A Culturally Sensitive Counseling and Research Framework (2023)

Cynthia C. Morris, Ph.D.

I have been a School Counselor for the past 16 years in Fairfax and Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia. I have also taught Multicultural Counseling and Education and Culture as an adjunct professor at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA and Practices of School Counseling at Marymount University, Arlington, VA. I hope to continue to research, write, and work within the counseling field on issues of developing cross-cultural competencies.

The purpose of my presentation at the American Counselors Association convention in April, 2006 will be to share the story of how narrative theory has provided me with a culturally sensitive theoretical framework in my role as both a school counselor and as an educational researcher. I will share my research study that proposed to further the understanding of how the label of learning disability (LD) may affect identity development and particularly how culture may influence that effect.

Narrative theory has provided me with a model that has served to deepen my understanding of the numerous and complex issues that face the diverse student population with whom all school counselors have the privilege to counsel in today’s schools. Schools, however, continue to be challenged in addressing the academic needs of the Latino students in our schools as evidenced in a recent local newspaper article that stated, “The graduation gap between Latino students and their classmates is an issue school districts are struggling with across the country.” (McNeill, 2005). The article particularly addresses the issue as it confronts the Washington DC metropolitan school districts and specifically Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), where “in the past five school years, the number of Latinos who dropped out from Fairfax County schools has more than doubled – far more than their white, black or Asian classmates.” (McNeill, 2005). Juan Pacheco, a Latino community activist and former FCPS student, shares that, “existing programs in school and community centers need to find better ways to engage children and provide them with ‘culturally appropriate’ role models.” (Schumitz, 2004). School counselors have the ethical mandate to find culturally appropriate ways to intervene in Latino students lives in order to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to achieve academically. Due to the underlying assumptions and the theoretical concepts based on those assumptions, narrative theory has the propensity to provide counselors with a culturally sensitive framework from which to build a counseling practice that takes culture into consideration.

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The counseling discipline has recently begun to take culture into consideration when assessing and treating the individual and the field continues to search for a theoretical model that will provide a culturally sensitive methodology. Narrative theory, I believe, is an emerging theoretical model which does provide counselors with that necessary framework. Narrative therapy’s theoretical assumptions are based on a comprehensive understanding of the importance of culture in the identity development of the individual. George S. Howard (1991) makes this same discovery in his article, Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy, as do Alan Parry and Robert Doan, 1994, in their book, Story revisions: Narrative therapy in the postmodern world. Parry & Doan (1994) view the underlying assumptions of narrative therapy as bringing therapy into the postmodern world and completely revolutionizing the role of the counselor and the process of assessment and treatment. The major narrative assumptions they outline are:

Ø There is no truth, only different interpretations of reality. Meaning, therefore, becomes what is most important and meaning is constructed in social, cultural, and political contexts.

Ø All people create meaning through narratives (stories). We live our lives according to the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that others tell about us.

Ø Culture is a peoples’ collected stories. Culture, therefore, is the most influential determinant in peoples’ lives.

Ø There is no one knowable self, but there are many selves.

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Ø The person is never the problem. The problem is the problem – a problem story.

These assumptions of narrative thought vastly change the traditional role of the counselor and counseling practice (assessment and treatment) and allow for culture to be taken into account.

Based on these assumptions the counselor’s role becomes more of a cultural anthropologist who takes a stance of curiosity and of not knowing with the student as they ask students to reflect on the stories that shape their lives. Assessment, in the narrative counseling process, is also vastly different from traditional therapies. The assessment process is more like a process of discovery where the counselor’s role is to assess the problem rather than to assess the student. The problem is taken out of the person through a process called externalization (Parry & Doan, 1994). This process is often accomplished through objectifying the problem by encouraging the student to name the problem. By questioning the student about how the problem is influencing relationships with peers, family, teachers, etc., the counselor and the student are able to map the influence of the problem. This narrative way of assessment allows a student to express their problem story through their own cultural lens and therefore decreases the risk of cultural misunderstandings.

