Exploring the Relationship Among Cultural Discontinuity, Psychological Distress, and Academic Outcomes With Low-Income, Culturally Diverse Students

By Cholewa, Blaire West-Olatunji, Cirecie

School counselors and educators tend to focus on the symptoms of cultural discontinuity and often view these symptoms as root causes for underachievement. In this article we use an ecosystemic paradigm to explore the relationship among cultural discontinuity, psychological distress, and academic achievement. Recommendations include ways in which school counselors can use macrosystemic interventions to forge partnerships between low-income, culturally diverse students’ home culture and that of the school. The U.S. education system is failing our nation’s low-income, culturally diverse students. The persistent achievement gap between low-income African American and Latino American students, in particular, and their middle and upper income White peers has been the focus of investigation by educational researchers (Bazon, Osher, & Fleischman, 2005; Garcia, 1993; Lovelace & Wheeler, 2006; Nieto, 2004). Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (2006) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007) reveal that low-income children (those eligible for free or reduced lunch), across ethnic groups, underperform in both reading and mathematics at the 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels, compared to their middle- and upper-income peers (Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007; Lee et al.). Moreover, African American and Latino American students, across all socioeconomic levels, consistently achieve lower scores on reading and mathematics on national standardized tests compared to White students (Grigg et al.; Lee, Grigg, & Dion, 2007; Lee et al.; U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Additionally, 1 out of every 10 African American students and 1 out of every 5 Latino American students drop out of high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

Much of the literature on the achievement gap either focuses on low-income students or on culturally diverse learners. The focus of this paper is on the intersectionality of identity of low-income, culturally diverse students and how this confluence of class and ethnicity significantly contributes to the experience of cultural discontinuity in the classroom. Prior discussion of multiple identities has primarily focused on African American women (Williams, 2005) and sexual minorities (Garrett & Barret, 2003). An additional type of multiple identity, however, is culturally marginalized status and low income, as there appears to be a link between cultural diversity and low income. High-poverty schools have higher percentages of African American and Latino American students, as well as limited English proficiency students (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). According to Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield (2003), nearly half of the students in schools attended by the average African American or Latino American student are impoverished. Thus, for some culturally diverse students, the intersection of poverty and racial/cultural dynamics influences the quality of their schooling experiences.

The culturally diverse groups most affected by the achievement gap are Native Americans, some Asian American subgroups (specifically, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), Latino Americans, and African Americans. Most of the research emphasizes African Americans and Latino Americans as both groups are strongly represented in the United States, while research on Native American, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander students is not as pervasive. Often viewed as monolithic and the model minority, some Asian Americans subgroups, such as Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders, are often not differentiated from other more successful Asian ethnic groups, such as Japanese and Korean (Kim, 2003). Additionally, the low representation of Native Americans in research samples limits overall educational research on this cultural group as well (Marshall, 2002).

It has been argued that some attempts to close the achievement gap have mistakenly viewed the students’ manifestations of psychological distress as root causes of academic and behavioral problems, rather than as symptoms of more systemic, environmental stressors (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a, 2007b; Butler, 2003; Lee, 1995, 2005). Frequently, school counselor-led interventions to address the underachievement of low-income, culturally diverse youth have had inconsistent results (Cook & Kaffenberger, 2003; Legum & Hoare, 2004; Mitchell, Bush, & Bush, 2002). These mixed outcomes can be partly attributed to a faulty conceptualization in which causes of underachievement are viewed as intrinsic and endemic to low- income, culturally diverse students. A more helpful conceptualization is an ecosystemic approach that provides a useful lens through which the achievement gap can be investigated because of its emphasis on sociocultural factors in assessing, conceptualizing, and intervening with culturally diverse individuals (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007b; Anderson, Goolishian, & Winderman, 1986; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Keys & Lockhart, 1999). The purpose of this article is to use an ecosystemic lens to explore the relationships among cultural discontinuity in education, psychological distress, and academic outcomes for lowincome, culturally diverse students.


