Considerations for School Psychologists Working With Arab American Children and Families
By Anisa N. Goforth
Ali, who is 7 years old, recently emigrated from Iraq during
the war and does not consider himself “American.” He does
not speak English fluently and teachers referred him to the
school psychologist because he is acting out in his classroom,
frequently yelling in Arabic. They are concerned that his
behavior is affecting his peers and his learning.
Zaynab, who is 16 years old, was born in Detroit and can
speak both Arabic and English fluently. She wears the hijab
(head covering) and is proud to be a Muslim American.
She has both Arab and non-Arab friends. She has recently
lost interest in activities, lacks appetite, and sleeps poorly.
The school psychologist suspects that Zaynab is experiencing
symptoms of depression, but Zaynab’s mother does not
want her to seek counseling because of “what it will look
like.” Moreover, the school psychologist is a male, and Zaynab’s
mother does not feel comfortable providing Zaynab
with a male counselor.
Ali and Zaynab are like the many Arab American
youth in schools across the United States.
Although their national backgrounds may differ,
their similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds as Arab Americans present a unique context in which
to provide school psychological services. There are an
estimated three million Arab Americans in the United
States, with 25% of the population under the age of 18
(Frisby & Reynolds, 2005). Given this significant population,
it is likely that some school psychologists come
across children from Arab backgrounds during their
career. Many school psychologists, however, may not be aware of the unique cultural characteristics and needs that
they must consider when providing culturally appropriate services.
The purpose of this article is to provide information about Arab American culture
and traditions that school psychologists may take into account when providing assessment,
consultation, and intervention services to Arab American youth and families.
Developing the skills and knowledge necessary for working with specific minority
populations, such as Arab Americans, is challenging because of the lack of available
research or resources. School psychologists who encounter Arab American children
and families in their practice may understand that they need to further their knowledge
and skills in working with this population, but may not have adequate resources
or information to provide culturally relevant services. There is limited discussion of
Arab Americans in school psychology texts or research. Texts available to school psychologists
on diverse populations (e.g., Frisby & Reynolds, 2005) include descriptions
of various minority groups such as Latino or African Americans, but many do not include
descriptions of Arab American groups. This lack of information may be partly
because Arab Americans are a relatively small minority group in the United States and
partly because there is generally not a significant research base regarding the provision
of psychological services to Arab Americans.
Despite the limited research and information, recent social and political context
in the United States suggests a need for information and understanding about Arab
American children and their families. The “War on Terror” and the events and aftermath
of September 11 have led to increased negative perceptions and acts of discrimination
toward the Arab American community (Haddad, 2004). In a report by the Council of
American–Islamic Relations, 135 cases of hate crimes occurred in 2007. Additionally, approximately
one in four Americans believe that Islam is associated with hatred and violence
(Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2006). Although most Arab Americans
are Christian (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004), the negative association of the Arab world
and Islam has led to increased discrimination against Arab Americans and Muslims.
These negative perceptions and acts of violence toward the Arab American community
may pose an additional stress to its members. Moreover, many Arab Americans are
also recent immigrants who may be experiencing acculturative stress. Mental health
problems frequently arise during acculturation. Research suggests Arab Americans
have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to the general
U.S. population (Rippy & Newman, 2006). These high rates of mental health problems
may suggest an increased need for school psychologists to provide support and
services. Additionally, surveys of Arab American youth suggest a high prevalence of
psychological problems. Sulaiman (2008) found that among Arab American youth,
30% were diagnosed with anxiety disorder, 28% with attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder, 24% with depressive disorder, 13% with oppositional defiant and conduct
disorders, and 6% with adjustment disorders.
Mental health concerns as well as the national attention on the Arab American community
suggest a need for a better understanding of the experiences of Arab Americans
and ways to provide culturally appropriate school psychological services. First, a brief
overview will be provided of the demographics and history of Arabs in the United States.
