Suicide Protective Factors: Utilizing SHORES in School Counseling

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.

Figure 1

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.

H: Hope
     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).

O: Objections
     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).

S: Support
     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.

Future Research
     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,

Examining Individual and Organizational Factors of School Counselor Burnout

Heather J. Fye, Ryan M. Cook, Eric R. Baltrinic, Andrea Baylin

Burnout is a statistically significant phenomenon for school counselors, correlated with various individual and organizational factors, which have been studied independently. Therefore, we investigated both individual and organizational factors of burnout conceptualized as a multidimensional phenomenon with 227 school counselors. Multidimensional burnout was measured by the five subscales of the Counselor Burnout Inventory, which included Exhaustion, Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life. Using hierarchal regression analyses, we found individual and organizational factors accounted for 66.6% of the variance explained in Negative Work Environment, 38.3% of the variance explained in Deterioration in Personal Life, 36.7% of the variance explained in Incompetence, 35.1% of the variance explained in Exhaustion, and 14.0% of the variance explained in Devaluing Clients. We discuss implications of the findings for school counselors and supervisors. Identifying the multidimensions of burnout and its correlates, addressing self-care and professional vitality goals, communicating defined school counselor roles, providing mentoring opportunities, and increasing advocacy skills may help alleviate burnout.

Keywords: stress, burnout, job satisfaction, coping processes, school counselors


In addition to providing counseling services, school counselors are charged with performing multiple non-counseling duties in their schools (Bardhoshi et al., 2014). These multiple and competing demands place them at risk for experiencing burnout (Mullen et al., 2018). Accordingly, it is important to identify factors that contribute to burnout to promote school counselors’ psychological well-being (Kim & Lambie, 2018), which in turn reinforces school counselors’ ability to support students’ well-being (Holman et al., 2019).

Burnout is a workplace-specific complex construct characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment, and a lack of accomplishment and effectiveness (Maslach & Leiter, 2017). Others have conceptualized counselor burnout as a multidimensional construct, featuring the interaction between the individual and work environment (Lee et al., 2007). Given the complex, multidimensional, and interactional nature of burnout, the Counselor Burnout Inventory (CBI) was developed to measure the construct with five subscales: Exhaustion, Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life (Lee et al., 2007). Specific to school counselors, Kim and Lambie (2018) suggested that burnout occurs to varying degrees across individual and organizational factors. Individual factors include perceived stress (Fye et al., 2018; Mullen et al., 2018; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016; Wilkerson, 2009; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006) and coping processes (Fye et al., 2018; Wilkerson, 2009; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). Organizational factors include perceived job satisfaction (Baggerly & Osborn, 2006; Bryant & Constantine, 2006; Mullen et al., 2018) and role stress (Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Coll & Freeman, 1997; Culbreth et al., 2005).

Researchers of school counselor burnout have studied individual and organizational factors of this phenomenon using a unidimensional structure such as the CBI scale score (Mullen et al., 2018). Other researchers (e.g., Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Moyer, 2011) studied organizational factors, including caseload and administrative (non-counseling) duties, within the multidimensional structure of the CBI (Lee et al., 2007). However, researchers have not yet comprehensively studied these known individual and organizational factors within the context of a multidimensional structure of school counselor burnout. For example, Mullen et al. (2018) investigated the relationships between perceived stress, perceived job satisfaction, and school counselor burnout. However, they did not examine organizational factors such as role stress (e.g., clerical duties), which are also significant to understanding school counselor burnout (Bardhoshi et al., 2014). Thus, we sought to extend the research findings by examining several individual factors (i.e., perceived stress, coping processes) and organizational factors (i.e., perceived job satisfaction, role stress) within a multidimensional structure of school counselor burnout.

Individual Factors

Individual factors related to school counselor burnout include psychological constructs and demographic factors (Kim & Lambie, 2018). The two psychological constructs included in the current study were perceived stress (Mullen et al., 2018) and coping processes (Fye et al., 2018). Researchers have previously found contradictory results for the relationship between years of experience and school counselor burnout (Mullen et al., 2018; Wilkerson, 2009). Therefore, the factor of years of experience was included in the current study.

Perceived Stress

Perceived stress is theorized as an individual’s ability to appraise a threatening or challenging event in relation to the availability of coping resources (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). To that end, a transactional model of stress and coping suggests that stress is a response that occurs when perceived demands exceed one’s coping abilities. For school counselors, perceived stress may occur regularly because of various factors, including non-counseling duties, excessive paperwork and administrative duties, and work overload (Bardhoshi et al., 2014).

Researchers have described a positive relationship between stress and burnout among school counselors (Mullen et al., 2018; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016). Specifically, higher levels of stress and burnout were related to lower levels of job satisfaction and delivery of direct student services (Mullen et al., 2018; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016). Others have reported increased emotional responses alongside increased burnout (Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). For example, school counselors who attempted to deal with stress emotionally may be at greater risk for developing symptoms of burnout including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lower levels of personal accomplishment (Wilkerson, 2009). Additionally, school counselors reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion than other mental health professionals, which can negatively impact their delivery of school counseling services (Bardhoshi et al., 2014). The correlation between stress and burnout further highlights the importance of assessing the components of stress and the ways school counselors are coping with these factors.

Coping Processes

Coping processes are defined as the cognitive and behavioral processes used to manage stressful situations (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004). There are several coping processes, including problem-focused coping, active-emotional coping, and avoidant-emotional coping (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985). For example, problem-focused coping is defined as an action-oriented approach to stress in which one believes the stressors are controllable by personal action (Lazarus, 1993). Active-emotional coping is an adaptive response to unmanageable stressors and avoidant-emotional coping is described as a maladaptive response to those stressors (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985).

Among school counselors, Fye et al. (2018) studied the relationship between perfectionism, burnout, stress, and coping. These authors found that maladaptive perfectionists engaged more frequently in avoidant-emotional coping and relatedly experienced higher levels of burnout. Moreover, adaptive perfectionists experienced less stress and burnout and reported higher levels of problem-focused coping. Overall, for school counseling professionals, emotional-focused coping is positively related to burnout (Wilkerson, 2009). Given these findings, it is imperative for school counselors to be aware of their coping processes, including the degree to which they are affecting their levels of stress and burnout (Wilkerson, 2009).

Organizational Factors

In addition to individual factors such as stress and coping (Fye et al., 2018; Mullen et al., 2018; Wilkerson, 2009), school counseling researchers noted several organizational factors as contributing to school counselor burnout (Holman et al., 2019; Kim & Lambie, 2018). Accordingly, researchers in the current study examined organizational factors, including perceived job satisfaction and role stress (i.e., role ambiguity, role incongruity, and role conflict; Culbreth et al., 2005). Additionally, because previous researchers found a relationship between the organizational factor of school district (e.g., urban setting) and burnout (Butler & Constantine, 2005), this variable was included in the present study.

Perceived Job Satisfaction

Perceived job satisfaction refers to the degree of affective or attitudinal reactions one experiences relative to their job (Spector, 1985). Understanding the extent of school counselors’ perceived job satisfaction may be one way to buffer the effects of stress and burnout. This is because, according to Bryant and Constantine (2006), job satisfaction predicted life satisfaction for school counselors.

Perceived job satisfaction and its relationship with stress and burnout have received increased attention in the school counseling literature (Mullen et al., 2018). Among the contributing factors, higher levels of role balance and increased perceived job satisfaction resulted in greater overall life satisfaction (Bryant & Constantine, 2006). Higher perceived job satisfaction has been aligned with school counselors engaging in appropriate roles. For example, Baggerly and Osborn (2006) found that school counselors who frequently performed roles aligned with comprehensive school counseling programs were more satisfied and more committed to their careers. Similarly, higher perceived job satisfaction was directly related to the school counselor’s ability to provide direct student services within their schools (Kolodinsky et al., 2009). Conversely, school counselors who did not intend to return to their jobs the following year reported higher levels of demand and stress because of non-counseling duties, such as excessive paperwork and administrative disruptions (McCarthy et al., 2010). As a result, those who are not satisfied are at risk for disengagement (Mullen et al., 2018), while school counselors who are satisfied with their jobs may have increased student connections (Kolodinsky et al., 2009).

Role Stress

    Role stress refers to the levels of role incongruity, role conflict, and role ambiguity experienced by school counselors (Culbreth et al., 2005; Freeman & Coll, 1997). Role incongruity may occur when there are structural conflicts, including inadequate resources for school counselors and engagement in ineffective tasks (Freeman & Coll, 1997). Several authors noted that inappropriate or non-counseling duties contributed to burnout, including excessive paperwork, administrative duties, and testing coordinator roles (Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Moyer, 2011, Wilkerson, 2009). Moyer (2011) found that school counselors who engaged in increased non-counseling duties also had increased feelings of exhaustion and incompetence, had decreased feelings toward work environment, and were less likely to show empathy toward students. Furthermore, school counselors who were assigned inappropriate roles reported higher levels of frustration and resentment toward the school system. Overall, authors emphasized the importance of educating administrators on the appropriate and inappropriate roles for school counselors to decrease burnout (Bardhoshi et al, 2014; Cervoni & DeLucia-Waack, 2011; Moyer, 2011).

Role conflict occurs when school counselors experience multiple external demands from different stakeholders (Holman et al., 2019). Role conflict examples for school counselors include: (a) whether school counselors should focus on the education goals or mental health needs of students first (Paisley & McMahon, 2001) and (b) whether a school counselor should engage in an actual role given by an administration or supervisor (e.g., testing coordinator) or preferred role (e.g., classroom guidance activity; Wilkerson, 2009). As such, school counselors can feel overwhelmed and often engage in inappropriate duties, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model (2019). In turn, school counselors experience stress and burnout (Mullen et al., 2018).

Role ambiguity is the discrepancy between actual and preferred counseling duties (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Role ambiguity has been linked to burnout because of school counselors’ stress from lacking an understanding of their professional roles and being misinformed about the realities of the job (Culbreth et al., 2005). For example, school counselors face challenges of navigating mixed messages about role expectations across stakeholders (Coll & Freeman, 1997). This confusion may lead to school counselors experiencing role ambiguity (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). When school counselors interact with stakeholders who have conflicting ideas about their roles, it creates stress. It is especially difficult for school counselors when stakeholders’ conceptualization of their roles clashes with what school counselors learned during graduate training (Culbreth et al., 2005). When school counselors are assigned duties that conflict with their own understandings of their roles, they are not able to operate in alignment with their professional mandates (Holman et al., 2019). Overall, school counselors experiencing role ambiguity also report higher levels of stress, both of which have been linked to burnout (Kim & Lambie, 2018).

Purpose of the Present Study
Despite prevalence in the school counseling burnout literature regarding individual and organizational factors of burnout, we were unable to locate a study that holistically researched these variables. To align our findings with a theoretical understanding of school counselor burnout, we examined these phenomena as a multidimensional construct. Additionally, we controlled for years of experience (Mullen et al., 2018; Wilkerson, 2009; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006) and school district (Butler & Constantine, 2005). Therefore, we answered the research question: What is the relationship between individual (i.e., perceived job stress, problem-focused coping, avoidant-emotional coping, and active-emotional coping) and organizational (i.e., perceived job satisfaction, role incongruity, role conflict, and role ambiguity) factors after controlling for years of experience and school district, with the subscales of school counselor burnout: (1) Exhaustion, (2) Incompetence, (3) Negative Work Environment, (4) Devaluing Clients, and (5) Deterioration in Personal Life?



A total of 227 school counselors participated in the study. Ages ranged from 26 to 69 (M = 46.21; SD = 10.26; four declined to answer). The sex of participants included females (n = 166, 73.1%) and males (n = 61, 26.9%). The race and ethnicity of participants included White (n = 185, 81.5%), African American/Black (n = 20, 8.8%), Hispanic (n = 7, 3.1%), Asian/Pacific Islander (n = 3, 1.3%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (n = 1, 0.4%), and Biracial/Multiracial (n = 9, 4.0%), and two participants (0.9%) declined to answer. Participants held a master’s degree in school counseling (n = 175, 77.1%), a PhD or EdD (n = 33, 14.5%), or a master’s degree in another counseling or mental health specialty area (n = 19, 8.4%). The years of experience ranged from 2 to 41 years (M = 13.68, SD = 7.49). Participants reported working in suburban (n = 97, 42.7%), rural (n = 76, 33.5%), and urban (n = 54, 23.8%) settings. Regarding level of practice, participants worked in an elementary school (i.e., grades K–6; n = 80, 35.2%), middle school (i.e., grades 7–8; n = 14, 6.2%), high school (i.e., grades 9–12; n = 59, 26.0%), or multiple grade levels (e.g., K–8, K–12, etc.; n = 74, 32.6%). A power analysis was completed in G*Power 3.1 before beginning the study (Faul et al., 2009). The necessary sample size was determined to be at least 200, with a power of .80, assuming a moderate effect size of .15 in the multiple regression analyses, and with an error probability or alpha of .05 (J. Cohen, 1992).


