Ooh, ooh, I know the answer!” calls out an African American middle school student. Excited about learning, enthusiastic about participating in class and eager to interact with his teacher, he is a seemingly model student. But in an education system that caters mostly to the norms of white middle class culture, teachers may view his behavior as representative of something entirely different, says Sam Steen, a counselor educator at George Washington University and a member of the American Counseling Association, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and the Association for Specialists in Group Work.

Every culture has different communication patterns, Steen explains. For instance, in African American culture, he says, “Everyone jockeys for the opportunity to voice their opinion, and although it is competitive, it is not malicious.” However, when placed in the context of a school classroom governed by white middle class values, this style of communication may be interpreted as being disrespectful, Steen says, even when that is not what the student intended.

Norma Day-Vines, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, says this “simultaneous communication” style is at odds with the prevailing sequential communication style (in which people take turns talking), often leading to misunderstandings both in the classroom and society at large. For example, in mainstream America, she says, people express dissent in a dispassionate manner. “But within the African American community, we tend to be animated. When in a classroom, if something comes up, the student may become highly animated,” she says, adding that this sometimes creates unintended conflict with the teacher.

Differences in communication patterns are just one of the reasons that minorities are at a disadvantage in U.S. schools and society, where they often face additional obstacles to their successful development, Steen contends.

Added obstacles

In general, the U.S. education system still uses a model that works best for white middle class kids, says Courtland Lee, director of the counselor education program at the University of Maryland, president of the International Association for Counselling and a past president of ACA. “Basically, for a lot of kids of color, schools represent a reality that doesn’t make sense to them or is not very relevant to them,” he explains. “They are at a disadvantage because American society, in terms of its value system overall, is based on realities embedded in white middle class culture, which means inherent privileges for white middle class people, but not people who are not white middle class.”

Some counselors point to the continued prevalence of “tracking” as evidence that students of diverse backgrounds aren’t made to feel a part of the prevailing academic and social culture in school systems. “Tracking is when kids are placed in certain classrooms based on ability level,” explains Julia Bryan, assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Maryland. “Often you see that it is children of color who are in the lower academic tracks.” Although efforts have been made to address this disparity, she notes that children of color are not often found in Advanced Placement courses in high schools. “You will see that children of color are often encouraged to apply to two-year colleges rather than more selective four-year colleges. White kids are pushed toward more selective four-year colleges,” says Bryan, a member of ACA and ACES.

“You have disproportionate numbers of minority students in special education and experiencing expulsion and disciplinary actions,” adds Day-Vines, a member of ACA, ACES and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. “One thing that the research literature suggests is that African American students are more than two and a half times more likely to have discipline referrals or be expelled. They, along with Latino students, are also more likely to be expelled for more ambiguous offenses.”

Day-Vines also asserts that, in general, students of color aren’t being taught or encouraged to believe in themselves in the school system. She believes this plays a major role in their comparatively low performance levels as it relates to grades and overall school achievement. “Prior to the civil rights movement, there wasn’t this level of low performance among African American students because they were often taught by African American teachers,” she says. “This helped children believe in themselves and reinforced the notion that children can do a lot. This is the concept behind Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Treating children with dignity and respect is one of the qualities we need to return to in public education,” she says, regardless of an educator’s race.

Steen says racially, ethnically and culturally diverse students are at a disadvantage because they often have limited access to positive role models in positions of responsibility. “The role models that students of color have in society tend to be athletes, musicians,” he says. “Rarely are they educators, and it is not until recently that they have been politicians.”

Minority students from low-income backgrounds and living in urban areas struggle even more, Steen says. “The research is clear that students from low-income backgrounds who live in neighborhoods where violence is more rampant, where they are more likely to come from single-parent households, lack basic resources and necessities.” In addition, issues of homelessness and addiction, whether in their neighborhoods or in their families, are more likely to touch the lives of children of color, Steen says, further hindering their developmental opportunities in school.

While stressing the need to be sensitive to these potential struggles, Day-Vines also reminds counselors that not every African America student will internalize oppression or have difficulty succeeding in the U.S. education system.

Strategies for promoting student development

In the midst of this disparity, counselors are well positioned to help students of color overcome some of these barriers to their development. Indeed, Lee says, “Counselors’ role should be to help kids navigate the system. I think counselors have a moral imperative to knock down those systemic barriers. Counselors need to be advocates for children, ensuring that all children are held to high standards.”

