Diane M. Stutey, Jenny L. Cureton, Kim Severn, Matthew Fink
Recently, a mnemonic device, SHORES, was created for counselors to utilize with clients with suicidal ideation. The acronym of SHORES stands for Skills and strategies for coping (S); Hope (H); Objections (O); Reasons to live and Restricted means (R); Engaged care (E); and Support (S). In this manuscript, SHORES is introduced as a way for school counselors to address protective factors against suicide. In addition, the authors review the literature on comprehensive school suicide prevention and suicide protective factors; describe the relevance of a suicide protective factors mnemonic that school counselors can use; and illustrate the mnemonic’s application in classroom guidance, small-group, and individual settings.
Keywords: suicide prevention, protective factors, school counselors, SHORES, mnemonic
Rates of youth suicide have increased tremendously in the last decade. A report by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2019 indicated that suicide rates among American youth ages 10–24 increased 56% from 2007 to 2017, making it the second leading cause of death in this age group; during this same time period, the rate almost tripled for those ages 10–14 (Curtin & Heron, 2019). Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; 2017) reported that suicide is now the ninth leading cause of death for children ages 5–11.
The suicide rates for children as young as 5 can seem alarming and impact school counselors at all grade levels. Sheftall et al. (2016) stated that children who died by suicide in this younger age range were frequently diagnosed with a mental health disorder. In children, this diagnosis was usually attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, and in young adolescents the diagnosis was most often depression or dysthymia. Researchers have also found that certain risk factors, such as childhood trauma, bullying, and academic pressure, can increase suicidal risk for youth (Cha et al., 2018; Jobes et al., 2019; Lanzillo et al., 2018).
Researchers agree that early prevention and intervention is essential to reduce youth suicides
(Cha et al., 2018; Lanzillo et al., 2018; Sheftall et al., 2016). Similarly, postvention efforts, or crisis response strategies following a student’s suicide, can lessen school suicide contagion and support future prevention efforts (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention [AFSP] et al., 2019). In this article, we review the literature on youth suicide and efforts to address it including leveraging protective factors, and we introduce the relevance of a suicide protective factors mnemonic that school counselors can apply in classroom guidance, small-group, and individual settings (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2019).
School Suicide Prevention
Curtin and Heron (2019) called for proactive efforts to help address the rising statistics for youth suicide, and schools are a natural place for prevention, intervention, and postvention to occur. Students spend the majority of their waking hours at school and have frequent contact with teachers, counselors, administrators, and peers. School efforts to address suicide risk must include these stakeholders, as well as parents and community members (Ward & Odegard, 2011).
A suicide prevention effort is a strategy intended to reduce the chance of suicide and/or possible harm caused by suicide (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], Office of the Surgeon General and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, 2012). Best practice for suicide prevention in schools includes training all stakeholders, including students (Wyman et al., 2010). This training, frequently referred to as gatekeeper training, should include information about suicide warning signs and risk factors, as well as suicide protective factors, such as seeking help and having social connections. The World Health Organization’s (WHO; 2006) booklet for counselors on suicide prevention lists several suicide warning signs, including ones with relevance to school-age youth, such as decreased school achievement, changed sleeping and eating, preoccupation with death, sudden promiscuity, or reprieve from depression (pp. 5–6). Another important component of school suicide prevention is training and practice on how to help a student who exhibits these and/or other suicidal warning signs (AFSP et al., 2019). Institutional efforts, such as forming crisis teams (AFSP et al., 2019), and anti-bullying programs can also contribute to school suicide prevention efforts (HHS, 2012).
Other school prevention efforts involve small-group and whole classroom lessons on resiliency, coping skills, executive functioning skills, and help-seeking behavior (Sheftall et al., 2016). Many programs exist and are beneficial at elementary, middle, and high school levels. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC; 2019a) listed many options: Signs of Suicide, More Than Sad, Sources of Strength, and Kognito. Of these examples, only Signs of Suicide contains training for warning signs, suicide risk factors, and suicide protective factors. Some suicide prevention programs are state and population specific, but all include the information needed to help stakeholders to know the risks and signs, and to have a plan on how to help youth with suicidal thoughts. Talking about suicide prevention with all stakeholders promotes increased help-seeking behavior in children and adolescents (Wyman et al., 2010).
School Suicide Intervention
Suicide is an ongoing issue that many school counselors handle via intervention efforts. A suicide intervention effort is a strategy to change the course of an existing circumstance or risk trajectory for suicide (HHS, 2012). School counselors are a natural choice for helping to implement suicide prevention and intervention programs, as they often have training on working with students at risk for suicidal ideation (Gallo, 2018). Additionally, school counselors are ethically responsible to help create a “safe school environment . . . free from abuse, bullying, harassment and other forms of violence” and to “advocate for and collaborate with students to ensure students remain safe at home and at school” (ASCA, 2016, pp. 1, 4). One key component of school suicide intervention is suicide risk assessment. Gallo (2018) researched 200 high school counselors representing 43 states and found that 95% agreed it was their role to assess for suicidal risk, and 50.5% were conducting one or more suicide risk assessments each month. Other aspects of intervention include potential involvement of administrators, parents, and emergency or law enforcement services; referral to outside health care providers; and safety planning, including lethal means counseling (AFSP et al., 2019). School and other counselors are also involved in ongoing check-ins with students, re-entry planning after a mental health crisis, and responses to in-school and out-of-school suicide attempts.
School Suicide Postvention
Suicide postvention involves attending to those “affected in the aftermath of a suicide attempt or suicide death” (HHS, 2012, p. 141). ASCA, in collaboration with AFSP, the Trevor Project, and the National Association of School Psychologists, released the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention that outlines policies and practices for districts, schools, and school professionals to protect student health and safety (AFSP et al., 2019). The model policy addresses postvention by summarizing a 7-step action plan involving school counselors and other professionals: 1) get the facts, 2) assess the situation, 3) share information, 4) avoid suicide contagion, 5) initiate support services, 6) develop memorial plans, and 7) postvention as prevention (pp. 11–13). The latest edition of a suicide postvention toolkit for schools (SPRC, 2019a) highlighted counselors’ collaborative work for crisis response and suicide contagion; how they help students with coping and memorialization; and their involvement with community, media, and social media.
Addressing factors that protect against suicide is an important component of school district policies to combat suicide (AFSP et al., 2019) and of comprehensive school suicide prevention (Granello & Zyromski, 2018). Leveraging suicide protective factors is one way for school counselors to fulfill professional obligations and recommendations concerning student suicide risk. What remains unclear from the literature is how school counselors explore and enhance protective factors in their suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention efforts.
Suicide Risk and Protective Factors
The SPRC (2019b) defined suicide risk factors as “characteristics that make it more likely that individuals will consider, attempt, or die by suicide” and protective factors as those which make such events less likely (p. 1). High suicide risk involves a combination of risk factors. Examples of suicide risk factors include a prior attempt, mood disorders, alcohol abuse, and access to lethal means, whereas examples of suicide protective factors include connectedness, health care availability, and coping ability (SPRC, 2019b). Protective factors “are considered insulators against suicide,” which can “counterbalance the extreme stress of life events” (WHO, 2006, p. 3). Both risk and protective factors have varying levels of significance depending on the individual and their community (SPRC, 2019b).
Guidance from multiple sources stresses the salience of incorporating attention to suicide risk and protective factors into school counseling. The AFSP et al. (2019) Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention notes risk and protective factors as crucial content in staff development and youth suicide prevention programming. In addition to the risk factors named above, the policy names high-risk groups, such as students who are involved in juvenile or child welfare systems; those who have experienced homelessness, bullying, or suicide loss; those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning; or those who are American Indians/Alaska Natives (AFSP et al., 2019).
School counselors should know suicide protective factors that are specific to school settings and to the ages of students that they serve. The Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention (AFSP et al., 2019) also highlights the role that accepting parents and positive connections within social institutions can play in a student’s resiliency. Despite suicide prevention policy guidelines, numerous structured programs, and growing research on youth suicide protective factors, very little guidance is offered on practical methods for school counselors to address students’ suicide protective factors. The purpose of this manuscript is to introduce to school counselors a recently published, research-based mnemonic—SHORES (Cureton & Fink, 2019). The acronym of SHORES stands for Skills and strategies for coping (S); Hope (H); Objections (O); Reasons to live and Restricted means (R); Engaged care (E); and Support (S). SHORES equips school counselors with a promising tool to guide suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention via direct and indirect school counseling services.
Cureton and Fink (2019) created a mnemonic device called SHORES for counselors to utilize when working with clients. SHORES represents protective factors against suicide and the letters in the acronym were carefully selected based on support in the literature.
Cureton, J. L., & Fink, M. (2019). SHORES: A practical mnemonic for suicide protective factors. Journal of Counseling &
Development, 97(3), 325–335.
In the following sections, the authors define each part of the acronym and discuss how school counselors may apply SHORES with students. After discussing each of the protective factors in the mnemonic, we present a case example to demonstrate how school counselors may implement the SHORES tool with students in their school.
S: Skills and Strategies for Coping
First, school counselors can explore with students what skills and strategies for coping (S) with adversity they might already have in place, work to strengthen these, and also foster development of new coping skills and strategies. Cureton and Fink (2019) shared that some of the skills and strategies for coping that counter thoughts of suicide include emotional regulation, adaptive thinking, and engaging in one’s interests (Berk et al., 2004; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Law et al., 2015). For youth, such engagement includes academic and non-academic pursuits (Taliaferro & Muehlenkamp, 2014). School counselors often meet with students to discuss coping strategies and stress management; therefore, this step can easily be incorporated into working with students demonstrating signs of stress or even suicidal ideation.
Mindfulness skills and strategies may be particularly impactful for schools to incorporate. Research findings support the importance of a student’s emotional regulation skills, as dysregulation is associated with children’s suicidal thoughts (Wyman et al., 2009) and adolescents’ suicide attempts (Pisani et al., 2013). There is substantial research evidence on the positive effect of mindfulness interventions in children and adolescents, particularly for decreasing depression and anxiety (Dunning et al., 2019). Flook et al. (2010) used a school-based mindful awareness program with elementary school children that incorporated sitting meditation; a brief visualized body scan; and games for sensory awareness, attentional regulation, awareness of others, and awareness of the space around them. They found improvements in elementary school children’s metacognition, behavioral regulation, and executive control. Broderick and Jennings (2012) posited that mindfulness practice is an effective coping strategy for adolescents because it “offers the opportunity to develop hardiness in the face of uncomfortable feelings that otherwise might provoke a behavioral response that may be harmful to self and others” (p. 120). Teaching or practicing mindfulness with students might include helping them with body awareness, understanding and working with thoughts and feelings, and reducing harmful self-judgements while increasing positive emotions.
