Social Justice and Equity-Based Counseling Practices

Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools:
Advancing Social Justice and Equity-Based Counseling Practices
Amy L. Cook
University of Massachusetts Boston
Ian Levy
Manhattan College
Anna Whitehouse
University of Massachusetts Boston
Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is emerging as a group counseling practice that focuses on topics
that are of personal interest to youth and aims to promote social change. Although YPAR has been found
to facilitate critical consciousness, assist with youth self-identity development, and promote social change,
few researchers have examined its application in counseling. !e present study explored six school counselor
trainees’ perceptions of YPAR as a therapeutic intervention and its impact on counseling skill development
and how it relates to multicultural and social justice counseling competencies. !e themes that resulted from
the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis for YPAR as a counseling practice were: (1) fun, interactive,
youth-centered approach, not like counseling or therapy, (2) implementation of challenges requiring planning,
time, and commitment, (3) collaborative supports to step out of comfort zone, overcome initial hesitancy, and
welcome new learning experience, (4) development of counseling skills and con”dence as a counselor, and (5)
understanding di#erences and increasing self-awareness and advocacy skills. Discussion and implications for
school counseling practice are provided.
Keywords: Youth Participatory Action Research; School Counseling; Positive Youth
Development; Social Justice; Urban Schools
© 2020 Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse. Free to copy and share for education and scholarship under a Creative Commons Attribution
NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.
Researchers have urged the need for culturally competent counselors to enter the “eld with knowledge of
multiculturalism to work with diverse clients (Hook et al., 2016; Richardson & Molinaro, 1996; Sue et al., 1992;
Vera & Speight, 2003). !is call for multicultural competence is re$ected in the American Counseling Association
(ACA) Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014) and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (Ratts
et al., 2016). While these policy recommendations deserve praise, studies have shown that Black and Brown
clients experience fear, mistrust, and discrimination from counseling professionals (Ahmed et al., 2011; DayVines et al., 2007; Lindsey & Marcell, 2012). Furthermore, Black and Brown clients are skeptical of seeking help
from counselors (Earl et al., 2011, Lindsey et al., 2013). Existing counseling approaches to clinical models have
been critiqued as acultural, o%en isolating clients of color (Tao et al., 2015). In response to these issues, scholars
have argued for the use of action-oriented counseling practices to counter problematic power-dynamics (Smith
& Chambers, 2015) and allow people of color, including youth of color, to feel engaged in, and lead the group
counseling process (Cook & Krueger-Henney, 2017). !e purpose of this present study is to evaluate and
gather insights from counselor trainees who co-facilitated a series of culturally responsive participatory action
research groups with youth as part of pre-service training coursework.
Youth Participatory Action Research De!ned
Participatory Action Research (PAR) uses community engagement strategies to actively involve
community members in the research process (Baum et al., 2006; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Langhout et al.,
2014). Distinct characteristics of PAR include an emphasis on advocating for equitable sharing of power
between researchers and research participants (Baum et al., 2006). Youth participatory action research (YPAR)
is a PAR paradigm that empowers youth to engage as partners and co-researchers (Smith et al., 2010). Rather
than remain as recipients of counseling services, YPAR encourages youth to guide the research and counseling
process through dialogic processes in ways that empower them to address issues of personal interest and
importance (Hipolito-Delgado & Lee, 2007; Smith et al., 2014).
!e YPAR paradigm shares common goals with other counseling practices of promoting youth
empowerment (Hipolito-Delgado & Lee, 2007). YPAR roles within the research collective are blurred so that
youth lead the research process, thereby strengthening youth self-e&cacy and participation for social change
(Hipolito-Delgado & Lee, 2007). Although YPAR has facilitated critical consciousness, assisted with self-identity
development, and a#ected social change, few researchers have examined its application in counseling (Cook &
Krueger-Henney, 2017; Smith et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2010). !is article seeks to explore how YPAR as a youth
empowerment model, can be used in counseling, including as a model for Hip Hop !erapy.
Youth empowerment. !e YPAR paradigm is closely associated with and incorporates key features
of youth empowerment theory. Youth empowerment involves creating a developmental process that allows
youth to participate in taking control over their lives and social environment, attain resources and fundamental
rights, and achieve life goals (Maton, 2008). !e focus on individual development is a crucial component of
positive youth development (PYD) (Lerner et al., 2000). PYD is rooted in Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological
theory of development and contends that external and internal factors simultaneously impact development.