Steen says counselors need to be careful to help students of diverse cultures adapt to the norms of their schools and social environments without invalidating the cultures and social norms of minority children. Counselors can teach social norms and academic skills through psychoeducational groups in the classroom or hold counseling groups outside of class to help students adjust to difficulties they are having. “In both cases,” Steen says, “the ultimate goal is to empower students through the interactions they have with you as a leader and with each other to work on some of their issues and challenges and teach them how to overcome some of the barriers to prepare them to be successful in the classroom.”

To genuinely effect change in how school systems and society at large function with regard to people of diverse backgrounds, Steen and other counselor educators say counselors must work on a systemic level. This involves “building partnerships and working with stakeholders such as parents, community leaders and staff to create programs that can help children and families,” says Bryan, who adds that counselor education programs need to provide more training to help counselors develop advocacy and leadership skills.

Steen suggests that counselors “collaborate with people who have those skills that they don’t have, while also taking on a leadership role where (counselors) initiate programs or initiate task forces.” For example, counselors can work more closely with parents, who “are just waiting for those invitations,” he says. Steen asserts that school counselors can better spend their time taking on this liaison role rather than limiting themselves to one-on-one therapy with students. In the long run, he says, more people — both students and adults in the wider community — will be positively affected by counselors assuming this expanded role.

Day-Vines also emphasizes the importance of creating partnerships between schools and communities. She points to an example in an Oakland, Calif., high school that was experiencing a high rate of discipline problems among its African American and Latino students. Community leaders were brought into the school to train students, using focus groups, to talk to their teachers about what might happen if they worked together more cohesively. During the schoolwide initiative, counselors worked individually with students to validate — and sometimes challenge — their perspectives. Counselors also promoted the initiative throughout the school.

“One result was that teachers gained a great deal of respect for the students because they were able to articulate their concerns,” Day-Vines says. “Overall, more than 75 percent of the disciplinary infractions were reduced.” Although community leaders provided most of the training to students in this instance, counselors possess the expertise to perform similar training initiatives, she adds.

Building relationships for systemic change

The leverage that counselors have in a school is gained over time, Steen advises. “School counselors who are trained as advocates learn that they must gain allies,” he says, adding that counselors may not be able to make a substantial difference early on. “But over time, they establish credibility, show small successes, build relationships with teachers who have a similar framework or belief system and build relationships with administrators. As the years pass, they start winning the war based on these small successes.”

Building relationships with teachers and administrators is helpful, Steen says, because counselors are then better positioned to advocate for institutional change. “Their work not only impacts the few students they see in their counseling offices, but also the school, school district and community at large when working together with teachers and administrators,” he says. “Initially, counselors can engage students in critical thinking about their race, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds and how they fit within the context of today’s society. Further, an emphasis on strengths, skills and talents students possess, as well as coping strategies they are aware of and those they are not aware of, can be included in counseling interventions and programs” for students of color.

Steen shares seven tips to help counselors create stronger relationships with teachers and administrators:

  1. Be as flexible as possible.
  2. Have a team-player orientation.
  3. Engage in and facilitate honest and open dialogue.
  4. Model professionalism.
  5. Negotiate and compromise.
  6. Speak an educator’s language (with an emphasis on academic and career development).
  7. Take risks and reflect on decisions made.

“Counselors need to take the initiative to seize leadership to work on behalf of kids,” Lee says. “Counselors have to get angry — angry at the achievement gap, at the system — and get to the point where they go up to the system and say ’enough is enough’ to people in positions of power and public policy-making positions.”

One important way counselors can influence public policy, Lee says, is by gathering and presenting data that show systemic inequities for children of color, including suspension rates, academic achievement rates and differential graduation rates. “The important thing is that data speak volumes,” Lee says. “Counselors can gather data for their individual schools, or they can collaborate across all schools (in a district) to show inequities.” After gathering accurate data, he says, counselors can present the information to school administrators, superintendents, central office staff, school board members and their political representatives at local, state and national levels. Lee adds that there is power in numbers and encourages groups of counselors to approach policy makers together.

Diverse approaches

Steen and Day-Vines previously worked together on a group counseling program that targeted achievement and ethnic identity in African American high school students through the use of culturally relevant bibliotherapy. The two counselors assessed how the students felt about themselves both before and after the group program and discovered that their self-concept and academic concept improved after the bibliotherapy intervention, in which the students read books by African American authors.

