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Counseling at-risk Afro-American youth: an examination of contemporary issues and effective school-based strategies.

Many Afro-American children are considered to be "at-risk" due to a variety of social and economical factors. This article first reviews the (fleets of racism on Afro-American youth and examines the results of barriers caused by negative stereotyping within counseling services, schools, and communities. Next, a historical overview of issues and approaches used in counseling Afro-American youth in schools is presented, along with a discussion of the limitations of each. Lastly, practical implications for multicultural competence and effective contemporary interventions are recommended for school counselors to assist this population, via both direct counseling and consultation with other school, family, and community members. School counselors can utilize this information to enhance at-risk Afro-American students' ethnic identity development, as well as academic, career, social, and personal growth.


Since the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 study, A Nation at Risk, educators and counselors across the country have struggled to identify and assist "at-risk" youth populations. By definition, any young person is "at risk" for educational and social failure when his or her potential for becoming a responsible and productive adult is limited by barriers at home, at school, or in the community. Risk factors-including racism, poverty, lack of parental supervision, illegal drug use, high school incompletion, teenage pregnancy, juvenile crime, and suicide-during the past decade have adversely affected a growing number of American children (McWhirter, McWhirter, McWhirter, & McWhirter, 1998).

Although at-risk factors affect youth of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, we chose to focus this review of counseling issues and strategies on at-risk Afro-American (1) youth for several reasons. First, recent psychological research has begun to focus on the widening achievement gap between Afro-American and Euro-American students (Barton, 2003; Harpalani & Gunn, 2003). Lower IQ and standardized test scores have raised many questions regarding societal and educational expectations and the preparedness of minority status students (Carlson & Lewis, 1993). Further, Afro-American youth are less likely than Euro-American youth to graduate from high school; national statistics indicate a graduation rate of 56 percent for Afro-American youth, as compared to 78 percent for Euro-American youth (Stanard, 2003). Contemporary statistics also indicate that Afro-American youth are significantly more likely than their Euro-American counterparts to face poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancy, victimization, and incarceration (Kempf-Leonard, Pope, & Feyerherm, 1995; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration [SAMHSA], 1999). As disproportionate numbers of Afro-American youth face risks to their safety, physical and mental health, and future success, we believe it is important to understand specialized risk factors and counseling interventions, particularly in light of past research that suggests that counseling services often are perceived as culturally insensitive to the needs of Afro-American clients (McDavis, Parker, & Parker, 1995).

Of course, this is not to suggest that all Afro-American children are "at-risk" or that suggested counseling interventions for Afro-American youth should be uniformly applied. Lee (1991) wisely counseled against assuming a monolithic perspective in which "all black people are the same and that one methodological approach is universally applicable in any counseling intervention with them" (p. 561). The inherent danger in discussing shared cultural factors is the inadvertent creation or propagation of stereotypes about Afro-Americans without respecting uniqueness and within-group variation. Therefore, we encourage counselors to use this information to further their understanding of potential issues facing Afro-American youth, but not to impose stereotypes (Boyd-Franklin, 1989; McDavis et al., 1995). Further, we hope to encourage counselors to examine not only risk factors, but also the strengths and potential that Afro-American youth bring to counseling relationships.


School counselors nationwide are being called upon to provide support and empowerment for at-risk Afro-American youth (Muller, 2002; Nettles & Perna, 1997; Thompson & O'Quinn, 2001). The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recently published a comprehensive national framework for school counselors that focuses on equitable access of direct services to all students (2002). Many school counselors and counselors-in-training have undergone cultural sensitivity training in an effort to understand the specific issues faced by many Afro-American youths and to develop multiculturally competent counseling approaches (Sue, Arrendondo, & McDavis, 1992). However, multicultural counselor training programs face many challenges in actually enhancing multicultural competence; although multicultural training has been associated with counselors' self-perceived multicultural counseling competence and case-conceptualization abilities, little data currently exist to indicate whether and how this training impacts the actual work between counselors and diverse students (Constantine, 2001). The ASCA National Model (2002) challenges school counselors and administrators to be accountable for their practice and to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work in "measurable terms," such as results reports, adherence to performance standards, and program audits (p. 2). Therefore, counselor education efforts toward increased multicultural competence similarly require measurable accountability data to ensure the provision of high-quality counseling services.

Unfortunately, many traditional counseling and training programs are still ill-prepared to meet the contemporary needs of Afro-Americans in counseling, as these programs often are based on theories and clinical experiences with middle-class, Euro-American clientele (Graham, 1992; Jones, 1990; Sue & Zane, 1987). Most counseling models are built upon traditional European values such as individuality, uniqueness, and survival of the fittest, which conflicts with traditional African principles of cooperation, collective responsibility, and survival of the group (Mays, 1988; Nobles, 1976). This majority status culture bias leads to the phenomenon of labeling behaviors that differ from mainstream or Euro-American norms as "deviant" or "pathological" (Miller, 1993).

