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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 37, #3
November 2008

Effective Communication With Black Families and Students

By Daphne Chandler, Elizabeth R. A'Vant, & Scott L. Graves
Members of the NASP African American Workgroup

Culture is a term that may be all-encompassing in describing the macro beliefs and traditions of a national group or discrete in its description of the micro systems of a unique group within a larger one. Whether working with groups on a national or local scale, it is important to understand groups holistically (e.g., national and neighborhood beliefs and communication styles). This is especially true for the Black community, as Black people in a given community may originate from many different parts of the world such as Africa, the Caribbean, or the United States. The use of the term “Black community” in this article is intentional as it has become a more universal descriptor. School personnel should be cognizant, however, of the preferred terminology in a given community. The Black community is a group that, culturally, is as dynamic as the word culture itself. For school psychologists, working effectively with Black families requires consideration of cultural attributes that reach as far back as Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the continued shaping of cultural attitudes in response to race politics from colonization across the diaspora today. Regardless of specific cultural ideologies, it is important in our racialized society that everyone feels acknowledged and supported. Further, know that it is possible to serve Black families effectively even in light of the vast range of national and local cultural beliefs that may characterize the Black community in your area.

Background on Black Families

African Aesthetic. Even though our Eurocentric thinking does not always recognize it, the base of the Black community is a collective of African roots that embraces community atmospheres, spirituality as an integral part of all life domains, and interactive communication and learning. These African traditions contrast with Western traditions, which make them critical for school psychologists to understand. For example, while Black children are used to an aesthetic of community support at home, the nature of Western schools is one of competition with peers.

Secondary Cultural Distinctions. In addition to the primary cultural distinctions of Black people (e.g., distinctions that all ethnic groups hold, such as religion, dance, food, etc.), the community holds unique secondary cultural distinctions engendered through the processes of acculturation and enculturation. Educators will witness such distinctions as what has been termed Ebonics, styles of dress, and seemingly disengaged dispositions. Sometimes positive and sometimes negative, secondary cultural distinctions within the Black community have aided in the protection of Blacks’ self-esteem, unity, and survival. School psychologists must recognize the resilience factors in Black cultural distinctions and use them for clients’ advancement.

Black Racial Identities. As a globally and historically subjugated group, much of Black identity formulation occurs through a need to make sense of the Black experience in a world ruled by Whites. For any one Black person, Black identity may infuse such cultural attitudes as Black Nationalism with Multiculturalism, or may be staunchly Separationist or naively “colorblind” (e.g., see Phelps, Taylor, & Gerard, 2001; Worrell, Cross, & Vandiver, 2001). Healthy Black racial identity includes understanding and acceptance of Blackness despite racism and forced lower status in society. Understanding the characterizations of various Black racial identities and the reasons behind them is arguably the most important aspect of an effective collaboration with a Black parent or child, as clients’ racial identities infl uence how, and indeed if, they will seek help in schools.

For example, it is important to realize that Black people in America have come to this country from many regions of the world. Many have come to America directly from Africa as descendants of slaves, as immigrants, and as refugees. Blacks’ roots are embedded in Africa; however, Black people also come by way of the Caribbean (including more than 50 islands and especially Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago), the Cape Verde Islands, and Europe/Bermuda. Black people present in a multitude of skin tones ranging from alabaster to deep mahogany. Over the years the community has been labeled Negroid, Colored, Negro, Black, Afro-American, and now African American. All of these things—physical appearance, home region, and accepted racial categorization—may have effects on racial identity. While labeled and categorized as “Black” or “African American,” Black people are not a homogenous group: the larger Black community is as diverse in some cultural aspects as it is in skin tone, comprised of African decendents with a distinct culture and subcultures that may vary one from the other.

Additional characteristics of Black people in America that should be generally known are listed below.

