Relational-cultural theory for middle school counselors.
Gabrielle is a seventh-grade student who has come to see her middle school counselor in tears. She explains that she is "fighting with her ex-friends." A group of girls with whom she was once close friends are now ignoring her at lunch, deleting her texts without responding, and whispering about her in the hallways. Gabrielle is saddened by the loss of these friendships and the isolation she is now feeling. For her part, Gabrielle reports that she originally found comfort in being part of this circle of friends. Soon, one of the other girls in the group, Neveah, started to send texts to other friends about Gabrielle, questioning her sexual reputation. Beginning to doubt her relational safety, Gabrielle started gossiping about Neveah on her Facebook site. Gabrielle reports, "I thought, what's the big deal? We all gossip about each other all the time. It's always so hard to tell who really has your back."
Traditional models of human growth and development focus on separation and individuation as core components of healthy maturation. In contrast, Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) is an approach to understanding development within the context of relationships. This approach emphasizes the healthy expansion and deepening of relationships as the goal of development rather than separation and individuation (Miller & Silver, 1997). Disconnection is viewed as the primary source of human suffering, while healthy connections are seen as key components of satisfaction and growth.
Young adolescents, typically in the middle school grades, are facing life tasks involving connections and belonging with their peer group along with the development of their individual identity. As they are learning to negotiate through these developmental tasks, they face myriad relational challenges. This article explores the application of Relational-Cultural Theory with early adolescents in the middle school grades and provides a brief overview of concepts.
At the core of RCT is the notion that all people, throughout the lifespan, grow in connection with others. When people are able to be authentic in relationships, and when others are able to be authentic in return, a cycle is created in which mutual empathy, connection, and growth are possible. Mutual empathy, or the two-way ability to put oneself in another's position and allow others through the self-boundary (Jordan, 1991), leads to mutual empowerment and growth. According to Ruiz (2005), through this process, "individuals realize that they have an impact on each other" (p.35). Relational-Cultural Theory further purports that growth through connections fosters what are referred to as the "five good things" (Miller, 1986, p. 2). Miller (1986) defined these five good things as 1) each person feels a greater sense of "zest" (vitality, energy), 2) each person feels more able to act and does act, 3) each person has a more accurate picture of her/himself and the other person(s), 4) each person feels a greater sense of worth, and (5) each person feels more connected to other persons and exhibits a greater motivation to connect with others (p. 3).
According to RCT, all people have an intense desire for connection. In spite of this yearning, people often block connections with others by using behaviors that keep them from the very thing they desire. Relational-Cultural Theory refers to this as the "central relational paradox" (Miller & Silver, 1997, p. 81). To explain further, each person has a relational template, or series of learning experiences rooted in past relationships. How individuals approach relationships is based on this template. In order to circumvent hurt, people employ strategies of disconnection. For example, some disconnecting behaviors include withdrawing, isolation, and blaming (Hartling, Rosen, Walker, & Jordan, 2000). By utilizing these strategies of disconnection, people are able to protect themselves from perceived danger in emotionally charged situations.
In the case of Gabrielle, although she desired connection with her group of friends and was experiencing a disconnection with Neveah and some of the others, she chose to gossip and act in an inauthentic manner. In this example, by choosing the behavior of lying, Gabrielle was distancing herself both from her feelings about the situation and from the others involved in the situation. As Gabrielle explained to her counselor, she does not know whom to trust. If Gabrielle explored her relational templates with a counselor, she might find that she has experienced a lack of trust in relationships before. Further, she may learn that, although she desires a genuine connection, she blocks herself from fully engaging with others because she fears not being accepted. If unable to work through the disconnections, she may become stuck in a cycle of condemned isolation or "locked out of the possibility of connection" (Miller & Stiver, 1997, p. 72).
In order to grow, and, according to RCT, to grow in connection with others, people must learn how to work through unhelpful relational templates and the strategies of disconnection that have protected them over time (Miller & Silver, 1997). They must continue to examine the ways in which they approach relationships because disconnections, or rough periods in relationships, are bound to happen. According to this approach, routine disconnections or everyday, normal ruptures exist in relationships and are products of living. Examples of routine disconnections include general disagreements, letdowns, and conflicts of opinion. These daily disconnections are the most amenable to prevention and remediation in the school environment. Conversely, disconnections that are prolonged and severe may be the result of trauma or abuse. In these instances, a chance to repair the relationship almost never occurs, and to try to do so would lead to becoming stuck in a cycle of despair and confusion, sometimes leading to chronic, severe disconnections that are labeled psychopathology.