Further, traditional counseling models may lead to discomfort, misdiagnosis, and perceived counselor insensitivity among Afro-American clients (Lewis-Fernandez & Kleinman, 1994). Three theories that are almost universally taught in counseling programs today are person-centered therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and psychoanalysis (Corey, 1996). Though these theories entail many aspects helpful to developing strong counseling relationships, they may not always be appropriate for at-risk Afro-American clients. For example, person-centered therapy advocates a nondirective approach, which may be ineffective for Afro-American clients who may be more comfortable, especially in the critical beginning point of counseling, with structure and evidence of solutions to problems (Ziter, 1987). Youth who are facing very realistic problems that require immediate action may perceive a nondirective approach that places the direction of the counseling solely on the client as disrespectful or unhelpful. In addition, the psychoanalytic concept of resistance may hinder counselors working with Afro American youth as they mistake the child's appropriate preliminary mistrust as a refusal on the client's part to truly work in therapy or as indicative of psychic conflict (Corey). Finally, cognitive therapies that place the locus of change or control on the child's thought processes may not pay enough attention to the influence of systemic qualities, such as racism and the socioeconomic residual effects of slavery, on the client's world view and life circumstances.

Additionally, much of the past literature in the mental health field has racist overtones and encourages the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of Afro-American clients (Atwell & Azibo, 1992; Bulhan, 1985; Greene, 1985; Jones, 1990; Mays, 1985). Current counseling and mental health-related systems continue to discriminate against Afro-Americans by focusing on pathology rather than goals, although the discrimination occurs in much more subtle forms (SAMHSA, 1999). For example, the problems of misdiagnosis and mistreatment are exacerbated by the uniform use of biased assessment instruments and diagnostic criteria designed for the majority status population in evaluation and treatment planning (Jones; Mays; Smart & Smart, 1997). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many Afro-Americans often are reluctant to seek counseling and there is a tendency of Afro-Americans to frequently terminate counseling services after only one session (McDavis et al., 1995; Terrell & Terrell, 1984).

Counselors providing multiculturally competent counseling services to at-risk Afro-American youth must be aware of the origins of this population's initial "healthy cultural paranoia," or understandable wariness, toward counseling and should work to prevent unintentionally furthering these discriminatory practices (Ridley, 1984). Additionally, multiculturally competent counselors recognize the impact of racism on psychological health and understand that the subjugated history of Afro-Americans in the United States affects the current perceptions and barriers surrounding Afro-American identity and achievement. Accurate conceptualizations of Afro-American clients cannot occur without acknowledging the insidious nature of racism, which can force Afro-Americans to negotiate a bicultural identity to function in both the majority status and marginalized cultures (Wilson & Stith, 1997; Ziter, 1987). For example, Afro-American students experiencing academic, behavioral, and emotional difficulties in school may be struggling with institutional racism and stereotyping that have been undetected or ignored by administrators and teachers, or they may be employing coping tactics such as "stereotype threat" as survival mechanisms in a perceived hostile environment (Sue & Sue, 2003).

To facilitate therapeutic relationships, competent Euro-American counselors serving Afro-American children must first be prepared to deal with their clients' historical hostility, feelings of mistrust, and fear resulting from 300 years of oppression (Vontress & Epp, 1997). Counselors quickly must develop rapport and trust to alleviate any mistrust or skepticism Afro-American children might feel. Counselors can establish trust by first clarifying the relationship between counselor and client and the nature of the referral, and by discussing confidentiality (Harris, 1995). Counselors must be careful not to mistake the Afro-American client's possible preliminary resistance, mistrust, and hesitancy to self-disclose as a refusal on the child's part to engage in therapy; rather, Afro-American clients are likely to work hard and succeed with therapy when given ample opportunity for sensitive relationship development (Corey, 1996; Ridley, 1984; Sanchez-Hucles, 2000).

Several researchers have suggested that Afro-American children and adults prefer same-race counselors (Bass & Coleman, 1997; Lee, 1991; Muller, 2002) and might therefore fare better in counseling with Afro-American counselors. Jones (1991) noted that Afro-American clients referred to Afro-American counselors frequently say "they would not feel comfortable talking with a white person about their problems; they do not feel that a white therapist will understand them; they cannot be convinced of the white therapist's interest in them; they feel too angry with whites to be able to focus on anything else in their presence" (p. 683). However, as a shortage of Afro-American counselors exists in the nation's schools and communities, all counselors must work to assist at-risk Afro-American youth (Muller; SAMHSA, 1999). Further, current research indicates that Afro-American youth initially view the counselor's interpersonal skills and ability to establish rapport of utmost importance, regardless of the counselor's race (Holcomb-McCoy & Moore Thomas, 2001; Muller). According to Boyd-Franklin (1989), "the person-to-person connection is the most important in work with Afro-Americans" (p. 97). Ultimately, effective counselor-assisted ethnic identity development and the completion of related tasks in therapy are more beneficial to the client than the racial match between counselor and client.

Counselors of all races and ethnicities have the potential to work successfully with Afro-American youth when they have engaged in active exploration and resolution of their biases and make a commitment to furthering their own multicultural knowledge and skills. To aid clients in the development of effective racial identity, multiculturally competent counselors must first be aware of both their own misconceptions toward people of other races and the differential counseling needs of their Afro-American clientele (Jones, 1990; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Afro American clients generally are very attuned to subtle racist communicative nuances and other nonverbal messages expressed by the counselor, and these subliminal "vibes" determine whether the client will be treated with respect in a safe environment (Boyd Franklin, 1989).