Institutional Review Board approval was obtained prior to beginning the study. The first author sent recruitment emails to 4,000 school counselors who were professional members of the ASCA online membership directory. Specifically, approximately 20% of school counselors in each of the 50 states and District of Columbia were chosen from the membership directory to receive the recruitment emails. The emails included a brief introduction to the study and an anonymous link that took potential participants to the online survey portal in Qualtrics. Potential participants first reviewed the informed consent. Once they consented to the survey, participants completed the demographics questionnaire and instruments. A convenience sample was obtained based upon voluntary responses to the survey (Dimitrov, 2009).


The first author constructed a brief demographics survey to gather information about the participants (e.g., age, sex, race and ethnicity, degree, and years of experience) and their work environment (e.g., school district, grade level). The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; S. Cohen et al., 1983) and Brief COPE (Carver, 1997) were used to measure individual factors. The Job Satisfaction Survey (JSS; Spector, 1985) and Role Questionnaire (RQ; Rizzo et al., 1970) were used to measure organizational factors. The CBI (Lee et al., 2007) was used to measure the dimensions of school counselor burnout.

Perceived Stress Scale (PSS)

The PSS (S. Cohen et al., 1983) is a 14-item inventory designed to measure an individual’s perceived stress within the past month. In the present study, we used the PSS-4, which is a subset of items from the original 14-item scale. The PSS was normed on a large sample of individuals from across the United States (S. Cohen et al., 1983). Participants responded to a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 0 (never) to 4 (very often). Scores on the PSS-4 ranged from 0 to 20. An example question of the PSS-4 is: “In the past month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?” The PSS-4 was determined to be a suitable brief measure of stress perceptions, based upon adequate factor structure and predictive validity (S. Cohen & Williamson, 1988). Reliability has been upheld (e.g., S. Cohen & Williamson, 1988) with test-retest reliability at .85 after 2 days (S. Cohen et al., 1983). For the present study, the internal consistency reliability was calculated at α = .76. Correlations between the perceived stress total score and CBI subscales ranged from r = .19 to .55.

Brief COPE

The Brief COPE (Carver, 1997) is a 28-item inventory designed to measure coping responses or processes and includes 14 subscales. We followed previous researchers’ (e.g., Deatherage et al., 2014) grouping of the 14 subscales into three coping processes (i.e., problem-focused, active-emotional, and avoidant-emotional). Therefore, problem-focused coping contained the Active Coping, Planning, Instrumental Support, and Religion subscales. Active-emotional coping contained the Venting, Positive Reframing, Humor, Acceptance, and Emotional Support subscales. Avoidant-emotional coping contained the Self-Distraction, Denial, Behavioral Disengagement, and Self-Blame subscales. For the present study, the items pertaining to participants’ alcohol and illegal drug use as coping responses were omitted because of their sensitive nature. Therefore, 26 items were included in the present study. The inventory uses a 4-point Likert-type scale with scores ranging from 0 (I haven’t been doing this at all) to 3 (I’ve been doing this a lot). A sample item on the Brief COPE is “I’ve been turning to work or other activities to take my mind off things.” Construct validity has been upheld with the three coping processes (e.g., Deatherage et al., 2014). Test-retest reliability for the three subscale groups has been upheld over a year timespan (Cooper et al., 2008). For the present study, the internal consistency reliability was calculated for problem-focused coping at α = .84, avoidant-emotional coping at α = .70, and active-emotional coping at α = .81. Correlations between problem-focused coping and the CBI subscales ranged from r = .00 to .13, correlations between avoidant-emotional coping and CBI subscales ranged from r = .20 to .48, and correlations between active-emotional coping and CBI subscales ranged from r = .01 to .16.

Job Satisfaction Survey (JSS)

The JSS (Spector, 1985) is a 36-item inventory intended to measure an individual’s perceived job satisfaction or attitudes and aspects of the job. The JSS contains nine subscales: Pay, Promotion, Supervision, Fringe Benefits, Contingent Rewards, Operating Procedures, Coworkers, Nature of Work, and Communication. The inventory uses a 6-point Likert-type scale with scores ranging from 1 (disagree very much) to 6 (agree very much). Total scores range from 36 to 216 with the higher the score, the higher job satisfaction experienced. An example item on the JSS is “My job is enjoyable” (Spector, 1985, p. 711). The JSS was constructed for, and normed on, social service, education, and mental health professionals (Spector, 1985, 2011). Spector (1985) established convergent validity with the Job Descriptive Index (Smith et al., 1969), and produced scores ranging from .61 to .80. Strong reliability has been established for the JSS, including a Cronbach coefficient alpha of .91 for all factors combined, and at 18 months, the test-retest reliability score was .71 (Spector, 1985). For the present study, the internal consistency reliability was calculated for the total scores at α = .91. Correlations between the perceived job satisfaction total score and CBI subscales ranged from r = -.13 to -.75.

Role Questionnaire (RQ)

The RQ (Rizzo et al., 1970) is a 14-item inventory designed to measure the level of role conflict and role ambiguity an individual has about a job. The RQ has been factor analyzed with school counselors (Freeman & Coll, 1997) and found to have three distinct factors (i.e., role incongruity, role conflict, and role ambiguity). The inventory uses a 7-point Likert-type scale with scores ranging from 1 (very false) to 7 (very true). Role incongruity refers to conflicts with the structure of the system and allocation of resources (Freeman & Coll, 1997). The role incongruity factor comprises items 1–4. Total scores range from 8 to 32, with the higher the score, the higher role incongruity experienced. A sample item for role incongruity is “I receive an assignment without adequate resources and materials to execute it.” Role conflict refers to the contradictory requests of work expectations with varying groups (Freeman & Coll, 1997). The role conflict factor comprises items 5–8. The higher the score, the higher role conflict experienced, which can range from 8 to 32. A sample item for role conflict is “I receive incompatible requests from two or more people.” The role ambiguity factor, which measures a lack of clarity on the job, is negatively worded; therefore, the lower the score, the higher the role ambiguity experienced. The role ambiguity factor comprises items 9–14, and total scores range from 6 to 42. A sample item for role ambiguity is “Explanation is clear of what has to be done.” Construct validity for the three factors with school counselors was established by Freeman and Coll (1997). Reliability of the three factors have been upheld for school counselor participants (Culbreth et al., 2005; Wilkerson, 2009; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). For the present study, the internal consistency reliability was calculated for role incongruity at α = .82, role conflict at α = .79, and role ambiguity at α = .90. Correlations between role incongruity and CBI subscales ranged from r = .14 to .65, correlations between role conflict and CBI subscales ranged from r = .14 to .53, and correlations between role ambiguity and CBI subscales ranged from r = -.22 to -.56.

Counselor Burnout Inventory (CBI)

The CBI (Lee et al., 2007) is a 20-item inventory designed to measure counselors’ burnout levels. The CBI includes five subscales, with four questions for each subscale: Exhaustion, Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life. The CBI uses a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (never true) to 5 (always true). Total scores on each subscale range from 5 to 20, with the higher the score, the higher level of burnout. A sample item from the Exhaustion subscale is “Due to my job as a counselor, I feel tired most of the time.” A sample item from the Incompetence subscale is “I am not confident in my counseling skills.” A sample item from the Negative Work Environment subscale is “I am treated unfairly in my workplace.” A sample item from the Devaluing Clients subscale is “I am not interested in my clients and their problems.” A sample item from the Deterioration in Personal Life subscale is “I feel I have poor boundaries between work and my personal life.” Two independent samples composed of counselors from a variety of settings across the United States were used to explore and confirm the factor structure (Lee et al., 2007). Gnilka et al. (2015) upheld the CBI five-factor structure with a confirmatory factor analysis in a sample of school counselors. Cronbach’s alpha for the total CBI was .88, with scores ranging from .73 to .85 for the subscales (Lee et al., 2007). For the present study, internal consistency reliability for the CBI subscales were calculated and ranged from α = .78 to .89.


Prior to conducting the primary analyses, we used SPSS (Version 25.0) to clean the data, impute missing data values, and test the assumptions of the primary analyses (i.e., hierarchal regressions), as recommended by Tabachnick and Fidell (2013). We used expectation-maximization (EM) to impute missing data (Cook, 2020), after we tested the randomness of the missing values with Little’s missing completely at random (MCAR). All missing values were determined to be MCAR, except for the active-emotional coping of the Brief COPE and the JSS: χ2(40, N = 227) = 79.13, p = .000, and χ2(671, N = 227) = 836.57, p = .000, respectively. Because the missing values for the active-emotional coping and JSS were less than 1%, expectation-maximization was an appropriate imputation method (Cook, 2020). Less than 5% of values were imputed for the PSS-4, the factors of the RQ (role ambiguity, role incongruity, and role conflict), and the five subscales of the CBI (Exhaustion, Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life), and less than 1% of the values were imputed for the problem-focused and avoidant-emotional processes of the Brief COPE.

To answer the research question, we used three-step hierarchical regression models to analyze the individual and cumulative contributions for demographic, individual, and organizational factors with each subscale of the CBI. Qualities of the instruments are provided in Table 1. In Step 1, we entered the demographic factors (i.e., years of experience and school district). In Step 2, we entered the individual factors (i.e., perceived stress, problem-focused coping, avoidant-emotional coping, and active-emotional coping). In Step 3, we entered the organizational factors (i.e., perceived job satisfaction, role incongruity, role conflict, and role ambiguity). Completed assumption checks showed no outliers or influential data points, as concluded by an examination of the Q-Q plots, histograms, scatterplots, and Mahalanobis distance. We checked multicollinearity and found it to be an issue for school district (tolerance < .01). Therefore, we removed the school district variable and reentered years of experience in Step 1. To control for Type I error, we used the Bonferroni method to adjust the family-wise alpha (Darlington & Hayes, 2017), which resulted in .01 as the cutoff for statistical significance for Step 2 (i.e., individual factors) and .0056 as the cutoff for statistical significance for Step 3 (i.e., organizational factors). Results for each of these models are presented in Table 2.


Table 1

Qualities of Instrumentation

Instrumentation  Scores      M    SD   α
Perceived Stress Scale-4 Total Score


Problem-Focused Coping


Avoidant-Emotional Coping


Active-Emotional Coping


Job Satisfaction Scale Total Score


Role Ambiguity


Role Incongruity


Role Conflict






Negative Work Environment


Devaluing Client


Deterioration in Personal Life






































































































Table 2

Results of Hierarchal Regression Analyses of School Counselor Burnout

Exhaustion Incompetence Negative Work Environment Devaluing Clients Deterioration in Personal Life
Step 1
Years of Experience    -.038        -.233*        -.072      -.190*         -.047
R2     .001         .054         .005       .036          .002
F     .323     12.89**       1.17     8.46*          .500
Step 2  
Years of Experience     .030       -.151**       -.042      -.155          .001
Perceived Stress     .392**         .184         .283**       .093          .491**
Avoidant-Emotional Coping     .160         .360**         .025       .180          .103
Active-Emotional Coping     .030         .087         .026       .131          .151
Problem-Focused Coping    -.043        -.151         .081      -.229**         -.105
R2     .240         .284         .109       .116          .323
Δ R2     .239         .229         .104       .080          .321
ΔF 17.34**     17.69**       6.43**     4.98**      26.24**
Step 3
Years of Experience     .056        -.097         .052      -.125          .025
Perceived Stress     .303         .150         .057       .070          .437
Avoidant-Emotional Coping     .170         .338         .025       .165          .077
Active-Emotional Coping     .034         .126         .050       .151          .155
Problem-Focused Coping    -.064        -.180         .042      -.243         -.127
Perceived Job Satisfaction    -.198         .080        -.489       .032          .029
Role Ambiguity     .014        -.276        -.122      -.147         -.029
Role Incongruity     .207         .190         .220       .069          .172
Role Conflict   -.014        -.096         .106      -.018          .188
R2     .351         .367         .666       .140          .383
Δ R2     .111         .092         .652       .024          .060
ΔF   9.29**       8.03**     90.43**     1.51        5.26**
Note. N = 227
* p < .05. ** p < .01. p < .0056.



The hierarchical regression model for Exhaustion revealed that years of experience was not statistically significant: F(1, 225) = .323, p > .05. Introducing individual factors explained 23.9% of the variation in Exhaustion, and this change in R2 was significant: F(5, 221) = 13.96, p < .001. The inclusion of organizational factors explained an additional 11.1% of the variation in Exhaustion, and this change in R2 was significant: F(9, 217) = 13.05, p < .001. However, the β values revealed that the only statistically significant factor of Exhaustion was perceived stress (β = .303, p < .001). Together the independent variables accounted for 35.1% of the variance in Exhaustion.