“Through engagement with the central protagonist, they begin to come up with solutions to problems (and) coping strategies,” Day-Vines says. Using bibliotherapy in this manner is “healing, because most young people (of color) have mainly been exposed to people who are white in books,” she continues. “A conclusion that a person may draw is that ’I don’t see children of color succeeding academically (in books), so that is not something I can do.’” Culturally relevant bibliotherapy also allows students of color to see their cultures represented in healthy ways, unlike the often negative depictions prevalent in the news, Day-Vines says.

In addition to books, Dana Griffin, assistant professor of counselor education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, advocates using contemporary music such as rap (provided it has a positive message) as a tool for raising the self-esteem of African American children. Listening to the music provides a platform for adolescents and older children to discuss what it means to be black in America as well as appropriate paths to success in life, she says. “Mainly, I choose songs by African Americans,” says Griffin, a member of ACA, ACES, AMCD and the Counseling Association for Humanistic Education and Development. “You can always find positive rap songs or singers that write about loving yourself (rather than) giving up. So I can say to children, ’See, here are some people who are just like you who are doing well.’” One song that Griffin likes to use with girls is “Work That” by Mary J. Blige. “(Blige) talks about how African American girls are often judged by how they look but that they should keep their head up and keep (on going). I use that to raise the self-esteem of girls.”

Sometimes, the best technique to assist students is “plain talk therapy or narrative therapy,” Griffin says, adding that children and adolescents often carry around feelings about their experiences in school that are not validated by adults. Narrative therapy “gives them a place to be themselves,” she says. “If a child comes to your office and says a teacher is racist, we need to validate their viewpoint, whether it is true or not.” This validation can be done during individual therapy.

Another way for counselors to help provide validation to students of color is through creation of minority identity development groups, Griffin says. This approach allows students to talk about their feelings and concerns in school within a group of their peers. In setting up these groups, Griffin suggests recruiting a few students who are strong and outspoken because they will naturally empower the other students. In addition, Griffin says, “I’m an advocate for always involving parents (in general). Listen to their side, listen to their viewpoints.”

Bridging the cultural gap

Day-Vines has developed a model called “broaching” to describe counselors’ optimum behavior when interacting with minority children and discussing the often-sensitive issues connected to race. “You can use broaching with children to examine the extent to which racial, ethnic and cultural differences affect their learning,” she says. “Broaching answers the question, ’How do we open up to children to explore the racial impact on their school experience?’”

Validation of the child’s experiences with racism is important in the concept of broaching as a counselor, says Day-Vines, who described the broaching model in detail in an article she cowrote for the Journal of Counseling & Development (“Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity and Culture During the Counseling Process,” Fall 2007). In the article, she and her coauthors write that “Broaching behavior refers to a consistent and ongoing attitude of openness with a genuine commitment by the counselor to continually explore issues of diversity.” Day-Vines describes the sensitivity involved in the technique of broaching with the following example: “The counselor may indicate, ’We’re both from different ethnic backgrounds. I’m wondering how you feel about working with a white European American woman on your concerns.’”

To better understand African American children, Day-Vines also suggests that non-black counselors use “cultural informants” to indirectly bridge the cultural gap. “You may be working with a child whose culture you don’t know much about, so you might identify an adult in the community who is a member of that culture and get feedback and recommendations from them,” she explains. “Reaching out into the community is important.”

Another way counselors can boost the development of students from diverse backgrounds is to bring representatives from the community who are also culturally diverse into the school, Day-Vines suggests. People of color who are in positions of power or responsibility in society are particularly good role models for children on school career days. “Putting children in contact with resources in the community is important,” she says. “Involve church, civic and social organizations so children feel a sense of belonging and feel validated. We can’t let children internalize the oppression. Part of the deficit paradigm in terms of interacting with poor and minority children in general is the notion of low expectations. We have to place high standards on them and believe that they can achieve.” Involving the community is key to raising the expectations of minority children and assisting them in their achievement, she adds.

While striving to promote achievement in students of color, Griffin reminds counselors that “even if you are working with a minority population, you can’t treat the whole group as one. You need to treat everyone individually. Some things may be common to the group but not common to the person in front of you. Even if it is a white student, you still treat that student differently based on variables, such as where they live, their religion, how much money they have, their culture and so on.”

This is an exciting era for African American children, Steen says, because they have a positive role model in a position of power to look to with Barack Obama as president. Still, there is much progress to be made.

“The issues surrounding our children in schools didn’t happen overnight, so they won’t be undone overnight,” Day-Vines says. “We want all children to thrive so that all children have enhanced opportunities. We also need to think of this on a selfish level — we’re all at risk if we don’t help society.”