Relational-Cultural Theory and Diversity Issues
Mutual empathy and mutual empowerment are central in RCT. The theory grew out of feminist theories in the 1970s and places strong emphasis on the role of culture and oppression on the development and psychology of women (Miller, 1986). In particular, theories that pathologized women's desire for relationship and mutual growth were questioned by the early RCT scholars Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver, and others. Jordan (1991) challenged the notion of self-boundaries that categorized enmeshment with another person as unhealthy and re-conceptualized as a strength the ability to lose oneself in another's experience (i.e., empathy), such that both parties can grow relationally. This concept may resonate with individuals from collectivist cultures. In such cultures, competition and individual achievement are not valued; one's role is seen as interdependent within the group or family. Thus, according to Ruiz (2005), "one can apply RCT to describe collectivism in terms of the emphasis on remaining connected to others" (p.38). Specific cultural values and scripts may also hold keys to understanding disconnections (Ruiz, 2005).
Walker (2002) asserted that people and relationships are composed of "multiple social identifies" (p. 2). The dominant culture values, or devalues, aspects of differences in social identities including race, sex, gender, physical ability, spirituality, and class, among others (Walker). The dominant culture "forms an arrangement in which difference is stratified into dominant and subordinate, superior and inferior" (p.2). In this way, dominant groups and members of these groups exert power over others in an attempt to maintain their status and perpetuate the ascribed value of differences (Walker). Relational-Cultural Theory focuses on the role of power in relationships and strategies of relating. Negotiating issues of power is central to RCT. Not only are relationships viewed as central to growth, but balanced or shared power is central to forming healthy relationships. When imbalances in power and privilege are unexamined in relationships, and in society, relationships suffer and relational strategies that lead to disconnection are common.
EARLY ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT AND COUNSELING
Developmental changes in early adolescence, which spans approximately ages 11 to 14, make Relational-Cultural Theory particularly useful for this age group. Changes in childhood relationships (moving away from family and connecting more meaningfully with peers) and the beginnings of a more mature sense of individual identity mark early childhood development (Henderson & Thompson, 2010). Cognitively, early adolescence marks the beginning of the transition from concrete to abstract thinking skills, and the beginning of the ability to understand events from another person's point of view (Henderson & Thompson, 2010). The human brain goes through a dramatic reorganization during this period, and that can lead to inconsistencies in behavior that can be frustrating for both the adolescent and the adults in his or her life (Wigfield, Lutz, & Wagoner, 2005). These changes in the brain, which are not completed until late adolescence, allow for much greater abstract thinking, critical reasoning, and social competence (Wigfield, Lutz, & Wagoner, 2005), but also may be frustrating to the young adolescent and the adults in the young person's life.
At the same time that adolescents are developing a heightened awareness of social belonging, they also develop a specific type of egocentrism that Elkind labeled the imaginary audience (1994). The imaginary audience concept implies that, as people move through adolescence, they do so with a perception that they are always being watched by others and are the center of everyone's attention. The imaginary audience, combined with Elkind's notion of adolescents as risk-takers who see themselves as immune from harm, can lead to an inflated sense of self-importance and invulnerability--making the development of healthy relationships both complicated and essential. The emphasis on others' perceptions and the beginnings of adult identity formation can lead to exaggerated concerns about being disrespected or disliked by peers or adults and can lead to explosive conflicts over seemingly minor slights (Wig field, Lutz, & Wagoner, 2005).