For Incompetence, years of experience explained 5.4% of its variation and was significant: F(1, 225) = 12.89, p < .001. Adding individual factors explained an additional 22.9% of the variation in Incompetence, and this change in R2 was significant: F(5, 221) = 17.50, p < .001. Including organizational factors explained an additional 9.2% of the variation in Incompetence, and this change in R2 was significant: F(9, 217) = 14.53, p < .001. The statistically significant factors of Incompetence were avoidant-emotional coping (β = .338, p < .001) and role ambiguity (β = -.276, p < .001). Together the independent variables accounted for 36.7% of the variance in Incompetence.

Negative Work Environment

      For Negative Work Environment, years of experience was not statistically significant: F(1,225) = 1.17, p > .05, R2 = .005. Adding individual factors explained 10.9% of the variation in Negative Work Environment, and this change in R2 was significant: F(5, 221) = 5.40, p < .001. Including organizational factors explained an additional 65.2% of the variation in Negative Work Environment, and this change in R2 was significant: F(9, 217) = 48.05, p < .001. In the final model, perceived job satisfaction (β = -.489, p = .000) and role incongruity (β = .220, p = .000) significantly explained Negative Work Environment. Together the independent variables accounted for 66.6% of the variance in Negative Work Environment.

Devaluing Clients

For Devaluing Clients, years of experience contributed significantly to the model and accounted for 3.6% of its variation: F(1, 225) = 8.46, p < .05. Including individual factors explained an additional 8.0% of the variation in Devaluing Clients, and this change in R2 was significant: F(5, 221) = 5.80, p < .01. Adding the organizational factors in the third step was significant: F(9, 217) = 3.92, p < .001, R2 = .140. However, the inclusion of the organizational variables did not explain a significantly different equation: ΔF(4, 217) = 1.51, p > .05, ΔR2 = .024. Therefore, we interpreted the β values of the second step, and the statistically significant factor of Devaluing Clients was problem-focused coping (β = -.229, p = .009).

Deterioration in Personal Life

Finally, for Deterioration in Personal Life, years of experience was not significant: F(1, 225) = .500,
p > .05, R2 = .002. Including individual factors explained 32.1% of the variation in Deterioration in Personal Life, and the change in R2 was significant: F(5, 221) = 21.14, p < .001. Including the organizational factors explained an additional 6.0% of the variation in Deterioration in Personal Life, and this change in R2 was significant: F(9, 217) = 14.98, p < .001. An examination of the β values revealed that only perceived stress was a statistically significant variable for Deterioration in Personal Life (β = .437, p = .000). Together the independent variables accounted for 38.3% of the variance in Deterioration in Personal Life.


The present study illustrates an expanded understanding of individual and organizational factors associated with the subscales of school counselor burnout (i.e., Exhaustion, Incompetence, Negative Work Environment, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life; Lee et al., 2007). We intended to control for years of experience but found that before adding the individual and organizational factors, it was a statistically significant variable and negatively related with Incompetence and Devaluing Clients. School counselor researchers have reported contradictory findings between years of experience and burnout. Similar to our findings, Wilkerson and Bellini (2006) and Mullen et al. (2018) reported a negative relationship between years of experience and burnout—essentially describing that those earlier in their careers have a higher risk of experiencing burnout. In contrast, Butler and Constantine (2005) and Wilkerson (2009) reported burnout happening over time (i.e., a positive relationship between years of experience and burnout). Our study underscores the vulnerability school counselors may experience earlier in their careers (Mullen et al., 2018). Our results also provide a unique finding in that fewer years of experience as a school counselor is associated with the burnout dimensions of Incompetence and Devaluing Clients.

In the present study, we found individual factors (i.e., perceived stress, problem-focused coping, and avoidant-emotional coping) significantly related to Exhaustion, Incompetence, Devaluing Clients, and Deterioration in Personal Life. School counselor scholars (e.g., Mullen et al., 2018; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016) reported a statistically significant positive relationship between school counselors’ perceived stress and burnout. Our results provide unique findings in that stress was positively related with the Exhaustion and Deterioration in Personal Life dimensions of burnout. Other school counselor scholars (e.g., Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Moyer, 2011) found the stress-related variable of engagement in non-counseling duties was significantly related to Exhaustion and Deterioration in Personal Life.

For the coping processes, avoidant-emotional coping was positively related to Incompetence and problem-focused coping was negatively related to Devaluing Clients. These findings provide two distinct understandings of school counselor burnout. First, and notably, school counselor participants who were experiencing Incompetence were also engaging in increased avoidant-emotional coping. This finding is similar to those of Fye et al. (2018), who found maladaptive perfectionists were more frequently engaging in avoidant-coping processes. We did not research perfectionism in the present study; however, our findings may expand an understanding of a positive relationship between avoidant-emotional coping and burnout dimensions for school counselors regardless of perfectionism types. Second, we discovered school counselor participants’ problem-focused coping was negatively related to Devaluing Clients. This is a promising finding from our study because participants were likely to incorporate increased problem-focused coping alongside valuing students. As previously discussed, it appears that these school counselor participants were maintaining high levels of positive regard and empathy for students (Gnilka et al., 2015; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016). Engaging in problem-focused coping may be beneficial to their engagement in student care and maintaining professional vitality.

The organizational factors of role ambiguity, role incongruity, and perceived job satisfaction were significantly related to the Incompetence and Negative Work Environment dimensions of burnout. Specifically, role ambiguity was positively related to Incompetence. Our results confirm that when school counselors’ roles are increasingly unclear, they are experiencing higher levels of burnout (Mullen et al., 2018), and specifically Incompetence. Perceived job satisfaction was negatively related to Negative Work Environment, while role incongruity was positively related to Negative Work Environment. Consistent with previous research, our findings support the significant relationships between organizational factors (i.e., administrative and clerical duties contributing to role stress) and Negative Work Environment (Bardhoshi et al., 2014). Other scholars have studied perceived job satisfaction as an outcome and potential preclusion to school counselor burnout (Baggerly & Osborn, 2006; Bryant & Constantine, 2006). School counseling scholars have found that burnout mediated the relationship between perceived stress and perceived job satisfaction (Mullen et al., 2018). In the present study, the perceived job satisfaction factor had the highest β at -.489. It appears that perceived job satisfaction is an important factor alongside school counselors’ specific experiences of Negative Work Environments. Perceived stress was a statistically significant factor in Step 2 with Negative Work Environment, but insignificant in the context of the organizational variables. This is an important finding because burnout, by definition, is a function of one’s work context (Lee et al., 2007; Maslach & Leiter, 2017), and we found that organizational factors explained a large amount of the variance (i.e., 65.2%) for the Negative Work Environment dimension of burnout. Overall, our findings support the complex and multidimensional nature of school counselor burnout.

Limitations and Future Research

     We attempted to research multidimensional burnout with a nationally representative and diverse sample of ASCA member school counselors. Despite our efforts, the response rate was 5.68%. The majority of our participants identified as White and female, which is similar to the reported demographics of professional school counselor members (ASCA, 2018). However, caution may be warranted when generalizing our findings to all school counselors. Expanding research efforts (i.e., qualitative methods) to increase understanding of the burnout experiences of school counselors unrepresented by our participant sample is warranted. Last, it is unknown whether or not participants answered sensitive questions, such as those about burnout, in a socially desirable manner.

Future research should seek to understand additional individual and organizational variables related to the burnout dimensions for school counselors (Lee et al., 2007). For example, the Devaluing Clients dimension has been viewed by school counseling scholars as a complicated construct that has functioned differently from the other dimensions of burnout (Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Mullen & Gutierrez, 2016). Additional research is needed to understand this burnout dimension with school counselors. Kim and Lambie (2018) discussed the need for research to focus on burnout interventions. We concur and believe the distinction of individual and organizational factors within the dimensions of school counselor burnout should be considered when constructing these interventions, which may be important because burnout may not be an end state; instead, it may be a mediator of other important outcomes, such as work and health (Maslach & Leiter, 2017). It may be helpful to expand research that studies relationships between school counselor burnout and physical and mental health outcomes.       

Implications for the School Counseling Profession

Our findings have implications for school counselors, school counselors-in-training, and counselor educators and supervisors. They illustrate the importance of conceptualizing the ecological relationship between individual and organizational factors with school counselor burnout. School counselors may have more control over individual factors, and supervisors may have more control over organizational factors. Despite these considerations, it is important to share the responsibility of burnout prevention within the school system. This is important because despite one’s efforts to increase helpful coping, self-care, or wellness practices, it appears that continued exposure to negative work environments will continue to place school counselors at risk for burnout.

Because school counselors are responsible for providing counseling services that align with professional and ethical standards (Kim & Lambie, 2018), it is imperative for them to recognize, monitor, and address their symptoms of burnout (ASCA, 2016). Therefore, it may be helpful for school counselors and supervisors to identify and understand the dimensions of burnout experienced and their relationships with individual and organizational factors. By using the instruments from this study, school counselors can identify contributions of individual and organizational factors with their burnout scores. This would allow supervisees to understand the relationships between these factors and burnout dimensions. During supervision, time could be dedicated to setting personal goals for maintaining self-care and professional vitality. This may be important, especially in identifying and decreasing avoidant-emotional coping, alongside increasing problem-focused coping processes. In general, school counselors should monitor their own self-care in relation to work context stressors and perceived job satisfaction. Our results may provide support to the potential limitations that wellness practices have on decreasing burnout within the Negative Work Environment (Puig et al., 2012)—meaning, wellness practices may be important in alleviating the individual factors related to burnout (i.e., high perceived stress, coping responses) but may have limited ability to decrease factors out of school counselors’ control (i.e., work context practices and policies).

Despite best practice guidelines, the reality remains that school counselors engage in various non-counseling duties (Bardhoshi et al., 2014; Gutierrez & Mullen, 2016), which contributes to role stress. To lessen organizational stressors, as early as graduate school, counselor educators and supervisors should allow space in the learning process for students to learn the various counseling and related duties expected of school counselors within the school environment. Providing learning contexts for graduate students to explore these various roles may set the stage for lessened role stress. Specifically, assignments should be included in the curriculum that allow graduate students to explore school counselors’ professional identity and the real and ideal roles of the school counselor. These discussions should be engaged in along with conversations of how these varying roles can affect burnout (specifically role incongruity and role ambiguity), especially for those earlier in their careers. These dialogues should be reinforced during the practicum and internship experiences and include personal sources of perceived job satisfaction. In schools, supervisors can help to facilitate school counselors’ competence by clearly defining expectations through measurable outcomes. For example, school counselors and supervisors can use the ASCA National Model’s (ASCA, 2019) Annual Administrative Conference Template (p. 60) and Annual Calendar Template (p. 70) to open communication between the school counselors and their supervisors and document their duties. This discussion may additionally open communication regarding the adequacy of funding, resources, materials, and staff available to school counselors (Freeman & Coll, 1997). If inadequate, school counselors may use the opportunity to advocate for increased support from supervisors and administrators.

It is important to note that in the present study, school counselors earlier in their careers reported higher levels of Incompetence and Devaluing Clients. School counselor supervisors should understand these relationships. Mentoring of school counselors who are earlier in their careers by those with significant experience may help the younger professionals build their professional identities and student-focused work. Last, recognizing dimensions of burnout in relation to individual and organizational factors may not be enough to maintain professional vitality. The school counseling profession may find it helpful to train school counselors and graduate students in advocacy skills. Trusty and Brown (2005) outlined advocacy competencies for school counselors, which include dispositional statements, knowledge, and skills necessary to becoming effective advocates. The self-advocacy model prepares school counselors to have the communication (oral and written) necessary to maintain effective advocacy roles.


In conclusion, our results provide an expansion of findings related to relative contributions for individual and organizational factors with school counselor multidimensional burnout. In short, burnout dimensions are uniquely related to personal and work context factors. It is difficult to conceive of burnout absent its relationship to some aspect of the work setting. School counselors and supervisors can use our results to conceptualize burnout from a multidimensional perspective, which may in turn help them find new ways to remain professionally vital to themselves, their students, and their school community.


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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Heather J. Fye, PhD, NCC, LPC, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a certified PK–12 school counselor. Ryan M. Cook, ACS, LPC, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Eric R. Baltrinic, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Andrea Baylin, NCC, PEL, is a doctoral student at the University of Alabama. Correspondence may be addressed to Heather Fye, Box 870231, Graves Hall 315B, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487,

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Considerations for Professional School Counselors

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

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 (, 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.


Complementary Resources

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 ( 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 (, 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; 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 ( 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 (; (; National Institute of Corrections (; and The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (



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,


A Child Abuse Reporting Framework for Early Career School Counselors

Malti Tuttle, Lacey Ricks, Margie Taylor

School counselors experience various emotions, such as anxiety, when in the role of mandated reporter of child abuse. This manuscript addresses how early career school counselors might experience distress because of the lack of established child abuse reporting procedures, fear of repercussions for the school counselor or student, and limited training in identifying types of abuse. Based on the previous literature, the authors discuss the imperative role early career school counselors have as mandated reporters and provide a framework to assist in the child abuse reporting process. The framework, specifically designed for school counselors, is collaborative in nature and emphasizes maintaining ethical and legal standards, obtaining continual professional development, and following best practices for mandated child abuse reporting.