Counselors must be careful to avoid communication that appears to be condescending or patronizing. Stances taken by Euro-American counselors that can be detrimental to their relationships with Afro-American clients include paternalism, in which the "omnipotent" counselor attempts to solve the problems of the disadvantaged client, often fueled by guilt over racism (Boyd Franklin, 1989). Euro-American counselors, in an effort to avoid confrontation with Afro-American clients, also might unquestioningly comply with the rhetoric of "Afro-American power," adopt a subservient role in the relationship, speak ebonies or use "black slang" to connect with the client, or show too much admiration for the ability of Afro Americans to "work the system" (Boyd-Franklin). All of these behaviors will likely be viewed by the Afro-American youth as patronizing, inauthentic, and contraindicative to effective counseling.

Although counselor client race homogeneity may enhance perceptions of therapeutic relationships with Afro-American clients, Afro-American counselors also must be aware of their biases and potential toward cultural insensitivity. For example, Afro-American counselors working with Afro-American clients may exhibit patterns such as moralizing, overidentifying with the client, rescuing, premature problem solving, and advice giving. These approaches, while well-meaning, also are detrimental to the client's ability to function independently (Boyd-Franklin, 1989; Hunt, 1987).

Hardin and Wampold (2001) suggested that one method counselors can use to establish rapport with Afro-American youth is to consider their own situation-dependent coping strategies when dealing with diversity. As Afro-American youth tend to express disdain for cultural "wannabees," or people who deny their own identity when trying to fit into another group, counselors who attempt to assimilate too quickly with client culture will likely be disregarded by their clientele. When creating therapeutic alliances and conceptualizing client concerns with Afro-American clients, counselors will likely benefit from informally assessing clients' acculturation styles and coping strategies for dealing with diversity. For example, a student "who attempts to assimilate into a predominantly White school environment and is rejected will have one set of concerns and a student of color who uses a separation strategy in that context will present with a very different set of issues" (Hardin & Wampold). Ramseur (1991) asked the question, "Do blacks and whites differ in their appraisal of the severity, or meaning of different stressors?" and discussed several important factors related to Afro-Americans' resiliency, including religious orientation and reliance on informal social networks (p. 372). Ramseur also addressed a key stressor that is more prevalent for Afro-Americans than Euro-Americans: racial discrimination, and the economic, social, academic, and career barriers that accompany it.

Whereas counselors will fail to gain rapport with Afro-American clients if they behave in accordance with stereotypes or biases, it does not benefit the counselor-client relationship if counselors claim to be "color blind" and counsel all clients in similar ways regardless of race. To be blind to race is to ignore the impacts of race and racism. Greene (1985) advised that "clinicians cannot accurately assess and interpret the meaning of behavior (i.e., what is healthy or maladaptive) without an awareness of the norms of a particular client's cultural environment" (p. 390). The client's ethnicity or race, and how one is treated by society based on his or her cultural background, is an integral part of identity formation; counselors should therefore convey to their clients the message that race and culture are important, are valued, and are worthy of focus in counseling (Boyd Franklin, 1989).

Jones (1991) proposed that all Afro-Americans face distinct psychological tasks and has developed an interactive model that addresses reactions to racial oppression, that is, coping mechanisms; the influence of both the majority status and home cultures on Afro-Americans' formulation of identity, and lifestyle; and individual and family experiences and strengths. Lee (1991) cited several social and economic factors affecting the mental health of Afro-Americans, including limited access and glass ceilings, double standards, exclusion and isolation, powerlessness, voicelessness and invisibility, token status, second guessing, pigeonholing, guilt by association and group stereotyping, and ethnic identity conflict issues.

Counseling supervisors should assist school counselors working with Afro American youth to avoid perpetuating these stressors and to combat common errors made in counseling minority status clients, such as expecting cooperation from the client as proof of counselor competence, bombarding the client with too many questions early on in the process, and hiding behind the professional role of therapist--practices that hinder the development of rapport (Hunt, 1987). In addition, supervisors can help counselors reveal maladaptive patterns of relating (e.g., self-effacing, moralizing, rescuing) to Afro-American clients. Techniques beneficial for this type of supervision include (a) facilitating concrete practice, (b) viewing tapes of counseling sessions to isolate times in which cultural conflicts are present, (c) helping the supervisee identify the impact of the client's "cooperation" level on himself or herself, (d) assisting the trainee to understand the impact of counselor anxiety on the client, and (c) using role reversal exercises in which the supervisor plays the client and then processes the experience with the trainee. See Table 1 for a listing of potential counseling barriers, strategies, and limitations in addressing these barriers.

Finally, the goal of multiculturally competent counselors and supervisors should be to facilitate a process of empowerment in which the client gains a sense of personal control and self-efficacy in order to "reduce the powerlessness of Afro-American clients" (Ziter, 1987, p. 131). This emphasis on empowerment differs from the traditional therapeutic goal of adjustment, in which clients were encouraged to accept and cope with current living conditions (Thomas & Dansby, 1985). Instead, the multiculturally competent counselor acknowledges racism and its effects, and he or she works actively with the client to accomplish victories, effect change in discriminatory social structures, and combat patterns of learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975).


