful X-Ray Questions. At one level all homework is data-gathering, right, but this type focuses on ascertaining specific information. The goal is not simply, however, to gather information. There is a sense in which this assignment can help the counselee gathering information about themselves too – making the process of change more clear to everyone. Paul Tripp says, “Data gathering is instructional. Good questions begin to teach the counselee to organize, interpret, and explain his world biblically.” (Instruments, 335). So, as we ask questions and assign homework we are helping the counselee to think about themselves through reflection. Which leads us to a third type of purpose.
Thirdly, homework can be designed to promote self-analysis. Often we do not know ourselves or understand ourselves, a good homework assignment can bring to the fore motives, desires, and expectations that are lying behind the scenes. Invite people to do hard self-analysis through homework assignments. You might give a counselee a comparative assignment, which invites them to compare themselves to symptom lists, character stories, case studies, or (best of all) the attributes of Christ. How do the compare to these? What does the comparison or distance reveal? We might ask them to fill out evaluative forms, rate themselves on skills, practices, or character qualities. Powlison’s X-Ray Questions can be helpful here too. The goal here is to lead people to understanding rather than simply pointing issues out to them. Consider Nathan’s approach with David after the death of Uriah (2 Samuel 12). What does Samuel do? He engages David in a dialogue rather than just putting him on the spot and calling him out. Engage a counselee in a conversation about themselves. Don’t just say, “You don’t trust God.” Give them a fear inventory and lead them to that conclusion on their own. We may also need to help them see how their view and God’s view do not line up, and so self-analysis in this sense means seeing where I am not in line with God’s values. In this case we assign homework that challenges a comparison of their life and thought with what God’s Word says. Help them draw out the contrast and disparity.
Finally, we may develop homework for the purpose of helping a counselee apply truth to their lives in practical ways. Life application is the goal of all helpful counseling. If truth only stays at the conceptual level it won’t lead to transformation. Often individuals know the truth, but they don’t know how to act on it, and this is especially true as counseling progresses. Counselees need help in the practice of godliness, not simply the knowledge of it. For example, a couple learning to navigate conflict is eventually going to need to practice their skills with a “Conference table” type of assignment, where they are invited to have an actual disagreement facilitated by questions on a worksheet. Others may need to be held accountable to do specific acts of kindness as part of the process of confronting their selfishness. Others may need help in making strategic plans to avoid temptation. The intent of this homework is to help counselees live out what they learn through the counseling session, to practice what they know.
There are lots of other ways we can engage people with homework, but I find these the most common types I turn to. Whatever the goal it needs to be clear in your mind and often communicated well to the counselee. Homework without a purpose will be hard to evaluate and will eventually impact a counselees motivation. Crafting effective homework means having a clear purpose!