Keywords: child abuse, mandated reporter, early career, school counselors, framework

School counselors often experience anxiousness regarding child abuse reporting (Lambie, 2005; Sikes, 2008). Early career school counselors in particular can experience this because of the lack of established reporting procedures (Lambie, 2005), fear of repercussions for the school counselor or student (Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Kenny, 2001), and limited training on identifying types of abuse (Alvarez, Kenny, Donohue, & Carpin, 2004; Kenny, 2001). Because of these factors, early career school counselors seek and request support to assist them with the child abuse reporting process and clarification on these procedures (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Ricks, Tuttle, Land, & Chibbaro, 2019). Therefore, we propose a child abuse reporting framework designed to assist early career school counselors, who are ethically and legally mandated to report child abuse, in the child abuse reporting process (American School Counselor Association, 2016; Sikes, Remley, & Hays, 2010). This manuscript is different from previous literature (e.g., Alvarez et al., 2004; Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Kenny, 2001; Lambie, 2005; Sikes, 2008) because it focuses specifically on the concerns and needs of early career school counselors, as well as expands on previous literature. For the purpose of this article, child abuse and neglect are defined by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act Reauthorization Act of 2010 (2010) as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (p. 6).

Child maltreatment can have lasting harmful effects on victims. Maltreatment includes “medical neglect, neglect or deprivation of necessities, physical abuse, psychological or emotional maltreatment, sexual abuse, and other forms included in state law” (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services [USDHHS], Administration for Children, Youth and Families, & Children’s Bureau, 2019, p. 108). Minimum standards for what constitutes child abuse are defined by federal law and further stipulated under state law (ASCA, 2015; Stone, 2013). Laws and definitions of child abuse can vary across each state, and ASCA (2019b) provides information on Child Protective Services (CPS), laws, and statutes for different states. Furthermore, ASCA’s (2015) position statement, The School Counselor and Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, states: “It is the school counselor’s legal, ethical and moral responsibility to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities” (p. 7).

Mandated reporting is among the many responsibilities school counselors perform within the school setting. School counselors are required by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974 to report suspected cases of child abuse to the appropriate authorities. School counselors need to become familiar with federal guidelines, their state laws, and school policies regarding child abuse and mandated reporting laws and procedures. ASCA (2016) speaks to the role of the school counselor in child abuse reporting by stating that school counselors are ethically and legally responsible for reporting suspected cases of child abuse to appropriate agencies. These agencies include, but are not limited to, CPS, law enforcement agencies, attorneys, social workers, and case managers assigned to open cases (Bryant, 2009; Hinkelman & Bruno, 2008).

It is essential for school counselors to have knowledge and an understanding of the ethical standards and legal statutes that apply to child abuse reporting (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2011). Two sections from the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016) specifically address child abuse reporting. The “Serious and Foreseeable Harm to Self and Others” (A.9.) section speaks to ensuring the welfare and safety of students by making appropriate reports to CPS, parents and guardians, and agencies and authorities regarding the abuse. The “Bullying, Harassment and Child Abuse” section (A.11.) highlights the ethical mandates school counselors must follow when reporting suspected child abuse (ASCA, 2016).

Froeschle and Crews (2010) echoed the vital role ethics and legalities play as well as the challenges presented in working with students. Because school counselors serve as an integral part of protecting the health and well-being of children by performing in the role of responsible mandated reporters, it is imperative that school counselors recognize the importance of maintaining student welfare when making decisions pertaining to suspected child abuse. Research regarding school counselors’ ethical and legal competency is limited; however, it has been noted that knowledge of ethical and legal parameters around child abuse reporting has increased in coursework and trainings (Lambie, Ieva, & Mullen, 2013). This necessitates the call for school counselors to have additional knowledge and training in detecting signs and symptoms of abuse and a general understanding of how to report child abuse.

Although the ethical and legal responsibilities of school counselors in the role of reporting child abuse and maltreatment has been recognized (Kenny & Abreu, 2016), counselors might not have received adequate training in identifying and reporting child abuse. Therefore, the authors of this article further recognized the dutiful call to provide a framework for early career school counselors to assist with the process of reporting child abuse. The purpose of this manuscript is to develop an effective mandated reporting framework for school counselors. The development of the framework within this manuscript was guided by the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016), recommendations by early career school counselors (Ricks et al., 2019), previous literature and research studies (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Lambie, 2005; Sikes, 2008), and current mandated reporter procedures (Hogelin, 2013). However, it is imperative to acknowledge that within any such framework, state and school policy must be followed and considered.


Child Abuse Trends

Mandated reporting is increasingly needed because of the extent of child abuse and neglect in the United States. In 2015, CPS agencies received approximately 4.1 million referrals for potential child abuse or neglect, which involved roughly 7.5 million children (USDHSS et al., 2019). Gullatt (1999) published a manuscript that reported the number of abused children to be astonishing. Despite decades passing since the 1990s, the number of children abused today is still considered shocking. In 2017 it was reported that 674,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect (USDHHS et al., 2019). The number of children abused increased by 2.7% from 2013 to 2017, and it is estimated that 1,720 children died from abuse and neglect in 2017, a rate of 2.32 per 100,000 children (USDHSS et al., 2019). These staggering statistics attest to the need for school counselors to become more educated and confident in reporting child abuse.

“Abuse is encountered in all socioeconomic groups, races, and religions” (Lambie, 2005, p. 250). The racial distribution for all children within the United States who experience abuse is 50.7% Caucasian, 13.7% African American, and 25.2% Hispanic (USDHHS et al., 2019). The percentages of victims are similar for both boys (48.6%) and girls (51.0%; USDHHS et al, 2019); however, rates of abuse seem to vary by socioeconomic status. According to Sedlak et al. (2010), children from households of low socioeconomic status experience some type of maltreatment at a rate more than five times higher than other children; they also were more than three times as likely to experience abuse and about seven times more likely to experience neglect. Bias has been suggested as a cause of differentiation in demographics of reported child abuse cases. When looking at school counseling reporting trends, a recent study specifically examining school counselors’ decisions found school counselors were not statistically more likely to report students based on race but were more likely to suspect abuse when students were from a middle or lower socioeconomic class (Tillman et al., 2015). However, research data suggest that the variation in the overrepresentation of low-income children is driven by the presence of increased risk factors among this population (Jonson-Reid, Drake, & Kohl, 2009).

Despite the increased need for school counselors to be proficiently trained in mandated reporting, many school counselors experience challenges with the reporting process. School counselors are frontline workers who develop trusting relationships with children, which in turn leaves school counselors with a much higher reporting rate than other professionals within the school (Bryant, 2009). A study by Bryant and Milsom (2005) found the second most reported legal issue experienced by school counselors was whether to report alleged sexual abuse. However, there are some laws that no longer give school counselors the choice. Furthermore, according to Davis (1995) and Sikes (2008), the reporting of child and sexual abuse cases are the second highest reasons for school counselors to attend court. The increase in reports of child abuse, legal issues experienced by school counselors, and the frequency of court appearances by school counselors also are valid reasons for developing a better, more effective, and easily understood framework for mandated reporting.


Challenges in Reporting Child Abuse

Reporting child abuse and neglect can often be a challenging and stressful experience for school counselors. This might be due to difficulty in collaborating with reporting agencies; the lack of training in child abuse symptomology (Alvarez et al., 2004; Kenny, 2001); unclear guidelines for reporting child abuse (Lambie, 2005), including what defines reasonable suspicion to report (Levi & Brown, 2005); and the fear of repercussions from parents and school officials (Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Kenny, 2001). A recent research study (Ricks et al., 2019) identified challenges faced by early career school counselors, which provided the impetus to further consult the literature to seek what circumstances led to these challenges and how to mitigate potential barriers to reporting child abuse. Each of these challenges are discussed in further detail.


     Collaboration with reporting agencies. A review of literature on school counselors’ relationships with reporting agencies found that the relationships are disconnected and misunderstood (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010). A study conducted by Sikes et al. (2010) indicated most school counselors had negative experiences when making reports to reporting agencies. Participants in the study reported high levels of anxiety because of the concern that the report would not be investigated. Consistent with findings from the research study conducted by Ricks et al. (2019), Bryant and Baldwin (2010) found that school counselors experience frustration and irritation when the school counselor’s report did not result in an investigation from CPS. Furthermore, a study conducted by Behun, Cerrito, Delmonico, and Kolbert (2019) found that school counselors chose not to report suspected child abuse because of the belief CPS would not intervene effectively.

Furthermore, school counselors experience concern when CPS does not provide follow-up information regarding the report of alleged abuse. A study conducted by Bryant (2009) found school counselors reported 77% of alleged cases of child abuse to CPS, and only 66% of those cases were investigated by CPS. Some school counselors believe they are entitled to information about the ongoing investigation of the report made; however, because of confidentiality, CPS is not legally obligated to provide school counselors with detailed information about an ongoing investigation (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2003; Minnesota Department of Human Services, 2016). After the initial assessment, the CPS caseworker will determine the disposition of the reported case based on state laws, agency guidelines, and gathered information (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2003).

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway (2003), CPS agencies use different terminology for this decision. Most states use a two-tiered system of substantiated–unsubstantiated or founded–unfounded. Some states use a three-tiered system of substantiated, indicated, or unsubstantiated. The indicated classification means evidence of abuse has been found, but not enough to substantiate the case. A school counselor can be provided information on whether the case was indicated or not indicated by CPS (Minnesota Department of Human Services, 2016; Washington State Department of Social & Health Services, 2018).

To resolve this issue, further education and collaboration with CPS and other agencies can aid school counselors’ understanding of policies, leading to less frustration for school counselors. Bryant (2009) recommended CPS provide additional training for school counselors on mandated reporting and recognition of child abuse. This training conducted by CPS with schools can improve the working relationship between CPS and school counselors.

Likewise, Hinkelman and Bruno (2008) recommended attorneys, CPS, and mental health professionals gather to discuss child abuse through in-service trainings. During such time, school administrators can review their written policies to be certain they correspond with state laws, ensuring the reporting process is both ethical and legal for school counselors. This practice would mitigate challenges to communication, consultation, and collaboration between school counselors and reporting agencies, which would be helpful.


     School counselors’ knowledge of child abuse symptomology. Previous research studies indicated the most significant hindrance to reporting child abuse is the lack of knowledge in recognizing signs of child maltreatment (Kenny & Abreu, 2016). A study conducted by Bryant (2009) evaluated school counselors’ perceived ability to recognize different types of child abuse. Generally, most school counselors felt confident in their knowledge to recognize physical abuse; however, fewer counselors reported certainty in identifying sexual as well as emotional abuse (Bryant, 2009; Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Kenny & Abreu, 2016).

More experienced counselors believe themselves to be competent in recognizing and reporting child abuse, while beginning school counselors with less experience perceive themselves to be less knowledgeable and in need of additional training (Tillman et al., 2015). Bryant and Baldwin (2010) also found most experienced school counselors reported more confidence in recognizing signs of physical abuse in children. Certain physical and behavioral concerns in children can serve as indicators of physical abuse (Mayo Clinic, 2015; Sikes, 2008). Behavioral changes can include isolation, change in school performance, depressed affect, sudden weight loss or gain, or inability to control emotions (Lambie, 2005; Mayo Clinic, 2015; Minnesota Department of Human Services, 2016; Sikes, 2008). School counselors spend a significant amount of time with children and can be alert to the changes in behavior of a student, or teachers can notify the school counselor of their concerns for a child (Brown, Brack, & Mullis, 2008).

Conversely, certain forms of abuse, such as sexual and emotional abuse, are not as easily recognized by school counselors (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010). Emotional abuse can be defined as the continuous use of abusive language that hurts the child’s self-esteem or well-being (Mayo Clinic, 2015). Emotional abuse includes verbal and emotional assault, and isolating, ignoring, or rejecting a child (Mayo Clinic, 2015). Lack of empathy, warmth, and understanding also are associated with emotional abuse (McEachern, Aluede, & Kenny, 2008). A study conducted by Bryant and Milsom (2005) stated three-quarters of school counselors in the study felt sure of their ability to identify child physical abuse, but less so in their ability to recognize sexual and emotional abuse. The difficulty in determining emotional abuse can lead to school counselors feeling less qualified to make a report of suspected child abuse (Valkyrie, Creamer, & Vaughn, 2008).

Further training and education on the signs and symptoms of different types of abuse are necessary for school counselors to feel more confident in making a report of suspected child abuse (Herlihy & Corey, 2015). Awareness and instruction on the symptomology of the various forms of child abuse can increase early reporting from school counselors, resulting in improved chances of children recovering from the negative effects of child abuse (Valkyrie et al., 2008).