Narrative therapy also opens the door to allow the counselor to become a researcher and to utilize narrative research methods to deepen one’s understanding of the issues and problems that may face a student. This narrative approach to research seemed the most likely one to choose; therefore, when I researched the educational issue of how the label of LD affected the identity development of the Salvadoran male students I was referring to special education services in my practice as an elementary school counselor. By utilizing the narrative research methodology of Brown & Gilligan’s (1992) longitudinal study of adolescent girls, I was able discover that the Salvadoran boys were tending to view the LD label as an intrinsic condition, such as mental retardation, and that they felt somehow responsible for being LD. This belief seemed to be influenced by cultural meanings of disability that were more severe in definition than the other cultural groups of the study. As a result of these findings, I have worked more carefully with the parents of any student whom I may refer to the special education process as to their understanding of their child’s academic difficulties. Salvadoran parents in particular may need clarification of the dominant culture’s LD meanings. I seek advice from leaders and community activists as to what that particular cultural group’s meaning of disability might be so that I may be more sensitive to the impact of that meaning if the student receives the LD label. I collaborate with the parent liaisons who are culturally and linguistically sensitive to the different cultural groups represented in the school to help inform parents of the special education process. I work more closely with the classroom teacher in the pre-referral phase to make certain teachers have a variety of culturally sensitive teaching methodologies and resources to utilize when working with diverse students’ educational issues. I have also shared my research with educators through my adjunct teaching at George Mason University’s educational cohort program’s course, Education and Culture, which teaches teachers the action research methodology of the Cultural Inquiry Process (Jacob, 1995). By utilizing the Cultural Inquiry Process teachers can take culture into consideration when they are faced with educational issues in their diverse classrooms.

Narrative counseling and research provide a culturally sensitive context for creating change in a student’s life by helping the student to deconstruct the old problem story and to re-vision a preferred story. The counselor listens for the student’s self-descriptions of stories of strength and strengthens the new story by helping the student to notice areas in his/her life where the new story is growing. By co-creating the revised story, there is less chance of dominating the student with one’s own cultural biases.

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Narrative theory, therefore, is a springboard for consistently doing culturally sensitive work as a counselor. This theoretical framework, due to its underlying assumptions, includes the larger system into the therapeutic and research process by taking into account cultural themes, social injustices, history, gender issues, politics, acculturation issues, immigration and the politics of therapy. Narrative counseling helps people identify what they want in their own lives and to re-connect with their own knowledge and strength. Based on the theoretical assumptions of the importance of culture, narrative counseling will often include the healing processes of the clients’ culture (spirituality, dreams, prayers) (Waldegrave, 1990). Narrative thinking provides the counselor a way to consistently provide services that take into account cultural differences (language and the way it promotes certain concepts and reduces others, definitions of behavior, patterns of thinking, family structures, expressions of distress, etc.) (Waldegrave, 1990). As a counselor working in a very diverse society, this theoretical framework is one that I believe gives me a story of becoming an effective cross-cultural counselor.


Brown, L.M., & Gilligan, C. (1992). Meeting at the crossroads: Women’s psychology and girls’ development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Howard, G.S. (1991). Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46, (3), 187-197.

Jacob, E., (1995). Reflective practice and anthropology in culturally diverse classrooms. The Elementary School Journal, 95, 451-463.

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McNeill, B. (2005, May 19). Schools struggle with Latino dropouts: Why are so many Latino teenagers dropping out from Fairfax County schools? Retrieved August 9, 2005, from http://www.connectionnewspapers.com.

O’Hanlon, B. (1994). The third wave. The Family Therapy Networker. 19-29.

Schumitz, K. (2004, August 31). Barrios Unidos worker critiques gang policies. Retrieved August 9, 2005, from http://www.timescommunity.com.

Waldegrave, C. (1990). Just therapy. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1, 5-46.

Waters, D. (1994). Prisoners of our metaphors: Do dialogic therapies make our methods obsolete? The Family Therapy Networker, 73-75.

(Video) Culturally Sensitive Assessment and Interviewing

White M. (1995). Reauthoring lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.


What is are the main goals of the cultural sensitive therapy movement? ›

Culturally sensitive therapy emphasizes the therapist's understanding of a client's background, ethnicity, and belief system. Therapists can incorporate cultural sensitivity into their work to accommodate and respect differences in opinions, values, and attitudes of various cultures and different types of people.

What are the assumptions of narrative theory? ›

The major narrative assumptions they outline are: Ø There is no truth, only different interpretations of reality. Meaning, therefore, becomes what is most important and meaning is constructed in social, cultural, and political contexts. Ø All people create meaning through narratives (stories).

What theoretical approach is narrative therapy? ›

Narrative therapy is based on social constructivism theory and considers the reality as socially constructed and based on the way we interact with others.

