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What’s in Your Cultural Toolbox?

By Jeanette Vaughn and Mirna Wynn | October 2019

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Within the school counseling profession, cultural competency increasingly has become a major emphasis. Even more critical is school counselors’ acknowledging their own cultural biases, misconceptions and stereotypes so that they can deliver effective services to all students.

Cheryl Irish and Monica Scrubb outlined five cultural competencies that educators need to support student growth and development:
  1. Reflection and analysis of cultural assumptions
  2. Respect for other traditions, norms, values and experiences
  3. Accommodating individual/different learning styles
  4. Developing intercultural communication skills
  5. Intentionally structured environments and focused activities
Although our two high schools are located less than four miles apart, our student demographics are quite different. McEachern High School’s student population is 70 percent African American and 18 percent Hispanic/Latino. Hillgrove High School’s student population is 47 percent White, 35 percent African American and 11 percent Hispanic/Latino. Because of relatively high African-American and Hispanic/Latino populations at both schools, our desire was to change negative perceptions about counseling and provide relatable mental health awareness for students and parents within our African American and Hispanic/Latino communities. By sharing with other school counselors our successes, lessons-learned and data obtained through targeted interventions, we hope to help other schools address diversity and the cultural needs of their students.

Using the Tools

During the ASCA 2019 Annual Conference, we presented a session entitled “What’s in Your Cultural Toolbox?” and described several initiatives and programs we implemented at our individual high schools. By engaging in simple, creative and culturally focused strategies targeting our diverse student and parent population, our goal was to positively impact student achievement and strengthen our communities. With each strategy and intervention, we collected data in the form of pre/post surveys, usage, attendance/participation, metal health subjects addressed, information/resources distributed, change in perceptions and knowledge gained.

Peer Mediation Program

In an effort to reduce the amount of time and resources spent on student discipline, McEachern High School’s peer mediation program focuses on empowering students to resolve problems themselves and teach problem-solving skills. The program has been implemented at the school for the past four years. Members of the African American community have typically held an apprehensive attitude toward mental illness and mental health awareness. To destigmatize counseling services, the peer mediation program incorporated eye-catching communication materials, diversity-focused student mediator training and incentives for submitting mediation referrals to encourage program usage. Through the program, disputants learned coping and communication skills and strategies to de-escalate high-stress situations. The program’s motto touted the phrase “Don’t take it out, talk it out.”

Food for Thought

Even with welcoming environments, smiling faces and enticing snacks, many African American and Hispanic/Latino students would not visit our school counseling offices. With Food for Thought interventions, we expanded the conventional “Counselor in the Café” programming at both schools to provide mental health education through games and hands-on activities. Events were held once a month in the cafeteria during all lunch periods throughout the school year. Students learned about social media addiction, developing healthy relationships, coping with stress, healthy eating habits and dealing with depression through prize wheel activities, PowerPoint slide shows, Plinko, Jenga, a golf putting green and cornhole games. In addition to playing games and activities, students received psychoeducational cards, fliers and handouts for later reflection and referral.

Parent Workshops

A prevailing cultural norm and value within the Hispanic/Latino community is the notion of familismo, which emphasizes family and interdependence. When Hispanic parents and extended family members are engaged and involved with academic progression, students are more likely to attain higher grades and on-time or early graduation. A Spanish-speaking parent night at Hillgrove High School was held in two sessions to provide parents with an overview of mental health/mental illness, the effects on student behavior and available resources. The sessions were all presented in Spanish with translated take-home materials.

Hillgrove also hosted a Spanish-speaking college fair to detail and simplify the graduation and college admissions processes for Hispanic/Latino parents.

Stocking Your Toolbox

School counselors can grow their skills and expand their tools to work with our increasingly diverse student populations. Through self-reflection and learning about cultural norms, learning styles, and communication strategies, we can equip ourselves to serve all students. As we found, collaboration with others to share approaches and experiences can be very valuable.
Jeanette Vaughn, M.Ed., NCC, is a school counselor at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Ga., in Cobb County School District. Contact her at Mirna Wynn, Ed.D., is a school counselor at Hillgrove High School, also in Powder Springs, Ga. Contact her at