     Unclear guidelines for reporting child abuse. Although school counselors are in the role to report suspected child abuse, many still struggle to determine if a report is warranted. School counselors have voiced the issue of needing evidence to make a report of child abuse (Valkyrie et al., 2008). Past studies indicated school counselors felt more comfortable reporting abuse when they had solid evidence the abuse occurred and were more likely to hesitate to report if less evidence was present in the case (Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Tillman et al., 2015). Moreover, a study conducted by Bryant (2009) indicated that the lack of evidence was the main reason school counselors decided not to report the suspicion of abuse.

Despite these findings, it is important that school counselors recognize that it is not their responsibility to investigate the case or determine the truth of the allegation of abuse. In fact, it is not in the best interest of the child for school counselors to investigate the alleged abuse because they do not have the proper resources and it could lead to further issues for the child (Hinkelman & Bruno, 2008; Lambie, 2005; Miller, Dove, & Miller, 2007). The school counselor’s responsibility is to follow legal and ethical obligations as a mandated reporter (ASCA, 2016) by reporting all suspected child abuse. It is important for school counselors to be aware of their state laws because it can be a felony if child abuse is not reported (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019).

Additional education on the school counselor’s role in reporting child abuse could elevate their understanding of their role in mandated reporting. Being aware that the law does not require school counselors to investigate cases and that they will not be held liable if a report is false (Hinkelman & Bruno, 2008) may increase the reports made by school counselors. It is important for school counselors to report suspected child abuse to the appropriate agencies and authorities by following state laws and school district protocol to ensure the safety of all children.


     Fear of Repercussions. Numerous studies have suggested school counselors fear the repercussions that can result from reporting suspected child abuse (Bryant, 2009; Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Bryant & Milsom, 2005; Sikes et al., 2010). These repercussions may originate from school administration, colleagues (Bell & Singh, 2017; Kenny, 2001; Sikes et al., 2010), or the family of the student (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Kenny, 2001; Valkyrie et al., 2008), or impact the relationship with the student (Alvarez et al., 2004; Bryant & Baldwin, 2010; Sikes et al., 2010). Moreover, school counselors may be afraid the family of the child will file a lawsuit against the school and the counselor for making a report of suspected child abuse (Valkyrie et al., 2008). Conversely, a study conducted by Kenny, Abreu, Helpingstine, Lopez, and Mathews (2018) found that all 50 states give immunity to professionals who report alleged child abuse. The purpose of the immunity is to encourage professionals to report suspected abuse, knowing they do not have to fear the repercussions of disgruntled family members (Kenny et al., 2018). Further exposure to the law of mandated reporting can in fact reduce the anxiety of reporting and encourage more reporting of alleged abuse.

Additional education on mandated reporting and a specific plan for mandated reporting can help to alleviate the fears school counselors have when reporting abuse. If the school policy includes a specific model for mandated reporting, then school counselors may be less likely to fear repercussions and follow appropriate guidelines (Committee for Children, 2014; Oloumi-Johnson, 2016; Sinanan, 2011). If faced with disgruntled parents, school counselors can refer to their school policy within the mandated reporting model to verify to the concerned individual that school policy and procedures were followed.


Challenges of the Early Career School Counselor

Early career school counselors are often faced with tremendous challenges as they enter their new work environment. These challenges include differing expectations from site to site and district to district (Hatch, 2008). Although school counselors are designated as mandated reporters, many may struggle with identifying different types of abuse, understanding reporting procedures, and understanding their district and state policies (Bryant, 2009; Ricks et al., 2019). New school counselors may be especially vulnerable to challenges because they are still defining their roles within their new school system and learning what the expectations are for their site. Past research also has shown that school counselors’ understanding of child abuse reporting is related to past professional experiences (Bryant, 2009), and early career school counselors can be deficient in this knowledge. Additional training in child abuse reporting is needed to help school counselors become more proficient and knowledgeable in these procedures (Tillman et al., 2015). Currently, there is a lack of research and resources for early career school counselors on child abuse reporting. This proposed framework aims to aid early career school counselors in developing their understanding of child abuse reporting procedures and expectations.


Framework Foundation

The purpose of this article is to develop an effective mandated reporting framework for school counselors based on the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016), the research from Ricks et al. (2019), and previous literature reviews and research studies. Even though previous recommendations for collaboration have been made, we recognized the need for school counselors to have a specific framework for reporting child abuse that is collaborative and specific to school counseling.


Ricks et al. (2019) examined the experiences of child abuse reporting by early career school counselors (0 to 5 years of experience as a school counselor) in the Southeastern United States. Early career school counselors were targeted because they can be confused and frustrated regarding their roles within the school as mandated reporters (Slaten, Scalise, Gutting, & Baskin, 2013). Participants responded to a survey allowing them to share their experiences and suggestions regarding child abuse reporting using two open-ended questions (Ricks et al., 2019). The two open-ended questions asked: (1) What types of additional training do you need regarding child abuse reporting? and (2) What challenges did you or are you facing as a new SC (0–5 years) regarding mandated reporting? (Ricks et al., 2019). Findings revealed the need for help identifying types and signs of abuse; staff and faculty training; information on reporting procedures; and additional mandated report training. Additionally, the findings found challenges with mandated reporting including fear of repercussions, agency concern and collaboration, reporting policies, identifying types of abuse, and school counselor responsibilities. The responses to the open-ended questions informed the direction and development of this framework to assist early career school counselors as they navigate the child abuse reporting process.


Child Abuse Reporting Framework for Early Career School Counselors


     The purpose of this framework is to provide steps for early career school counselors to ensure their school counseling program is following best practices in mandated reporting. The steps are designed based on the recommendations by the participants in the study by Ricks et al. (2019) to provide clarity in the informed decision-making process when child abuse is suspected. School counselors should adhere to all the steps identified to ensure they are knowledgeable of current research and best practices on child abuse reporting. This information is considered vital for reviewing mandated reporter guidelines and identifying resources to assist students. Additionally, early career school counselors are encouraged to continuously review guidelines and procedures to ensure execution of streamlined services; however, keeping resources is not enough. School counselors should continually update their collected information by participating in ongoing professional development to ensure they remain abreast of changes in laws, policies, agencies, and personnel.

The authors recognize that reporting child abuse is a collaborative effort within the school setting, which includes faculty, administrators, school counselors, and other mandated reporters. Therefore, a collaborative approach was deemed appropriate, especially when seeking support and understanding the gravity of reporting child abuse to the appropriate agencies and authorities. A collaborative approach is substantiated based on previous literature by Gullatt (1999), Bell and Singh (2017), and Ricks et al. (2019). Gullatt called for a collaborative approach to child abuse reporting and recommended school principals be aware and know how to identify child abuse as well as the laws for reporting.

Eight steps have been outlined in the Child Abuse Reporting Framework for Early Career School Counselors to guide early career school counselors in their role as mandated reporters: (1) become familiar with and follow state laws and district/school child abuse reporting policies, (2) become familiar with and follow the ASCA ethical standards, (3) obtain training to identify and recognize signs of child abuse, (4) identify stakeholders, (5) build collaborative partnerships, (6) provide school-based training, (7) report child abuse, and (8) perform post-reporting procedures. Each of these steps includes recommendations and considerations to assist in increasing self-efficacy for early career school counselors in the child abuse reporting process.


Step I: Become Familiar With and Follow State Laws and District/School Child Abuse Reporting Policies

     State laws define the role of community members, helpers, and school officials as mandated reporters. Therefore, it is in the best interest of early career school counselors to review the laws on mandated reporting within their state of employment to understand what is expected for mandated reporters, the timeframe to report, and contact information. Knowledge and awareness of state laws is particularly imperative because state requirements to report child abuse vary for each state (Hogelin, 2013; Lambie, 2005). Not only do state laws differ, but schools within the same district can vary in their child abuse reporting policies. Early career school counselors must make familiarizing themselves with state laws and district/school child abuse reporting policies a priority. This should be done during the pre-planning period and first days on the job in order to be knowledgeable and aware of what the laws and policies state. Areas in particular to be aware of include who is to be contacted when knowledge of suspected child abuse has been identified; who officially makes the report; what the procedures are; how to make a report (e.g., electronically, phone call, in person, website); where and how to file documentation of the report; and who to inform once the report has been made.

Some schools and states require everyone who has knowledge of suspected child abuse to file a report. This would include school counselors, administrators, teachers, and school personnel. In some school districts, a designated school official is the individual to make the report. This generally is the school counselor. Therefore, it is incumbent on early career school counselors to be aware of what their role is and how it meets the legal and ethical requirements. School counselors should be aware that if the school has designated only a specific individual to file a report, this may go against the law and possibly jeopardize the school counselor’s licensure and certification. Therefore, it is important that all stakeholders in the school setting be aware of their respective state’s laws.


Step II: Become Familiar With and Follow the 2016 ASCA Ethical Standards

ASCA ethical standards A.9. and A.11. highlight the responsibilities school counselors have in reporting child abuse (ASCA, 2016). Early career school counselors have received training in their master’s programs regarding ethics; however, it is especially imperative to review the ethical standards pertaining to child abuse reporting on a regular basis. This will aid in maintaining ethical dispositions at the forefront, while leveraging the ASCA ethical decision-making process as a guide (ASCA, 2016). Additionally, the ASCA ethical standards can be used as a tool to advocate for school counseling services in reporting child abuse. This is especially useful in circumstances when there might be role confusion by administrators, school personnel, authorities, and agencies. By referencing the ethical standards, school counselors can advocate for their role in reporting child abuse and working to keep students safe.


Step III. Obtain Training to Identify and Recognize Signs of Child Abuse

It is recommended that educators consistently receive training to identify and recognize signs of child abuse (Hogelin, 2013). Kenny and Abreu (2016) recommended counselors seek continued education on child abuse reporting by attending workshops that will help them remain abreast of the changes to reporting laws and requirements. Therefore, school counselors should advocate to receive opportunities to attend professional development conferences and trainings by the district and/or local agencies (Hogelin, 2013). Advocacy is considered an integral component of the ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2012; 2019a). Although regular training is recommended, it is not guaranteed this practice occurs across states and school districts. Furthermore, it would be beneficial for early career school counselors to seek and participate in professional development because of varying types of training they have or have not received on identifying and reporting child abuse during their master’s-level school counseling programs.

Laws, protocols, procedures, and staff are continuously changing; therefore, early career school counselors should remain cognizant and aware of these changes. In order for knowledge to remain relevant, school counselors should engage in continued professional development on recognizing child abuse indicators and child abuse reporting. This practice allows the school counselor to remain informed while increasing their self-efficacy in reporting suspected child abuse. Additionally, each year school counselors must continue to update administration and school personnel on procedures and protocol for identifying and reporting child abuse.


Step IV. Identify Stakeholders

School counselors who seek to strengthen partnerships with administrators (e.g., principals and assistant principals) are in a position to initiate discussion on child abuse reporting procedures and protocols to ensure an understanding of the role of the school counselor as a mandated reporter. Particularly building a partnership with principals is vital to identify the key role school counselors play in the school setting. A study conducted by Bringman, Mueller, and Lee (2010) shed light on the perception principals have on the role of the school counselor. This research indicated that principals have not received prior education on the role of the school counselor; therefore, it would be beneficial to discuss the role of the school counselor with administration. This step is deemed significant because school counselors generally see themselves as more informed in recognizing and reporting child abuse than principals (Tillman et al., 2015).

Nevertheless, a study conducted by Kenny and McEachern (2002) mentioned that both school counselors and school principals report child abuse, although school counselors reported child abuse at a higher percentage than school principals. Still, it is imperative to recognize that both professions—school counselors and administrators—share the common goal of protecting children by reporting suspected child abuse (Kenny & McEachern, 2002; Tillman et al., 2015).

Early career school counselors can leverage this insight by approaching their administrators through a collaborative stance, highlighting this shared goal, and discussing how to ethically and legally report suspected child abuse. This discussion can include, but is not limited to, state laws, district policies, and district/school child abuse reporting procedures. Furthermore, school counselors and school principals who keep the safety of students at the forefront and work together need to reduce role confusion.


Step V. Build Collaborative Partnerships

     CPS. This step has been included to encourage partnerships between school counselors and CPS. District school counseling supervisors can support this endeavor by extending an invitation to CPS supervisors to attend a meeting with school counselors. This meeting would be utilized as a rapport-building opportunity as well as a way to share each other’s roles, challenges, and strengths. Additionally, this would be an opportunity for CPS to provide updates, contact information, and any other pertinent information.