One facet of cultural competence is to increase one’s knowledge of specific ethnic
minority communities. Therefore, this article will provide a discussion of the unique
characteristics and experiences of Arab Americans. Then, specific suggestions will
be discussed about ways that school psychologists can consider cultural issues when
providing services. The purpose of this overview is not to generalize Arab Americans;
rather, it is intended to provide a basis from which school psychologists can provide
culturally competent services to Arab American children and families.
Who Are Arab Americans?
Americans of Arab descent are an ethnically and religiously diverse group. The term
“Arab American” encompasses Americans who trace their roots to numerous countries
in the Middle East and North Africa, including Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco, Palestine, Egypt,
Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (de la Cruz & Brittingham, 2005).
Although these nationalities are included in the term “Arab American,” there are significant
differences in traditions, practices, beliefs, and values within this group.
People of Arab descent have been in the United States for more than a century
and have experienced challenges similar to other immigrant groups. The first wave of
immigrants from Arab countries arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, when
immigrants were encouraged to assimilate to the Protestant culture and lose their
“foreign” traditions (Huseby-Darvas, 1994). After the end of World War II, a second
wave of immigrants arrived. The U.S. government had been interested in the oil fields
in the Arab world, and encouraged young Arabs to attend American universities in the
hope that they would return to their home country and support American interests
(Haddad, 2004). The Asia Exclusion Act of 1965 was revoked and this led to a dramatic
increase in the number of highly educated, professional immigrants (Haddad, 2004).
Indeed, currently 85% of Arab Americans have at least a high school diploma, and 40%
have a bachelor’s degree or higher (Arab American Institute, 2002).
There is diversity of religious beliefs among Arab Americans. According to the Arab
American Institute (2002), the majority of Arab Americans are Christian. Specifically,
35% are Roman/Eastern Catholic, followed by Muslim (24%), Eastern Orthodox (18%),
Protestant (10%), or other religions or no affiliations (13%). The public perception that
Arab Americans are mainly Muslim may suggest a misunderstanding of this population.
Nonetheless, because of the large percentage of Muslims in the Arab world, the cultural
traditions and practices associated with Islam are also held by Christian Arabs. Religion
and culture are intertwined in the Arab world. For example, many Christian Arab women
may wear the hijab, which is emphasized in Islamic traditions to maintain modesty.
In summary, Arab Americans are culturally, religiously, and racially diverse. Although
there are differences among Arab American communities in terms of specific
customs, traditions, and values, there is a great deal of commonality in that Arab Americans
have distinct traditions and practices that differ from other ethnic communities
in the United States.
Cultural Considerations in Service Delivery
Cultural competence is an important component in the provision of school psychological
services for Arab American youth and their families. Both NASP and APA emphasize
cultural competence within professional standards of practice (e.g., APA Guidelines on
Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists;
American Psychological Association, 2003). In school psychology, cultural
competence is not only an additional skill that psychologists must master, but it should
be integrated within all aspects of practice (Ortiz, Flanagan, & Dynda, 2008). Indeed,
cultural competence is considered one of the four domains of practice, as delineated in
the School Psychology: Blueprint for Training and Practice III (Ysseldyke et al., 2006).
Culturally competent service delivery includes three major components: awareness,
knowledge, and skills (Sue, 2001; Sue et al., 1982; Sue, 2006). First, psychologists
should be aware of, and sensitive to, their own values and biases and how these
biases may influence perceptions of the client, the client’s problem, and the working
relationship (Sue, 2006). Second, psychologists should develop cultural knowledge,
which includes an understanding of the sociopolitical context within which the client
is nested, sensitivity to different styles of communication, and knowledge of minority
family structures and indigenous practices (Sue, 2006). Finally, cultural competence
includes the ability to provide psychological services (e.g., consultation, assessment,
and intervention) in culturally sensitive and culturally relevant ways. Developing cultural
competence may include providing a variety of verbal and nonverbal responses to
the client or providing help that may not follow the Western style of help-giving, such
as utilizing religious or community leaders for supporting the client (Sue, 2006).
