Culturally responsive school counseling: Working with Latino students and their families
The Latino population is the fastest growing group in the United States. It has been projected that by 2050, Latinos will comprise of 30% of the U.S. population (Shrestha & Hesler, 2011). The population of Latino youth has grown at an even more rapid pace and accounts for 23% of all U.S. children. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, the number of Latino children grew by 39%, compared to 3% growth in the overall child population (O’Hare, 2011). Given the population growth it is critical that school counselors become knowledgeable about how to effectively serve Latino youth.
One challenge encountered by school counselors is how to appropriately respond to students who are influenced by a cultural background which may be different from their own and uniquely diverse from other populations in the school. The following are some points to consider when working with Latino youth.
Recognize that Latinos are a heterogeneous group
First and foremost, school counselors must recognize that Latinos are not a homogenous group. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Latino or Hispanic refers to “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” As you can see Latinos living in the United States represent a variety of national origins. Latinos are also racially diverse. Latinos or Hispanics can be members of any racial grouping. Their background may be of White, Black, or Indigenous origin. There are also variations within the Spanish language. Diction, speech patterns, vocabulary, and vernacular usage, each unique to a region of origin.
Understand Acculturation and Acculturation Stress
Latino students will also be at various stages of acculturation. Acculturation refers to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes that occur as individuals merge cultures. There are two important pieces to this process 1) the extent to which the individual retains culture-of-origin involvement and 2) the extent to which the receiving culture involvement is established. Acculturation is a complex process and individuals will acculturate at different rates. Factors that influence the degree to which individuals acculturate include personal experiences in, exposure to, length of time in, and interaction with the new culture. The strategies described in this article focus on Latino students who have recently immigrated or whose parents have recently immigrated. However, it is important not to assume that every Latino is a recent immigrant. Due to popular media, it is often assumed that Latinos are a population that “just got here yesterday.” Latino history has not been well-documented in U.S. history textbooks, however Latinos have been a part of American history since before there was a United States. Although Latino youth may be members of a cultural group with similar traits, it’s important to treat students as individuals. When counseling Latino youth it is helpful to explore their values, beliefs and culture from their own perspective. Doing so will allow you a better understanding of their acculturation.
Acculturative stress can be described as the negative effects of acculturation. This includes the pressures to retain features of the heritage culture as well as pressures to gain aspects of the receiving culture. School counselors can assess the student’s level of acculturation to determine if there are conflicts between the student’s culture of origin and those of the new culture. Stressors for Latino students can include separation from family members still living in the country of origin, learning a new language, learning a new cultural system and learning a new educational system.
Practice culturally responsive counseling
Culturally-responsive counseling may be the most beneficial approach to supporting students. School counselors should focus on using the cultural assets of Latino youth. For students who experience high levels of acculturation stress and social isolation, school counselors can facilitate an awareness of cultural strengths, such as bilingualism, biculturalism, and the support of immediate and extended family. Notably, bicultural adolescents, as compared to low- and high-assimilated Latino adolescents, had the lowest levels of acculturation stress (Birman, 1998). Latinos have a strong familistic orientation and value cohesiveness and close family relationships. This sense of familismo, which is the cultural emphasis on family life being at the center of an individual’s world, has been associated with a decrease in internalized problems and higher levels of self-esteem in youth. (Smowkoski & Bacallan, 2007). When counseling Latino youth, it is beneficial to draw from their cultural strengths.
Be proactive in reaching out to Latino students
School counselors should be proactive in developing strong working relationships with Latino students. Outreach to Latino students can be done through introductions in the classroom and by promoting counseling program services directly to Latino students and their parents. Be mindful that undocumented students may be hesitant to ask the school for help or make their status known. Make sure that resources are easily and readily available. Reach out to undocumented students in pamphlets that describe the school counseling program, school resources, and the role of the counselor. Do all you can to identify YOURSELF as an ally/supporter; use posters and stickers to make your support visible. If necessary, find people to serve as cultural and linguistic bridges. This may include English Language Learner (ELL) teachers, or bilingual classified staff. It is important that written materials are available to both students and parents in Spanish.
Establish personalized contact with parents. They want to be involved!
Latino parents value more informal, personal communication. Learn the vocabulary of greetings and key phrases in Spanish. This can serve as an “ice breaker” and may make parents (and students) feel more comfortable with you. It’s not about saying it perfectly. It is about showing that you have taken time to enter into their world. Parents often report feeling invisible in schools. If you see a parent, give them a quick update (ex. Cynthia has been doing great in class, Eric has some missing assignments in Mr. Lee’s class, you may want to talk to Mr. Lee to find out more). It may be brief, but it shows that you are reaching out to them.
There is often a misconception that Latino parents are uninvolved. Many Latino parents are heavily involved in their child’s life, however it may not meet the traditional definition of parent involvement that we have created in schools. Latino parents believe their job is to socialize children’s behavior; Educator’s job is to teach. Latino parents believe academic matters are best attended to by educators (experts) who have child’s best interest in mind. Out of respect for the teachers’ expertise, they do not involve themselves in academics unless called upon. Instead parents focus on socializing children. Some examples include walking their children to class, bringing them breakfast, asking about their children’s behaviors in meetings, monitoring peer groups and encouraging siblings to watch out for one another. Tap into this strength! Encourage parents to 1) report changes in behavior 2) share life events that may impact student behavior (divorce, death in family, illness, job loss) 3) share information about peer relations 4) update you on happenings in the neighborhood. Send the message frequently that they can come in to discuss personal concerns of student.
Caroline J. Lopez, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in School Counseling at California State University, Long Beach. Prior to this she worked as a school counselor in both the K-8 and middle school setting in Los Angeles County. Her primary research interests include working with the Latino population in the school setting, group work, and school counseling leadership. She currently serves on the board of the California Association of School Counselors.
Fun fact: Caroline is an avid Dodgers fan.
Birman D (1998) Biculturalism and perceived competence of Latino immigrant adolescents. Am J Community Psychol 26:335–354. doi:10.1023/A:1022101219563
O’Hare, W. P. (2011). The changing child population of the United States: Analysis of data from the 2010 census. Annie Casey Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.pakeys.org/uploadedContent/Docs/Early%20Learning%20Programs/Other%20Programs/AECFChangingChildPopulationv8web.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-121,798
Shrestha, L. B., & Heisler, E. J. (2011). The changing demographic profile of the United States (CRS Report RL327017-5700). Retrieved from https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32701.pdf
Smokowski PR, Bacallao ML (2007) Acculturation, internalizing mental health symptoms, and self- esteem: cultural experiences of Latino adolescents in North Carolina. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 37:273–292. doi:10.1007/s10578-006-0035-4