Targeting School Factors That Contribute to Youth Alienation: Focused School Counseling Programs

Article excerpt

This article explores students at risk of academic non-completion. Schools and school counselors need to target the factors which put students at risk of academic non-completion to reduce the number of adolescents feeling a sense of alienation from school, from educators, and from learning. The construct of student alienation is examined based on the premise that school environments may contribute to student alienation and school failure. School counseling programs are presented as a vehicle for targeting alienating factors and school counselors as advocates for change. Emphasis is given to: (1) the identification of school factors which may alienate students; (2) strategies school counselors may use to engage teachers in the development of more culturally relevant teaching practices; and (3) strategies for fostering a school climate conducive to student engagement.

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In an effective school program every student is successful. Success is defined as every student receiving the services necessary to learn and achieve academically, as well as to develop and mature according to the standards and expectations of home and community. Some students require more consistent and extensive services than others and it is a task of the professional school counselor to determine which services to provide based on need. According to House (2004), it is also a task of the professional school counselor to "work to eliminate the achievement gap and ensure equity in educational opportunity" (p. 4).

The complexity of today's problems are clearly manifesting in our schools (Bemak, 2000; Hanson & Stone, 2002; House, 2004). Issues such as poverty, violence, poor academic achievement, abuse, and social inequity impact our students from the earliest educational levels and require a multifaceted response (Bemak, 2000). Sadly, many students believe that schools do not provide the sense of safety and belonging or the relevance and preparation they require and find themselves alienated from the educational process.

On Becoming Alienated

As early as kindergarten, students report feelings of not connecting and being alienated from the school setting (Hawkins et al., 2000; Robson, 2003).Alienated students have been described as those individuals who live on the borders of the school, the student who considers him or herself a social outcast, or the "students who are reluctant to maintain the charade of acceptable behavior in school" (Carley, 1994, p. 221). Historically, public schools have had a large role in socializing our youth; students are indoctrinated through standardized behaviors and expectations to perform according to directives. Students who may not fit into a school's prescribed standard find themselves feeling a lack of belonging and connectedness. This lack of connection can lead to increased truancy, absenteeism, gang activity, violence, poor grades, lower test scores, and school non-completion (Brown, Higgins, & Paulsen, 2003).

The process of alienation may be exacerbated by the onset of adolescence, as adolescence itself is at best a difficult, awkward period. It can be considered a process of individuation and identity development accompanied by emotional discomfort and insecurity plagued by feelings of alienation and ostracism (Berk, 2007).A question being explored here is whether school environments tend to exacerbate those feelings. The general understanding of the experiences of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and Kip Kinkel (the school shooters in Columbine, Colorado and Springfield, Oregon respectively) strongly suggest that they do (Edwards & Mullis, 2001; Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005).

The Construct of Alienation in School

Alienation is a term that is used to describe a state of disconnect or estrangement and aberrant behavior. Alienation is a complex construct with different significance depending on the discipline under review. In education, alienation refers to the lack of belonging and engagement of students in a school setting. …