Low-income, culturally diverse students encounter cultural discontinuity at school on a daily basis (Gay, 2000; Ladson- Billings, 1994; Nieto, 2004). This cultural discontinuity, defined as a cultural disconnection between children’s home environment and that of the school, has an influence on their dispositions and their academic outcomes (Boykin, 2001; Jenks, Lee, & Kanpol, 2001). Additionally, contemporary studies suggest that school-aged children can experience psychological distress, such as symptoms of depression, low levels of mastery, and low levels of life satisfaction, that affect their school performance (Bhatia & Bhatia, 2007; Gosa & Alexander, 2007; Okagaki, Frensch, & Dodson, 1996). Research with adults has shown that similar symptoms of psychological distress have been linked to cultural discontinuity and discrimination (Broman, Mavaddat, & Hsu, 2000; Finch, Hummer, Kol, & Vega, 2001; Gee, Ryan, Laflamme, & Holt, 2006; Kessler, Mickelson, & Williams, 1999). While only limited research has been conducted with children linking cultural discontinuity and psychological distress (Fisher, Wallace, & Fenton, 2000; Smokowski & Bacallao, 2007), we suggest that cultural discontinuity may also contribute to the symptoms of psychological distress seen in low- income, culturally diverse students in schools.

Cultural Discontinuity

Examination of our nation’s public education system reveals that educational hegemony, or ethnocentrism, pervades its structure, practices, and curriculum. As Boykin (2001) points out, schooling consists of more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but promotes a particular worldview and way of interpreting reality. The knowledge that is presented in our schools is based on Eurocentric values (Marri, 2005). Therefore, curricular activities often benefit those students whose cultural backgrounds most closely align with Eurocentric norms (Jenks et al., 2001), thus creating a cultural mismatch for culturally diverse students. This phenomenon may be exacerbated when coupled with low-income status. Educators often fail to recognize culturally diverse ways of knowing, speaking, and interacting, and thus invalidate students’ funds of knowledge (Moll & Gonzalez, 2004; Nieto, 2004). These misconceptualizations often hold true regardless of the teachers’ own cultural background as most teacher education programs are also Eurocentrically rooted. Thus, it is the teacher’s pedagogical framework rather than skin color that promotes educational hegemony (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

The culturally based differences in communication styles and language patterns between culturally diverse students and their Eurocentrically oriented teachers can often result in misinterpretations of students’ ways of interacting, students’ intelligence, and students’ academic ability (Coleman, 2000; Delpit, 2004; Lovelace & Wheeler, 2006). Numerous teachers recognize cultural differences and connect students’ home lives and experiences to school. Unfortunately, far too many teachers’ own dispositions toward cultural diversity often prevent them from incorporating children’s funds of knowledge into the teaching and learning experience (Foster, 1997; Gay, 2000; Jenks et al., 2001; King, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

One example of such a cultural discrepancy is the expectation of some teachers that students will only speak when called upon and not comment on other students’ responses. This expectation is based on Eurocentric cultural language traditions (Lovelace & Wheeler, 2006). However, some African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Hawaiians typically use a communication style that is participatory- interactive (Gay, 2000). Within this style it is expected that the audience will give encouragement, verbally respond, and even display some movement when they are speaking (Espinosa, 2005; Lovelace & Wheeler). Unfortunately, the teachers often perceive the students calling out and moving in their seats as disrespecting classroom rules. This can result in having students’ names written on the board, singling out students as “problem students,” often in front of their peers. If this happens repeatedly these students can be sent out of the classroom into the hall, placed on suspension, or referred for special education placement. Thus, cultural disconnection with language can lead to less than desired academic outcomes for low-income, culturally diverse students (Bazron et al., 2005). Cultural Discontinuity and Children’s Distress

These daily schisms in the educational environment that discount children’s cultural norms can have deleterious effects on psychological and emotional well-being of children (Nieto, 2004; Phillips, 1993). School children experiencing psychological distress may present symptoms of depression (Bhatia & Bhatia, 2007; Chrisman, Egger, Compton, Curry, & Goldston, 2006; Crundwell & Killu, 2007; Rockhill et al., 2007), low levels of mastery (Gosa & Alexander, 2007), and low levels of life satisfaction (Okagaki et al., 1996). Studies with culturally diverse adults across a variety of ethnic groups have found similar symptoms of psychological distress when reporting greater levels of discrimination (Broman, et al., 2000; Lee, 2003; Moradi & Hasan, 2004; Moradi & Risco, 2006; Schultz et al., 2000; Taylor & Turner, 2002). Additionally, research has linked perceived discrimination across racial and ethnic groups to major depression (Finch et al., 2001; Kessler et al., 1999; Whitbeck, McMorris, Hoyt, Stubben, & Laframboise, 2002) and has been shown to impact overall mental health (Gee, 2002; Gee et al., 2006; Klonoff, Landrine, & Ullman, 1999).