The physical and social-emotional changes of early adolescence do not happen uniformly, making for very uneven distributions of attributes among students in a middle school classroom (Vernon & Clemente, 2005). In order to reach all students in middle school, counselors need to deliver flexible, comprehensive programs designed around the developmental themes of early adolescence (Henderson & Thompson, 2010). For example, Akos (2005) recommended that dramatic changes in physical, cognitive, and relational abilities of the middle school child mean that interventions should address topics such as anger management, decision making, and conflict management, and that peer programming is critical. These recommendations for counseling young adolescents are consistent with, if not indicative of, the need for relationally focused intervention in middle schools. Viewing anger management, decision making, and conflict management through a relational lens also can enhance existing counseling programs. For example, peer mediation programs, often used in middle schools because of the developmental importance of peer relationships, are focused primarily on problem solving and conflict management. In conducting peer mediation programs, ignoring the relational templates of the students involved and the issues of power and dominance that exist between them may theoretically and practically limit their effectiveness, even potentially worsening bullying and relational aggression. The following section examines the application of RCT to school counseling and suggests specific use of relational interventions in middle schools.
APPLYING RCT TO MIDDLE SCHOOL COUNSELING
Counseling and RCT
Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) is a natural complement to school counseling as it supports the profession's foundational principles and philosophies such as wellness and focusing on clients' strengths, developmental level, and contextual factors (Duffey & Somody, in press). Relational-Cultural Theory's focus on recognizing and building health patterns of relating to others is particularly appropriate for young adolescents who are struggling with issues of social belonging (Akos, 2005). Partially derived from the recommendations of others (Duffey & Somody, in press; Jordan, 2009; Trepal, 2010), the authors offer the following general suggestions for school counselors who wish to incorporate RCT into their practice.
According to Jordan (2009), "RCT therapy is largely based on a change in attitude and understanding rather than a set of techniques" (p. 5). Counselors who adhere to this model work to enable their clients to help themselves in terms of their relational patterns and relational images. Further, they encourage clients to develop relational awareness, thus encouraging and deepening connections, and enhancing both the capacity and skills for developing new relationships (Jordan, 2009).
The basic skills involved in putting RCT into practice can be summarized using five words that begin with the letter E. The "five Es" include: 1) encourage (self-empathy, or self-acceptance without blame, is a precursor to examining one's relational templates. Empathy for self, understanding self in relation to others, must be present before empathy for others can be built.); 2) explore students' relational images; 3) educate students about power; 4) explain disconnections (routine, cultural/societal, and traumatic) and conflict; and 5) expand students' relational capacities.
In summary, according to RCT, although growth occurs through connection, individuals need to establish empathy for self and then empathy for others in order for healthy growth to occur. The concepts of connection, disconnection, and mutual empathy, and the role of culture and power, take center stage in this approach to human development. As previously mentioned, early adolescence is a time of growth and establishing oneself and one's own identity. The peer group becomes vitally important; thus, adolescence could be termed as relationally challenging both with the self (i.e., discovering one's authentic self) and with others (i.e., connecting with one's peer group and exploring different types of relationships).
RCT and the ASCA National Model
The ASCA National Model (2005) divides the work of the school counselor into four areas: foundation, management system, delivery system, and accountability. RCT can be employed primarily in the areas of foundation and delivery system. The foundation area represents the beliefs and philosophies on which a school counseling program is built, while the delivery system encompasses the classroom guidance curriculum, individual student planning, and responsive services. Within the delivery system, student outcomes are further divided into academic, career, and personal domains.
For middle school counselors to adopt RCT as a foundation, a first step is to examine the nature of multiple relationships in their school. Because of the dramatic developmental changes in adolescents' relationships, relational cultural theorists have suggested that middle schools ought to be cultures of connection that foster growth in relationship, or a free space in which to interact and learn from people who treat students as equals (Robb, 2006). Currently, many middle schools foster cultures of disconnection (Hartling & Sparks, 2008) that are marked by dominant-subordinate and power-over relationships among adults, between adults and students, and among students. Therefore, school counselors may benefit from examining the ways in which connection and disconnection exist within relationships in the school. To what extent do individual students experience growth-fostering relationships? To what extent do school counselors, teachers, administrators, and other staff members perceive the relationships in the school as connected? Where do school counselors sec examples of disconnecting strategies among students or between students and faculty? This initial relational assessment will guide the further development and implementation of RCT responsive services. An assessment of this type could easily be added into the school's annual climate survey through the addition of a few questions such as those mentioned above. Informal interviews of teachers, administrators, students, and parents might also be used to develop an overall picture of the relational atmosphere of the school.