One’s immediate environment and their surrounding community and cultural contexts work together to shape
development. PYD programs emphasize developing “ve “C’s” in youth: Competence, Con”dence, Connection,
Character, and Compassion (Bowers et al., 2010; Lerner et al., 2000). In addition, Christens (2012) contended
that a relational component adds to the understanding of youth empowerment. Elements include collaborative
competence, bridging social division, and facilitating others’ empowerment allow for a better understanding of
the connection between individual and community empowerment.
28 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
YPAR is a model of youth empowerment that shi%s the traditional roles of research to position youth
as leaders and active participants in the research process (Cammarota & Fine, 2008). In collaboration with a
counselor, youth actively identify research topics, choose a focus, develop research methods, collect data, and
decide upon action plans to disseminate research “ndings (Smith et al., 2010). !rough the YPAR process,
Langhout et al. (2014) found that participants developed relational empowerment, including collaborative
competence, bridging social divisions, facilitating others’ empowerment, and mobilizing community networks.
YPAR, therefore, relates to youth empowerment paradigms through building relational empowerment skills
and addressing community issues with adult facilitation.
Researchers have argued that YPAR goes beyond traditional models of youth empowerment by adding
critical elements to these interventions (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Ozer & Wright, 2012). Although youth
empowerment programs provide opportunities for youth to recognize how social constructs in$uence their
environment, YPAR allows youth to study these issues and, most importantly, how to “nd solutions to them,
particularly issues that a#ect their well-being (Cammarota & Fine, 2008). YPAR engages youth in understanding
the nature of social obstacles and deriving solutions to increase self-e&cacy and agency in social change.
YPAR dissemination. YPAR also provides an outlet for community engagement through the
dissemination of research “ndings and implications (Smith et al., 2010). Various methods of dissemination
have been used with YPAR, including outlets to school administration (Kohfeldt et al., 2011; Smith et al.,
2010), the community (Berg et al., 2009; Jennings et al., 2006; Wilson et al., 2008), and online platforms (Ozer,
2017). One common method involves the participants creating a presentation with or without technological
aids to introduce the research project, describe its purpose, explain how data were collected, and share
“ndings (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Smith et al., 2010). Another creative outlet for research dissemination uses
photovoice, where participants use photography to document and express their perspectives of the research
project (Royce et al., 2006; Wang & Burris, 1997). Other forms of dissemination include planning a community
event, communicating “ndings and implications online, displaying participant artwork depicting relevant
“nding, and performing music lyrics disseminated through online medias (Berg et al., 2009; Jennings et al.,
2006; Levy et al., 2019; Ozer, 2017; Wilson et al., 2008).
YPAR and Counseling
Engaging in YPAR provides experiences that integrate a number of counseling practices to facilitate
personal and community empowerment (Hipolito-Delgado & Lee, 2007). Smith et al. (2010) explained how
YPAR programs work in concert with school counseling projects due to their similarities with empowerment
models for counseling practice. !e group processes allow for participants to actively study relevant issues and
respond to them (Cook & Krueger-Henny, 2017; Singh et al., 2012). In Smith et al. (2010), student members of
the YPAR group reported profound impacts from their work that involved creating a PowerPoint presentation
for their school’s administration. !rough their research e#orts, youth participants expressed a sense of
inspiration to pursue higher education and professional careers. Such YPAR experiences may facilitate youth
development and are thus aligned with counseling goals.
YPAR and Hip-Hop “erapy
!e YPAR paradigm allows for the incorporation of a number of counseling practices in choosing the
research topic, its research methods, and dissemination of the results. For example, Hip-Hop !erapy (HHT)
may be used to guide methodological practices and disseminate research “ndings through lyrical products.
An obstacle impeding best counseling practices with youth is associated with establishing rapport with the
youth clients; however, HHT is a model of youth counseling practice that can be used to encourage youth
participation. As Allen (2005) described, “HHT uses Hip-Hop music and culture to engage youth and address
their issues in therapy by encouraging them to re$ect on Hip-Hop lyrics as they relate to the youths’ own life
Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse | Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools 29
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experiences” (p. 30). HHT integrates music therapy, behavioral therapy, and narrative therapy through lyric
analysis, self-re$ection, facilitating behavior change, and allowing clients to share their story (Allen, 2005).