While much of the research conducted has found a link between discrimination and the psychological health in adults, the negative impact of cultural discontinuity and hegemony on children’s psychological well-being and development has also been noted (Bazron et al., 2005; Fisher et al., 2000; Nieto, 2004; Smokowski & Bacallao, 2007). Students who experience disconnection between home and school cultures are more apt to view themselves negatively in terms of their learning, reading, writing, and speaking ability (Garcia, 1993). Nieto stated that this is partially due to policies and practices of schools that support some groups while devaluing others. Students from culturally dominated groups consistently receive and internalize negative messages regarding their culture, ethnic group, class, gender, or language.

As a confounding factor, poverty also can impact psychological well-being (Corcoran, Danziger, & Tolman, 2004; Leventhal & Brooks- Gunn, 2003); this is particularly so for children living in poverty with limited access to health care services (Howell, 2004). Many children in impoverished communities also face multiple stressors such as familial conflict and community violence (Thompson & Massat, 2005) and high mobility (Heinlein & Shinn, 2000) that can impact their psychosocial adjustment and academic achievement (Forehand, Biggar, & Kotchick, 1998; Luster & McAdoo, 1994).

Cultural Discontinuity and Academic Achievement

The disconnection between the school culture and the home culture has been shown to impact the educational experiences of low-income, culturally diverse students. Specifically, both low-income and culturally diverse students are disproportionately placed in special education categories (Blair & Scott, 2002; Skiba et al., 2008). A study by Blair and Scott found that 30% of learning disability placement among boys and 39% of learning disability placements among girls could be attributed to lowsocioeconomic status markers. In 1998, approximately 1.5 million ethnic minority children were identified as having an emotional disturbance, mental retardation, or a specific learning disability (Civil Rights Project, 2002). Once identified, African American as well as Latino students are at higher risk of being segregated from their nondisabled peers, often receiving substandard instruction in separate settings (Civil Rights Project; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002).

The overrepresentation of culturally diverse students in special education is accompanied by their disproportionate representation in discipline referrals, expulsions, suspensions, and corporal punishment (Cartledge, Tillman, & Johnson, 2001; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002; Townsend, 2000). For example, there is a 13.5% discrepancy in suspensions and a 24.95% discrepancy in expulsions between African American students and their White peers (Skiba et al., 2002). Furthermore, the dropout percentage rates for African American, Latino American, and Native American students are 10.4%, 22.4%, and 14%, respectively, while the dropout rate for White students is 6% (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Similarly, in 2004, students living in low-income families (defined here as the lowest 20% of all family incomes) were four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers from high-income families (defined as the top 20% of all family incomes; Laird, DeBell, & Chapman, 2006). The disproportional placement and representation of low-income and culturally diverse students in special education programs, disciplinary action, and dropout rates may be partially accounted for by cultural discontinuity. Educators’ misunderstandings regarding the interaction patterns and culturally based language differences of these students often result in students’ subsequent punishment and referral for special education placement (Bazron et al., 2005; Coleman, 2000). In conjunction, students may unconsciously act out and display symptoms of psychological distress in response to cultural discontinuity.

21st-Century School Counseling

Over the past 2 decades, school counselors have begun to step out of their role as ancillary providers and have moved toward taking on more of a leadership role within schools (Brown & Trusty, 2005; Dollarhide, 2003). The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) further substantiated this push for progress in 2003, when it published the ASCA National Model(R) (2005). The ASCA National Model emphasizes school counselors’ leadership, advocacy, and consultant roles as integral to the academic mission of schools and systemic change in schools. The roles of leader, advocate, and consultant are particularly important with school counselors working in schools with large populations of low-income, culturally diverse students (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a; Bemak, 2000; Bemak & Chung, 2005; Brown & Trusty; Cook & Kaffenberger, 2003; Lee, 2005). Schools with large concentrations of culturally diverse students are often under- resourced and experience a multitude of challenges.

The Ecosystemic Approach

Use of an ecosystemic paradigm for investigating the environmental context in which clients are situated can be useful to school counselors because it can engender client empowerment and collaboration between counselor and client (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007b; Chung & Pardeck, 1997). Moreover, an ecosystemic lens permits a consideration of contextual risk and protective factors (Goodman & West-Olatunji, 2008). For culturally diverse families, an understanding of the sociocultural context extends the boundaries of the system of care to include community support systems (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a; Anderson et al., 1986; West-Olatunji & Watson, 1999).