Cureton and Fink (2019) suggested that hope (H) can protect against suicide because it may counterbalance negative emotions and cognitions. Studies have demonstrated that hope can help to safeguard the influence of hopelessness on suicidal ideation and that hope could, in turn, relieve a person’s feelings of being a burden and not belonging (Davidson et al., 2009; Huen et al., 2015). Researchers have found that adolescents with hope have lower suicide risk (Wai et al., 2014) and that hope moderates depression and suicidal ideation, even among adolescents who experienced childhood neglect (Kwok & Gu, 2019).
Furthermore, Tucker and colleagues (2013) discovered that establishing hope can also decrease some of the adverse impacts of rumination on suicidal ideation. Classroom guidance lessons could help school counselors to assess if there are individual students who seem to lack hope; these students might be good candidates for small-group or individual counseling. If school counselors wanted to implement a schoolwide comprehensive program, they might look at implementing Hope Squads. Over 300 schools in Utah have implemented peer-to-peer suicide prevention programs called Hope Squads, which work to instill hope and create a school culture of connectedness and belonging (Wright-Berryman et al., 2019). Hope Squads could also be utilized in the final stage of SHORES as a source of Support (S).
Another way that researchers found to decrease suicidal ideation was building hope through goal-setting (Lapierre et al., 2007). School counselors are in a prime position to help with goal-setting and could incorporate the topic of hope when helping students to set goals. One evidence-based intervention that can be utilized by school counselors to help students with goal-setting is Student Success Skills. School counselors teaching the Student Success Skills lessons not only encourage students to set wellness goals, but also teach attitudes and approaches that will help students socially and to reach their academic potential (Villares et al., 2011).
Cureton and Fink (2019) included another supported protective factor: moral or cultural objections (O) to suicide. Researchers have found that individuals with fewer moral objections to suicide were more likely to attempt suicide (Lizardi et al., 2008), while those with a religious objection may have fewer attempts (Lawrence et al., 2016). Ibrahim and colleagues (2019) discovered that the role of religious and existential well-being was a protective factor for suicidal ideation with adolescents.
Research shows that school counselors feel ready to address spirituality with students, and at least one suicide prevention program could help with that focus. Smith-Augustine (2011) found that 86% of the 44 school counselors and school counseling interns who participated in a descriptive study had spirituality and religious issues arise with students, and 88% reported they felt comfortable addressing these issues with students. Although the focus is not on religion, this topic may come up when discussing spirituality, and school counselors working in public schools will want to be mindful of any restrictions from their district about discussing religion and/or spirituality with students. One evidence-based suicide prevention program that addresses spirituality is Sources of Strength (2017).
Sources of Strength has been used primarily in high school settings, but guidance for its application in elementary schools is also available. While participating in Sources of Strength, youth are asked to reflect on and discuss a range of spiritual practices, ways they are thankful, and how they view themselves as “connected to something bigger” (Sources of Strength, 2017). Wyman and colleagues (2010) discovered that participating in Sources of Strength helped increase students’ perceptions of connectedness at school, in particular with adults in the building. Implementing this program would allow school counselors to seek out those students at risk and have further individual conversations and tailor any necessary interventions to that student’s cultural and religious/spiritual beliefs. School counselors could also refer students and families to therapists outside of the school setting who may be able to further explore spiritual and cultural beliefs and resources.
More research is needed about how cultural objections to suicide impact youth. For instance, there is a longstanding belief that the view in the Black community of suicide as “a White thing” (Early & Akers, 1993) acts as a suicide protective factor. But in the wake of rising suicide rates among Black youth, Walker (2020) challenged this notion, arguing that Black youth are at risk for suicide because mental health stigmas in their communities result in them keeping their distress to themselves. Other researchers (Sharma & Pumariega, 2018) have echoed the concern that guilt and/or shame about suicidal ideation may result in isolation in youth of color, including those from Black, Latinx, Asian, and other cultural groups. Another cultural objection in youth of color that may serve as a protective factor is culturally informed beliefs about death and the afterlife (Sharma & Pumariega, 2018). School counselors can focus on “normalizing suicidal ideation and acceptance of internal and external problematic events” (Murrell et al., 2014, p. 43) and on ways to include family members and other cultural representatives who are accepting of mental health issues in suicide-related conversations and programs with students of color.
R: Reasons to Live and Restricted Means
A fourth protective factor refers to two areas: reasons to live and restricted means (R). Reasons for living (RFL) are considered drives one might have for staying alive when contemplating suicide (Linehan et al., 1983). Bakhiyi et al. (2016) established in a systematic review of research literature that RFL serve as protective factors against suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in adolescents and adults. In a study with over 1,000 Chinese adolescents, the correlation between entrapment and suicidal ideation was moderated by RFL; adolescents with a higher RFL score had lower suicidal ideation even when experiencing high levels of entrapment (Ren et al., 2019). School counselors might consider giving students the RFL Inventory when presenting on suicide prevention or assessing for suicidal ideation, either the adolescent version (Osman et al., 1998) or the brief adolescent version (Osman et al., 1996). School counselors can also heighten students’ awareness of their RFL by asking them what or whom they currently cherish most or would miss or worry about if they suddenly went away.
The second part of this protective factor is restriction (R) of lethal suicide means, such as firearms, poisons, and medications (Cureton & Fink, 2019). There is evidence to support that restriction of means is effective for decreasing suicide (Barber & Miller, 2014; Kolves & Leo, 2017; Yip et al., 2012). For children and adolescents ages 10–19, the most frequent suicide method was hanging, followed by poisoning by pesticides for females and firearms for males. These findings were based on 86,280 suicide cases from 101 countries from 2000–2009 (Kolves & Leo, 2017).
Given this information, it is important for school counselors to not only assess for lethal weapons access but also to inquire about students’ access to and awareness of how everyday items might be used to attempt suicide. Although it may be impossible to restrict all means that could be utilized for hanging or poisoning, school counselors can discuss with guardians various ways to reduce access to these means and provide more supervision for any youth exhibiting thoughts of suicide. Kolves and Leo (2017) also discussed the high number of youth who learn about ways to attempt suicide from media and the internet; therefore, restriction, reduction, and supervision of media and internet usage could also be something school counselors suggest to guardians.
E: Engaged Care
Another protective factor across populations is engagement (E) with caring professionals (Cureton & Fink, 2019; SPRC & Rodgers, 2011). School counselors often have hundreds of students on their caseloads, and this can become overwhelming, especially when dealing with crises such as suicide. At the same time, it is imperative that school counselors actively engage with students in a caring and supportive way. Often the school counselor might be the first person to intervene with a suicidal youth; Cureton and Fink (2019) emphasized the importance of the client being able to feel empathy and care from the counselor.
School counselors can view engaged care as an effective and collaborative approach for suicide prevention by working with students and families to leverage a variety of services. According to Ungar et al. (2019), “Students who reported high levels of connectedness to school also reported significantly lower rates of binge drinking, suicide attempts, and poor physical health compared to youth with low scores on school engagement” (p. 620). However, school counselors cannot be solely responsible for the ongoing engaged care of suicidal youth and will need to make referrals to outside counselors and/or physicians. Comprehensive engaged care might include mental health treatment and ongoing support and management from health care providers (Brown et al., 2005; Fleischmann et al., 2008; Linehan et al., 2006). Researchers found that comprehensive services that connect parents, schools, and communities result in decreased suicide attempts when compared to hospitalization for youth (Ougrin et al., 2013).
The final element of the SHORES mnemonic emphasizes the importance of students having supportive (S) environments and relationships (Cureton & Fink, 2019). As mentioned above, the school counselor is only one source of support. The support and involvement of family can also serve as a protective factor (Jordan et al., 2012). Diamond et al. (2019) noted that “when adolescents view parents as sensitive, safe, and available, they are more likely to turn to parents for support that can buffer against common triggers for depressive feelings and suicide ideation” (p. 722).
In a study with 176 Malaysian adolescents, support from family and friends was found to be a protective factor against suicidal ideation (Ibrahim et al., 2019). Youth seek support for suicidal thoughts from peers more than from adults (Gould et al., 2009; Michelmore & Hindley, 2012; Wyman et al., 2010). Many suicide prevention programs, such as Hope Squads and Sources of Strength, are addressing the need for positive peer support by incorporating a peer-to-peer component into their interventions (Wright-Berryman et al., 2019; Wyman et al., 2010). Working to increase peer support along with support from school personnel, family, and community could be lifesaving for students contemplating suicide.
Case Example Applying SHORES
The SHORES tool is meant to be comprehensive and can be used in classroom guidance, small-group, and individual counseling. A case example is provided for how SHORES might be employed in a middle school setting; however, this example could be adapted to work with elementary or high school students.
A middle school counselor attended a training on SHORES and incorporates this into her comprehensive school counseling program. Each year when she delivers her lessons on suicide prevention, she brings the SHORES poster to each classroom and shares with her students about protective factors and ways to reach out and seek help if they have a concern about suicide.
During her second lesson on suicide prevention, the school counselor notices that one of her new seventh-grade students, Jesse, seems unusually withdrawn and disengaged. The counselor is reviewing skills and strategies for coping (S) and asks each of the students to write down three to four ways that they have learned to cope with stress. In addition, she asks them to report how well each of these strategies and coping skills are working for them on a scale of 1–10. When she collects the papers, she notices that Jesse has written only one coping skill: “Locking myself in my room away from all of the noise and the pain.” He then stated his coping skill “is a 10 and works great because people will just forget about me and I can disappear.”
The school counselor is concerned about these remarks and decides to bring Jesse in for an individual counseling session. As she is asking Jesse about whether he has hope (H) that things will get better, she learns that his father has been deployed for the past year, his mother recently went to prison, and his grandmother, who is his primary guardian, had a recent health scare. Jesse shares that he is afraid he is going to lose the people closest to him and he feels angry and alone. He states that being a “military brat” who is new to the school makes him feel even more isolated, and he worries what others will think if they find out his mom is a felon.
