The Elementary School Counselor's Voice in Counseling Transracially Adopted Students

Added October 5, 2017

The researchers set out to understand how elementary school counselors are providing culturally sensitive school-based services to students who are adopted transracially (SATr). Since little is known about this population in the elementary school setting from the perspective of the school counselor, a phenomenological approach was used to understand the structure and meaning of the work with SATr through the voice of 11 elementary school counselors.

Individual interviews were conducted, recorded, and transcribed verbatim. A team of coders that included the researchers identified significant statements, created open codes to give meaningful expression to words and phrases, and clustered the open codes into categories. The open codes and categories were used to write textural (i.e., what) and structural (i.e., how) descriptions of each participant’s experiences in working with SATr and their families. Composite summaries were written to integrate these descriptions in order to identify a unifying theme.

Findings from this study included eight categories as theme continuums with related sub-categories that reflected the participants’ perceptions, needs, and practices in working with SATr and their families. The core category reflected “a continuum of comfort and confidence.” This core category is the essence of the elementary school counselor’s voice on the structure and meaning of working with students who have been adopted transracially.

The eight categories reflect the identification, relationships, observations, insights, interventions, consultation and collaboration, strategies, and suggestions from the perceptions and experiences of these elementary school counselors. The continuum of comfort and confidence reflects how these elementary school counselors use their knowledge, skills, and application of human development, multicultural competencies, and intentional school counseling services when working with SATr and their families. Their graduate training as a school counselor was instrumental in helping them provide a program of services based on psychosocial development, multicultural sensitivity, and their ability to develop relationships and connections. Although approaches may vary, these participants were guided by a level of comfort and confidence in meeting the needs of students who are adopted transracially.

Suggestions for practice illuminated by the participants in this study may help other elementary school counselors identify and provide meaningful services through comprehensive developmentally appropriate school counseling program. Following are specific strategies that may be useful to school counselors.

If, as a school counselor, you believe that your role is to be an advocate for every student, it is important to become knowledgeable about adoption and adopted person issues from developmental and educational perspectives. Your program goals should reflect this belief as you plan and deliver counseling services. It is important to understand that transracially adopted persons have unique identity needs related to developmental tasks, adoptive status, and personal identity. Being an advocate for SATr and their families is a social justice issue. School counselors are in a position to provide leadership and advocacy as “change agents” in the schools with regards to the unique needs of this population that includes special education screenings and addressing racial micro-aggressions and discriminatory incidents.

Specific practices that can promote awareness of and culturally sensitive practices in elementary school counseling include individual and group counseling. Humanistic, relationship based counseling practices provide a safe and supportive atmosphere for SATr. Group work can build connections for students who are adopted. Classroom lessons can focus on celebrating racial and cultural diversity, which are welcoming messages for adopted students. Updating classroom activities that promote acceptance of students from all backgrounds and family types may encourage SATr to share their stories. Making sure that teachers are inclusive of family structure means that bringing photos, making a family tree, knowing one’s family history can be challenging to students who are not from a “traditional” family. Consultation and collaboration with parents, teachers, and outside providers is essential. Opening up this communication helps with gathering pre-adoptive information, becoming aware of behavior at home, and providing referral information. Being sensitive to how SATr are adjusting to the educational environment is important. School counselors need to ensure there are appropriate screening services and resources to meet the individual needs of adoptive students.

Lastly and most importantly, school counselors need to seek continuing education related to multicultural competence, adoption issues, and racial identity integration. A variety of venues can provide opportunities to increase understanding and ideas for implementing services, such as conferences, webinars, books, and professional meetings. Advocating for inservice training at the school level can create a well-informed and proactive team of educators who can best meet the needs of adoptive students and in particular those adopted transracially.

Susan F. Branco, Ph.D., is director of clinical education with the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Pamela E. Brott, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee.


Susan F. Branco, Ph.D., Pamela E. Brott, Ph.D.