School counselors taking an ecosystemic perspective focus on factors other than the typical individually focused, microsystemic interventions (Bailey & Paisley, 2004; Mitchell et al., 2002). Instead of treating the students’ manifestations of psychological distress as root causes of academic and behavioral problems, counselors using an ecosystemic approach seek to examine macrosystemic factors, including bias, hegemony, and cultural discontinuity (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007b).


Prior to the call for more advocacy and leadership skill development among school counselors, issues of teacher preparation and classroom dynamics appeared less relevant to the daily performance of professional school counselors. However, given the current mandate, school counselors can transform the experiences and significantly impact achievement outcomes for low-income, culturally diverse students. Specifically, school counselors can augment their awareness of social inequity, incorporate macrosystemic interventions, and provide consultation to teachers.

School counselors can begin by enhancing their awareness of their own biases toward diverse children and families that, albeit unintentional, can negatively impact children’s psychological, emotional, and cognitive development. In particular, we recommend three actions for increased awareness: (a) story circle, (b) multimedia exposure, and (c) multicultural engagement. A story circle group (Williams-Clay, West-Olatunji, & Cooley, 2001) utilizes directed readings, such as “Courageous Conversations About Race” (Singleton & Linton, 2006), “Overcoming Our Racism” (Sue, 2003), and “Can We Talk About Race?” (Tatum, 2007). Counselor-educators, or professional counselors with advanced multicultural competence, can serve as external consultants and facilitate discussions in which school counselors share reflections based on thematic links to other participants’ disclosures.

This critical dialogue provides a safe environment for reflection and growth among a circle of colleagues. The use of documentary films, video clips, music, and contemporary movies can serve to educate school counselors about unfamiliar social and cultural contexts for low-income, culturally diverse students and their parents. Multimedia exposure has been proven as an effective tool for promoting cultural competence among both counselor trainees, as well as professional school counselors. One well-known training video, The Color of Fear (Mun Wah, 1995), is often used to assist counselors in questioning socialized beliefs about culturally diverse individuals. Finally, school counselors can seek out opportunities for multicultural engagement and further their knowledge about diverse communities (ASCA, 2005). They can do so by attending communitywide events like neighborhood meetings, youth athletic events, and religious services. Also whenever possible, they can take the opportunity to make home visits and talk with caregivers on a personal level about their experiences, their lives, and the positive characteristics and talents of their children. Equipped with such awareness and knowledge, school counselors can then assert themselves within the school community as leaders and thereby facilitate cultural competence among other educators in the school community (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a). Such facilitation can begin to lessen the impact of cultural discontinuity within the school, as educators become more adept and comfortable using culturally relevant practices in their interactions with low- income, culturally diverse students.

School counselors also need to apply their unique skill sets by using an ecosystemic approach that utilizes macrosystemic interventions. Effective interventions addressing macrosystemic factors often highlight the need to partner with educators, families, and community stakeholders (Bailey & Paisley, 2004). One successful program, Comite de Padres Latinos (COPLA), emphasizes maintaining Spanishlanguage and Mexican cultural values for starting an interactive dialogue with parents (Barbour, Barbour, & Scully, 2005). Such a program aids parents in inculcating cultural values, such as respect and cooperation. This approach also ensures that youth can participate successfully in Eurocentrically based classrooms. The COPLA model for empowerment also combines the collectivism of the home culture with the individualistic orientation promoted within the classroom. In such a manner, Latino American students can expand their range of language patterns to include those utilized in the classroom (West-Olatunji, 2009).

Another way in which school counselors can collaborate with communities is by establishing more formal, systemic connections through the attainment of federal grants to create out-of-school time programs, such as after-school, weekend, and summer school programs (Pittman, Irby, Yohalem, & Wilson-Ahistrom, 2004). Such programs offer parents the chance to partner in designing developmental initiatives that respond to the social, emotional, and cultural needs of their children. Furthermore, such programs allow educators to increase their knowledge and awareness of the cultural norms of the children and families connected to the school (West- Olatunji, 2009).