When the school counselor expresses her concern for his safety and asks if he has ever thought about killing himself, Jesse is adamant that suicide is against his religion and he would never do it. He adds, “My mom would break out of jail and whoop me if she even knew I had thoughts like that.” Although Jesse voices his objections (O) and denies any current suicidal ideation, the school counselor is concerned about his social–emotional well-being and suggests he join a small counseling group she has for students experiencing changes in their families. Jesse agrees to check it out and gets his grandmother to sign a permission form for him to attend.
During his first small counseling group, Jesse is quiet but does confide in the group what is happening in his family and that he has been feeling “depressed.” Two of the other group members share that they also feel depressed. The school counselor asks them to define what they mean by feeling depressed. As they answer, she creates a list on the board of their definitions: “I feel hopeless and alone,” “I sometimes don’t know why I’m even here,” and “Sometimes I want to just fall asleep and never wake up.”
After they explore these definitions and the underlying feelings, the school counselor writes “Reasons to Live” (R) on the whiteboard. She shares that sometimes when kids are feeling depressed or hopeless, it can be helpful to think about the different reasons that they want to live and things they enjoy about their lives. She gives the students time to come up with lists and keeps track of what each of the students came up with during the brainstorming session. Although all of the other students in the group are able to come up with four to five reasons to live, the school counselor notes that Jesse only came up with one: “I get to visit my mom each Sunday.”
The school counselor decides to keep Jesse a few minutes after group to check in on his safety again. First, she asks him if he had other reasons to live before he moved to his new school. Jesse said that he used to play soccer and that he loved it and it made him feel excited each day to be part of the team. The school counselor encourages Jesse to look into joining the school soccer team and offers to talk to the coach to see if this is a possibility.
When asked about suicidal ideation, he is again adamant that he would never do it, but he admits that a couple of years ago it did occur to him that he could take his grandfather’s gun and “end it all.” The school counselor discovers that Jesse’s grandmother kept her late husband’s gun at her house. After discussing this with Jesse and getting his consent to contact his grandmother, she decides to err on the side of caution and follow up. Jesse’s grandmother shares that she does not believe the gun even works anymore and that there are no bullets in the home. However, after speaking with the school counselor about restricting means (R) she decides to donate the gun to a local hunting club.
During this conversation, the grandmother also shares that she is concerned about Jesse, especially his lack of a male role model. She shares that Jesse’s biological father is active military and might only see Jesse once or twice a year, and his grandfather died when he was 2. The school counselor lets the grandmother know that she plans to contact the soccer coach (who is male) about getting Jesse to join the team. After some further conversation, the school counselor and grandmother agree that it would also be helpful for Jesse to have some ongoing engaged care (E) with a counselor outside of school. She also inquires about the family’s religious affiliation because Jesse has mentioned to her that this is important to him. The school counselor compiles a list of Christian male counselors and sends the list home at the end of the day.
Over the next few weeks, Jesse continues to attend the small group. He joined the soccer team and has also been working with an outside counselor. He reports he is feeling more hopeful, even though he still worries about his mom and misses her. The school counselor delivered a classroom lesson on sources of support (S) earlier that week and follows up with each of the students during group. Each member creates a list of current sources of support in their lives and shares it. The school counselor notes that Jesse’s paper is filled with names of people both in and outside of school; he has listed friends at school, on his soccer team, and in his neighborhood; his soccer coach; his mother and grandmother; a neighbor; two teachers; and both of his counselors.
As the small group begins to wrap up toward the end of the school year, the school counselor checks in with Jesse for an individual counseling session. She reminds him about their classroom lesson on skills and strategies for coping (S). Jesse shares that he and his other counselor have been working a lot on mindfulness and that he really enjoys this. With his counselor’s encouragement, Jesse has also pursued a few new interests such as joining a club for military kids and joining an after-school program. When the school counselor revisits the question about reasons to live (R), Jesse shares that he needs more than one sheet of paper to write down all the good things in his life. The school counselor follows up with Jesse’s grandmother to share these updates and promises to continue engaged care (E) with Jesse when he returns for eighth grade.
Implications for School Counseling Practice, Training, and Research
There are implications for the use of and research on this promising tool across counseling specialties, and we focus on school settings in alignment with the scope of this manuscript. Guidelines and recommendations for school counseling practice concerning suicide include attending to both risk factors and protective factors in work with students via comprehensive suicide prevention (ASCA, 2019; Granello & Zyromski, 2018). The SHORES tool has utility as a standard and recognizable component for a comprehensive school suicide prevention program; an adjunct to current interventions such as risk screening and safety planning measures; and a strengths-based framework for prevention, intervention, and postvention. Future research is necessary to explore these applications and their impact.
Although some school suicide prevention programs address suicide protective factors, SHORES offers school counselors a simple and practical tool that they can apply across behavioral elements of a comprehensive school counseling program (ASCA, 2019). This consistent integration may support deeper understanding and broader use among school counselors and other faculty/staff, as well as students. The case example illustrated how SHORES may be applied and useful in classroom, small-group, and individual settings.
School counselors may use interventions such as risk screening and safety planning, and SHORES can fill the gap for suicide protective factors in both. Most suicide risk screening focuses solely on risk factors or does not fully explore suicide protective factors (McGlothlin et al., 2016). The most well-known safety plan template (Stanley & Brown, 2012) does not include all elements of the SHORES mnemonic (Cureton & Fink, 2019). School counselors who add SHORES to their risk screens and safety plans will be engaging in more comprehensive and protective interventions for students who may be at risk for suicide.
SHORES derives from a positive, strengths-based mindset regarding suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. School counselors can use the tool to guide wellness programming before a suicide by considering how current and future efforts serve to enhance each element of the acronym. School counselors are also key to suicide postvention or response following a suicide (AFSP & SPRC, 2018). A school’s suicide postvention plan has three aims (Fineran, 2012), and embedding SHORES into the plan may help minimize distress, reduce contagion, and ease the return to school routines in place before the crisis. Additionally, the SHORES tool addresses several of the assets and barriers for successful school reintegration after a student’s psychiatric hospitalization (Clemens et al., 2011), so potential applications also include postvention after suicide attempts.
There are also training implications for SHORES in counselor education and supervision and practitioner professional development. Although school counselors’ training on suicide appears to have improved over the last 25 years, Gallo (2018) found that only 50% of high school counselors felt adequately prepared to identify suicidal students and assess their risk. Counselors-in-training have described the specific need for more training on child and adolescent suicide assessment (Cureton &
Sheesley, 2017). Counselors-in-training (Cureton & Sheesley, 2017) and educators (Cureton et al., 2018)
have also acknowledged the benefit of practicing suicide response in supervised counseling (i.e., internship), as well as the potential to miss opportunities simply because no clients present with suicide risk during such experiences. However, a recent assessment (Cureton et al., 2018) demonstrated that the counselor education and supervision field has only modest readiness to address the issue of suicide in its master’s-level training programs, in part because of negative views about suicide as a topic that is too scary, serious, advanced, and taxing to cover in class (Cureton et al., in press).
The strengths-based, preventative nature of SHORES positions it as a tool that can be easily introduced in classroom role-plays as well as during conversations with students being served during practicum and internship. Reframing these conversations, and more broadly all suicide-related efforts in counseling, as both challenging and potentially positive and life-affirming may partially address the negative stigma within and beyond the counselor education and supervision field (Cureton et al., 2018, in press). Finally, adding SHORES to existing school personnel training offerings like those listed by the SPRC (2019a) would deepen professional development for school counselors and other staff, faculty, and administration.
Despite the numerous possibilities to apply the SHORES tool in K–12 and other educational settings (Cureton & Fink, 2019), research is needed to establish its utility and effectiveness. Primary investigations include studies with school counselors who are considering adopting and implementing SHORES in their schools to understand perceptions of its apparent value and barriers to use. Evaluative studies about training offerings and investigations into memory recall of acronym components among school counselors would also aid in conceptualization of true functionality of the SHORES tool.
Research on students’ perceptions and outcomes studies are also needed. Students’ reactions to and generalized use of the SHORES tool would be beneficial in order to examine its appeal, as would those of families, teachers, and stakeholders. It is also important to explore how to be developmentally appropriate across grade levels. Finally, outcomes studies on SHORES for prevention, intervention, and postvention are necessary to determine its practical worth. For instance, a comparison between a school counseling department’s existing safety planning procedure and a SHORES-enhanced procedure would be valuable. Studies about SHORES and counselor self-efficacy to address suicide would also add to the literature.
As rates of youth suicide have increased in recent years, the need for school counselors to adopt tools to better assess suicide risk in their students has taken on more urgency. SHORES provides a strengths-based assessment tool that can be used by school counselors to quickly examine the protective factors that potentially mitigate against suicide in their students. Offering a comprehensive overview of existential, behavioral, and interpersonal factors that have been identified as bolstering defenses against suicidality, each letter of the SHORES acronym is rigorously supported by research and provides clear implications for the tool’s utility in K–12 settings. Given that only roughly half of school counselors feel sufficiently prepared to assess suicide risk in their students, the SHORES tool provides a practical resource for screening and safety planning. Even so, more research is needed to illustrate and verify the SHORES tool’s ease of use and adoption into other existing school-based approaches to addressing suicide in student populations.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Diane M. Stutey, PhD, NCC, LPC, RPT-S, is a licensed school counselor and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Jenny L. Cureton, PhD, LPC (TX, CO), is an assistant professor at Kent State University. Kim Severn, MA, LPC, is a licensed school counselor and instructor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Matthew Fink, MA, is a doctoral student at Kent State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Diane Stutey, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey M. Warren, Gwendolyn L. Coker, Megan L. Collins
The rate of school-aged children with incarcerated parents continues to rise in the United States. These children are especially prone to experiencing social-emotional, behavioral, and academic issues in school as a result of various factors, including general strain and stress associated with incarceration. Given their unique role in schools, professional school counselors are well positioned to provide support to children of incarcerated parents. This article presents a review of relevant literature, including key theories that explain the challenges faced by children with incarcerated parents. The impact of incarceration on children as well as protective and risk factors are presented. Finally, strategies and resources school counselors can use when working with this population are offered.