Why is it important for counselors to understand themselves as cultural beings as part of their development of cultural competence? ›

Cultural competence in counseling is a crucial factor in ensuring successful outcomes for all patients, and as the U.S. population becomes more diverse, proficiency in multicultural counseling is becoming a critical component in the training of new counselors.

What is an example of cultural sensitivity? ›

➢Example: People who seamlessly interact with others from different cultures by following the norms of that culture. They feel that they can respect their own values while adapting to the values of other cultures they interact with.

How can Counselling be culturally sensitive? ›

Culturally sensitive therapy emphasizes the therapist's understanding of a client's background, ethnicity, and belief system. Therapists can incorporate cultural sensitivity into their work to accommodate and respect differences in opinions, values, and attitudes of various cultures and different types of people.

Who is narrative therapy not good for? ›

One of the major cons of Narrative Therapy is that it is not helpful for those with intellectual disabilities or language issues.

How is narrative theory used in research? ›

The researchers write their findings, then review and analyze them. To conduct narrative analysis, researchers must understand the background, setting, social and cultural context of the research subjects. This gives researchers a better idea of what their subjects mean in their narration.

How does culture affect counseling? ›

Race, ethnicity, and cultural background may influence a client's identity and life circumstances. Other factors, such as gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, religion, and ability may also play into the context of a given client's mental health, and relational or personal issues.

What is gestalt theory in Counselling? ›

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is centered on increasing a person's awareness, freedom, and self-direction. It's a form of therapy that focuses on the present moment rather than past experiences. Gestalt therapy is based on the idea that people are influenced by their present environment.

What is multicultural theory counseling and therapy? ›

Multicultural counseling is a term used to describe a specific type of counseling practice that acknowledges how various aspects of a patient's cultural identity might influence their mental health.

What are the limitations of narrative therapy? ›

Cons of Narrative Therapy

Some professionals also critique the assumption that there are no absolute truths in life. It's not for everyone. Your unique needs are different from anyone else's. If trauma limits your cognitive, intellectual, or language skills, you may not be ready for narrative therapy.

What is culturally sensitive therapy? ›

Culturally sensitive therapy emphasizes the therapist's understanding of a client's background, ethnicity, and belief system. Therapists can incorporate cultural sensitivity into their work to accommodate and respect differences in opinions, values, and attitudes of various cultures and different types of people.

Why Cultural awareness is important in counseling? ›

When counselors have cultural awareness and competence, the clients they serve are more likely to engage, reach their goals, and have a positive experience with behavioral health services.

What are some methods for developing cultural awareness in counseling? ›

Use these tips from the American Psychological Association to be more culturally aware:
  • Think beyond race and ethnicity. A person's culture is shaped by more than the color of their skin or the way that they dress. ...
  • Learn by asking. ...
  • Make local connections. ...
  • Pay attention to non-verbal behaviors. ...
  • Exchange stories.
Jul 22, 2019

What 4 factors affect cultural sensitivity? ›

Certain factors can affect cultural sensitivity. These factors include religion, ethnicity(race), national origin(language), or gender.

What is cultural sensitivity and why is it important? ›

Cultural sensitivity allows us to respond in a respectful and appropriate manner to different types of people in a way that recognizes and affirms their worth, regardless of their cultural background. Cultural sensitivity is especially important in helping professionals such as doctors, psychologists, and nurses.

What are the components of cultural sensitivity? ›

The six stages include: denial, defense, minimization, acceptance, adaption, and integration (Bennett, 1986). Though each stage can be reached, not everyone is able to complete the process and integrate into the culture.

How can counselors be culturally responsive? ›

Culturally responsive counselors utilize self-care and mindfulness to help themselves and their clients accept what they cannot change. But they don't stop there. They also engage in activism and advocacy when there are injustices and circumstances that must change.

Why is cultural sensitivity important in mental health? ›

It plays an important role in how people of different backgrounds express themselves, seek help, cope with stress and develop social supports. Culture affects every aspect of an individual's life, including how we experience, understand, express, and address emotional and mental distress.

What are the 6 stages of cultural competence? ›

The Cross framework emphasizes that the process of achieving cultural competency occurs along a continuum and sets forth six stages including: 1) cultural destructiveness, 2) cultural incapacity, 3) cultural blindness, 4) cultural pre-competence, 5) cultural competency and 6) cultural proficiency.