In addition to the implementation of macrosystemic interventions, school counselors must also serve as advocates for their socially marginalized students who may suffer from psychological distress. Part of the school counselor’s role of advocate for their low- income, culturally diverse students is to be committed to making certain that all students, regardless of culture or socioeconomic status, have the chance to achieve their academic potential (Lee, 2001). This includes school counselors working to remove barriers that may be present in the school and working to create a climate that promotes learning (Hines & Fields, 2004). Some examples of advocacy include counseling and school program evaluation, assessing school needs, forming advisory groups, problem solving, facilitating teamwork, and sharing resources and information that promote collaboration (Lee, 1995; Pedersen & Carey, 2003).

Finally, school counselors can aid in the creation of a culturally responsive climate by acting as a consultant to teachers and school personnel (Lee, 2001). They can also provide professional development to help educators implement instructional interventions that serve to improve academic achievement for low-income, culturally diverse students (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a). Similar to the advisory group described above, one practical way school counselors can act as a consultant is by developing and implementing professional development workshops for the teachers and staff on culturally responsive teaching.

The school counselor would need to assess the needs of his or her particular school prior to the development of such a workshop. Based on the assessed needs, the workshop could include some of the following: activities to increase awareness of teachers’ own biases, presentation of factual information regarding the potential negative impact of solely Eurocentric teaching on the psychological well- being of low-income, culturally diverse students, and presenting culturally responsive education as an alternative by demonstrating culturally responsive lesson plans. In demonstrating their knowledge of some of the literature and their experience in the area through the workshop, teachers may be wiling to work with school counselors on a more individual basis as well. In partnering with educators, school counselors can help teachers to create culturally responsive classrooms that will positively impact students’ psychological well- being and, ultimately, their academic performance.


While much has been written about the need for school counselors to assume a leadership role in schools, there is insufficient empirical evidence to validate specific ways to foster leadership among school counselors. It is important that researchers investigate the role of the school counselors in mediating between the students’ world view and effective teaching practices. Researchers need to focus on outcome evaluations for the increasing number of leadership training programs that are being implemented within the current context of professional school counseling. Empirically based outcome evaluations of leadership training would provide the profession with evidence-based practices that could have a significant impact on instruction and academic outcomes for low- income, culturally diverse students. Research designs that emphasize key stakeholder buy-in and long-term interventions (i.e., training programs that last for 6 months or more) utilizing experimental design are warranted.

Lastly, although much of the literature presented in this article points to the underperformance of low-income, culturally diverse youth, some of these students are achieving well academically. Moreover, there are teachers who are implementing effective, culturally responsive practices within the schools, resulting in academic gains for low-income, culturally diverse students (Foster, 1997; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994). In addition to employing culturally based pedagogical and instructional methods, it appears that effective teachers of low-income, culturally diverse students may also implement psychological interventions within their classrooms. Using a qualitative methodological design, researchers could examine the psychological impact of effective teaching. The outcomes of such a study could inform school counselors of the ways they can consult with teachers to enhance teachers’ ability to apply psychologically beneficial interventions within their classrooms, thereby making the school counselor an even greater resource within schools.

In summary, the school system is failing lowincome, culturally diverse students, as evidenced by the achievement gap. Using an ecosystemic lens, we assert that cultural discontinuity in education has an impact on low-income, culturally diverse students’ levels of psychological distress, thus resulting in academic underachievement. Previous attempts at closing the gap have taken a microsystemic approach addressing the presenting symptoms of psychological distress, not the underlying causes. School counselors can make an impact in closing the achievement gap by (a) using macrosystemic approaches that address the root causes of psychological distress; and (b) utilizing their roles as leader, advocate, and consultant to influence systemic change within their schools to benefit not only low-income, culturally diverse students but all students.

African American and Latino American students, across all socioeconomic levels, consistently achieve lower scores in reading and mathematics on national standardized tests compared to White students.

Low-income, culturally diverse students encounter cultural discontinuity at school on a daily basis.

Schoolchildren experiencing psychological distress may present symptoms of depression, low levels of mastery, and low levels of life satisfaction.

School counselors can begin by enhancing their awareness of their own biases toward diverse children and families that, albeit unintentional, can negatively impact children’s psychological, emotional, and cognitive development.


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Blaire Cholewa is a doctoral student and Cirecie West-Olatunji, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville. E-mail: [email protected]

The authors gratefully acknowledge the scholarly support from Dr. Michele Foster whose mentorship inspired this line of inquiry.

Copyright American Counseling Association Oct 2008

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