Keywords: incarceration, school counselors, children, risk factors, protective factors
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (Graham & Harris, 2013). Over the last 30 years, the rate of incarceration has significantly increased, and as a result the number of children whose parents are incarcerated has risen (Boudin, 2011). In 2007, approximately 809,800 incarcerated parents in the United States had minor children (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Graham & Harris, 2013). In 2008, around 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents were under the age of 18, with most incarcerated parents having two or more children (Johnson & Easterling, 2015). The rate of parental incarceration has continued to grow over the last decade. According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (2014), approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
Although reasons for jailing or imprisonment vary, a central concern persists: the impact of parental incarceration on children. The sudden disruption of a close relationship can cause traumatic stress and inadequate care—factors that influence and in some cases delay a child’s development (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Incarceration often leads children to experience unwarranted stress, lack of supervision, socioeconomic strain, and additional responsibilities at home (Robertson, 2007). Many children suffer emotionally, mentally, physically, and academically as a result of the loss of a parent to jail or prison. The identification of educational resources and support mechanisms are central to ensuring that the needs of children with incarcerated parents are met.
Operating within their scope of practice and the national model advanced by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA; 2012), school counselors can offer enhanced services to support children with incarcerated parents. However, school counselors have expressed the need for additional training and resources to effectively work with this student population (Brown, 2017). Without a firm understanding of theory, research, and best practice for working with children of incarcerated parents, school counselors can fail to deliver sufficient support. In this article, we aim to further develop school counselors’ knowledge and increase awareness of available resources for working with this student population. To this end, we present historical and theoretical perspectives of parental incarceration and describe the effects of incarceration on children. Support mechanisms applicable to school counselors’ work with children of incarcerated parents are provided.
Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: An Historical Perspective
Between 1991 and 2007, there was a 79% increase in the number of parents in state and federal prisons and an 80% increase in the number of children with incarcerated parents, because some parents had more than one child (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). In 1999, over 1.3 million children had a father in a state or federal prison; almost 130,000 children had a mother in prison (Mumola, 2000). Since 1990, the rate of female prisoners has grown at a rate of 106% compared to 75% for male prisoners (Lopez & Bhat, 2007). The average age of children who have an incarcerated parent is 8 years old; one in five children with an incarcerated parent is under 5 years old (La Vigne, Davies, & Brazzell, 2008). The Pew Charitable Trusts (2010) estimated that one in 28 children has an incarcerated parent. One in 14 children has had a parent incarcerated at some point in their life (Murphey & Cooper, 2015).
Historically, children of color experience parental incarceration more frequently than White children. For example, “African American children were nearly nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than Caucasian children. Hispanic children were three times more likely than Caucasian children to have a parent in prison” (Lopez & Bhat, 2007, p. 141). More recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016) reported that African American, Hispanic, and American Indian children were significantly more likely than their Caucasian peers to have an incarcerated parent. Today, the rates of parental incarceration remain polarized by race. Morsy and Rothstein (2016) indicated that 10% of African American students have an incarcerated parent, with 25% experiencing parental incarceration at some point in their life. Perhaps these statistics are, in part, explained by the mass incarceration of persons of color resulting from social injustices that stem from initiatives such as the war on drugs. The use of incarceration in the United States to retaliate against nonviolent drug offenses has contributed to a large number of children separated from their parents and explains the emotional and psychological distress they often experience (Allard, 2012).
Theoretical Perspectives on Incarceration
Numerous sociological, criminal justice, and psychological theories articulate the effects of incarceration. General strain theory and attachment theory, in particular, are useful to conceptualize the impact of incarceration on children. These theories offer valuable insights for school counselors who aim to support children with incarcerated parents. However, it is important that these theories only serve to guide school counselors toward greater awareness of this population rather than to dictate services; no two children are impacted by incarceration in the same manner.
General Strain Theory
General strain theory originated from the work of Merton (1938). The theory explicates the manner in which individuals experience strain and their response to the strain during adverse situations. According to general strain theory, a lack of goal attainment, negative experiences, and loss can lead to strain (Brezina, 2017). Individuals who experience strain are more susceptible to emotions and behaviors that lead to problematic outcomes. As strain intensifies, more extreme responses often emerge.
Incarceration of a parent can lead to strain on the child and caregiver left behind. As a result of parental incarceration, fewer caregivers provide for the household. Additionally, children of incarcerated parents often are limited in resources required to meet their basic needs. Nichols and Loper (2012) suggested that the removal of financial and social resources can contribute to the strain experienced by both the child and the caregiver. Therefore, children generally are unable to respond in acceptable ways to the social, emotional, and academic expectations or challenges of school.
Strain can have a significant effect on a child’s academic performance and motivation. As strain increases, the child can become vulnerable to feeling disconnected from school (Nichols & Loper, 2012). When children are in strained homes, their focus shifts from academics to difficulties faced within their microsystems. Children with an incarcerated parent might become more concerned with food security or personal safety. Adolescents are often tasked with taking on more responsibilities to alleviate the strain and work to help support the family or care for siblings because of the loss of a parent to incarceration; school is no longer a top priority.
The well-being of caregivers also is a concern. When dysfunction arises in the home, the caregiver and child experience stress or strain. When a parent is incarcerated, there is less supervision of the child “due to the indirect effect of increased strain on their caregiver” (Nichols & Loper, 2012, p. 1456). The parent or guardian who remains in the home with the child often is ill-equipped with the time and resources necessary to provide adequate supervision and support. The adjustment as a new primary caregiver can determine their ability to provide basic needs, support, and protection to the child. The caregiver often has ongoing concerns about the level of protection and support that they can provide for the child (Feeney & Woodhouse, 2016; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010).
Myers et al. (2013) indicated that children of incarcerated parents often live in adverse conditions. Many of these children live in poverty or have an unstable home life. Although children typically are unaware of the strain they experience, they are aware of the strain on their caregiver and often try to alleviate that stress by taking on more responsibilities (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Notably, incarceration adds to the strain of an already potentially unstable living condition.
Attachment theory emerged from Bowlby’s (1958) work with children and parents. This theory suggests that children who are consistently cared for have stronger and healthier attachments with their caregivers. Alternatively, when parents provide inconsistent support, children maintain less secure attachments. According to Bowlby (1988), the quality of early parent–child interactions plays a significant role in the development of a child’s relationships across their lifespan.
Based on attachment theory, a child’s attachment organization, or the manner in which they attach to caregivers, is disrupted when a parent becomes incarcerated (Nichols & Loper, 2012). These disruptions, such as those that occur when children move from one caregiver to another, can have detrimental effects (Kobak, Zajac, & Madsen, 2016; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010). For example, children who fail to receive direct attention from their parent or guardian can feel confused and lack support for academic and social-emotional development.
Dallaire, Ciccone, and Wilson (2012) and Dallaire, Zeman, and Thrash (2015) explored the effects of parent incarceration on child and parent attachment. In instances of a noncontact visitation policy (i.e., physical contact between the incarcerated parent and child is forbidden), children experienced more insecurity and disorganization, including vulnerability, emotional distance, isolation, tension, and anger. The “experience of parental incarceration represents a significant family stressor that may negatively impact children’s feelings of safety and security” (Dallaire et al., 2012; p. 161). Poehlmann (2005) stated that in order for young children to cope with the detachment of their incarcerated parent, they must have additional emotional support.
Additionally, Shlafer and Poehlmann (2010) used the Attachment Story Completion Task to assess the relationships of children ages 2.5 to 7.5 years old and their incarcerated parent. The majority of the children studied fit the criteria for an insecure attachment with their incarcerated parent. Alternatively, children who received consistent care by one individual as opposed to multiple caregivers were classified as having a secure relationship with their caregiver (Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010). A key determinant of a child’s level of attachment is the ability to be in close proximity with another attachment figure and feel protected. Attachment theory and general strain theory are useful frameworks for conceptualizing the impact of incarceration on the children with whom school counselors frequently work.
Impact of Incarceration on Children
Children’s experiences with parental incarceration are vast. Some children have witnessed their parent’s crime or observed their arrest. Children also experience custodial separation, instability in living arrangements, and stressful visitations with their parents who are in jail or prison (Davis & Shlafer, 2017). Moreover, these experiences impact the mental health, behavior, and academic performance of children.
Disruption at home because of incarceration often weighs heavy on the life of a child, leaving them unattached, dissociated, and strained (Murray, 2007). For example, early signs of antisocial behavior were present in children who experienced parental incarceration before the age of 10 (La Vigne et al., 2008). Additionally, Kjellstrand, Reinke, and Eddy (2018) found that parental incarceration led to an increase in externalizing behaviors during adolescence. Incarceration can lead to a host of mental and behavioral health issues, including anxiety and depressions (Johnson & Easterling, 2015; Murray & Farrington, 2008; Wilbur et al., 2007), aggressive behaviors (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012; Johnson & Easterling, 2015; Sharp & Marcus-Mendoza, 2001; Wildeman, 2010), delinquency or criminal activity (Huebner & Gustafson, 2007; Kjellstrand & Eddy, 2011; Murray, Janson, & Farrington, 2007; Murray, Loeber, & Pardini, 2012), and school-related problems (Cho, 2011; Hanlon et al., 2005; Johnson & Easterling, 2015). Nichols and Loper (2012) suggested that these effects often extend beyond children to other household and family members.
Children who have a parent in jail or prison often are viewed differently than their peers. For example, peers and teachers can associate the actions of an incarcerated parent with that of the child. Dallaire, Ciccone, and Wilson (2010) found that students with incarcerated parents were more likely considered at-risk and faced stigmas in the school setting. Moreover, teachers maintained low expectations of students with incarcerated parents; knowing that a parent was incarcerated was a factor in determining expectations and the perceived competence level of a student. This is especially problematic for students of color who frequently are susceptible to low expectation from teachers (Liou & Rotheram-Fuller, 2019). Children with incarcerated parents are often stigmatized as inferior because of their parents’ life choices and subsequent incarceration (Shillingford & Edwards, 2008). This stigma can lead students to feel unaccepted by school staff and classmates, and disconnected from the academic environment (Nichols & Loper, 2012). In an attempt to manage the stigma, children often do not disclose information and isolate themselves from relationships (Saunders, 2018).
Cho (2009) indicated that the negative effects of having an incarcerated parent often are short-lived and do not last the entirety of a child’s educational career. However, the effects of parental incarceration on a child’s academic performance are evident. For example, Dallaire et al. (2010) suggested that children who have an incarcerated parent or guardian are at risk of academic difficulties or eventually drop out of school. Most children do fairly well in school and eventually go on to have a good life; however, a significant number of children do not share such a positive fate (Shillingford & Edwards, 2008).
