Cross-Gender Interactions in Middle School Counselor-Student Working Alliances: Challenges and Recommendations

Article excerpt

Middle school counselors are involved in cross-gender interactions with students daily. In order to explore middle school counselors' experiences in cross-gender student-counselor working alliances, interviews were conducted with 22 practicing middle school counselors. Selections from the resulting conversations reveal that female and male middle school counselors describe their same-gender counselor-student relationships as less challenging and perceive more challenges in their cross-gender relationships in school counseling. Recommendations are offered for cross-gender relationship building for middle school counselors working with students.

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Middle school students in the early adolescent period of the life span often seek mentoring and support from adults other than their parents (Kroger, 1999). Female and male adolescents often gravitate toward adults in their middle schools such as coaches and school counselors for support and mentoring (Gerler, 1991), and school counselors agree that students repeatedly approach adults that are their same gender. Regardless of gender, one of the most crucial goals for middle school counselors is to provide a blend of challenge and support that promotes autonomy, decision-making skills, academic salience, and identity development among early adolescents (Gerler; Rice, 1999). However, given some of the gender-specific personal concerns and hesitations that earl), adolescents have, middle school counselors may experience their same-gender and cross-gender student-counselor relationships differently. In fact, the experiences and challenges I faced as a past school counselor working with male adolescent middle school students led me to speculate about other school counselors' experiences with cross-gender relationships in middle schools.

Community agency counselors' subjective accounts suggest challenges that exist for female counselors working with male adolescents and male counselors working with female adolescents (Okamoto & Chesney-Lind, 2000). In addition, past research highlights the preferences of same-race and same-gender student-counselor relationships for high school students (Esters & LeDoux, 2001) and has illustrated that college students perceive same-gender counselors as more beneficial (Johnson & Dowling-Guyer, 1996). However, no previous literature was found regarding middle school counselors' perceptions of cross-gender student-counselor relationships. Because gender identification in the United States still encompasses socioculturally determined thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about the roles of males and females, all school counselors must work to remain aware of their own personally biased attitudes and values about the roles of adolescent boys and girls and allow for their students to define their own genders.

Because middle school counselors work in cross-gender alliances with adolescent students who may exhibit great vulnerability due to developmental challenges and gender role stereotyping (Kroger, 1999; Rice, 1999), they must be increasingly aware of challenges that may exist in cross-gender counselor-student relationships such as hesitations from students to openly discuss certain personal concerns with opposite-gender counselors or to even approach opposite-gender counselors. In addition, counselors must be prepared for managing these middle school counseling interactions.

In order to gain a better understanding of practicing middle school counselors' experiences in their student-counselor relationships, I conducted interviews with 22 middle school counselors. The purpose of this article is to present selections from these conversations with a focus on the school counselors' perceptions of same-gender and cross-gender student relationships. Perceived challenges in cross-gender counselor-student relationships are presented along with recommendations for middle school counselors to enhance cross-gender relationships with students. …