Considerations for Arab Americans. In this section, specific strategies and recommendations
are provided for school psychologists who may work with Arab American
children and families. As noted earlier, there are many within-group differences
among Arab Americans. While the following suggestions are meant to guide school
psychologists in the provision of culturally appropriate services, it is important that
school psychologists take time to learn about each child and his/her family, and the
context of the surrounding community.
Arab culture can be described as collective, in which the individual is embedded
within a patriarchal family context (Hammad, Kysia, Rabah, Hassoun, & Connelly,
1999). An individual’s economic and social status is highly connected with the family’s
status, and decisions are made with all members in mind. Family honor and avoidance
of shame are central in the Arab American culture. Family obligation, or filial piety, is
the sense of duty, respect, and deference to the family (Fuligni, Tseng, & Lam, 1999).
An individual’s actions or decisions not only affect the individual, but also affect the
entire family (Hammad et al., 1999). For example, when a child is disruptive in school,
his or her actions reflect upon and bring shame to the entire family.
As a result, family involvement is particularly important when working with Arab
American families (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2001). When an Arab American child is referred
to a problem-solving team for difficulties in school, school psychologists should
especially consider involving the family throughout the assessment and intervention
process. Including the family in all decisions will be important not only to help family
members feel that their honor is maintained, but also to promote acceptability of
the assessment or interventions.
Furthermore, with an understanding of the importance of family honor, school
psychologists may need to emphasize more than usual that all information regarding
the child and family is confidential. Because of the sense of shame related to the
child’s behavior, the family may not quickly or honestly share personal problems (Al-
Krenawi & Graham, 2000). Moreover, there may be stigma associated with receiving
mental health services (Soheilian & Inman, 2009). Arab Americans, as a result, may
choose not to reveal personal problems or not engage in help-seeking.
Given the significance of maintaining family honor and the stigma surrounding mental health problems, school psychologists should take a great deal of time to meet with the
family during initial stages of assessment. Involving the family early in the process and
providing many opportunities to develop trust and rapport will be essential in facilitating
the provision of services. During the assessment stage, school psychologists can discuss
their concerns and reinforce that all school professionals will maintain confidentiality.
Moreover, school psychologists should use a multisystem, collectivist approach when
gathering information during the assessment process (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson,
2003). When conducting interviews, for example, both the immediate and extended
family can be invited to the meeting. During the interviews, school psychologists could
gather various kinds of information, including levels of acculturation, educational and
child-care practices in their home country, and immigration history. The family’s immigration
history may be important because some Arab American families are refugees
from war, such as those from Kuwait, Iraq, or Iran. Questions during the interview can
determine whether the child or other family members experienced physical or emotional
stress (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson, 2003).
During the assessment process, it may also be important to gather information
about the child’s English language proficiency. Understanding issues related to the
process of second-language acquisition as well as the implications of being an English
language learner (Rhodes, Ochoa, & Ortiz, 2005) may be applicable for understanding
academic difficulties among Arab American youth. Some Arab American children may
speak only Arabic in the home, whereas others speak both English and Arabic. During
the initial interview with parents, it is important to ask questions about the degree to
which the child speaks English at home. Additionally, depending on the child’s age and
when the child arrived in the United States, it is important to understand the child’s
ability to write in Arabic. There are variants of Arabic language—there is a standard
Arabic that is typically used in writing and by the media, and a colloquial Arabic that
is considered the everyday spoken language. If a child is having difficulties in school
related to reading or writing, it may be useful to discuss with the parents the child’s
current Arabic speaking and writing abilities to gather more data about the child’s
learning difficulties in his or her native language.
In addition to the importance of family, another aspect of Arab culture that may have
implications for service delivery is the importance of religion. Among Arab Americans,
there is a strong association between religion and mental health (Amer & Hovey, 2005).