In addition to the possible counseling biases already discussed, school-based counselors need to be aware of the disturbing inequities that exist in predominantly Afro-American urban school districts, where nearly 40 percent of Afro-American students attend school in the United States (Nettles & Perna, 1997). The conditions in public schools funded under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 are generally far inferior to those in suburban schools, including the danger of asbestos and poor quality drinking water (Kozol, 1991). Afro-American students in these districts frequently have fewer resources, such as updated textbooks and access to modern technology. Students in city schools often are forced to rely on public transportation instead of the convenience and safety of school buses. Afro-American students often are uncomfortable and may feel unsafe in their school environments and in their travels to and from school. On the surface, possible causes for perceptions of insecurity and danger include the common presence of security guards, metal detectors, weapons, and gangs in city schools. More than twice the percentage of Afro-American students as Euro-American students in grades 6 through 12 reported the presence of security guards in their schools, with more than 6 times the presence of metal detectors (Nettles & Perna).

Rather than simply adding conventional security measures at schools, we must address the root causes of fear, anxiety, and danger among at-risk student populations to genuinely change the school environment and student potential for the better. First, the underrepresentation of Afro-American teachers, counselors, and principals to serve as role models has been cited as a serious problem in contemporary schools. According to Nettles and Perna (1997), Afro-American teachers make up approximately 7% of public school teachers and just 3% of private school teachers, which is disproportionate to both Afro-American representation in the U.S. population (~13%) and Afro-American representation among the nation's public school students (~17%). To alleviate this disparity, Ladson-Billings (1994) recommended recruiting teachers and counselors who have expressed "a desire and an interest to work with Afro-American students" (p. 131).

Second, educational personnel must recognize that Afro-American students appear to be as ready to learn and succeed as their Euro-American counterparts (Nettles & Perna, 19971). However, potential does not necessarily directly translate to achievement. Lee (2001) suggested that multiculturally competent and culturally competent school initiatives are based on "the premises that (1) all young people can learn and want to learn; and (2) cultural differences are real and cannot be ignored" (p. 2). In a sample of 40,000 suburban secondary students surveyed by the Minority Student Achievement Network (2001), 40% of Afro-American students reported having grade averages at or below satisfaction level, despite having positive attitudes about education (Fletcher, 2002). A recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report indicated that by the eighth grade, students who are Afro-American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged are approximately four grades behind other students in terms of school achievement. By 12th grade, the average 17-year-old Afro-American student is at the same academic level as the typical Euro-American 13-year-old (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001). Other studies show that Afro-American children from low socioeconomic status families enter school less prepared than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds (Connell & Prinz, 2002; Thompson & O'Quinn, 2001). Therefore, ameliorating school-related difficulties of Afro-American youth entails close work with wider community contexts to prevent the many negative effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequalities. However, poverty and a lack of resources should not excuse schools from also working within their walls to enrich at-risk students' learning experiences.

According to Haycock, Jerald, and Huang (2001),
 The American education system has been in
 thrall to a myth for more than 30 years. The
 myth says that student achievement has much
 more to do with a child's background than
 with the quality of instruction he or she
 receives.... The myth is powerful. It is pervasive.
 And it is wrong. No one who has visited
 as many urban classrooms as we have would
 argue that poverty and racism don't make
 both teaching and learning more challenging.
 But more challenging doesn't mean impossible.
 All across the country, there are examples
 of high-poverty schools that perform at or
 near the top on state tests. (p. 5)

Additional explanations offered for the achievement gap between Afro-American and Euro-American students include a mismatch between Afro-American learning styles and Euro-centric curricula, a lack of cultural affirmation in the schools, a lack of home-based enrichment, overpopulated classrooms, and difficulty attracting highly qualified teachers to at-risk school districts (Barton, 2003; Bass & Coleman, 1997; Carlson & Lewis, 1993; Robelen, 2002). These conditions must be remedied for at-risk Afro-American students to achieve their potential and contribute to a safe and harmonious school environment.

White and Johnson (1991) challenged the stereotypes revolving around Afro-American achievement and motivation, noting that "the assumption is made that a standard of excellence is embedded in urban schools and that black children and youth are not motivated to compete with these standards" (p. 412). These authors discussed the possibility that Afro-American children have been socialized according to different norms, including the belief that "black children and youth are not educable," and that certain goals are not attainable for all (p. 413). A particularly relevant quote to the present argument is that "black children and youth are encouraged to stay on the same conveyor belt notwithstanding the fact that they do not inherit the same range of choices" (p. 414). Counselors serving Afro-American youth must first facilitate the process of choice, empowerment, and availability of equal opportunities for their students before focusing on inconsistencies in performance.

As Knowles and Prewitt (1969) illustrated in their landmark book Institutional Racism in America, "the problem is not a lack of interest in education, but a lack of power" (p. 33). Although Afro-American parents typically encourage and value education, it is not uncommon for Afro-American parents, particularly single mothers, to feel powerless and ineffectual in working with school authority. Parents' lack of self-efficacy may trace back to their own experiences with racism and disempowerment in America's schools (Kuykendall, 1991). School personnel also need to be sensitive to the fact that many Afro-American parents, in an effort to improve the quality of education for their children, often are forced to move frequently or travel extensively due to limited work opportunities. These conditions can consequently limit stability and parental accessibility, and they stem from institutional racism in the United States (Knowles & Prewitt).