When providing responsive services, middle school counselors using RCT view the problems students describe as being based in relational issues, often disconnections, which may be chronic or acute. Children desire connected relationships with significant adults in their lives and thrive in relation to caring parents and teachers (Spence, Jordan, & Sazama, 2002). Developmentally, their experience with peers is indisputably formative. The relationships children have outside of the school--such as with parents or other family members--also can be of concern. The school counselor who uses an RCT approach may implement strategies common to all school counselors, such as group and individual counseling and classroom guidance, as a part of the school counseling program's responsive services. The difference between other school counseling approaches and RCT would be in the counselors' focus on relationships as the key to both creating and resolving student concerns.
USING THE FIVE Es IN MIDDLE SCHOOL COUNSELING
The application of RCT, especially in school settings, requires further description. To illustrate how RCT can be put to practical use in a middle school setting, we will return to the vignette of Gabrielle and her circle of friends using the five Es (i.e., encourage client self-empathy; explore clients' relational images; educate clients about power; explain disconnections and conflict, and expand clients' relational capacities). The counseling implications offered can be used as a brief or longer-term approach and in a variety of modalities (e.g., individual or small group counseling). Recommendations for universal guidance programs follow.
Encourage client serf-empathy. Jordan (1991) defined self-empathy as the process of developing empathy for one's own experiences without criticism or blame. For young adolescents, this may be an arduous task as they are in a heightened stage of self-consciousness, identity development, and social adjustment. To facilitate self-empathy, the school counselor begins by listening to Gabrielle's story without judgment. She is authentic, expressing her own reaction to the story and expressing compassion for the student. The counselors' authenticity fosters a healthy relationship--a bond that lacks judgment and advice giving but is rich in authenticity and mutuality.
When Gabrielle's experiences are valued and her story is heard without judgment, she is better prepared to examine her patterns of connection and disconnection (Jordan, 2009). In a rush to solve the frequent disputes among students in middle schools, many counselors might be inclined to skip these important first steps in relationship building. But in this relational, non-blaming environment, students are free to examine the self in relationship to the dispute with their friends. To foster self-empathy, the counselor might ask: How do you view yourself and your friendships? What words do you use to describe yourself? If Gabrielle expresses self-blame, the counselor might ask her how she would view the situation flit involved a friend or loved one, thus allowing her observing self to have compassion and empathy for what she experienced. Then with compassion for herself and the advantage of a relational view of what happened between her and her friends, she is able to recognize and name the self-destructive behaviors that have contributed to her present situation.
Explore relational images. According to RCT (Miller & Silver, 1997), people develop mental models (or templates) based on past relationships that inform future relationships. The counselor might consider multiple relationships in a young person's life--family, peers, and authority figures. Gabrielle's relational templates influence the situation with Neveah and her other friends. A next step in RCT with Gabrielle, therefore, is to examine her own notions of connection and disconnection in her relationships. A beginning point in examining Gabrielle's relational template is to help her examine key relationships in her life up to now. How connected are they (authentic, empowering, and mutual)? In what ways does she experience disconnection in any of her relationships (alienation, disapproval, inauthenticity)? Which relationships mean the most to her and why?
Miller's (1986) characteristics for growth-fostering relationships, known as the Five Good Things, are also easily adaptable to help Gabrielle examine her past and current relationships. Counselors can readily illustrate these definitions of relational/non-relational qualities to early adolescent children. Using this framework of good things in relationships, the counselor and Gabrielle can brainstorm to come up with specific examples of connection in her relationships. Working through the five good things, she can relate these definitions to her everyday experience in friendships and other significant relationships. Likewise, she can examine in detail the type of disconnections she experiences in her relationships and her strategies for disconnecting (including the gossiping that she has recently experienced). To do this, the counselor might ask Gabrielle to think of another time when she gossiped about someone (or felt as if she needed to retaliate for being hurt). What was going on for her? What were her fears, hopes, and thoughts about the situation? What did she want out of the situation and what did she get in the end?