Religious practices, values, and beliefs are part of every aspect of the Arab American
community, including child rearing, education, and relationships with others (Ajrouch,
2000). For example, if an individual experiences mental illness, Arab Americans may
perceive that individual as “touched by demons (jinn) or that God is punishing him”
(Hammad et al., 1999, p. 18). Traditionally, religious leaders are sought to intervene
for personal or mental health concerns. If a family is having difficulties with their children’s
behavioral or emotional issues, the family may seek help from a religious leader,
such as an imam (Abu-Ras, Gheith, & Cournos, 2008).
School psychologists should consider religion when providing services to Arab Americans.
For example, school psychologists could include cultural consultants, such as religious
leaders or other respected members of the Arab American community, when
providing services (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson, 2003). Including cultural consultants
may facilitate rapport and trust with the family, and may help encourage Arab
American families to seek mental health support. Another way to consider religion is
during the assessment stage, when school psychologists may consider conducting a religious
history (Chaleby, 1992). Religion is often infused in Arab American ethnic and cultural
identities, especially for Muslim Arab Americans. Identifying oneself as Muslim has
strong implications for psychological adjustment. Research indicates, for example, that
Muslims who endorse higher intrinsic religiosity have better overall mental health (Amer
& Hovey, 2005). This information will be useful in understanding how the family practices
its religion and whether religion plays a role in the child’s presenting problem.
Gender is also important to consider when providing services to Arab Americans.
Traditionally, there are different expectations for females and males in Arab culture.
Girls may be expected to stay at home whereas the boys are to seek secondary education
and jobs (Gregg, 2005). Girls and boys are expected to be physically separate and
only have interactions if they are members of the same family. Moreover, many Arab
families are patriarchal, in which the father makes all major decisions for the family.
When working with Arab American families, school psychologists should consider
addressing the father during family meetings. School psychologists should not try to
change the power hierarchy in the family, as this could damage rapport (Al-Krenawi
& Graham, 2000). Additionally, school psychologists should be aware that being the
opposite gender to the client may present some difficulties (Al-Krenawi & Graham).
If the referred child is female and the school psychologist is male, for example, maintaining
certain gender boundaries will be necessary. Al-Kranawi and Graham suggest
using certain “culturally appropriate techniques as referring to the client as ‘my sister,’
maintaining minimal eye contact and appropriate physical distance between client
and worker, and integrating the family in many, if not all, stages of treatment” (p.
13). This boundary may be especially important if the client is an adolescent or young
adult. If possible, it may be more culturally appropriate to seek a colleague of the same
gender to provide services.
Finally, school psychologists should consider the unique Arab American cultural
values when providing counseling or therapy. Unfortunately, there is a lack of research
examining whether Western-style counseling or therapy is effective with Arab Americans
(Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2001). Nevertheless, research reviews have suggested that
considering the culture of Arab American clients is important when providing counseling.
For example, information gathered during assessment will help inform the extent
to which religion or other cultural factors play a role in the presenting problem. Establishing
rapport early with the child and his or her family will also be essential when
providing counseling (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson, 2003). Rather than using
the typical Western insight-oriented approach to therapy, counseling may be more
effective in the context of developing a therapeutic relationship within a “benevolent
authority role” (Nassar-McMillan & Hakim-Larson). In other words, rather than focusing
on the client’s beliefs about the self, the school psychologist may be more effective
if developing a caring yet hierarchical relationship with the client. Erikson and
Timimi (2001) suggest that instead of focusing on the child’s individuation from the
family as the goal for treatment, counselors should focus on understanding the child’s
treatment needs in the context of interactions within the family.
Developing Arab American cultural competence is important given the current
social and political context and the increasing need to meet the needs of this underrepresented
group. Therefore, when providing school services to Arab American children
and their families, school psychologists should consider the importance of family
honor, the culture-based stigma related to mental health services, the role of religion,
and gender expectations. Understanding Arab American culture and the unique factors
that affect service delivery will help school psychologists provide more culturally
appropriate services to children like Ali and Zaynab.
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