It also has been recommended that joint training be done with local CPS members and school counselors (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010) to ensure collaboration between agencies and to ensure all participants are exposed to consistent training. Additionally, CPS may be able to provide training to the school system and not only school counselors. “When school counselors understand the limitations inherent in receiving a report, they might, in turn, be more efficacious in their reporting of child abuse” (Bryant & Milsom, 2005, p. 70). This training should include information on the reporting process, but also on the investigative process so that school counselors develop an understanding of the reactions and behaviors of the investigators (Bryant & Baldwin, 2010). Other stakeholders, such as school psychologists, social workers, and nurses, would benefit from this training as well.

     Law enforcement. Public safety is the mission of law enforcement officers. Within the school system, police officers and especially school resource officers (SROs) engage in numerous activities and perform numerous duties. One of the duties can include being a member of the school’s crisis response team (Cowan, Vaillancourt, Rossen, & Pollitt, 2013). School counselors should work to build a positive working relationship with their SRO and local law enforcement. These individuals can help assist school counselors in providing services when students are a danger to themselves or when the student is in danger. Additionally, SROs have been provided specific training on “student needs and characteristics, and the educational and custodial interests of school personnel” (Cowan et al., 2013, p. 10). Law enforcement and SROs also can help ensure the safety of everyone in the building when a threat arises.

     Attorneys. School counselors should consider consulting with the school district’s attorney to ensure that their rights and the rights of their students and others are being maintained. Most schools have a school attorney that school counselors can communicate with when issues or questions arise. School counselors also must make sure they are aware of legal and ethical guidelines on confidentiality and privacy of student information. Nonetheless, if school counselors find themselves in situations where discrepancies arise, they should call their local department of children’s services or attorney (Mitchell & Rogers, 2003). Participants from a study conducted by DeCino, Waalkes, and Matos (2017) reported positive experiences with legal counsel. An attorney not only provides guidance on ethical dilemmas but also legal advice for potential court hearings.


Step VI. Provide School-Based Training

     Stakeholders in the school setting, such as teachers, school nurses, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, lunchroom staff, and other support staff in the building, should be provided with training to identify and report child abuse (Hogelin, 2013; Lambie, 2005). It is recommended that training on child abuse identification and reporting procedures be conducted each year; this is mandatory in some states. These individuals interact with students daily and are able to recognize if a student is in distress. Despite their daily interactions with students, many teachers struggle to identify signs of abuse and have a lack of knowledge of reporting procedures (Greytak, 2009). Therefore, school counselors are in the position to schedule dates and times at the beginning of the school year, such as during pre-planning, and mid-year as a refresher to provide school personnel with the training to identify and recognize child abuse as well as inform them of their mandated reporter obligations. This involves addressing state laws, ethical requirements, and district/school policies for child abuse reporting as well as providing the procedures and contact information to make a report.


Step VII. Report Child Abuse

Child abuse reporting involves several crucial details. These details include, but are not limited to, the name of the child, name of family members (e.g., parents, siblings), individuals who reside in the home, phone number, address, previous history of abuse, academic performance, child dispositions, and concern leading to the report (Sikes, 2008). It would behoove early career school counselors to determine if their school districts have a specific form to complete while filing an abuse report. This resource would guide the process of obtaining all the details for filing a complete report. If no such resource is available, school counselors should work with key personnel to create a standardized form for abuse reporting. Furthermore, knowledge of the method to make a report is necessary. Reporting procedures for CPS vary by state. Most states prefer an oral report be made to CPS; however, some states require a written report be completed after the oral report has been made (Child Information Gateway, 2017). Because there may be a timeframe in which to call according to state policy, early career school counselors who are aware of the specific method to report will not only report in a timely manner but be more prepared and self-efficacious in their reporting skills and capabilities.


Step VIII. Perform Post-Reporting Procedures

After the child abuse report has been made, questions often arise about how to support the student who needs to be aware of the child abuse report, and how to respond to parents who inquire about the report. Early career school counselors can reach out to the caseworker to inquire as to what supports might be provided at the school, check in with the student to ensure they are safe, and seek what procedures the district has in place to address parents. When approached by parents, early career school counselors can maintain the disposition of informing parents that all child abuse reports are confidential and that they may contact the caseworker with their questions. Additionally, pamphlets on the role of mandated reporting and resources can be made available in the school counselor’s office to provide the parents with assistance in identifying supports. School counselors also can provide parents with referrals to outside agencies, such as counseling or family supports, when asked by parents who are seeking interventions.



Reporting child abuse is recognized as a crucial element in the role of a school counselor. Early career school counselors often are anxious about reporting child abuse because of the fear of repercussions from parents, lack of self-efficacy in identifying abuse, limited knowledge of child abuse reporting procedures, unclear reporting procedures for school counselors, and lack of collaboration with outside agencies. This article has addressed the challenges faced by early career school counselors and provides a framework to alleviate their anxiety while increasing their self-efficacy as mandated reporters.  


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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Malti Tuttle is an assistant professor and School Counseling Program Coordinator at Auburn University. Lacey Ricks is an assistant professor at Liberty University. Margie Taylor is a visiting assistant professor at Auburn University. Correspondence can be addressed to Malti Tuttle, 2084 Haley Center, Auburn, AL 36849,

Using Grounded Theory to Examine the Readiness of School Counselors to Serve Gang Members

Jennifer Barrow, Stanley B. Baker, Lance D. Fusarelli


The purpose of this grounded theory study was to understand and explain how training and work setting experiences influence readiness of professional school counselors for serving gang members in schools. A purposeful sample consisted of secondary school counselors (n = 5) and school leaders (n = 7) in a southeastern metropolitan school district. Blended themes from the counselors and leaders were: (a) professional development attitudes, (b) actual and potential roles when working with students in gangs, and (c) counselors’ collaborative role in discipline process. The Collaborative C.A.R.E. theory that emerged from the thematic analysis highlighted the absence of collaboration between school counselors and leaders. Specific findings identified reasons for the lack of collaboration and led to recommendations for practice and further research.


Keywords: gang members, school counselors, grounded theory, Collaborative C.A.R.E, discipline


On a daily basis, professional school counselors (PSCs) are expected to engage in a variety of functions in order to enhance the academic, career, personal, and social development of all students (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2012b, 2014). Serving all students can be very challenging given the disproportionate number of PSCs to students in the United States and the number of non-counseling functions often imposed on PSCs (Lambie & Williamson, 2004). ASCA (2012a) recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250. Despite this recommendation, findings have indicated that the accurate ratio is closer to 1:491 (ASCA, n.d.). Responding to the “serve all students” expectation can be even more challenging when attempting to serve gang members, who are considered members of marginalized populations that are excluded from the social, economic, cultural, and political mainstream (McCluskey, Baker, & McCluskey, 2005).


Research on the PSC’s role was conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and much of the research is generalized to include the role of the PSC (both perceived and actual) with little consideration for the contextual differences in jobs (e.g., elementary, middle, high school; Brott & Myers, 1999; Lambie & Williamson, 2004). A paucity of data exists in recent research examining the role of PSCs with specific groups of students based on cultural and environmental contexts, and their role since the introduction of the ASCA National Model. Gang members are students with norms related to language, rituals, and membership (Gibbs, 2000). The presence of gangs in schools reflects a need to examine the role of the PSC in serving this culturally marginalized population.


Gang members are often viewed as outsiders associated with “outlaw organizations” engaged in deviant behaviors (Gibbs, 2000, p. 73). On the other hand, from the inside, members find structure, ritual, and norms specific to their gang structure. This study was designed to attempt to fill these gaps by examining the role of the PSC with a contemporary, marginalized population.

According to the National Gang Intelligence Center (2011), there are approximately 1.4 million active gang members representing more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. This represents a 40% increase compared to data collected in 2009. The data support an assumption that there is an increasing presence of gangs in both rural and urban communities (Brinson, Kottler, & Fisher, 2004). Unfortunately, there are several negative outcomes associated with the presence of gang members in the schools, including harassment, vandalism, aggressive recruitment of new members, irregular attendance, decreased motivation to succeed in school, and criminal activities. Consequently, gang presence can adversely affect the school environment, lower levels of academic achievement, and negatively influence perceptions of safety (Brinson et al., 2004). In and of itself, gang membership is not a crime, and gang members who are enrolled in public schools are eligible for all of the services that other students are receiving, including those offered by PSCs (Kizer, 2012).


As gang membership increases nationally, the presence of gang members will continue to expand in the schools and surrounding communities (Coggeshall & Kingery, 2001; Kingery, Coggeshall, & Alford, 1998). A recent survey of 12- to 18-year-old students indicated that 18% stated there were gangs in their schools (Robers, Kemp, Truman, & Snyder, 2013). This phenomenon will increase the exposure of PSCs to gang activity (Gündüz, 2012; Skovholt & McCarthy, 1988). Because of their training, PSCs appear to be in a unique position conceptually to offer services to gang members and to the schools where gang members are present. Potential resources include individual and group counseling competencies; core curriculum programming knowledge and skills; availability for providing helpful consultations; and the overlying quest to enhance the academic, career, personal, and social development of all students (ASCA, 2012b, 2014).


The first author’s exposure to gangs increased in her role as a PSC. Perceived lack of training and preparation to work with gang members and an absence of professional literature on the role of PSCs with gangs motivated the first author to conduct a preliminary investigation. Participants in the pilot study were PSCs in a southeastern urban public school setting. The pilot study consisted of two phases of inquiry consistent with the grounded theory methodology. Grounded theory generates data based on “participant experiences” (Hays & Singh, 2012, p. 288).


The first phase of the pilot study was a focus group of PSC participants with data being transcribed by the researcher, hand-coded, and analyzed. The second phase consisted of individual interviews completed at the respective job sites of three practicing PSCs. The interviews and observations from the second phase provided further evidence, more variation, and a greater understanding of the role of the PSC working with students in gangs across elementary, middle, and high school settings.


The preliminary investigation suggested further research in the school counseling domain. The participating PSCs appeared to experience ambiguity and lack of decision-making authority related to working with students who are gang members. Decisions on professional development opportunities and the PSC’s role were influenced by school-based leaders, such as principals, whose views tended to focus on disciplinary issues rather than academic, career, personal, and social development with regard to gang members. Consequently, the pilot study revealed a need to further explore the PSC’s role in working with gang members based on perceived and ideal roles, their professional development needs, and the influence of their educational administrators and supervisors.


Although uniquely positioned to offer something of value, there are impediments to fulfilling that role. Developing and defining the role for PSCs continues to be a challenge for PSCs, their school leaders (SLs), and national professional organizations that offer recommended roles for PSCs (Foxx, Baker, & Gerler, 2017; Griffin & Farris, 2010; Shoffner & Williamson, 2000). Some SLs determine the tasks that define the role of their PSCs with little to no input from counselors (Zalaquett & Chatters, 2012). These decisions are not aligned with ASCA’s PSC role recommendations and indicate misunderstandings about how their counselors were trained and failure to collaborate on PSC role definitions (Kirchner & Setchfield, 2005). Collaboration between PSCs and SLs is essential in the development of comprehensive counseling programs designed to support the academic goals of the school (Armstrong, MacDonald, & Stillo, 2010; Foxx et al., 2017; Zalaquett & Chatters, 2012).


An additional challenge is a lack of professional development related to working with gang members after one’s graduate training program. Caldarella, Sharpnack, Loosli, and Merrell (1996) found that many PSCs do not feel adequately trained or equipped to deal with gang activity and gang members in their schools, and almost half of the sample had no training related to gangs. Relatedly, our preliminary investigation found PSCs were trained to recognize the presence of gangs yet knew very little about how to engage with gang members and offer their services. Believing that one is unprepared and not competent to deliver counseling services to gang members may cause feelings of helplessness, apathy, and little or no desire to serve them (Ibrahim, Helms, & Thompson, 1983). As a marginalized population, students in gangs compound the unique challenges PSCs face, including role ambiguity (Burnham & Jackson, 2000), constant changes in student and school characteristics and needs (Reising & Daniels, 1983), and disconnects between training and practice (Brott & Myers, 1999; Lambie & Williamson, 2004).


The purpose of the present grounded theory study was to further understand and explain how training, perceived roles, and work setting experiences (e.g., professional development, working with students in gangs) influenced the readiness of PSCs in a large urban school district to serve gang members. Given the challenges PSCs experience related to serving gang members, the following research questions were derived in order to attempt to explain a conceptual linkage via a grounded theory based on understanding perspectives of a sample of PSCs and SLs via the interplay of context, conditions, and the PSC’s role (Hays & Singh, 2012): How do PSCs and SLs describe perceived and actual roles of PSCs regarding services to gang members? How do PSCs and SLs describe previous training related to working with gang members? and How do PSCs and SLs describe circumstances that influence opportunities PSCs have for serving gang members?