Long-Term Effects of Incarceration
Martin (2017) referred to children of incarcerated parents as “hidden victims” (p. 1) because often the impact of incarceration on the child is not considered. However, when children witness a parent’s arrest, for example, they can experience high levels of stress that can result in a traumatic emotional response (Johnson & Easterling, 2015). The stress children experience as the result of an incarcerated parent or guardian can continue as long as that parent is incarcerated, and in many cases, after the parent or guardian returns home. Factors that can have a long-term impact on the child include duration and frequency of disruptions in caregiving relationships (Johnson & Easterling, 2015; Murray & Murray, 2010; Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2003); degree of economic and residential stability (Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper, & Mincy, 2009; Phillips, Erkanli, Keeler, Costello, & Angold, 2006); social stigma and pressure to keep the incarceration hidden (Saunders, 2018); and having a parent that is physically absent, yet socially and emotionally present (Bocknek, Sanderson, & Britner, 2009).
Children of incarcerated parents can learn attitudes, behaviors, and a way of life that positions them for lives similar to their parents. Aaron and Dallaire (2010) found that children who had parents with a history of incarceration reported more delinquent behavior. This finding was moderated by a parent’s recent incarceration. Similarly, Farrington (2000) found that the conviction of a parent was a predictor of their child’s antisocial behaviors and eventual incarceration. These findings suggest that exposure to parental incarceration and related issues may result in children becoming incarcerated themselves. However, a variety of risk and protective factors often serve to facilitate the outcomes of these children.
Risk and Protective Factors
Separation or loss of a parent is considered one of six indicators of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), according to Felitti et al. (1998). Findings from a study conducted by Turney (2018) suggested that children experience five times as many ACEs when they have an incarcerated parent. ACEs can impact brain development and lead to impulse control issues, emotional dysregulation, and the inability to anticipate consequences, recognize social cues, and manage interpersonal conflict (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). These psychological challenges also can result in poor school performance, gang involvement, substance use, and pregnancy.
Children often have an insecure attachment with their parent when support and encouragement are inconsistent (Poehlmann-Tynan, Burnson, Runion, & Weymouth, 2017). According to Shlafer and Poehlmann (2010), some children have a positive relationship with their incarcerated parent, while others report negative experiences. Children who have no contact with their incarcerated parent often have greater feelings of alienation and minimal attachment. The Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents (2013) suggested that children, especially those in the adolescent stage, typically work toward finding an equilibrium between individuality and their connection to society. However, the separation between the parent and child during incarceration impedes the ability of the child to acquire the proper social skills needed to function effectively on a daily basis.
In some instances, children are unable to recover from the traumatic experience of parental incarceration. As a result, children are at risk of becoming antisocial, internalizing symptoms, and struggling academically (Murray & Farrington, 2008; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010). When parental incarceration is recurrent, children are at risk of continuous emotional strain; oftentimes children do not know how long their parent will be gone or when they will return (van Agtmael, 2016). Children can become defiant, aggressive, antisocial, experience a loss of self-esteem, have difficulty sleeping, or develop an attachment disorder, and may go on to exhibit other problematic behaviors if they lack support during these times (Lopez & Bhat, 2007). Children of incarcerated parents are at higher risk for exposure to stress, violence, and abuse (Phillips, Burns, Wagner, Kramer, & Robbins, 2002; Shillingford & Edwards, 2008). These experiences can further exacerbate a child’s struggle to manage life, including school, with an incarcerated parent.
According to Johnson and Easterling (2015), the majority of children who experience parental incarceration employ a combination of coping strategies to manage the situation including “de-identification from the incarcerated parent, desensitization to incarceration, and strength through control” (p. 244). However, a variety of protective factors can serve to help thwart or reduce the negative impact of parental incarceration on children. Frequent contact visits (i.e., physical contact is allowed) and quality communication with the incarcerated parent can serve as protective factors for the child (Cramer, Goff, Peterson, & Sandstrom, 2017). Kumpfer, Alvarado, and Whiteside (2003) identified several such protective factors, including self-control, academic self-efficacy, and family supervision. The identification of and access to positive influences and role models, engagement in leadership opportunities through school or community organizations, social-emotional skill development, as well as maintaining faith and hope also are factors that help mitigate the impact of incarceration (Adalist-Estrin, Krupat, deSousa, Bartley, & Hollins, 2019).
A key protective factor is the positive relationship the new caregiver forms with the child (Buss, Warren, & Horton, 2015; Cramer et al., 2017). A secure and stable home for children of incarcerated parents offers an opportunity to overcome challenges and succeed in school and life. School counselors can help facilitate student success through the use of a variety of targeted approaches and resources that serve to protect children with incarcerated parents.
Approaches and Resources for School Counselors
Professional school counselors offer a variety of services within a comprehensive school counseling program that can meet some of the needs of children with incarcerated parents. Many of these services are well-suited for supporting this group of children. Although these services often are beneficial to these children and their caretakers, in many instances, alternative or targeted services are needed. Therefore, it is important for school counselors to consider students’ strengths and needs within the context of emerging literature and evidence-based practices. A variety of strategies and resources rooted in theory and research are available to support school counselors’ efforts to develop and promote protective factors for children of incarcerated parents.
Determining Student Strengths and Risk
In order to provide targeted services and support, school counselors must first identify students who have incarcerated parents. Strain is not always obvious to teachers or school counselors, and families, caregivers, or students may not readily seek help. As a result, building and maintaining healthy relationships with parents, grandparents, or other guardians is central to identifying and meeting the needs of these students (Hollihan & Krupat, 2016). School counselors also should consider becoming familiar with community professionals who are likely to interact with children of incarcerated parents. For example, Brown and Barrio Minton (2017) suggested that when school counselors collaborate and consult with community stakeholders such as social workers, child protective services, mental health counselors, and other child advocates, they better understand the child as well as acquire pertinent information that facilitates meeting the needs of the student. School counselors who are proactive and regularly demonstrate community investment as a component of their comprehensive school counseling program are well-positioned to identify, assess, and meet the academic and social-emotional needs of children of incarcerated parents.
Once a student is identified as having an incarcerated parent, school counselors are encouraged to conduct an assessment to determine the risk and protective factors for the student and the family. Students, teachers, caregivers, and other stakeholders can provide valuable information during the assessment process (Petsch & Rochlen, 2009). Measurements such as the Child Behavior Checklist, Teacher’s Report Form, and Youth Self-Report, available via the Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment (2019), are valuable tools for capturing family, teacher, and student concerns. These instruments assess for social problems, anxiety, depression, cognitive issues, and aggressive behaviors. School counselors can use these types of instruments to identify areas of support and formulate approaches that meet the students’ academic and social-emotional needs. It is important that assessments and student support plans are completed in a collaborative manner while remaining sensitive to the students’ and caregivers’ experiences.
The assessment process should include an evaluation of the student’s family history, school performance, and risk and protective factors. It also is important to assess current services and determine the lack of services that may not be available, but needed (Solomon & Uchida, 2007). School counselors should consider age as a factor when determining the needs of children of incarcerated parents. Younger children can process potentially traumatic situations, such as the incarceration of a parent, differently than older children (Buss et al., 2015). Unhealthy coping, along with emotional and behavioral problems at this stage of development, are likely to arise and should be taken into account when determining needs (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2003). Furthermore, school counselors should determine the exact relationships between the incarcerated parent, the caregiver left behind, and the child. In some instances, the incarcerated parent or caregiver is not the biological parent, yet the relationship is strong enough that separation can significantly impact the child. The caregiver left behind often is the other parent or a grandparent, but in some cases is a foster parent (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Graham & Harris, 2013).
School counselors are encouraged to gather as much data as possible in order to determine the risk and protective factors at play for the family and child. Additionally, school counselors are encouraged to be aware of and reflect on their own perceptions of incarceration and ensure those beliefs do not interfere with their assessment of student needs or the services provided. School counselors must be sensitive and understanding of the needs and worldviews of the family and student’s culture, especially their views on incarceration. Furthermore, when discussing incarceration with the family or child, it is important to specify the type of incarceration (i.e., jail, prison) and use terms such as felon, con, and inmate with caution, or not at all. A child will perceive the severity of his or her parent’s incarceration based on how it is described (Bennett, Lewis, & Hunsaker, 2012). Prison often is perceived more negatively than jail because of different aspects between the two such as demographics, sentencing, and capacity.
Children who have an incarcerated parent or guardian often struggle with a variety of significant social-emotional, behavioral, and academic problems in school (Poehlmann, 2005). Professional school counselors who understand student challenges, as well as strengths, can intervene and support this group of children who often are vulnerable and underserved. School counselors should recognize the benefit of home–school–community collaboration in assessment and consider it an important aspect of implementing effective strategies that can help children of incarcerated parents succeed.
Strategies and Interventions
Comprehensive school counseling programs that align with the ASCA National Model (2012) include components that aim to meet the needs of all students. A number of direct and indirect student support services exist that encompass strategies and interventions that can increase protective factors for children of incarcerated parents. Brown (2017) suggested these services are essential to meeting the needs of these children. However, school counselors are encouraged to utilize results of a needs assessment when determining the provision of targeted services within a system of support. For example, school counselors can offer support prior to and after visits with the incarcerated parent; these are isolated occasions that can present emotional challenges for the child. Alternatively, some students who display ongoing, unhealthy emotions or behaviors may need more intensive support, such as small group or individual counseling. Goals of these services should include building on student strengths, fostering resilience, and addressing challenges that directly impede student performance.
During individual and small group counseling, it is important for school counselors to broach the topic of incarceration with caution; school counselors should not disclose this information during group work, yet provide a safe space for the student to do so. Bibliotherapy and expressive art strategies can serve as valuable opportunities for children of incarcerated parents to gain awareness and process their thoughts and feelings. As such, school counselors are encouraged to maintain access to developmentally appropriate literature on incarceration via their own collection or the school’s library. For example, the book Far Apart, Close in Heart (Birtha, 2017), written for elementary-age children, explores life with an incarcerated parent, and Clarissa’s Disappointment (Sullivan, 2017), a book written for upper-elementary and middle school students, is about the transition of a parent out of prison. Books such as Surviving the Chaos: Dontae’s Story: Daddy, Jail & Me (Bell, 2013) and Coping When a Parent is Incarcerated (DeCarlo, 2018) are appropriate for upper-middle and high school students. These resources are useful for facilitating family conversations about incarceration as well. School counselors who know that parental incarceration often impedes student performance are best positioned to help students develop protective factors including strong relationships with peers and the community, appropriate social and self-regulation skills, and academic achievement (Lopez & Bhat, 2007).