Further, teacher and counselor expectations, as well as school climate, directly impact student performance and perception of self-worth. This is particularly true of urban students who attend so-called "ghetto" schools, where students and teachers often have less access to resources and opportunities, and therefore experience diminished expectations (Kozol, 1991). In addition, as a response to the oft-experienced chaos and lack of structure in at-risk schools, teachers often resort to authoritarian teaching styles that limit students' abilities to express themselves, engage in identity exploration, and perform to their potential (Haberman, 1991). More than 30 years ago, Silberman (1971) found that 80% of Afro-American children have positive self-images when they enter school, but only 5% still do by their senior year in high school. Current case studies suggest that high achievement continues to be regarded by teachers and students alike as attainable for Euro-Americans only and Afro-American students who do succeed are perceived by their peers to be "acting white" and forsaking their "Afro-Americanness" (Bradley, 2001; Harris, 1995). According to Steinberg (1992), "Afro-American students are more likely than others to be caught in a bind between performing well in school and being popular among their peers" (p. 728). Afro-American students who are successful in school may face a lack of peer support or peer rejection, and they then must find ways to downplay their successes to become accepted (Lee, 1991; Tatum, 1997).

Research also indicates that Afro-American elementary middle, and high school students are less likely to participate, or have the opportunity to participate, in extracurricular school and community activities than their Euro-American peers (Kozol, 1991; Kuykendall, 1991). This is particularly alarming when one considers that students who participate in academic and non-academic extracurricular activities are more likely to stay in school and experience enhanced personal and social development (MacKay & Kuh, 1994; Tinto, 1993). One explanation for this lack of involvement in school activities is that Afro-American students also reported receiving significantly less support and encouragement from educators than do their Euro-American peers (Bass & Coleman, 1997; Muller, 2002). For example, Afro-American children are more likely to be suspended from schools than Euro-American students (Robelen, 2002). Interaction among these youth, their parents, and school administrators is therefore likely to be negative and not conducive to the formation of extracurricular school-based relationships and interests.

Of course, a multitude of other factors interplay in the academic and social success of Afro-American children, including problems at home and with peers. However, this article is limited to a discussion of the factors school counselors can work to change within their means and available resources. School counselors have a duty to assist Afro-American youth in the acquisition of the necessary attitudes, skills, and knowledge required for effective learning and successful personal development despite external obstacles. If it is true that children learn what they live, then it should come as no surprise that Afro-American children are more likely to submit to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy that has been strengthened by negative stereotypes, pessimistic school personnel perceptions, low societal expectations, and minimal opportunities for achievement. The burden of providing a sanctuary as well as opportunities for success for at risk children lies with their families, schools, and communities. School counselors, when supported, are ideally situated to provide the necessary professional intervention with at-risk students and consultation with school systems to address these underlying problems.


This section will first address suggested interventions for individual school counselors working with at-risk Afro-American youth. Second, recommended group and career counseling interventions will be presented. Finally, we will focus on ideas for school counselors to utilize in their consultative and preventive roles with teachers, parents, and their respective communities.

Although school counselors are theoretically in an optimal position to facilitate opportunities for at-risk Afro-American youth, they often do not make contact with at-risk students until those students are sent to counseling following punishment (Lee, 1991). The ASCA National Model (2002) states that appropriate school counselor responsibilities include counseling students with disciplinary problems, but it excludes performing disciplinary actions. To facilitate productive school counseling relation ships, school counselors' policies should be to establish contact and rapport with all their assigned students before problems arise. A brief, informal group meeting with students by grade level or a personal interview with each student early in the year is necessary in promoting a positive school climate (Kuykendall, 1991). To be successful, school counselors, as well as other personnel, also must be very explicit in their expectations of their clients in terms of behavior and interaction. When working with Afro-American students, school counselors must communicate the following message clearly from the start: "I care about you and I expect from you the same as I would everyone else. I expect you to treat me fairly in return."


As the development and affirmation of ethnic identity within a group context may be an important correlate to academic achievement and social success, school counselors also are encouraged to conduct group counseling focused on ethnic identity, development with at-risk Afro-American youth (Benedetto & Olisky, 2001; Bradley, 2001). According to Cross, Parham, and Helms (1991) and Lee (1991), counselor-assisted ethnic identity development--or the acculturation into individual and group membership in regard to roles, status, language, spirituality, and socialization--is a critical task in empowering young Afro-Americans, especially as ethnic identity is heavily influenced by racism, class, and unbalanced economic conditions. Specifically, counselors can work with Afro-American youth as they explore their ethnic and racial identities. The Cross model of "nigrescence" (1991, 1995) describes ethnic identity as a stage process for Afro-Americans: pre-encounter, immersion-emersion, internalization, and internalization-commitment. During each of these stages, youth struggle with their identities as Afro-Americans by asking not only "Who am I?" but "What can I do, given my social context?" Identity formation is essential for any youth, but it often is shortchanged and marginalized for Afro-Americans (Sue & Sue, 2003).