A total of 12 participants were included in this study. Five participants were PSCs and seven were SLs. Of the PSCs, four were female and one was male; four were White and one was African American. All of the PSCs had master’s degrees and school counseling licenses. The mean age of the PSCs was 52 (SD = 8.57), and the mean years of counseling experience was 14.8 (SD = 7.69). All of the seven SLs were male. Six were White and one was African American. Four had master’s degrees in educational leadership, one had a bachelor’s degree in science, and two had doctoral degrees in education. Two of the seven SLs were based in the school district’s central office. The mean age of the SLs was 42 (SD = 7.23), and the average years of experience was 10.4 (SD = 3.26). Each participant is represented by a pseudonym in the findings.


Consistent with grounded theory, stratified purposeful sampling was used to identify PSCs and SLs serving at the same school to voluntarily participate (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Hays & Singh, 2012). PSCs possessed state professional licenses in their fields and were employed in secondary school settings. Specific criteria for the SLs were that they be assistant principals, principals, or central office staff members. SLs possessed state professional licenses in their fields. An additional advantage of this approach was being able to triangulate data sources by acquiring data from different perspectives, including central school office members.



     Demographic questionnaire. Information related to age, ethnicity, education, and experience was collected from PSC and SL participants via a brief demographic questionnaire that asked identical questions.


     Interview questions for participants. Two sets of open-ended questions were developed for semi-structured individual interviews. Topical areas addressed in the current study included role perception, professional development, and barriers to serving students in gangs. The following questions were presented to the PSC participants: (a) What factors determine the role you play in your school? (b) Who is involved in determining your professional role? (c) In your opinion, what role do professional school counselors currently play in identifying gang presence and providing intervention in your school? (d) Tell me what role you think counselors may play in identifying and providing interventions for students currently involved in a gang or considering gang membership. (e) What role has the school or school district played in providing professional school counselors with training specific to gang activity in the schools? (f) During your graduate school training, were you provided any opportunities to learn about gangs in schools? (g) Since graduate school, have you been provided or sought out opportunities to learn about gangs in schools? (h) In your own words, describe your work with students in gangs. (i) What barriers exist impacting your effectiveness in working with students in gangs? (j) In what ways do you seek out information to inform your work as a professional school counselor? (k) How might the ASCA National Model support your efforts to prevent or intervene with students in gangs? and (i) Is there anything you care to add?


The following questions were presented to the SL participants: (a) What factors determine the role school counselors play in your school? (b) Who is involved in determining their professional role? (c) In your opinion, what role do professional school counselors currently play in identifying gang presence and providing intervention in your school? (d) Tell me what role you think counselors may play in identifying and providing interventions for students currently involved in a gang or considering gang membership. (e) What role has the school or school district played in providing professional school counselors and school faculty with training specific to gang activity in the schools? (f) During your graduate school training, were you provided any opportunities to learn about the role of the school counselor? (g) Since graduate school, has your perception of the role of the school counselor changed? How so? (h) In your own words, describe your work with students in gangs. (i) How might the ASCA National Model support your school’s efforts to prevent or intervene with students in gangs? and (j) Is there anything you care to add?


     Interviewer/Investigator. The first author was an insider who worked for the school district as a PSC. At the time of the study, she was working full-time and was a doctoral student in a counselor education program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. She was a 37-year-old White female with nine years of school counseling experience. She is a licensed school counselor, licensed professional counselor, and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). She had access to data that would not be available to an outsider. An advantage was her familiarity with the participants.


Subjectivity statement. On the one hand, the first author lacked personal gang awareness and was sensitive to the participants’ lack of knowledge (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). On the other hand, she had observed disruptive incidents created by gang members in her schools and was conflicted about how to deal with gang members as a professional. This led to a preliminary literature review that suggested ideas about how PSCs may serve gang members in their schools via both responsive services and core curriculum responses. The potential biases were role ambiguity and professional development. These biases were addressed during the data collection and analysis through the use of a journal to record immediate reactions to completed interviews.


Reflectivity during data collection is a valuable tool and is “considered essential to the research process” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 31). A journal housed field notes after each interview regarding participants’ body language, physical environment, and interviewer’s immediate thoughts and impressions. Journaling allowed for the constant comparison of data, looking for more data, and initial coding of collected data (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).



     Data collection. Established university research policies for the protection of human subjects and the research policies of the school district were followed in order to gain access to schools and participants. After receiving institutional review board approval from the first author’s affiliated university and the school district’s research department, data collection was completed via interviewing participants, journaling, and reviewing documents. The primary source of data was individual semi-structured interviews using an open-ended questions approach and an interview guide (Patton, 2002). Observations of the school setting, participants, and reflections of each interview were noted by the first author/researcher in her journal (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). In addition to journaling, policy manuals and public relations documents were accessed from the school district’s website for the triangulation process (Patton, 2002). The school district’s documents informed the researcher of existing procedures and policies and potential access to related training opportunities.


Participants were provided the interview questions in the moments immediately preceding the beginning of the interviews, giving them the opportunity to view questions and consider answers or emerging thoughts as needed. They were offered an opportunity to answer all questions. In order to enhance the analysis of the role of the PSC, interviews were conducted with SLs and PSCs working at the same schools. The interviews were conducted at the jobsites of the PSCs and SLs or at mutually agreeable locations. A digital voice recorder was used to record all interviews.


     Data analysis. The recorded interviews were played and reviewed immediately after face-to-face interviews, allowing for constant comparisons (Schwandt, 2001). Each individual audio-recorded interview was transcribed by a professional transcriptionist. Following transcription, the interviews were read twice by the first author before themes were highlighted and noted in the margins. Interview data were individually read for all PSCs with themes noted in the margins. Then, interview data were individually read for all SLs with themes noted in the journal. Finally, interview data were reviewed for each PSC and their corresponding SL with themes of each pairing noted by the researcher. Hand-coding was used to analyze data gathered from transcribed interviews with a focus on capturing essential concepts (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). The process of hand-coding involved deriving codes and the emerging themes to be organized into discrete categories leading to theory development (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). In the first or open coding stage, large general conceptual domains were identified in the reflective journal. Then, the researcher searched for relationships among the domains during the axial coding stage. Finally, the selective coding stage involved: (a) explaining story lines, (b) relating subsidiary categories around the core categories by means of paradigms, (c) relating categories at the dimensional levels, (d) validating the relationships against the raw data, and (e) filling in the categories that may need further development (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).


Triangulation was used as a means to increase the trustworthiness in the present study (Creswell & Miller, 2000; Patton, 2002). Four data sources were used to inform theory development: interviews with PSCs, interviews with SLs, a reflective journal, and related school district documents (e.g., discipline policies, in-service training programs). Grounded theory is built upon the cyclical and constant analysis of data (Hays & Singh, 2012). The use of multiple data sources in this study enhanced the development of codes, categories, and theory, and strengthened the trustworthiness of the study’s findings (Merriam, 2002). The transcribed interviews were reviewed by the researcher to ensure that professional jargon was accurate. A reflective research journal was kept throughout the entire study. Each participant was offered an opportunity to member check the transcribed data (Creswell & Miller, 2000). In addition, an audit was conducted to attempt to reduce the potential for personal biases influencing the data analysis. The auditor was a White female with a doctorate in educational leadership and previous work experience as a PSC. The auditing process consisted of quality control: (a) assuring ethical concerns were addressed, including the use of pseudonyms to protect participants; (b) reviewing the data to insure the study proposed and conducted matched data reported; and (c) proofreading, including clarifying professional jargon. Data saturation was achieved after the eighth interview; however, to affirm category development, complete interview pairings, and ensure triangulation of data sources, the interviews continued through 12 participants. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present study was to construct a grounded theory based on the data.




Grounded theory study data analyses provide central categories that bring all of the codes together (Corbin & Strauss, 2008). The central thematic categories in the present study were: (a) professional development attitudes, (b) actual and potential roles when working with students in gangs, and (c) PSCs’ collaborative role in the discipline process. An integration of the three central categories caused a Collaborative C.A.R.E. theory to emerge. Collaboration was the category both present and notably absent in the stories of the PSCs and the SLs. The C.A.R.E. acronym emerged out of the categories that developed during the axial coding process. The categories revealed a lack, or the presence, of communication with community stakeholders. The data suggested a need for PSCs working in secondary school settings to advocate for policies, procedures, programming, and educational opportunities to clarify their role in providing responsive services for students in gangs. What follows are excerpts of the data in the voices of the participants presented via the three central themes.


Professional Development Attitudes

PSCs are increasingly overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities, leading them often to not engage in professional development that may take them away from campus. In addition, the interview data revealed that PSCs were not engaging in professional development related to working with gang members because of a lack of interest in working with this population, a concern for personal safety, unclear counseling roles, and the cost of professional development.


Beth (PSC) noted in her time as a PSC that different initiatives drive the training offered in the local district. She recalled a “push” four or five years previously to identify the presence of gangs at her school, but since that training she noted, “It’s not an interest of mine” and she will look to other staff members to “handle that stuff.” Beth’s response demonstrated a lack of engagement as a result of a lack of interest.


As noted, Beth expected other staff members, primarily SLs, to address the needs of students in gangs. In contrast, Sasha’s (PSC) gang awareness training at the school level had occurred in other counties. She noted that the school district in the present study “maybe has had something,” but “I don’t think the school has provided anything.” She went on to say, “I don’t think I’ve done anything in this district.” Sasha added that possessing knowledge of gangs in schools is “just not the highest on the list of priorities.”


Sasha’s supervising SL, Joe, noted the training from the district is “probably limited, to be honest.” Joe stated as an SL: “I don’t receive training for gangs or gang-related activity. Most of what I know is either self-taught or stuff that we pick up along the way because we’re placed into that position as administrators.” Joe elaborated that much of what he had picked up was reactive: “Unfortunately it’s reactive, but that’s also predicated upon the levels that we deal with here, which is not very much . . . so some of that [training] is from our SRO [school resource officer].”


Beyond having experienced awareness training, the PSCs expressed repeated concerns about their lack of intervention tools. Sasha said she was in need of “strategies” to work with gangs. She asked, “Are you working on trying to get them out of a gang or are you working on how do you cope with being part of a gang?” She followed with an insight: “it’s . . . how it’s affecting them in the school and so, generally, it leads to academics and attendance and if there are discipline issues or . . . . But it still has to have the school slant to . . . work with them.” Judy (PSC) concurred that training had “been mostly awareness and information,” and a lack of urgency to learn more left her deficient in skills and techniques to intervene.


Although awareness training appeared to be somewhat useful, specific prevention and intervention strategies were lacking in any of the training in which PSCs had previously participated. Stacey (PSC) stated that the limited training she received had been “one or two instances” consisting of “signs or signals.” Sasha noted she had not been trained to intervene, and she believed part of the problem was the nature of gangs because they may be “generational, and I don’t think anybody really knows how exactly [to] intervene. ” When speaking about the role of training, Judy quite frankly stated, “If you’re going to provide . . . training, does that imply that I then own the problem . . . if you’re training me, you’re giving me the problem and how am I supposed to solve it?”


Actual and Potential Roles When Working With Students in Gangs

The perceived and actual role of working PSCs has been studied extensively. Recommendations for serving students representing specific populations may vary (e.g., different ethnic groups, various exceptional populations, sexual minorities). On the other hand, ASCA (2014) is explicit in its petitioning provision of services to all students to address long-term goals and “demonstrate personal safety skills” (p. 2). The findings in this study suggest a possible actual role and provide ideas for a potential role for serving gang members.


Beth’s SL, Stan, said, “I would say they [PSCs] don’t really have a specific role in identifying gang presence” and “it wouldn’t be something that I would put under their job description.” Beth also noted that interactions with students in gangs were limited to an awareness that students may be involved with a gang because any intervention or interaction was something “that the assistant principals work with.” Stan’s comments mirrored those of his PSC. He stated, “If it’s a discipline issue, then it [the student issue] would stick with the administration.” Stan’s PSCs would be involved if the student needed “more of a counseling-type component where the student needs assistance or is seeking help from . . . the school.”


Sasha said she worked with students in gangs, but their gang affiliation was “not what we’re working on.” Beth agreed: “The thing is . . . if a kid is coming to you with a specific problem, you help them with that specific problem whether he’s a gang member or not.” Beth stated her actual role as a PSC limited her ability to interact because in her opinion, “if a kid was deeply entrenched in a gang, we’re not going to be able to get them out of that gang.” Derek (SL) agreed that the degree of involvement complicates the intervention because “once they reach a certain point, it is going to be very difficult—I’m not going to say impossible—but it’s going to be very difficult to get [them] back.”


Because the immediate need for a student to seek a PSC’s assistance was rarely, if ever, gang-related, Beth noted her form of intervention was about helping the students obtain their diplomas. Beth went on to say, “If he is here and attempting to get an education, behaving himself and not fighting . . . then my role would be to help him get what he needs from the school system as long as he is playing by our rules.” Her view of services for gang members seemed focused primarily on academic counseling.