Educate about power. From a Relational-Cultural Theory perspective, power is analyzed as political and as directed toward gaining power over others. Middle schools are microcosms of society in which a dominant culture values or devalues aspects of difference (e.g., race, gender, physical ability, spirituality, class). For middle school students, their strong need for social belonging and an exaggerated sense of individual identity further complicate relational power issues that can result in isolation, exclusion, and trauma for some students. For example, bullying is defined as verbal or physical, direct or indirect, group or individual aggression that is repeated, and in which there is a power imbalance, consistent in direction, between the victim and the aggressor (Gini & Pozzoli, 2006). When an imbalance of power is present between students, counselors should take this into consideration before they intervene. For example, finding creative ways to address difficult topics like privilege, power/dominance, and difference might include having students participate in bibliotherapy, art, photography, or film to allow for consciousness-raising with care for students' emotional safety. Acknowledging issues of difference or privilege openly allows young people to begin to develop mutual empathy and empowerment, to appreciate each other's experience, and to work through their differences. Counselors can infuse discussions about collaboration and collective goals versus independent, "me first" thinking into classroom guidance activities and can explain these differences in individual and small group interventions.
Gabrielle and Neveah, each intent on developing her individual identity and social status, may overlook how harmful and hurtful their behavior is to one another, even though they once enjoyed a friendship. Pressures to belong and/or compete for status that exist in power-over environments can overshadow connection and amplify disconnection between young people. Furthermore, if Gabrielle and Neveah are from different cultural groups, these misunderstandings can be deeper and lead to more damaging relationship problems, as people from different cultures often examine and interpret relational behaviors such as direct communication or expression of anger differently. To help Gabrielle and Neveah explore issues of power and difference, the counselor might discuss their broader peer group. In the dispute that arises between Gabrielle and Neveah, one of the girls may have more social status and may thus be able to do more psychological harm to the other. To fully consider intervention in the relationship between Gabrielle and Neveah, the counselor also will examine the context of their friendship group (e.g., to whom is each connected in their circle of friends? How does the peer group serve to influence the disconnecting strategies in which each girl is involved? If your peer group had a name (title), what would it be?) The counselor then makes a judgment, in collaboration with Gabrielle, concerning whether or not to conduct this examination of her friendship alone or with Neveah. Threshold questions for Gabrielle that might allow the counselor to make this decision include: Have you felt safe in your friendship with Neveah? Are there times when you felt heard and understood in your friendship? Do you want a better friendship with Neveah?
Explain disconnections and conflict. Strategies of disconnection that would commonly occur in middle schools include withdrawing, blaming, criticizing, isolation, and gossiping. Recent meta-analytic research suggests that these forms of relational aggression are common in boys and girls (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008). Therefore, strategies for explaining disconnection and conflict that are discussed below, while relevant for counseling with boys or girls, can be modified based on the presenting concerns of the adolescent or peer group.
Applying the central relational paradox suggests that neither Gabrielle nor Neveah is getting what they want from their relationship. Gabrielle and Neveah regress to disconnecting behaviors because they are afraid of being harmed. Helping to reframe "disconnecting" strategies as a way to protect oneself from hurt also serves to protect either girl from being blamed for inappropriate behavior. Although routine disconnection such as gossiping can be normalized, helping clients learn to choose authentic representation of their own needs and viewpoints to each other is critical during emotionally charged times. Also important is differentiating routine disconnection from severe forms of exclusion and trauma (e.g., bullying). When evidence exists that the latter is the case, that the pattern of behavior is consistent with more severe forms of physical and relational aggression, exploring strategies of disconnection with Gabrielle alone is appropriate. If more severe forms of aggression are not present, the counselor might bring Gabrielle and Neveah together to discuss the message that each wanted the other to hear. Working to explore connection and disconnection with each girl, the counselor will then help them to speak to each other more authentically--and to participate in resolving their conflict.
Expand students' relational capacities. Counseling interventions using RCT with adolescents includes implementing strategies that address students' relational awareness and increases specific relational skills. Relational awareness is addressed (e.g., explore relational images and educate about power) and, as a result, students are able to develop and practice new relational strategies.