School counselors are well-positioned to advocate for children of incarcerated parents through the delivery of in-service trainings and other awareness-building activities. Given their role, teachers are often the first school staff members to have academic or behavioral concerns for a child with an incarcerated parent. However, Brown and Barrio Minton (2017) suggested that many school personnel, such as teachers and other school staff, face barriers when working with children of incarcerated parents because of their inability to identify them and meet their needs. In-service training for teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders can increase awareness of the negative effects of parental incarceration on the social-emotional and academic development of students. For example, school counselors can share the video, School Staff: Supporting Youth with Incarcerated Parents (https://goo.gl/uDmYvu), followed by an open discussion during a staff meeting. School counselors can empower school staff through the dissemination of information that challenges barriers, stereotypes, and stigmas about this student population. It is important for teachers to explore their beliefs and feelings about incarceration as well as their perceptions of students with incarcerated parents. For example, teachers who maintain a deficit ideology toward children with incarcerated parents are not best equipped to meet their needs (Gorski, 2016). Additionally, school counselors should advance schoolwide trauma-informed practice initiatives, address insensitive schoolwide policies, and encourage collaborative efforts to remove barriers that impede the well-being of children of incarcerated parents (Buss et al., 2015). Through basic knowledge, skill development, and collaboration, teachers and other school personnel can support children of incarcerated parents and help facilitate success in and outside of school.
Finally, collaboration is useful when engaging a variety of stakeholders while working with children of incarcerated parents. Stakeholders can include caregivers, mental health providers, correctional officers and facilities, school resource officers, teachers, and social workers. For example, Brown (2017) found that professional school counselors consulted and collaborated with school social workers to support students who needed financial assistance because of parental incarceration. School counselors also can provide targeted and intentional consultation to teachers and administrators to address student academic and behavioral performance concerns (Warren, 2018). School counselors are encouraged to coordinate with stakeholders to facilitate the incarcerated parents’ access to report cards and virtual participation in school-related meetings. Maintaining community connections can help establish a wealth of resources that can be delivered to children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. When student or family need necessitates therapeutic services, school counselors should refer the family to a community-based agency.
It is important for school counselors to support the academic, social-emotional, and career development of children with incarcerated parents. However, school counselors are encouraged to not engage in the provision of long-term counseling, unless there are extreme circumstances. Resources such as the Children of Incarcerated Parents Program (New York City Office of Training and Workforce Development, 2019) and those listed below offer a variety of community-based services and are eager to partner with professional school counselors to promote protective factors for children with incarcerated parents.
Several organizations across the nation offer resources and informational material that aim to reduce risk factors for children of incarcerated parents. For example, the National Mentoring Resource Center (nationalmentoringresourcecenter.org) provides a wealth of information on mentoring children with incarcerated parents. This program is designed to strengthen services that focus on the academic and social-emotional development of children who are experiencing parental incarceration (National Mentoring Resource Center, n.d.). The program provides no-cost training and assistance as well as evidence-based support services to students. Benefits of this mentoring program include practice reviews, webinars, a blog, implementation strategies, and additional readings.
The Prison Fellowship (www.prisonfellowship.org), a faith-based organization, trains community stakeholders in restorative practices. This organization provides resources that help link children and caregivers to support groups and other services. A central focus of this organization’s work is to restore the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children. The Prison Fellowship (n.d.) supports families and children of incarcerated parents by offering a variety of resources and programming such as the Angel Tree, a Christmas present donation program for children of incarcerated parents. School counselors should consider the religious beliefs of families prior to making a referral to the Prison Fellowship.
In addition to the National Mentoring Resource Center and the Prison Fellowship program, Save Kids of Incarcerated Parents (SKIP; skipinc.org) supports children of incarcerated parents by conducting academic and behavioral support groups. The program offers an online community that serves as a vehicle for teenagers of incarcerated parents to connect. SKIP (n.d.) provides research reports and other useful practitioner-focused resources. The program also provides online and hands-on training to interested participants. Trainees are provided relevant information for working with children who experience parental incarceration. School counselors may find it beneficial to collaborate with programs such as SKIP because of its focus on community involvement and partnerships with other support services.
Finally, the Service Network for Children of Inmates (www.childrenofinmates.org) provides a model of comprehensive, community-based services for children of incarcerated parents. Based in Florida, this network has demonstrated the role state-based agencies can play in supporting children of incarcerated parents. The organization works to re-establish positive relationships between parents and children by facilitating bonding visits and providing assistance with linking children and their families with community services for support. The organization offers support groups for children to develop and refine social and emotional skills to help offset the negative impact of parental incarceration (Service Network for Children of Inmates, 2008). School counselors are encouraged to visit these organizations’ websites, utilize the resources they provide, and seek out similar organizations in their state or region. School counselors can stay informed when working with children of incarcerated parents by visiting the following websites and taking advantage of the resources they offer: the Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov); youth.gov (youth.gov/youth-topics/children-of-incarcerated-parents); National Institute of Corrections (nicic.gov); and The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu).
The number of incarcerated parents has continued to grow over the past decade, and children of color are more likely to experience the incarceration of a parent (Graham & Harris, 2013). Children of incarcerated parents face a number of challenges, including stigma, low expectations and academic performance, social and emotional issues, and behavioral difficulties. For example, Cho (2009, 2011) and Shlafer, Reedy, and Davis (2017) found that students of incarcerated parents were more likely to receive disciplinary referrals and earn lower grades, and were less connected to and engaged in school. These children are often required to navigate the experience of their parent’s incarceration with little support while attempting to proceed with their day-to-day lives, including the everyday demands of school. School counselors can play a vital role by helping to support and advocate for these students. Research on incarcerated parents and the impact of incarceration on children is scant, especially in school counseling literature. However, there is clear evidence that the incarceration of a parent can significantly impact children. The degree to which children are impacted by incarceration is dependent upon a host of factors, including age and support system, and symptoms can emerge in a variety of ways.
A central goal when working with children of incarcerated parents is to increase protective factors while attempting to minimize risk factors. It is important for school counselors to identify and assess for risk and strengths of children in their school who have incarcerated parents. These students should be supported within the context of their lived experiences. Knowledgeable school counselors can effectively serve children with incarcerated parents through a comprehensive school counseling program. In most cases, specifically designed programming is not required. Alternatively, some students may require additional school counseling services as well as community-based support. The recommendations provided in this article are based on theory and the best evidence available for working with students who have incarcerated parents. School counselors who are knowledgeable of the impact of incarceration and related support mechanisms can play an integral role in offering support and advocating for students.
In addition to utilizing the resources provided in this article, school counselors are encouraged to seek professional development to further their knowledge, attitudes, and skills for working with children of incarcerated parents. School counselors can serve as valuable advocates and strive to disseminate relevant information to teachers, school administrators, and the caregivers of children with incarcerated parents. It is important for teachers to develop empathy and provide a consistent and nurturing classroom environment for all students, especially those with incarcerated parents. Additionally, school counselors should place the emotions and behaviors of students with incarcerated parents within the context of theory and research when consulting with teachers. In order to best support these children, collaboration and the willingness of professional school counselors to intervene is critical.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Jeffrey M. Warren, NCC, is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Gwendolyn L. Coker is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Megan L. Collins is a professional school counselor in Robeson County, NC. Correspondence can be addressed to Jeffrey Warren, 1 University Drive, Pembroke NC 28372, email@example.com.
Gwen Bass, Ji Hee Lee, Craig Wells, John C. Carey, Sangmin Lee
The scale development and exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses of the Protective Factor Index (PFI) is described. The PFI is a 13-item component of elementary students’ report cards that replaces typical items associated with student behavior. The PFI is based on the Construct-Based Approach (CBA) to school counseling, which proposes that primary and secondary prevention activities of school counseling programs should focus on socio-emotional, development-related psychological constructs that are associated with students’ academic achievement and well-being, that have been demonstrated to be malleable, and that are within the range of expertise of school counselors. Teachers use the PFI to rate students’ skills in four construct-based domains that are predictive of school success. School counselors use teachers’ ratings to monitor student development and plan data-driven interventions.
Keywords: protective factors, factor analysis, school counselors, construct-based approach, student development
Contemporary models for school counseling practice (ASCA, 2012) emphasize the importance of school counselors using quantitative data related to students’ academic achievement to support professional decisions (Poynton & Carey, 2006), to demonstrate accountability (Sink, 2009), to evaluate activities and programs (Dimmitt, Carey, & Hatch, 2007), to advocate for school improvement (House & Martin, 1998) and to advocate for increased program support (Martin & Carey, 2014). While schools are data-rich environments and great emphasis is now placed on the use of data by educators, the readily available quantitative data elements (e.g., achievement test scores) are much better aligned with the work of classroom teachers than with the work of school counselors (Dimmitt et al., 2007). While teachers are responsible for students’ acquisition of knowledge, counselors are responsible for the improvement of students’ socio-emotional development in ways that promote achievement. Counselors need data related to students’ socio-emotional states (e.g., self-efficacy) and abilities (e.g., self-direction) that predispose them toward achievement so that they are better able to help students profit from classroom instruction and make sound educational and career decisions (Squier, Nailor, & Carey, 2014). Measures directly associated with constructs related to socio-emotional development are not routinely collected or used in schools. The development of sound and useful measures of salient socio-emotional factors that are aligned with the work of school counselors and that are strongly related to students’ academic success and well-being would greatly contribute to the ability of counselors to identify students who need help, use data-based decision making in planning interventions, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, demonstrate accountability for results, and advocate for students and for program improvements (Squier et al., 2014).
Toward this end, we developed the Protective Factors Index (PFI) and describe herein the development and initial exploratory and confirmatory factors analyses of the PFI. The PFI is a 13-item component of elementary students’ report cards that replaces typical items associated with student deportment. The PFI is based on the Construct-Based Approach (CBA) to school counseling (Squier et al., 2014), which is based on the premise that primary and secondary prevention activities of school counseling programs should be focused on socio-emotional development-related psychological constructs that have been identified by research to be associated strongly with students’ academic achievement and well-being, that have been demonstrated to be malleable, and that are within the range of expertise of school counselors. The CBA clusters these constructs into four areas reflecting motivation, self-direction, self-knowledge and relationship competence.