School counselors facilitating ethnic identity groups should be aware of their own biases and limitations when it comes to ethnic identity, exploration, as well as current best practices in this counseling format. Though it is beyond the scope of this article, many resources are available to use in counseling groups focused on ethnic identity development (e.g., Bradley, 2001; Cross, 1995; Cross et al., 1991; Lee, 1991; Merchant & Butler, 2002; Muller, 2002; Sue & Sue, 2003). All counselors working with clients on ethnic identity development should employ culturally specific counseling techniques to cultivate pride and potential by promoting (a) self-awareness of abilities, interests, and values; (b) an expansion of educational and occupational options; (c) educational and occupational decision making based on knowledge and experience; and (d) encouragement to anticipate future events (Lee & Simmons, 1988). Lee (1991) also discussed specific strategies aimed to assist Afro-American youth in ethnic identity development, including encouraging students to share their belief systems, personal strengths, problem-solving strategies, impact of family and friends, religious celebrations, special interests, and perception of social class.


McWhirter et al. (1998) advocated for target approaches for at-risk youth, which are "aimed at groups of young people who share some circumstance or experience that increases the probability that they will develop problems in the future" (pp. 207-208). Target approaches can be used with Afro-American students who are feeling isolated within the community or discriminated against in school. Target approaches also can be used to create themes for peer groups to bond together, such as conflict resolution using peer mediation, supported by booster follow-up sessions when needed. For example, peer facilitators can aid in the development of resistance and refusal training to help peers resist negative social influences through role play and discussion (McWhirter et al.). Counselors also can pro vide assertiveness training and instruction in relaxation techniques as necessary. All of these approaches benefit Afro-American youth by facilitating optimism, resiliency, and self-control in adverse situations.

One of the personal development goals for students in school counseling set forth by the ASCA National Model (2002) is the acquisition of the knowledge, attitudes, and interpersonal skills that will help them understand and respect themselves and others, which relates strongly to the needs for cultural identity development and social skills applicable to diverse relationships among at-risk Afro-American youth. Peer mediation programs that focus on conflict resolution have proven to be effective in this arena (ASCA; McWhirter et al., 1998). Peer mediators are students who have been trained to intervene in conflicts between peers and to provide a supportive alliance for adolescents. Program trainees and qualified school counselors teach designated teachers and students appropriate helping skills to assist peers in crisis situations, in consultation with school counselors, as well as to provide them with access to community resources and hot-line numbers students can turn to for advice. Together, counselors and students can work to plan for and promote peace, tolerance, and understanding of differences in the school climate.


The ASCA National Model (2002) encourages school counselors to assist their student clientele in three very important career development goals: the acquisition of skills necessary for the world of work, the ability to make informed career decisions, and the employment of successful strategies to achieve career satisfaction. The ASCA model recommends the use of goal setting, the creation of academic counseling groups, and the development of career centers to aid students in this process. Although Afro-American youth are unfortunately limited in their career paths in some instances due to discriminatory hiring practices and inadequate school and social skills training, school counselors are mandated to provide these services, regardless of the perceived obstacles. School counselors can implement career programs to accommodate the needs and interests of Afro-American students in their career exploration and development using resources cited below.

Lee and Simmons (1988) recommended the implementation of a life-planning model for Afro-American adolescents designed to teach them the necessary, social and academic skills for successful living. Suggested activities include shared reactions to culturally representative films and novels; role-play skits regarding gender roles, occupational choices, and parental options; and life scenario exercises that require youth to make decisions about possible life changes. An example of such an exercise is, "What would you do if the job you really wanted did not exist when you finished your schooling?" (Lee & Simmons, p. 7). The establishment of a supportive network of community and parental role models who can assist students with school-to-work decisions is being implemented in many urban communities, such as Trenton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where large school districts have developed career interest-centered curricula and have partnered with local businesses to provide funding, resources, and the opportunity for internships and job training for students. Funds were previously available via the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (1994).


School counselors also can assist at-risk students by consulting with other personnel to ensure that tracking practices, or placing students together in terms of academic ability, do not further discriminate and disenfranchise at-risk Afro-American youth. Tracking has long been a debate in U.S. schools, as students in upper tracks often learn skills and concepts that the lower-track students do not. Historically, Afro-American students have been disproportionately placed by, school counselors into lower, remedial tracks, and they often remain "at the bottom of the ladder" permanently (Thompson & O'Quinn, 2001). Carlson and Lewis (1993) advised counselors to "monitor the use of standardized test results for purposes of classification and placement of ethnic minority students [and] to take the lead in dispelling the myth that any test score is fixed or is a stable index of what the child can achieve" (p. 246).

According to the ASCA National Model (2002), school counselors' duties include interpreting cognitive, aptitude, and achievement tests with proper training. These data are to be used to monitor student progress and develop action plans to help close the achievement gap between Afro-American and Euro-American students (ASCA). Counselors also are encouraged to educate school staff on the validity and reliability of test score interpretations, and to provide alternate methods of assessing student ability. Counselors' duties also include preparing students for postgraduation and ensuring the availability of a wide range of choices and options, including college (ASCA). School counselors can help school personnel and youth understand that students who are assigned to or who elect to take only remedial coursework, which include a disproportionate number of Afro-American students, are at a disadvantage for competitive job selection, college acceptance, and other career opportunities.


