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The Inclusion of Cultural Brokers in School Crisis Response: Becoming a More Culturally Competent School Psychologist

By Silvia C. Pastor & Barbara Bole Williams

A crisis is typically understood to be an unexpected, traumatic event that alters an individual’s sense of security and familiarity. At times, the experience may be overwhelming for those who are exposed to drastic and tragic adjustments in their personal environment. Whether the situation is volatile in nature and/or there is a threat to the survival of an individual or group of individuals, the crisis often renders a person with feelings of vulnerability and helplessness.

Crisis Response

Best practice suggests that crisis response should be tailored to the cultural groups involved in the unexpected events. While crisis responders from the same cultural group can provide an important communication link with the population that they represent (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003), school crisis response has become a responsibility delegated to all educators and service providers. Survivors react to and recover from crisis within the context of their individual backgrounds, viewpoints, and values (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003; Sandoval & Lewis, 2002; Young, 1997). Children are an especially vulnerable population during and following a disaster (Belfer, 2006; Jones, 2008; Noris et al., 2002). They depend on teachers and staff for emotional support and school-based crisis intervention efforts (Agger, 2004; Allen & Ashbaker, 2004; Heath & Sheen, 2005) to restore a balance between the environment and their perception of their world as a safe and secure place.

School psychologists are increasingly more involved in providing crisis response within multicultural communities. According to Young (1997), culture greatly influences what type of threat or event is perceived as traumatic, how individuals interpret the meaning of crisis, and how individuals and communities express traumatic reactions. Sadly, research has shown that there is limited awareness among school psychologists about how multiple factors and student diversity influence the provision of crisis intervention services (Allen et al., 2004). PREPaRE Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Curriculum (Brock, Nickerson, Reeves, & Jimerson, 2008), integrates mental health support services and strengthens emergency preparedness in school systems. As a school-based crisis intervention, it aims to be inclusive of cultural and community needs. After reviewing the complexities of crisis and the emotional needs of children, it is crucial that crisis responders increase their cultural sensitivity in order to competently meet the needs of student(s) and parent(s).

The Role of Cultural Brokers in Schools

One way to ensure that crisis response is tailored to the population in crisis is for school psychologists to partner with cultural brokers before, during, and in the aftermath of any crisis situation (Silva & Klotz, 2006). According to NASP (2004), cultural brokers are representatives of particular ethnic or language groups who serve as parent liaisons. Cultural brokers may serve as intermediaries and bridge the cultural gap by communicating differences and similarities between cultures. The act of cultural brokerage addresses the cultural needs of the student and, in turn, makes the school psychologist more sensitive to diversity needs. The participation and commitment of cultural brokers are as integral to the effectiveness of the intervention as any other school crisis team member. Service providers should ideally represent the cultural and linguistic makeup of their educational system. Cultural brokers can effectively play four distinct roles in educational settings to increase cultural competency (adopted from The National Center for Cultural Competence, 2004): as liaisons, cultural guides, mediators, and catalysts for change.

Cultural brokers as liaisons. Cultural brokers serve as communicators and liaisons between the student(s)/parent(s) and the educational providers in their school system. Cultural brokers are knowledgeable in two realms: (a) the educational values, beliefs, and practices of their cultural groups or community; and (b) the educational system that they have learned to navigate effectively for students and their families.

Cultural brokers as cultural guides. Cultural brokers may serve as guides for school systems that are in the process of incorporating culturally and linguistically competent principles, values, and best practices. In turn, they practice the tenets of effective cross-cultural nuances of both verbal and nonverbal communication. They not only understand the strengths and needs of the community, but also are cognizant of the structures and functions of their school setting. A critical requisite for the cultural broker is having the respect and trust of the community. Using a community member as a cultural broker is acknowledgement that this expertise resides within the community. Cultural brokers can (a) assist in developing educational materials that will help student(s)/parent(s) to learn more about the educational system and its functions and (b) provide guidance on implementing educational diversity initiatives.