The present study was conducted as collaboration between the Ronald H. Fredrickson Center for School Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation and an urban district in the Northeastern United States. As described below, the development of the PFI was guided by the CBA-identified clusters of psychological states and processes (Squier et al., 2014). With input from elementary counselors and teachers, a 13-item report card and a scoring rubric were developed, such that teachers could rate each student on school counseling-related dimensions that have been demonstrated to underlie achievement and well-being. This brief measure was created with considerable input from the school personnel who would be implementing it, with the goal of targeting developmentally appropriate skills in a way that is efficient for teachers and useful for counselors. By incorporating the PFI into the student report card, we ensured that important and useful student-level achievement-related data could be easily collected multiple times per year for use by counselors. The purpose of this study was to explore relationships between the variables that are measured by the scale and to assess the factor structure of the instrument as the first step in establishing its validity. The PFI has the potential to become an efficient and accurate way for school counselors to collect data from teachers about student performance.
Initial Scale Development
The PFI was developed as a tool to gather data on students’ socio-emotional development from classroom teachers. The PFI includes 13 items on which teachers rate students’ abilities related to four construct-based standards: motivation, self-direction, self-knowledge and relationships (Squier et al., 2014). These four construct clusters are believed to be foundational for school success (Squier et al., 2014). Specific items within a cluster reflect constructs that have been identified by research to be strongly associated with achievement and success.
The PFI assessment was developed through a collaborative effort between the research team and a group of district-level elementary school administrators and teachers. The process of creating the instrument involved an extensive review of existing standards-based report cards, socio-emotional indicators related to different student developmental level, and rating scales measuring identified socio-emotional constructs. In addition, representatives from the district and members of the research team participated in a two-day summer workshop in August of 2013. These sessions included school counselors and teachers from each grade level, as well as a teacher of English language learners, a special education representative, and principals. All participants, except the principals, were paid for their time. Once the draft PFI instrument was completed, a panel of elementary teachers reviewed the items for developmental appropriateness and utility. The scale was then adopted across the district and piloted at all four (K–5) elementary schools during the 2013–2014 school year as a component of students’ report cards.
The PFI component of the report card consists of 13 questions, which are organized into four segments, based on the construct-based standards: motivation (4 items), self-direction (2 items), self-knowledge (3 items) and relationships (4 items). The items address developmentally appropriate skills in each of these domains (e.g., demonstrates perseverance in completing tasks, seeks assistance when needed, works collaboratively in groups of various sizes). The format for teachers to evaluate their students includes dichotomous response options: “on target” and “struggling.” All classroom teachers receive the assessment and the scoring rubric that corresponds to their grade level. The rubric outlines the observable behaviors and criteria that teachers should use to determine whether or not a student demonstrates expected, age-appropriate skills in each domain. Because the PFI instrument is tailored to address developmentally meaningful competencies, three rubrics were developed to guide teacher ratings at kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grade.
At the same time that the PFI scale was developed, the district began using a computer-based system to enter report card data. Classroom teachers complete the social-emotional section of the standards-based report card electronically at the close of each marking period, when they also evaluate students’ academic performance. The data collected can be accessed and analyzed electronically by school administrators and counselors. Additionally, data from two marking periods during the 2013–2014 school year were exported to the research team for analysis (with appropriate steps taken to protect students’ confidentiality). These data were used in the exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses described in this paper.
The PFI was adopted across all of the school district’s four elementary schools, housing grades kindergarten through fifth. All elementary-level classroom teachers completed the PFI for each of the students in their classes. The assessment was filled out three times during the 2013–2014 school year, namely in December, March and June. The data collected in the fall and winter terms were divided into two sections for analysis. Data from the December collection (N = 1,158) was used for the exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and data from the March collection was randomly divided into two subsamples (subsample A = 599 students and subsample B = 591 students) in order to perform the confirmatory factor analysis (CFA).
The sample for this study was highly diverse: 52% were African American, 17% were Asian, 11% were Hispanic, 16% were Caucasian, and the remaining students identified as multi-racial, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, or Native American. In the EFA, 53.2% (n = 633) of the sample were male and 46.8% (n = 557) of the sample were female. Forty-seven kindergarten students (3.9%), 242 first-grade students (20.3%), 216 second-grade students (18.2%), 222 third-grade students (18.7%), 220 fourth-grade students (18.5%), and 243 fifth-grade students (20.4%) contributed data to the EFA.
The first CFA included data from 599 students, 328 males (54.8%) and 271 females (45.2%). The data included 23 kindergarten students (3.8%), 136 first-grade students (22.7%), 100 second-grade students (16.7%), 107 third-grade students (17.9%), 102 fourth-grade students (17.0%), and 131 fifth-grade students (21.9%). The data analyzed for the second CFA included assessments of 591 students, 305 males (51.6%) and 286 females (48.4%). The data consisted of PFI assessments from 24 kindergarten students (4.1%), 106 first-grade students (17.9%), 116 second-grade students (19.6%), 115 third-grade students (19.5%), 118 fourth-grade students (20.0%), and 112 fifth-grade students (19.0%).
Classroom teachers completed PFI assessments for all students in their class at the close of each marking period using the rubrics described above. Extracting the data from the district’s electronic student data management system was orchestrated by the district’s information technology specialist in collaboration with members of the research team. This process included establishing mechanisms to ensure confidentiality, and identifying information was extracted from student records.
The PFI report card data was analyzed in three phases. The first phase involved conducting an EFA at the conclusion of the first marking period. The second phase was to randomly select half of the data compiled during the second marking period and perform a confirmatory factor analysis. Finally, the remaining half of the data from the second marking period was analyzed through another CFA.
Phase 1. Exploratory factor analysis. An initial EFA of the 13 items on the survey instrument was conducted using the weighted least squares mean adjusted (WLSM) estimation with the oblique rotation of Geomin. The WLSM estimator appropriately uses tetrachoric correlation matrices if items are categorical (Muthén, du Toit, & Spisic, 1997). The EFA was conducted using Mplus version 5 (Muthén & Muthén, 1998–2007).
Model fit was assessed using several goodness-of-fit indices: comparative fit index (CFI), Tucker-Lewis Index (TLI), root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), and standardized root mean square residual (SRMR). We assessed model fit based on the following recommended cutoff values from Hu and Bentler (1999): CFI and TLI values greater than 0.95, RMSEA value less than 0.06, and SRMR value less than 0.08.
Phase 2. First confirmatory factor analysis. An initial CFA was conducted on the 13 items from the instrument survey to assess a three-factor measurement model that was based on theory and on the results yielded through the exploratory analysis. Figure 1 provides the conceptual path diagram for the measurement model. Six items (3, 4, 6, 7, 11 and 13) loaded on factor one (C1), which is named “academic temperament.” Three items (8, 9 and 12) loaded on factor two (C2), which is referred to as “self-knowledge.” Four items (1, 2, 5 and 10) loaded on factor three (C3), which is titled “motivation.” All three latent variables were expected to be correlated in the measurement model.
This CFA was used to assess the measurement model with respect to fit as well as convergent and discriminant validity. Large standardized factor loadings, which indicate strong inter-correlations among items associated with the same latent variable, support convergent validity. Discriminant validity is evidenced by correlations among the latent variables that are less than the standardized factor loadings; that is, the latent variables are distinct, albeit correlated (see Brown, 2006; Kline, 2011; Schumacker & Lomax, 2010).
The computer program Mplus 5 (Muthén & Muthén, 1998-2007) was used to conduct the CFA with weighted least square mean and variance adjusted (WLSMV) estimation. This is a robust estimator for categorical data in a CFA (Brown, 2006). For the CFA, Mplus software provides fit indices of a given dimensional structure that can be interpreted in the same way as they are interpreted when conducting an EFA.
Phase 3. Second confirmatory factor analysis. A second CFA was conducted for cross-validation. This second CFA was conducted on the 13 items from the instrument survey to assess a three-factor measurement model that was based on the results yielded through the first confirmatory factor analysis. The same computer program and estimation tactics were used to conduct the second CFA.
Phase 1. Exploratory Factor Analysis
Complete descriptive statistics for the responses to each of the 13 items are presented in Table 1. The response categories for all questions are dichotomous and also identified in Table 1 as “On Target” or “Struggling,” while incomplete data are labeled “Missing.” A total of 1,158 surveys were analyzed through the EFA. The decision to retain factors was initially guided by visually inspecting the scree plot and eigenvalues. The EFA resulted in two factors with eigenvalues greater than one (one-factor = 8.055, two-factor = 1.666, and three-factor = 0.869). In addition, the scree test also supported the idea that two factors were retained because two factors were left of the point where the scree plot approached asymptote. However, considering goodness-of-fit indices, the models specifying a three-factor structure and four-factor structure fit the data well. Methodologists have suggested that “underfactoring” is more problematic than “overfactoring” (Wood, Tataryn, & Gorsuch, 1996). Thus, there was a need to arrive at a factor solution that balanced plausibility and parsimony (Fabrigar, Wegener, MacCallum, & Strahan, 1999).
Methodologists (e.g., Costello & Osborne, 2005; Fabrigar et al., 1999) have indicated that when the number of factors to retain is unclear, conducting a series of analyses is appropriate. Therefore, two-, three-, and four-factor models were evaluated and compared to determine which model might best explain the data in the most parsimonious and interpretable fashion. In this case, the two-factor model was eliminated because it did not lend itself to meaningful interpretability. The four-factor model was excluded because one of the factors was related to only one item, which is not recommended (Fabrigar et al., 1999). Researchers evaluated models based on model fit indices, item loadings above 0.40 (Kahn, 2006), and interpretability (Fabrigar et al., 1999).
The three-factor measurement model fit the data well (RMSEA = 0.052, SRMR = 0.036, CFA = 0.994, TLI = 0.988, χ2 = 173.802, df = 42, p < 0.001). As shown in Table 2, the standardized factor loadings were large, ranging from 0.58 to 0.97. The first factor included six items. Items reflected students’ abilities at emotional self-control and students’ abilities to maintain good social relationships in school (e.g., demonstrates resilience after setbacks and works collaboratively in groups of various sizes). This first factor was named “academic temperament.”
The second factor included three items. All of the items reflected the understanding that students have about their own abilities, values, preferences and skills (e.g., identifies academic strengths and abilities and identifies things the student is interested in learning). This second factor was named “self-knowledge.” The third factor included four items. All of the items reflected personal characteristics that help students succeed academically by focusing and maintaining energies on goal-directed activities (e.g., demonstrates an eagerness to learn and engages in class activities). This third factor was named “motivation.” The three-factor measurement model proved to have parsimony and interpretability.