PSCs’ Collaborative Role in Discipline Processes

Jake (SL) identified collaboration as a function in the PSC’s role when working with students in gangs, although he noted that the level of collaboration would be limited by the degree of the student’s gang involvement and its impact on the school environment. Jake stated, “I don’t know that they play a role in identifying gang issues unless somebody comes to them with a situation.”


Stacey, a PSC at Jake’s school, concurred with his assessment when she noted, “We don’t do a lot in identifying the gang presence . . . administration and the resource officer tend to be the ones dealing with that.” Stacey went on to say that addressing students in gangs was handled by administrators, and there was no communication with the PSCs about those students that may be involved in gangs. Communications related to students in gangs among SLs, PSCs, and teachers did not exist at Stacey’s school. She explained, “I can’t remember anyone here ever talking about making that kind of referral.”


Like Stacey, Trevor (PSC) did not expect referrals related to gang membership coming to him from teachers. The PSC participants reported that those students violating school policy were referred to administrators. Most referrals for confirmed concerns related to gang members based on attire or language were directed to the administrative teams if they came to the counseling office first. As a counterpoint, Trevor’s SL, Frank, stated, “I can’t say I’ve ever met a counselor I would trust to even give me that type of information.” He went on to say, “So I’m not very trusting of that [information coming from PSCs] at this point. I don’t think they’re [PSCs] involved.”


The degree of collaboration in the actual role of PSCs was mentioned frequently. There seemed to be a lack of collaboration and shortage of referrals from SLs to PSCs, especially when the student gang members had committed infractions leading to disciplinary consequences. When SLs disciplined gang members, there often was no follow-up with PSCs. The SLs in this sample seemed not to view PSCs as contributors to their disciplinary and safety maintenance functions. Because of their focus on safety and discipline issues when thinking about gang members, it seemed not to occur to the SLs that PSCs could contribute to the academic, career, personal, and social development of gang members via their traditional professional functions.




Given the impact of the school calendar and its restricted timeline on data collection, it is possible the researcher was dependent upon acquiring participants from a limited population of busy professionals. Rather than relying on power analyses to determine the sample, qualitative researchers rely on evidence of data saturation, which may not have occurred in this study, to ensure sample sizes are sufficient. Further, qualitative researchers continue interviewing if repeated themes or codes are not present in the interviewing and follow emerging themes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Creswell & Miller, 2000; Marshall, Cardon, Poddar, & Fontenot, 2013). In the present study, the sample size was smaller than some sources recommend for grounded theory studies. Fortunately, obvious signs of saturation were noted after the eighth participant was interviewed.


Racial diversity was limited to one African American in each sub-sample. Gender diversity was not achieved in the SL sub-sample. Consequently, the voice of a female SL’s perspective was not present in this study because there were only five female site-based SLs in a district with 25 high schools. The lack of diversity might have impacted the lens by which they led or worked with marginalized populations. Meeting the age diversity selection criterion also was a challenge. The average age of the PSCs indicated that the views and experiences of younger professionals were understated. The extent of the participating PSCs’ exposure to the ASCA National Model (2012a) was not assessed in the demographic questionnaire. Consequently, recommendations promoted in the National Model such as serving all students; offering comprehensive school counseling programs; enhancing the academic, career, and personal/social development of students; and collaboration with stakeholders, may have been limited, therefore impacting their perceived and actual roles accordingly. Participants may have self-censored responses as a result of being interviewed by a school system colleague or by knowing that a colleague in their school with more power was also being interviewed. Utilizing a researcher without ties to the school district might have enhanced the responses. Having colleagues from the same school participate was an important component of the study, a limitation that had to be accepted in addition to the population and sample being limited to one school district.




The perceived and ideal role of PSCs has been extensively studied; however, a search of the professional literature demonstrated a paucity of research on the role of PSCs with specific, marginalized student populations (e.g., exceptional children, homeless), and the present study was designed to address the work of PSCs with one such group (i.e., students in gangs). The researcher attempted to understand the participants’ perspectives related to how participating PSCs and SLs described their actual roles, their previous training, and opportunities for further training with regard to serving gang members.


Consistent with previous research (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Ibrahim et al., 1983; Lambie & Williamson, 2004), the findings revealed a perceived role for the PSCs’ work with students in gangs as academically focused and reactive. PSC participants noted not knowing what counseling strategies to employ in order to assist students in gangs, implying there is no ideal role for PSCs within that domain. A lack of engagement in professional development, concerns for personal safety, unclear or absent roles for working with students in gangs, and, notably, a limited role imposed by SLs, negatively impacted their potential for working with gang members constructively.


Insights Based on the Circumstances That Led to the Study

     As stated in the introduction, motivation to conduct the study was based on the first author’s limited previous professional experience with gang members, suggestions from a literature search, and results of a pilot study. The first author reported having observed the influence of disruptive gang members in her schools, leading to conflicted thoughts about how to serve them. Consistent with previous literature on role confusion (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Lambie & Williamson, 2004), PSCs in the present study also seemed conflicted about serving student gang members, and SLs seemed to consider the role of PSCs from a limited perspective. The perspectives of the two sets of professionals were somewhat different because their respective broad professional goals differed. Although SLs were more likely to focus on maintaining order and ensuring safety for all students, PSCs were more likely to focus primarily on their own safety and secondarily on providing limited responsive services to gang members (Sindhi, 2013).


Consequently, when SLs considered the role of PSCs, their perspectives were narrowly focused on safety and disciplinary issues, and PSCs were not viewed as being expected or able to contribute to those goals. They were not prompted to consider the PSC’s role from a broader professional perspective, nor did they think of it (Cobb, 2014). It seemed as if most of the PSCs also responded from a safety perspective, feeling unprepared and unwilling to be involved in that kind of role, especially if it would involve discipline or attempting to get students to leave their gangs. Two PSCs (Sasha and Beth) mentioned providing limited responsive services if requested (i.e., personal issues and academic counseling) and if the students were behaving themselves. This finding also mirrored those of the pilot investigation that prompted this study.


Related contributions to the professional literature indicated dissonance about the perceived and actual roles of PSCs (Brott & Myers, 1999; Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Ibrahim et al., 1983; Lambie & Williamson, 2004). The findings in the present study were quite similar to those of Caldarella et al. (1996) almost two decades ago—that is, the PSCs did not feel adequately trained to work with gang members. And the attitudes expressed by the PSC participants in the findings mirrored the apathy about and disinterest in serving gang members reported by Ibrahim et al. (1983) over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the findings highlighted apparently limited potential for PSCs to address the academic, career, personal, and social development needs of students in gangs in the targeted school district because of their current settings and frames of mind.


Implications for Professional School Counseling

     Limited range of counselor services. Implementation of the ASCA National Model (2012b)throughout the school system represented in the present study apparently had little influence on the role PSCs played in serving gang members. Considerable interview content from PSCs and SLs seemed focused on safety and discipline issues rather than on the academic, career, personal, and social development of student gang members. Mention of providing academic services came from two of the PSCs. Limiting counseling services to academics alone does not fit into the proactive, “serve all students” framework supported by ASCA (2012b). The perception that PSCs are solely academic counselors may cause them to feel boxed in professionally, therefore limiting their ability to advocate for counseling services for students in gangs and causing them to determine over the course of their professional careers that their role is fixed and rigidly academically focused (Lambie & Williamson, 2004).


     Insufficient training. Three of the PSCs reported lacking sufficient training as a barrier to their working with students in gangs. Four of the five PSCs had not received training related to working with students in gangs during their master’s degree programs. Two of the five reported attending workshops after graduate school, and the remaining three had not sought training. Training provided by the school district on gangs in schools was limited to enhancing awareness, and there was no coverage of counseling-based techniques designed to reach students in gangs. A significant obstacle to training was time away from work and the cost of attending training. Although obstacles to training were reported, there seemed to be an underlying sense of frustration about the training that had been offered. The training from the district and from professional conferences was designed to make school personnel aware of the presence of gangs in the schools. This perceived lack of training designed to intervene and engage in counseling services for students in gangs is consistent with Brott and Myers’ (1999) work noting the need for experiential learning to enhance professional autonomy. The participants reported not knowing what to do with students in gangs and wondering what the goals of the counseling relationships would be if students were involved with gangs. This limited response model appears to have negatively impacted the way that PSCs viewed gang members. Neither the PSCs nor the SLs wanted PSCs involved in a discipline-focused mode.


PSC collaboration and advocacy. The Collaborative C.A.R.E. grounded theory presented at the beginning of the findings section suggests that PSCs respond to the challenges presented above via collaborating with others in their educational communities to advocate for policies, procedures, programs, and educational opportunities designed to clarify their role in providing responsive services to students in gangs. Although PSCs will benefit from more informed policies and richer educational opportunities, they also have advocacy competencies acquired in their training programs that should be of value when serving all students, including gang members. It appears as if the best way to serve students in gangs is through targeted responsive services designed to remove barriers and promote equitable access to counseling services (Trusty & Brown, 2005). Fortunately, most PSCs will not have to work differently in order to work with students in gangs via these approaches. Therefore, it appears as if the major changes needed are attitudinal. Believing that students in gangs deserve their services and advocacy efforts and can be served through existing services and competencies is essential. Overcoming safety concerns seems to be a very important goal. Students in gangs are members of a unique cultural group and equally worthy of positive regard and empathy. Becoming familiar with the nuances of this culture also seems to be an important goal for PSCs.


PSCs are challenged to be able to approach counseling sessions with student gang members in the same way as any other student client. Sasha noted she had not been trained to intervene with gang members; however, she likely is capable of building empathic relationships and aiding in goal setting and future planning for all student clients. The challenge might be to accept gang members as they are and attempt to help them focus on something of value that they want to be in their future and attempt to help them achieve those goals.


Recommendations for Practice and Research

     Training preparation recommendations. The role of the PSC is continuously evolving via numerous influences, such as changing school policies and new initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels. Over their professional careers, PSCs may see a shift in the issues their students bring to the counseling relationship. For example, 15 years ago, PSCs were not dealing with cyberbullying. Cultural and economic shifts lead to changes in the issues students are forced to address, and changes in the lives of the students challenge PSCs to expand their expertise in order to be more effective practitioners. PSCs should be offered and encouraged to attend training based on a variety of issues impacting their work with 21st-century students, including enhancing the academic, career, personal, and social development of gang members.


As PSCs prepare to respond to evolving issues and shifting demographics, graduate training programs are challenged to provide instruction to prepare future PSCs for the realities of school settings and the diverse populations served. By no means can graduate training programs prepare graduate-level students for all of the nuances of practicing in a school; however, a careful review of the populations being served in 21st-century schools may guide the development of training modules designed to work with unique populations, including students in gangs. A training module of this type also can be developed and implemented in school districts in order to provide professional development for practicing PSCs.


     Research recommendations. The paucity of research related to students in gangs and school counseling provides rich opportunities for future studies that might include examining the professional development needs of PSCs, addressing personal safety concerns, and exploring the impact of school-based stakeholders on the self-efficacy of PSCs. Until PSCs feel secure in the role they were trained to fill, they may continue to accept the non-counseling roles often expected by SLs and experience low levels of self-efficacy in working with diverse populations, including students in gangs (Dahir, Burnham, & Stone, 2009).


     Responsive services address the immediate needs and concerns of students and incorporate both direct and indirect service modes (ASCA, 2012b). Further research involving responsive services may address the following questions: How is role development impacted by existing procedures and policies? How is the role of PSCs different in districts with procedures for addressing the needs of students in gangs versus districts lacking the same procedures? How effective are PSCs who collaborate with their communities when working with gang members?


Of all the research needs regarding students in gangs, knowledge acquired from the gang member’s perspective seems most needed. Without gang members as participants, the voice of students in gangs will continue to be silent. Studying students in gangs in order to understand how school staff can enhance their development may provide valuable information for both responsive and core curriculum services that can be provided by PSCs.




ASCA’s National Model (2012b) advocates for comprehensive school counseling programs designed to serve all students. Gang members are a unique student culture to be included within the “all students” framework and can benefit from school-based counseling services designed to enhance their academic, career, personal, and social development. Unfortunately, the findings in the present study revealed that there are impediments preventing PSCs from serving gang members. It seems as if the PSCs in the present study lacked role clarity in working with students in gangs, and there was a lack of intervention-based professional development. Not serving students in gangs led PSCs to believe they have nothing to offer those students through traditional counseling services, and this lack of efficacy may impact their role as advocates. Although this study was limited to one school district, the experiences and perceptions of PSCs and SLs in this study might not be unique. PSCs are uniquely trained and strategically located in school settings to provide valuable services to gang members that can help them feel accepted for who they are at the moment, while also helping them to focus on finding a meaningful pathway to their futures.



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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Jennifer Barrow, NCC, is an assistant professor at North Carolina Central University. Stanley B. Baker is a professor at North Carolina State University. Lance D. Fusarelli is a professor at North Carolina State University. Correspondence can be addressed to Jennifer Barrow, 700 Cecil Street, Durham NC 27707,