Cultural brokers as mediators. Cultural brokers can mediate the historical and inherent distrust that many racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse communities may have toward educational organizations. Historical influences such as racism and discrimination, war, and interment, as well as social and economic inequality may cause minority groups to distrust offers of assistance, face majority anger and blame, and have limited access to resources. As mediators, cultural brokers promote increased use of educational services within the respective communities. Two elements are essential to the delivery of effective services: (a) the ability to establish and maintain trust and (b) the capacity to devote sufficient time to build a meaningful relationship between the provider and the student(s)/parent(s).

Cultural brokers as catalysts for change. Cultural brokers are change agents because they can initiate the transformation of an educational setting by creating an inclusive and collaborative environment for educators and student(s)/parent(s) alike. Moreover, cultural brokers model and mentor behavioral change, which can break down bias, prejudice, and other institutional barriers that exist in the educational system and work toward changing intergroup and interpersonal relationships.

School Psychologists Becoming Culturally Competent Crisis Responders

According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2002), approximately one in every five children in the United States comes from a home where at least one parent is of foreign birth. The population of students and families who are served by school psychologists will continue to reflect increased diversity with regard to race or ethnicity, language, cultural background, and familial composition. Despite the growing diversity of student populations, there is a national shortage of school psychologists and a clear underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse school psychologists. Moreover, the training that school psychologists have received may not adequately prepare them to work with students from diverse cultural, linguistic, and economic backgrounds. Without cross-cultural competence, “critical resources are not engaged, important changes to improve the cultural and linguistic relevance of the instructional environment are not made, the teacher remains uninformed, the parents uninvolved, and the child’s needs go unmet” (Tarver Behring & Ingraham, 1998, as cited in Rogers & Lopez, 2002, pg. 116). This raises a need for cultural brokerage to be incorporated into school psychology practices.

Being a culturally competent school psychologist calls for an individual to

  • Actively be in the process of becoming aware of his or her own assumptions about human behavior, values, biases, preconceived notions, personal limitations, etc. (Sue & Sue, 2008).
  • Thoroughly attempt to understand the world views of his or her culturally different client(s) (Arredondo & Arciniega, 2008; Sue & Sue, 2008).
  • Enthusiastically develop and practice appropriate, relevant, and sensitive intervention strategies and skills in working with his or her culturally different client(s) (Sue & Sue, 2008).
  • Be aware of cultural social status and gender conventions to ensure high status/level of acceptance within cultural norms (Sandoval & Lewis, 2002).
  • Use cross-cultural service interventions that are presented in culturally relevant terms (Young, 1997).
  • Ensure an organized response that coordinates and is considerate of culturerelated needs, such as access to interpreters, religious healers, and community figures (Athey & Moody-Williams, 2003; NASP, 2004; Young, 1997).

Cultural brokers are able to recognize the values that guide and mold the attitudes and behaviors of a culture. They assess and understand their own cultural identities and value systems as well as involve community-based groups in the crisis prevention and response plan. By connecting with various “civic associations/social clubs, neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations/interfaith groups, mutual aid societies/voluntary organizations, healthcare and social service providers, and nonprofit advocacy organizations” (NASP, 2004, para. 10), they are ensuring an organized crisis response that is cumulatively reflective of the needs of a culturally diverse population. Furthermore, they will have a strong understanding of a community’s traditional educational beliefs, practices, and changes that have occurred through acculturation. In essence, they advocate for the student to ensure the delivery of effective culturally competent educational practices. Incorporation of some of these cultural brokerage skills in their work is an appropriate endeavor for school psychologists practicing in increasing diverse school environments.

Silvia C. Pastor, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Director of the School Psychology Program, College of Arts and Sciences, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ.
Barbara Bole Williams, PhD, NCSP, is Professor and Coordinator of the School Psychology Program, College of Education, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is also a PREPaRE trainer.


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