Furthermore, allowing youth to express themselves through Hip-Hop when they closely identify this culture
as a part of their identity brings an invaluable tool for the counselor to build rapport with clients (Gonzalez &
Hayes, 2009). Both YPAR and HHT give youth a voice for expressing their perspectives of issues a#ecting their
daily lives and thus engages participation with youth participants (Allen, 2005; Smith et al., 2010).
With these similarities in mind, Levy et al. (2019) suggested that pairing HHT with YPAR principles
may help counselors to facilitate dialogue about systemic issues that students face through emotional lyric
production and group collaboration. !e process of lyrical creation, production, and dissemination provides
counselors and students the opportunity to engage in discussion about and address salient community issues
and thus lends itself well to the YPAR paradigm (Levy et al., 2019). Levy et al. concluded that the combining
of practices from the “elds of HHT, YPAR, and school counseling o#er students the opportunity to engage in
relevant action research through group collaboration.
Purpose of Study
!e present study focused on the implementation and outcomes of student counseling groups using
YPAR with HHT and other dissemination practices in order to explore two research questions. RQ 1: How do
school counselor trainees perceive the use of YPAR as a therapeutic intervention? RQ 2: How do school counselor
trainees perceive engaging in YPAR and its impact on developing counseling skills, including multicultural and
social justice counseling competencies? Given YPAR’s potential for prioritizing youth advocacy in educational
settings, exploring its connections to counseling practice allows for group research that is anchored within
and elevates young people’s voices and perspectives. Facilitating socially underserved youth access to and
participation in research can transform the purposes of research to be more in sync with young people’s lives
and their communities.
Participants included six school counselor trainees (“ve female and one male) who completed the
practicum seminar and “eld placement experience at one of two urban high schools. Age ranged from 21 to 30
years old (M = 25.8, SD = 4.6, N = 6). All participants reported race/ethnicity as White. Half of the participants
reported having less than two years of experience in the education “eld, and half reported having between
two to four years of experience. Reported family income ranged from $20,000 to $40,000. !ree participants
reported growing up in a suburb, and three reported growing up in a rural location. Participants had completed
an average of nine counseling courses (SD = 3.8, N = 6) prior to practicum; all had completed one course in
cultural diversity.
Research Team
!e research team included two counselor educators and one school psychology doctoral student, and
all identi”ed as White and cognizant of their privileged positions as researchers and researcher-in-training.
Each held previous research and professional experiences related to urban youth, with one counselor educator
having extensive experience with Hip-Hop therapy. Researchers acknowledged power di#erentials and unique
perspectives. In keeping with IPA, the researchers re$exively explored participant narratives, while attending
to their experiences as experts. To practice re$exivity whilst deploying IPA, the researchers acknowledged the
importance of cultivating self-awareness, through self-re$ection, necessary to engage with the study data in a
capacity that circumvented bias. !is meant recognizing our privileged positions as White researchers as we
30 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
simultaneously sought to elevate the voices of our trainees’ perspectives and experiences. !is also meant that
all members of the research team practiced bracketing, or the putting aside of their prior beliefs about the study
phenomena (Carpenter, 2007) prior to engaging with the data. Speci”cally, the researchers used a re$exive
diary, where research team members could record thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, to both analyze their
positions and bring about potential bias (Chan et al., 2013).
Practicum trainees engaged in one 30-minute semi-structured interview during the last week of
“eldwork. Interview questions (see Table 1) focused on participants’ perceptions of using YPAR as a counseling
approach and thoughts related to multicultural and social justice counseling competencies. Participants
included six school counselor trainees enrolled in one of two practicum seminar sections who engaged in
YPAR facilitation as a portion of “eldwork. In total, 14 counselor trainees completed a 100-hour practicum at
one of two urban high schools, each with similar student demographics (over 90% students of color and 75%
eligibility for free lunch), and eight practicum students facilitated YPAR group work at each school. At the
start of the semester, counselor trainees who facilitated YPAR groups were invited to participate in the study,
which included engaging in a semi-structured interview at the completion of the practicum. Participation was
voluntary and approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board. Of the eight students involved in YPAR,
six agreed to participate in the study.
