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How to Create Effective Counseling Action Plans

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Why goal setting and homework exercises are essential for effective therapy

The healing and recovery clients achieve in therapy occur through a constant back and forth between in-session elements and real-world applications.

To grow and develop through counseling, clients must gain new insights and learning during therapy—then apply them in daily life.

Without this real-world application, clients’ recovery can be delayed. And they may be held back from achieving some of the big, important things they are capable of.

So, as a therapist, how do you ensure your counseling includes these required theoretical and practical elements?

By using counseling action plans.

In this article, we’ll break down exactly what a counseling action plan is. Plus, some helpful tools you can use to streamline the process to make it part of your therapy sessions.

What Are Counseling Action Plans?

Counseling action plans are an agreement between therapist and client about what tangible outcomes are going to be worked on in therapy.

These plans can take many different forms and should always be designed according to the client’s specific needs and goals.

The purpose of action plans in counseling is to ensure there is forward momentum and progress being made in therapy. They are focused on real-world outcomes, but often pair an internal insight or change with an external action.

Here are some examples to illustrate the concept:

  • For a client struggling with PTSD after a car accident, an action plan might involve psychotherapy around trauma narratives and EMDR to reprocess traumatic events, with a plan to progress to desensitization therapy within 3 months, then resume driving in 6 months.
  • A person with major depressive disorder could develop a plan with their therapist to undertake 3 months of intensive CBT to work through cognitive distortions, paired with a behavioral activation program to address the biological components of their condition.
  • Therapists treating clients struggling with addiction often achieve good outcomes by combining psychoeducation with practical tasks, like managing stress and relapse, engaging in positive activities such as work or study, and linking up with a sober mentor.

Now, let’s take a look at how goal setting and homework exercises fit into counseling action plans.

The importance of goals and homework 

Goals and homework exercises add two important dimensions to counseling action plans: Structure and accountability.

Structure leads to better success in therapy because it encourages both the client and counselor to focus on tangible outcomes. While accountability is important, as this is the component that drives clients (and therapists) to follow through and do what they said they would do.

Below are some best practices for goal setting and homework exercises.

Goal Setting

  • Many people find the SMART framework useful for goal setting. This ensures that goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. 
  • Remember that in many ways, the process of goal setting is as beneficial as whether the client actually achieves their desired outcome. Goal setting places the client on a trajectory of positive, growth-oriented behavior, which is always a good thing.
  • Don’t be afraid to adjust and refine goals over time. It’s far better to move a timeframe or milestone and keep making progress than abandon an endeavor altogether. 

Homework Exercises

  • You might need to explain the rationale behind homework exercises to a client who is new to therapy. A good approach is to describe how homework exercises complement and enhance what is worked on in session.
  • Homework is only beneficial if your clients actually do it, so keep it simple! You might like to start small with each client and build up over time.
  • Writing isn’t necessary. Homework exercises can be action-oriented tasks, like calling an old friend, applying for a new job, or setting a boundary with a relative. If your client wants to journal or write a reflection that’s fine, but so is simply sharing their experience in your next session. 


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Challenges with Action Planning

While most therapists recognize the importance of counseling action plans, there are several challenges practitioners face in this area.

For most clinicians, the top barriers to developing action plans are:

  1. Lack of time
  2. Other concerns to address in session
  3. Not sure how
  4. Client not interested
  5. Difficulty tracking progress

Sometimes, these barriers require up-skilling by the therapist or a different approach. But often, intelligent practice management software, like TheraNest, can make the process less time intensive and more effective.

Tools to Streamline the Planning Process

TheraNest is a simple and easy-to-use practice management software solution that includes everything therapists need to run their practice. 

Not only does TheraNest look after administrative tasks, like scheduling, patient intake, payment processing, reporting, and secure messaging—it also includes several tools to streamline patient care

When it comes to counseling action plans, the customizable note templates and Wiley Practice Planner add-on for TheraNest can help in several ways, including: 

  • Allowing therapists to create an action plan once, then automatically carry it forward to all future notes with a client, with a reminder to update progress each session.
  • The option of receiving suggestions from the Wiley add-on about evidence-based interventions for specific client issues.
  • Therapists can create templates for action plans about certain diagnoses or client problems. For example, you might create a counseling action plan template for stress and anxiety, depression, or alcohol misuse. Then, when a new client presents with this issue, you can simply tweak the pre-made plan to suit their circumstances.
  • Standard counseling note templates can be customized to include a prompt about counseling action plans, so you never forget to do them during sessions. 
  • Homework exercises and feedback can be securely sent and received by therapist and client between sessions, then stored in the client’s mental health EMR to refer back to as needed.   

Choose a Software Partner Who Cares

To truly capture and automate the essential components of goal setting and homework exercises, behavioral health software must be infused with expert clinical knowledge and therapist know-how. And the reality is—that’s beyond the scope of most practice management solutions.

But at Therapy Brands, we do things a little differently.

TheraNest is made by therapists, for therapists. So you can be sure when it comes to something like counseling action plans, we’ve included everything you need to do your job easily, quickly, and effectively.
To find out how TheraNest can help you get the best outcomes for your patients, sign up for your free 21-day trial today.

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