The two-factor model did not fit the data as well as the three-factor model (RMSEA = 0.072, SRMR = 0.058, CFA = 0.985, TLI = 0.978, χ2 = 371.126, df = 53, p < 0.001). As shown in Table 2, the standardized factor loadings were large, ranging from 0.59 to 0.94. The first factor included seven items. This first factor reflected self-knowledge and motivation. It was more appropriate to differentiate self-knowledge and motivation considering interpretability. The two-factor model provided relatively poor goodness-of-fit indices and interpretability.
The four-factor model fit the data slightly better than the three-factor model (RMSEA = 0.035, SRMR = 0.023, CFA = 0.998, TLI = 0.995, χ2 = 76.955, df = 32, p < 0.001). As shown in Table 2, the standardized factor loadings were large, ranging from 0.54 to 1.01. The first factor included one item, however, and retained factors should include at least three items that load 0.05 or greater (Fabrigar et al., 1999), so the first factor was removed. The second factor was comprised of six items that all relate to the construct of academic temperament. The third factor includes four items that reflect motivation. The fourth factor is composed of three items that relate to self-knowledge. The four-factor model was strong in terms of goodness-of-fit indices, though it was not possible to retain the first factor methodologically, due to the fact that it only involved one item. Therefore, given a series of analyses, the three-factor model was selected as the most appropriate.
Phase 2. First Confirmatory Factor Analysis
Complete descriptive statistics for the items are presented in Table 3. The responses for all items were dichotomous. A total of 569 (95.0%) of 599 surveys were completed and were used in the first CFA.
The three-factor measurement model provided good fit to the data (RMSEA = 0.059, CFI = 0.974, TLI = 0.984, χ2 = 104.849, df = 35, p < 0.001). Table 4 reports the standardized factor loadings, which
can be interpreted as correlation coefficients, for the three-factor model. The standardized factor loadings were statistically significant (p < 0.001) and sizeable, ranging from 0.72 to 0.94. The large standardized factor loadings support convergent validity in that each indicator was primarily related to the respective underlying latent variable. Table 5 reports the correlation coefficients among the three latent variables. The correlation coefficients were less than the standardized factor loadings, thus supporting discriminant validity.
Phase 3. Second Confirmatory Factor Analysis
Complete descriptive statistics for the items are presented in Table 3. The type of responses for all items was dichotomous. A total of 564 (95.4%) of 591 surveys had all the items complete and were used in the first CFA.
The second CFA was conducted on the three-factor measurement model to cross-validate the results from the first CFA. The three-factor model provided acceptable fit to the data in this second CFA (RMSEA = 0.055, CFI = 0.976, TLI = 0.983, χ2 = 100.032, df = 37, p < 0.001). Table 4 reports the standardized factor loadings, which can be interpreted as correlation coefficients, for the three-factor model. The standardized factor loadings were significantly large, ranging from 0.70 to 0.93. These large standardized factor loadings support convergent validity in that each indicator was largely related to the respective underlying latent variable. Table 5 reports the correlation coefficients among the three latent variables. The correlation coefficients were less than the standardized factor loadings so that discriminant validity was supported. Given these results, it appears that the three-factor model is the most reasonable solution.
The ASCA National Model (2012) for school counseling programs underscores the value of using student achievement data to guide intervention planning and evaluation. This requires schools to find ways to collect valid and reliable information that provides a clear illustration of students’ skills in areas that are known to influence academic achievement. The purpose of developing the PFI was to identify and evaluate socio-emotional factors that relate to students’ academic success and emotional health, and to use the findings to inform the efforts of school counselors. The factor analyses in this study were used to explore how teachers’ ratings of students’ behavior on the 13-item PFI scale clustered around specific constructs that research has shown are connected to achievement and underlie many school counseling interventions. Because the scoring rubrics are organized into three grade levels (kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grade), the behaviors associated with each skill are focused at an appropriate developmental level. This level of detail allows teachers to respond to questions about socio-emotional factors in ways that are consistent with behaviors that students are expected to exhibit at different ages and grade levels.
Considering parsimony and interpretability, the EFA and two CFAs both resulted in the selection of a three-factor model as the best fit for the data. Through the EFA, we compared two-, three- and four-factor models. The three-factor model showed appropriate goodness-of-fit indices, item loadings and interpretability. Additionally, the two CFAs demonstrated cross-validation of the three-factor model. In this model, the fundamental constructs associated with students’ academic behavior identified are “academic temperament,” “self-knowledge,” and “motivation.” “Self-knowledge” and “motivation” correspond to two of the four construct clusters identified by Squier et al. (2014) as critical socio-emotional dimensions related to achievement. The “academic temperament” items reflected either self-regulation skills or the ability to engage in productive relationships in school. Squier et al. (2014) differentiated between self-direction (including emotional self-regulation constructs) and relationship skills clusters.
Although not perfectly aligned, this factor structure of the PFI is consistent with the CBA model for clustering student competencies and corresponds to previous research on the links between construct-based skills and academic achievement. Teacher ratings on the PFI seemed to reflect their perceptions that self-regulation abilities and good relationship skills are closely related constructs. These results indicate that the PFI may be a useful instrument for identifying elementary students’ strengths and needs in terms of exhibiting developmentally appropriate skills that are known to influence academic achievement and personal well-being.
Utility of Results
The factor analysis conducted in this study suggests that the PFI results in meaningful data that can allow for data-based decision making and evaluation. This tool has possible implications for school counselors in their efforts to provide targeted support, addressing the academic and socio-emotional needs of elementary school students. The PFI can be completed in conjunction with the academic report card and it is minimally time-intensive for teachers. In addition to school-based applications, the socio-emotional information yielded is provided to parents along with their child’s academic report card. This has the potential to support school–home connections that could prove useful in engaging families in interventions, which is known to be beneficial. Finally, the instrument can help school counselors identify struggling students, create small, developmentally appropriate groups based on specific needs, work with teachers to address student challenges that are prevalent in their classrooms, evaluate the success of interventions, advocate for program support, and share their work with district-level administrators. The PFI could come to be used like an early warning indicator to identify students who are showing socio-emotional development issues that predispose toward disengagement and underachievement.
The PFI also may prove useful as a school counseling evaluation measure. Changes on PFI items (and perhaps on subscales related to the three underlying dimensions identified in the present study) could be used as data in the evaluation of school counseling interventions and programs. Such evaluations would be tremendously facilitated by the availability of data that is both within the domain of school counselors’ work and that is known to be strongly related to achievement.
The findings offer great promise in terms of practical implications for school personnel and parents. This analysis quite clearly illustrates “academic temperament,” “self-knowledge” and “motivation” as factors that are demonstrated to be foundational to school success. The results indicate that the teachers’ ratings of students’ behavior align with findings of existing research and, thus, that the instrument is evaluating appropriate skills and constructs.
Implications for School Counselors
The PFI was developed as a data collection tool that could be easily integrated into schools for the purpose of assessing students’ development of skills that correspond to achievement-related constructs. Obtaining information about competencies that underlie achievement is critical for school counselors, who typically lead interventions that target such skills in an effort to improve academic outcomes. Many developmental school counseling curricula address skills that fall within the domains of “academic temperament,” “self-knowledge,” and “motivation” (see: http://www.casel.org/guide/programs for a complete list of socio-emotional learning programs). Teachers can complete the PFI electronically, at the same intervals as report cards and in a similarly user-friendly format. Therefore, the PFI facilitates communication between teachers and school counselors regularly throughout the school year. Counselors can use the data to identify appropriate interventions and to monitor students’ responsiveness to school counseling curricula over time and across settings. Although not included in this analysis, school counselors could also measure correlations between PFI competencies and achievement to demonstrate how academic outcomes are impacted by school counseling interventions and curricula.
Limitations and Further Study
Despite the promising findings on these factor analyses, further research is needed to confirm these results and to address the limitations of the present study. Clearly, additional studies are needed to confirm the reliability of PFI teacher ratings and future research should explore inter-rater reliability. Further research also is needed to determine if reliable and valid PFI subscales can be created based on the three dimensions found in the present study. Test-retest reliability, construct validity and subscale inter-correlations should be conducted to determine if PFI subscales with adequate psychometric characteristics can be created. Subsequent studies should consider whether students identified by the PFI as being in need of intervention also are found by other measures to be in need of support. Another important direction for future research is to examine the relationships between teachers’ ratings of students’ socio-emotional skills on the PFI and the students’ academic performance. Establishing a strong link between the PFI and actual academic achievement is an essential step to documenting the potential utility of the index as a screening tool. As this measure was developed to enhance data collection for data-based decision making, future research should explore school counselors’ experiences with implementation as well as qualitative reporting on the utility of PFI results for informing programming.
Although the present study suggests that the PFI in its current iteration is quite useful, practically speaking, researchers may consider altering the tool in subsequent iterations. One possible revision involves changing the format from dichotomous ratings to a Likert scale, which could allow for teachers to evaluate student behavior with greater specificity and which would benefit subscale construction. Another change that could be considered is evaluating the rubrics to improve the examples of student behavior that correspond to each rating on the scale and to ensure that each relates accurately to expectations at each developmental level. Furthermore, most of the items on the current PFI examine externalizing behaviors, which poses the possibility that students who achieve at an academically average level, but who experience more internalizing behaviors (such as anxiety), might not be identified for intervention. Subsequent iterations of the PFI could include additional areas of assessment, such as rating school behavior that is indicative of internalized challenges. Finally, it will be important to evaluate school counselors’ use of the PFI to determine if it actually provides necessary information for program planning and evaluation in an efficient, cost-effective fashion as is intended.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Gwen Bass is a doctoral researcher at the Ronald H. Fredrickson Center for School Counseling Outcome Research at the University of Massachusetts. Ji Hee Lee is a doctoral student at Korea University in South Korea and Center Fellow of the Ronald H. Frederickson Center for School Counseling Outcome Research at the University of Massachusetts. Craig Wells is an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts. John C. Carey is a Professor of School Counseling and the Director of the Ronald H. Frederickson Center for School Counseling Outcome Research at the University of Massachusetts. Sangmin Lee is an Associate Professor at Korea University. Correspondence can be addressed to Gwen Bass, School of Cognitive Science, Adele Simmons Hall, Hampshire College, 893 West Street, Amherst, MA 01002, firstname.lastname@example.org.