What is wrong with narrative therapy? ›

The concern is the tendency for therapists to value the client's perspective over cultural narratives. The values and morals of the therapists may influence the client in a potentially destructive manner or in a way that may impede healing.

What are the key concepts of narrative therapy? ›

The five techniques here are the most common tools used in narrative therapy.
  • Telling One's Story (Putting Together a Narrative) ...
  • Externalization Technique. ...
  • Deconstruction Technique. ...
  • Unique Outcomes Technique. ...
  • Existentialism.
Jun 18, 2017

How many sessions are needed for narrative therapy? ›

Often, small groups of people receive four to 10 sessions of NET together, although it can be provided individually as well. It is understood that the story a person tells himself or herself about their life influences how the person perceives their experiences and wellbeing.

What are the 3 types of narrative analysis? ›

While narrative analysis as a genre of interpretation includes several different frameworks, there are four typical narrative forms of analyses that may be used in concert with one another in a given study: structural, functional, thematic, and dialogic/performance.

What are examples of narrative research? ›

Examples of narrative inquiry in qualitative research include for instance: stories, interviews, life histories, journals, photographs and other artifacts.

What is an example of narrative theory? ›

Think about an instance where someone has told you a story–one where they chronicle in harrowing detail some misfortune or triumph they encountered, one concluded with a phrase like “and that's when I learned how to/how not to do something.” Not only was there a story, but there was also a lesson, a teachable moment ...

What are the 5 factors of culture? ›

The major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts. Language makes effective social interaction possible and influences how people conceive of concepts and objects.

What does culture mean in counseling? ›

Culture is a wide and complex collection of beliefs, practices, behaviors, rituals, and traditions that are associated with a particular group in a particular time and place.

What are the 5 Gestalt principles? ›

The classic principles of the gestalt theory of visual perception include similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and symmetry & order (also known as prägnanz).

What is the main goal of Gestalt therapy? ›

Gestalt therapy seeks to resolve the conflicts and ambiguities that result from the failure to integrate features of the personality. The goal of Gestalt therapy is to teach people to become aware of significant sensations within themselves and their environment so that they respond fully and reasonably to situations.

What are the 2 techniques of gestalt therapy? ›

The empty chair technique and the exaggeration exercise are two of many gestalt therapy techniques used to help people in therapy increase their awareness of immediate experiences.

What are the models of multicultural counseling? ›

They identified 10 definitional problems of the construct and six limitations of the three major models of multicultural counseling competence—skills-based, adaptation, and process-oriented.

Who founded multicultural counseling theory? ›

Sue, Ivey, and Pedersen (1996) developed multicultural theory, which is a metaframework or approach for working with culturally diverse clients. The theory holds six propositions, with supporting corollaries. Proposition 1 states that Multicultural Theory (MCT) is a metatheory of psychotherapy.

What are some ethical issues in multicultural counseling? ›

Examples Of Ethical Issues In Multicultural Counseling
  • Value Objectivity: Value Objectivity In Counselor. ...
  • Racial Oppression and Counseling a Client from an Ethnic Minority. ...
  • m. ...
  • Ethical Implications For A Counselor Case Study. ...
  • Dual Relationships Between Counselors and Clients. ...
  • Professional Counseling Relationships.

What does culturally sensitive care mean? ›

It is care that meets the social and cultural needs of diverse patient populations. An essential first step before learning about other cultures is an awareness of one's own beliefs, biases, values and cultural practices.

How do you practice cultural sensitivity? ›

Use these tips from the American Psychological Association to be more culturally aware:
  1. Think beyond race and ethnicity. A person's culture is shaped by more than the color of their skin or the way that they dress. ...
  2. Learn by asking. ...
  3. Make local connections. ...
  4. Pay attention to non-verbal behaviors. ...
  5. Exchange stories.
Jul 22, 2019

Why is cultural competence important in therapy? ›

Cultural competence in therapy can be beneficial to both therapists and their clients. It can help allow for a more comfortable and productive therapy session. It can also make the client feel heard and supported and cross any cultural barriers that may exist between client and therapist.

Why is culture important in therapy? ›

Acknowledging the role of culture in psychotherapy is important because it helps to frame specific expectations and customs within the psychotherapy experience. There are also expansive ways and approaches in psychotherapy that take into account varying cultural ways of being and understandings of health and healing.


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