School counselors can furthermore encourage fellow educators to hold high expectations for all students, and to not simply accept poor performance from Afro-American students. Rousseau (1979) defined the "tyranny of indulgence" as a systematic abuse of power that occurs when a child is "unsure of what is valued and what behaviors will gain approval" (p. 28). If educators apply this theory to Afro-American students in a Euro-American culturally biased or nonaffirming school setting, school personnel will experience the same results. When expectations are low, unequal, or uncertain, delinquency and poor performance become the rule rather than the exception (Rousseau). Lee (2001) perceptively described the salient aspects of culturally responsive schools to include a centered, equitable, and fair curriculum that "accurately reflects the contributions of many cultures"; a diverse staff of committed educators; high levels of parental involvement; attention to lingual and cultural diversity; and a definition of cultural diversity that encompasses people with disabilities and people of different sexual orientations, religions, races, ages, and languages (p. 2).

The role of the school counselor becomes pivotal in assisting staff to explore what methodologies work best for Afro-American students. For example, several researchers have suggested that at-risk Afro-American students achieve more when they engage in "teaching for meaning" or a curriculum that lends itself to observable and direct application (Knapp et al., 1995). Also, some research has indicated that at-risk students tend to exhibit better performance when placed in smaller classes (e.g., a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1) (Molnar, Smith, & Zahorik, 2000). Obviously, these potential solutions would necessitate the cooperation of school administration and funding sources in addition to counseling personnel.

The ASCA National Model (2002) recommends counselors collaborate with teachers to present "proactive, prevention-based guidance curriculum lessons" (p. 3). Counselors also are directed to assist in the identification and delivery of "the knowledge and skills all students should acquire" (ASCA, p. 1). In addition to the strategies discussed above, school counselors also can meet this goal by facilitating discussions and workshops for educators to explore their own cultural stereotypes and expectations for minority status students. Carlson and Lewis (1993) suggested that "particular attention could be given between pupils' typical styles of perceiving and processing information and the teachers' own preferred modes of instruction" (p. 246). For example, if a teacher's style includes lecture and recitation, he or she may find it beneficial to incorporate more hands on activities to address the diverse learning styles of the students. Differentiated instruction is recommended, of course, for all student populations.


Several parent training models exist to serve Afro-American families in the development of successful child-rearing techniques, such as the Effective Black Parenting Program and the Black Parenting Education Program, although counselors should exercise sensitivity and proper judgment when making these referrals (McWhirter et al., 1998). The purpose of family- and community-based interventions is to facilitate strong bonds among home, school and community, and not further alienation and mistrust. Afro-American families who rarely have contact with their child's counselors will be naturally suspicious of a sudden home visit, and they most likely will react with hostility to any suggestions of inadequate parenting or need for support.

Prevention programs can be used to garner community support and involvement, and early intervention programs can help develop social and cognitive skills in schools (McWhirter et al., 1998). Peer tutors, for example, can organize study groups for Afro-American students struggling with language difficulties or academic adjustment. However, caution should be used when naming and developing these interventions; for example, it would be detrimental to student morale to propose a dropout prevention or teen pregnancy early intervention program targeted specifically for the Afro-American school population. Peer-led initiatives and after-school drop-in programs would be better received than teacher-led or counselor-mandated approaches in these instances.

Fortunately, counselors are trained and skilled in facilitating dialogue, providing opportunities for growth and identity development, and fostering a positive social climate within schools. As with all populations, school counselors need to involve family and community whenever possible. School counselors are likely to have a positive impact on their at-risk Afro-American clients if they refer to and consult with other treatment providers in a "wrap-around" services program. Wraparound services programs provide opportunities to develop formal and informal support networks for at-risk youth in an individualized and coordinated treatment setting. This type of service, also referred to as "systems of care," is a contemporary, popular model for mental health service delivery that draws on strengths of the family and cultural resources as well as traditional therapeutic interventions.

Overall, wraparound programs have suggested promising results in lowering risk factors and creating successful opportunities for their at-risk clients when treatment providers coordinate effectively and collaboratively (Burchard, Bruns, & Burchard, 2002). Specifically, at-risk youth who participate in wraparound programs that strongly adhere to the wraparound philosophy are more likely to avoid residential placements and delinquency, as well as have better outcomes in terms of prosocial behaviors, school completion, more concentrated career focus, higher quality job performance, and higher grades than at risk youth who participate in more traditional mental health service programs.

Lee (2001) suggested that when counselors bring comprehensive services to their clients' families and communities, it demonstrates that "counselors are sensitive to the fact that not all parents perceive schools as welcoming environments" (p. 5). Additionally, youth are best served when they feel free to express their concerns in a language and environment most comfortable to them; counselors should make efforts to visit the students in their homes to express their care, support, and willingness to work with the child's family. Sue and Sue (2003) also emphasized the need for multiculturally competent counselors to expand their roles to include consultation and outreach services. Counselors functioning in the "ombudsman role," for example, actively work toward social change by identifying potential barriers and protecting their clients from "bureaucratic mazes and procedures" (Sue & Sue, p. 23).