When students experience disconnection, and the disconnection is routine and non-traumatic, a goal of counseling becomes encouraging students to wage good conflict, or manage their conflict through the use of connecting rather than disconnecting strategies (Miller, 1986). Gabrielle and Neveah have an opportunity to work through their relational problems if they can increase their use of authentic relational strategies--listening, empathic responding, and authenticity--and decrease their use of disconnecting strategies--isolating, gossiping, and aggression. According to Miller, when conflict exists between two people, it often necessitates one person changing (i.e., giving in) in order to preserve the relationship. Waging good conflict allows adolescents the freedom to express anger, disappointment, and frustration with others in a way that is honest and egalitarian, and teaches healthy connection. The school counselor helps Gabrielle (and/or Neveah) to practice strategies of connection, and to examine the relationship together. Questions such as the following can help open a dialogue about fostering healthful relationships: What was happening for each girl? What were their fears, hopes, and thoughts about the situation? What did each girl want out of the situation and what did she get in the end? How does each girl listen to and hear what the other is saying? Role-play activities and other social skills practice also are relevant to increasing relational skills with Gabrielle and Neveah. Teaching the use of I-messages, problem-solving protocols, and peer conflict mediation can be easily integrated with RCT. The objectives of these social skills programs, however, while consistent with RCT, are not effective substitutes. Teaching social skills strategies are but one essential part of teaching healthy ways to manage conflict in relationships. Relational skills are developmental. If waging good conflict is experienced in these formative years, and authenticity and mutuality is developed in adolescent relationships, the pattern may then become part of young people's identity development and relational templates and to continue into their adult relationships.
The five Es and universal guidance programs. School counselors occupy a privileged position within schools, from which they are able to prevent problems before they occur by implementing developmentally appropriate social skills education to all students. Early adolescents, with their emerging independence and interest in friendships and romantic relationships, are at a key developmental point for acquiring relational skills. Employing RCT principles to guide the guidance curriculum allows school counselors to emphasize the skills young people need to create and maintain connections.
School counselors can begin to infuse the principles of RCT into an existing guidance curriculum in a variety of ways. For example, if the school counselor uses any of the widely available anti-bullying curricula, the principles of mutual empathy, strategies of disconnection, and power dynamics might be added or highlighted to reflect RCT ideas. If the focus of the lesson sequence is career exploration, the school counselor might discuss interpersonal characteristics that help people to be successful at work, along with how to engage in healthy conflict. Likewise, if the focus is on academic development, the school counselor could add discussions about the importance of nurturing healthy connections in mentoring relationships and providing mutual social support in managing stress and improving academic performance.
Counselors also might see the need to create a classroom guidance unit specifically on the five Es. Dividing the five Es into five short guidance lessons would allow counselors to discuss each of the major concepts in some detail with students, and allow time for students to practice the skills during and between each of the five lessons. Role playing and modeling could be infused into each lesson in order to concretely demonstrate the concepts discussed. These lessons can also be used throughout the school year as a universal or primary prevention curriculum.
Relational-Cultural Theory has been well-established in the field of psychology and is emerging as a viable option in the counseling field (Duffey & Somody, in press). Given that the counseling profession is anchored in the concepts of development, wellness, and multiculturalism, this approach fits easily into the developmental matrix of school counseling programs (Duffey & Somody). RCT gives school counselors a well-defined framework for discussing complex issues such as power in relationships, empathy, and relational well-being. Furthermore, as middle school children navigate myriad identity, social-emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones, using a relational lens to provide school counseling interventions seems particularly critical. Relational-Cultural Theory is easily adaptable to counseling young people and can be used to inform individual, small-group, group, large-group, and peer programming interventions in schools. In addition, as school counselors strive to positively impact the school environment, RCT may provide them with additional strategies to do so. This article illustrates the implementation of RCT in middle schools using a case example. As school counselors implement RCT into their developmental programs, they should collect and analyze data to validate its use. Future works might examine the use of RCT for specific problems in schools (e.g., relational aggression, bullying), with specific populations (e.g., sexual minority youth or other marginalized groups), and/or specific interventions (e.g., peer mediation, mentoring).
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Catherine Tucker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor with Indiana State University's Counseling Area Programs, Terre Haute, IN. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Sondra Smith-Adcock is an associate professor in Counselor Education with the University of Florida, Gainesville, EL. Heather C. Trepal, Ph.D., LPC-S, is an associate professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the University of Texas San Antonio, San Antonio, TX.
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|Author:||Tucker, Catherine; Smith-Adcock, Sondra; Trepal, Heather C.|
|Publication:||Professional School Counseling|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2011|
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