  • Many households are headed by women
  • Reliance on extended familial networks for support
  • Education is historically seen as a gateway to success

Communication Styles

  • Due to ingrained community-attitude, eye contact, interactive communicating (much like Native American story-talk), and speaking directly to the point is appreciated and respected.
  • Influenced by negative experiences of segregation, racism, and discrimination with society and the school system, communication with school staff is often guarded and defensive.
  • Cultural mistrust, defined as Blacks’ tendency to distrust Whites and Eurocentric systems, wherein students and parents may be apprehensive about disclosing information to school staff due to a belief that staff do not have their best interest in mind is reality-based, and may at times be so important a mindset that mistrustful sentiments may be extended to non-White individuals. Cultural mistrust is especially existent in situations of education repression of Black children, meaning the withholding of education resources such as general education or school materials and facilities that are offered in other schools.
  • There may be an intimidation factor deriving from feelings and/or realities of being less educated,
    as education repression across education levels has been a mainstay in the community.

Help-Seeking Behaviors

Historical underutilization of health services as a consequence of cultural mistrust and negative experiences with healthcare systems including experimentation (e.g., Tuskegee Syphilis Study).

  • Reluctance to have children referred and tested (i.e., Larry P. case).
  • Disapproval of prescribing psychoactive medication for children.
  • Compliance without commitment due to lack of true informed consent, which often means a lack of intervention integrity and long-term treatment effects.
  • General utilization of religious/pastoral services for counseling in lieu of other avenues.

Attribution of Handicapping Condition

  • Disability is believed to result from racism and discrimination; namely, misdiagnosis and disproportionate
    representation in special education.
  • Historical repression of education in Black communities.
  • Current ineffectiveness of schools in educating Black children.

Suggestions for Effective Intergroup Collaborations With Black Clients

To establish rapport and connect with Black clients, it is critical to:

  • Recognize the distinct cultural aspects of the group as rooted in African tradition and as evolved through acculturation and enculturation. Like other racial minorities in the U.S.,
    Black people have a culture that goes beyond America.
  • Understand Black racial identities in order to understand the needs and concerns of the client.
  • Acknowledge and mitigate cultural mistrust by openly addressing possible client concerns of being misunderstood or unappreciated as a racial minority.
  • Ensure informed consent.
  • Embrace cultural differences between communities as factors of resilience rather than factors of deficiency.

Black people in America are a uniquely diverse group, bound by a shared history, ancestral origin, and enculturation experiences. Committed to group success, this community is best approached with the understanding that their success is important for themselves, their families, and the nation.


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McAdoo, H. (2007). Black families (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLoyd, V., Hill, N., & Dodge, K. (2005). African American family life: Ecological and cultural diversity. New York: Guilford Publications.

Ogbu, J. U. (1993). Differences in cultural frame of reference. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 16, 483–506.

Phelps, R. E., Taylor, J. D., & Gerard, P. A. (2001). Cultural mistrust, ethnic identity, racial identity, and self-esteem among ethnically
diverse Black university students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 79, 209–216.

Whaley, A. L. (2001). Cultural mistrust: An important psychological construct for diagnosis and treatment of African Americans.
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Worrell, F. C., Cross, W. E., Jr., & Vandiver, B. J. (2001). Nigrescence theory: Current status and challenges for the future. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 29, 201–213.

Daphne R. Chandler, NCSP, is a school psychologist and PhD student in UW-Madison’s School Psychology program. During her graduate school tenure, she has held two lead project assistant positions in the university’s top racial minority entrance programs: The P.E.O.P.L.E. Program and the Posse Foundation. She currently serves as National Coordinator of NASP’s CLD Ambassadors of Recruitment Program. Elizabeth Rose A’Vant is Lead School Psychologist in the Providence Public School District. She is Cochair of the NASP Multicultural Aff airs Committee and President of the Rhode Island School Psychologists Association. Scott Graves, PhD, NCSP, is an Assistant Professor of School Psychology at Bowling Green State University.