The school setting is the optimal place in which to coordinate the wraparound team service delivery, as schools already have the structure to interact with students and families and have opportunities to provide effective role models, support people, and coordinated holistic health services. We encourage school counselors to refer to the research cited above for further ideas and strategies in coordinating wraparound programs.

Resources available to school Counselors also include religious and spiritual leaders (e.g., deacons, ministers, pastors) to form alliances among the home, school, and community (Holcomb-McCoy & Moore-Thomas, 2001; McWhirter et al., 1998). School counselors can invite Afro-American role models, such as community leaders and professionals, to speak to the student body on designated career days or serve as mentors. They might arrange for students to meet with representatives from historically Afro-American colleges and universities or arrange field visits to cultural exhibits. Students must feel that their culture is honored and valued in and out of school, and this accomplishment requires a coordinated community effort. Sec Table 2 for a comprehensive description of recommended approaches and potential limitations for serving at-risk Afro-American youth in a variety of settings.


It is imperative that school counselors and other professionals serving youth populations participate in finding positive ways to reach out to at-risk Afro-American children and fully welcome them as members of our communities. Schools need to provide a bias-free, safe haven in which all students are held to high standards and empowered with the necessary tools to reach their academic, personal, and social potential. School counselors should continue to abide by the ASCA National Model guidelines and work to assist Afro-American youth in career exploration, academic achievement, and ethnic identity formation. School counselors also are called upon to foster and strengthen peer, community, and family affiliations by establishing and maintaining high-quality multiculturally competent programs and services for at-risk Afro-American youth.
Table 1: Counseling Barriers, Recommended Strategies, and Limitations

Counseling Barrier Recommended Strategy Limitations

Counselor bias Self-exploration, Counselor's
 supervision, willingness
 cultural sensitivity to explore personal
 training, coursework biases and admit
 in multiculturally prejudices
 awareness of
 nonverbal gestures

Counselor ignorance Self-exploration, Counselor's access
of client population and supervision, to resources and
effective strategies consultation, commitment to
 diversity training, change
 extensive reading,
 targeted workshops,
 awareness of
 and stereotypes

Counselor rescuing Self-awareness of Limited research on
 rescuer tendencies; this topic
 exploration of
 personal biases and
 feelings of guilt;
 awareness of
 paternal approach
 and/or feelings
 toward client

Counselor oversympathizing Self-awareness of Limited research on
 counselor anxiety; this topic
 role reversal
 exercises with
 and genuineness

Cultural conflict between Awareness; The presence of
client and counselor confrontation; cultural conflict
 exploration of tends to be
 racial issues and minimized or
 concept of identity; ignored in
 taping and reviewing institutions;
 sessions; peer limited research
 mediation and on this topic
 conflict resolution

Client resistance Counselor patience; Client tends to be
 establishment of blamed for lack of
 rapport and trust; progress, rather
 awareness of than encouraged;
 countertransference high termination

Client mistrust Counselor awareness Same as above;
 and acknowledgment client's efforts
 of historical to seek help
 hostility; rapport marginalized and/or
 and trust-building; acknowledged
 awareness of
 client's personal
 impact on counselor;
 directive approach

Client ignorance Counselor With Afro-American
of counseling process explanation of youth, referral to
 counseling process, a counselor is
 goals, and mutual often in
 expectations; conjunction with
 informed consent; disciplinary
 explanation of efforts and is
 confidentiality as viewed as a
 applied to minors punishment

Client bias Counselor patience; Client has little
 mutual examination opportunity to vent
 of bias and anger and/or
 prejudices, in hostility;
 context of hindering discouraged from
 counseling progress; expressing and
 possible referral exploring bias

Table 2: Counseling At-Risk Afro-Americans in a Variety of
Settings: Recommended Approaches and Limitations

Counseling Setting Recommended Approach Limitations

Schools * Combination of peer Limited access to role
 group, individual, models, racial and
 and family counseling gender matches, due to
 * Early intervention underrepresentation;
 * Counselor-assisted limited access to
 ethnic and racial equitable systems
 identity development support; inadequate
 * Peer academic support responsive services
 * Career and vocational
 exploration and
 * Peer mediation and
 conflict resolution
 * Goal-setting
 activities and
 * Target approaches
 * Booster sessions
 * Coping and adaptive
 skills training **

Wraparound services * Combination of peer Limited or inadequate
 group, individual, systems support;
 and family counseling inadequate responsive
 * Parental skills services; ineffectual
 training * relationships among
 * Community-based community resources,
 intervention state agencies, and
 * School-based schools

** If necessary

(1) For the purposes of classification, all students identifying themselves as Afro-American, African American, Afro-Caribbean, and of African descent will be described in the more inclusive term of "Afro-American," and all students identifying themselves as Caucasian, White, or of European descent will be described in the more inclusive term of "Euro-American."


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Lisa Fusick, M.S.Ed., is with the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. E-mail:

Wendy Charkow Bordeau, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgian Court College, Lakewood, NJ. E-mail:
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Date:Dec 1, 2004
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