Accessing School Counselors to Advocate for Students Adopted Transracially

by Susan Branco


I am a practicing Licensed Professional Counselor and work primarily with transracial adoptive families. When I began my doctoral studies in counselor education and supervision in 2012, I realized that despite significant gains in research related to adoptees and adoptee family development, little information was available on how professional school counselors work with students adopted transracially and their families. In my practice, I collaborated with many school counselors and found them to be active supporters of my clients. Therefore, I chose to pursue this line of research with the goal of disseminating to families and school counselors at large what we know about how school counselors work with transracially adopted students. The following is a summary of research findings that I hope will be useful to parents of transracially adopted elementary school students.

In 2010, the U.S. Census estimated that of all children living within U.S. households, 2.3% (more than two million) were adopted. A 2009 national survey indicated that approximately 40% of adoptive families are transracial, comprised of white adoptive parents with children of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background. Research suggests that although they represent a small percentage of children in the United States, transracial adoptees are overrepresented in schools’ special education programs and in receiving mental health services. Students adopted transracially (SATr) have unique needs related to adoption-related stigma, racial identity development, lasting effects from pre-adoption histories, and racism. Research indicates that SATr are at increased risk for academic delays that may require special education services. The social-emotional and mental health risks these students may encounter include bullying, racial and ethnic micro-aggressions, and marginalization based on adoption stigma. Elementary school counselors are often the first mental health providers these students will encounter. Yet many adoptive families know little about the services elementary school counselors can provide to meet the needs of students adopted transracially.

After decades of research, it is generally accepted within the professional mental health community that adopted persons and their families have both normative and unique developmental challenges. These include adoption-related tasks such as understanding the meaning of adoption, coping with adoption stigma, and coping with adoption-related loss. We also know that transracial adoptive placements include additional complexities, such as racial/ethnic identity development challenges.

It must be acknowledged that not all school counselors are well-versed in the issues surrounding adoption. Although researchers have long established that transracial adoptees and their families experience unique developmental challenges that encompass both adoption-related and multicultural components, the development of counselor competencies that address adoption issues is only in the beginning stages. More concerning are the number of studies that highlight the ways in which mental health providers are ill-prepared to address adoption-related issues.

Adoption-sensitive counseling approaches and techniques for adopted children and their families offer multiple strategies for mental health providers, including school counselors. However, most are practice-based recommendations and few have empirical evidence to support their effectiveness; continued research is needed. While adoption-sensitive counseling pertains to all adoptive families, including those with transracially adopted children, specific interventions for transracial adoptive families should include addressing issues of race and privilege.

Although an increasing number of studies demonstrate the unique needs of persons adopted transracially, research related to specific school needs for this population focuses mainly on teacher interventions. School counselors are poised to assist children adopted transracially through the delivery system of a comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school counseling program. Further, the ethical code of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) mandates that school counselors possess multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills, including the unique needs of transracially adopted students. In order to take best advantage of this resource when it is available to them, families of SATr must have an understanding of who school counselors are and what they do.

According to the ASCA, a comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school counseling program is organized and provided by elementary school counselors who hold a minimum of a master’s degree in counseling. These counselors provide services through a delivery system of core curriculum, individual student planning, responsive services, and indirect student services, thereby addressing an array of student socio-emotional and academic needs via individual and group counseling. At the same time, school counselors provide indirect services, such as consultation and collaboration, to advocate for students. Elementary school counselor consultations also include collaborations with parents and guardians in family-school partnerships. As part of an organized school-counseling program, elementary school counselors can provide direct individual counseling, group counseling, classroom guidance, consultation, community engagement, and advocacy to meet the developmental and multicultural needs of students adopted transracially and their families.

During my research, I interviewed 12 practicing professional school counselors with experience working with SATr. The majority of the participants identified as white and most reported some connections to adoption themselves, either as adoptive parents, adoptees, or siblings of adoptees. The data revealed that most school counselors in this sample demonstrated understanding of adoption-related developmental needs and the complexities of transracially adoptive families. They described interventions including individual and group counseling with specialized focus on needs of students. Also, many of them reported on advocacy efforts used to assist SATr and their families in student study and special education meetings.

Importantly, the school counselors in the study recommended that families of SATr take advantage of the support they can offer. Primarily, they urged families to share with school counselors their status as a transracial adoptive family, as this can sometimes be hard to discern. Secondly, they encouraged families of SATr to be open to discussions related to race/ ethnicity, micro-aggressions, and racism, and to partner collaboratively with school counselors. Unsurprisingly, topics related to race were ones the school counselors in the study felt most reluctant to broach with families, particularly if families did not express a desire to engage them.

Most study participants highly endorsed the need for school counselors to act as advocates for equity and inclusion for students adopted transracially and their families. Specifically, they described instances of supporting teachers to use more inclusive language surrounding all types of families, responding to stigmatizing language and/or assignments that marginalize SATr, and continuously reinforcing tolerance. Adoptive families should seek to collaborate with professional school counselors to access school- based support for children adopted transracially.

Susan Branco, PhD, LPC (VA), LCPC (MD), NCC, ACS, BC- TMH, is a transracial and transnational adoptee from Colombia, South America. She is an advocate for increased adoption-related research and training within counselor education and is passionate about improving mental health outcomes for transracially adopted persons. For fourteen years she maintained an independent clinical practice specializing in working with persons connected to adoption and foster care. Dr. Branco is a practicing counselor, clinical supervisor, and an Assistant Professor in the Counselor Education program at St. Bonaventure University. She has multiple peer-reviewed publications related to transracial adoption and clinical training and supervision practices for BIPOC counselors.

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