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UCLA School Mental Health Project
Center for Mental Health in Schools
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Continuing Education: Unit III

Addressing Barriers to Learning
New Directions for Mental Health in Schools

Section A Continued

Accounting for Cultural, Racial, and
Other Significant Individual and Group Differences

All interventions to address barriers to learning and promote healthy development must consider significant individual and group differences.

In this respect, discussions of diversity and cultural competence offer some useful concerns to consider and explore. For example, the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a 1994 document entitled A Guide to Enhancing the Cultural Competence of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs, outlines some baseline assumptions which can be broadened to read as follows:

Those who work with youngsters and their families can better meet the needs of their target population by enhancing their competence with respect to the group and its intragroup differences.

Developing such competence is a dynamic, on-going process -- not a goal or outcome. That is, there is no single activity or event that will enhance such competence. In fact, use of a single activity reinforces a false sense of that the "problem is solved."

Diversity training is widely viewed as important, but is not effective in isolation. Programs should avoid the "quick fix" theory of providing training without follow-up or more concrete management and programmatic changes.

Hiring staff from the same background as the target population does not necessarily ensure the provision of appropriate services, especially if those staff are not in decision-making positions, or are not themselves appreciative of, or respectful to, group and intragroup differences.

Establishing a process for enhancing a program's competence with respect to group and intragroup differences is an opportunity for positive organizational and individual growth.

The Bureau document goes on to state that programs:

are moving from the individually-focused "medical model" to a clearer understanding of the many external causes of our social problems ... why young people growing up in intergenerational poverty amidst decaying buildings and failing inner-city infrastructures are likely to respond in rage or despair. It is no longer surprising that lesbian and gay youth growing up in communities that do not acknowledge their existence might surrender to suicide in greater numbers than their peers. We are beginning to accept that social problems are indeed more often the problems of society than the individual.

These changes, however, have not occurred without some resistance and backlash, nor are they universal. Racism, bigotry, sexism, religious discrimination, homophobia, and lack of sensitivity to the needs of special populations continue to affect the lives of each new generation. Powerful leaders and organizations throughout the country continue to promote the exclusion of people who are "different," resulting in the disabling by-products of hatred, fear, and unrealized potential.

... We will not move toward diversity until we promote inclusion ... Programs will not accomplish any of (their) central missions unless ... (their approach reflects) knowledge, sensitivity, and a willingness to learn.

In their discussion of "The Cultural Competence Model," Mason, Benjamin, and Lewis* outline five cultural competence values which they stress are more concerned with behavior than awareness and sensitivity and should be reflected in staff attitude and practice and the organization's policy and structure. In essence, these five values are

  1. Valuing Diversity -- which they suggest is a matter of framing cultural diversity as a strength in clients, line staff, administrative personnel, board membership, and volunteers.
  2. Conducting Cultural Self-Assessment -- to be aware of cultural blind spots and ways in which one's values and assumptions may differ from those held by clients.
  3. Understanding the Dynamics of Difference -- which they see as the ability to understand what happens when people of different cultural backgrounds interact.
  4. Incorporating Cultural Knowledge -- seen as an ongoing process.
  5. Adapting to Diversity -- described as modifying direct interventions and the way the organization is run to reflect the contextual realities of a given catchment area and the sociopolitical forces that may have shaped those who live in the area..
*In Families and the Mental Health System for Children and Adolescence, edited by C.A. Heflinger & C.T. Nixon (1996). CA: Sage Publications.

In most situations, direct or indirect accusations that "You don't understand" are valid. Indeed, they are givens. After all, it is usually the case that one does not fully understand complex situations or what others have experienced and are feeling.

With respect to efforts to build working relationships, accusing someone of not understanding tends to create major barriers. This is not surprising since the intent of such accusations generally is to make others uncomfortable and put them on the defensive. It is hard to build positive connections with a defensive person. Avoidance of "You don't understand" accusations may be a productive way to reduce at least one set of major barriers to establishing working relationships.

At this point, what are you ideas about how to maximize good working relationships at your school?

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Contents of Section A

One Other Observation

Finally, it is essential to remember that individual differences are the most fundamental determinant of whether a good relationship is established. This point was poignantly illustrated by the recent experience of the staff at one school.

A Korean student who had been in the U.S.A. for several years and spoke comprehensible English came to the center seeking mental health help for a personal problem. The center's policy was to assign Korean students to Asian counselors whenever feasible. The student was so assigned, met with the counselor, but did not bring up his personal problem. This also happened at the second session, and then the student stopped coming.

In a follow-up interview conducted by a nonAsian staff member, the student explained that the idea of telling his personal problems to another Asian was too embarrassing.

Then, why had he come in the first place?

Well, when he signed up, he did not understand he would be assigned to an Asian; indeed, he had expected to work with the "blue-eyed counselor" a friend had told him about.

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Contents of Section A

A Few References Related to Working Relationships

J.K. Brilhart & G.J. Galanes (1995). Effective Group Discussion (8th ed.). Madison, WI: WCB Brown & Benchmark.

J.L. Epstein (1995). School/Family/Community Partnerships: Caring for the Children We Share. Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 701-713.

K. Hooper-Briar & H.A. Lawson (1994) Serving children, Youth and Families Through Interprofessional Collaboration and Service Integration: A Framework for Action. Oxford, OH: Danforth Foundation and the Institute for Educational Renewal at Miami University.

K. Hooper-Briar & H.A. Lawson (Eds.) (1996). Expanding Partnerships for Vulnerable Children, Youth, and Families. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

A. Melaville & M. Blank (1991). What It Takes: Structuring Interagency Partnerships to Connect Children and Families with Comprehensive Services. Washington, D.C.: Education and Human Services Consortium.

F. Rees (1993). 25 Activities for Teams. San Diego CA: Pfeiffer & Co.

L. Rosenblum, M.B. DiCecco, L. Taylor, & H.S. Adelman (1995). Upgrading school support programs through collaboration: Resource Coordinating Teams. Social Work in Education, 17, 117-124.

S.A. Rosenfield & T.A. Gravois (1996). Instructional Consultation Teams: Collaborating for Change. New York: Guilford.

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Contents of Section A

Test Questions -- Unit III: Section A

(1) Of the various necessary ingredients in building positive working relationships, list three of those covered in this unit.




(2) Enumerate three of the five cultural competence values as defined by Mason, Benjamin, & Lewis (1996).




(3) There is a danger inherent in making prejudgments based on apparent cultural awareness.

True ____ False____

(4) Poor working relationships arise whenever there are individual, racial, or cultural differences.

True ____ False____

(5) Which of the following are things to do to help build working relationships and effective communication?

____ (a) convey empathy and warmth

____ (b) convey genuine regard and respect

____ (c) talk with, not at, others

____ (d) a & b

____ (e) all the above

This is the end of Unit III Section A.

Move on to:
Unit III Section B

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Contents of Section A
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