Table 1. Semi-Structured Interview Protocol
1. What were your thoughts about engaging with students at this school prior to starting?
2. How did your expectations di#er (or were they the same?)?
3. Please describe what it was like to engage in YPAR with your students.
4. What went particularly well?
5. What were you surprised about?
6. What do you think you could have done to improve?
7. Do you think your students developed as a result of participating in YPAR? If so, in what ways? If not,
i why not?
8. What do you think your high school students found particularly helpful?
9. Do you think YPAR allows you to connect with your students? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?
10. Do you think YPAR is an area of focus that should be incorporated into school counseling practice? If so,
why? If not, why not?
11. What particular counseling skills are helpful in facilitating YPAR? In what ways?
12. Did engaging youth in YPAR help you to develop multicultural counseling skills? If so, how? If not, what
would have been helpful?
13. Did engaging youth in YPAR help you to develop social justice counseling competencies? If so, how? If
not, what would have been helpful?
!e practicum seminar course was conducted at the high school by one faculty member, where
counselor trainees engaged in school counseling-related activities one day per week alongside the faculty
member. !e faculty-supervised classroom guidance and counseling activities, including 1:1 counseling and
group counseling, and provided regular individual feedback and supervision that focused on multicultural
counseling skill development. Trainees completed readings related to social justice, multicultural counseling
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Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse | Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools 31
skill development and YPAR. !ey also submitted weekly journal re$ections that encouraged increased selfawareness of White privilege and biases, as well as knowledge of race, racism, and power structures present in
schools and within the counseling relationship (Cook et al., 2019). During seminar meetings, the faculty engaged
trainees in discussions that supported counseling skill development, YPAR training and implementation, and
facilitating self-awareness and knowledge of systemic racism.
Implementation framework. Trainees encouraged youth participants to engage in dialogue where
they shared personal insights and experiences as they engaged in research processes. Emphasis was placed
on elevating youths’ lived experiences and attending to critical issues that were relevant to them in ways that
overtly draw attention to race, class, and gender-speci”c realities of youths’ lives (Cook & Krueger-Henney,
2017). !rough this shared process of dialogue, youth researchers co-identi”ed topics that were of personal
interest and relevance to investigate as the focus of their action research (Fox & Fine, 2015; Smith et al., 2010).
Two di#erent areas of focus were selected among the YPAR co-researchers: at one school, youth
selected the topic of increasing student involvement in course selections; at the other school, youth selected
outside of school stressors. !e chosen topic was then critically examined to uncover invisible power structures
that may preclude positive educational outcomes, allowing youth, with the support of their counselor
trainee, to take action toward achieving personal goals. Trainees followed the YPAR cycle of investigation,
involving dialogue to decide on a topic of focus, collect and analyze data, develop an action plan, and
disseminate “ndings, all the while processing youths’ reactions and feelings (Cammarota & Fine, 2008).
More speci”cally, at the school where the topic of increasing student involvement in course selections
was selected, youth co-researchers surveyed their fellow high school students to learn more about the issue.
Next, they conducted research to identify other course options and pathways within the school district
in comparison to academic options at nearby suburban schools. While conducting the research, youth coresearchers engaged in knowledge sharing and contributed to one another’s understandings of the issue as each
of the group members experienced it (Foster-Fishman et al., 2010). In concluding their data collection and
analyses, youth co-researchers decided to disseminate their “ndings through a creating a poster and writing a
letter to the school principal.
At the school where the topic involved outside of school stressors, youth co-researchers explored a
range of di&cult emotional experiences that impacted their ability to reach personal and graduation goals.
Youth co-researchers engaged in dialogue regarding a variety of emotional stressors and then began to research
information related to overcoming the identi”ed stressors. Similar to the other school site, students engaged in
knowledge sharing and contributed to one another’s understanding of the issue to support the construction of
hip hop songs that communicated their experiences (Foster-Fishman et al., 2010). Examples of songs created
by youth included frustrations with school discipline policies, truancy, as well as neighborhood and familial
concerns. !e youth agreed to disseminate the “ndings through recordings that they shared with friends and
Data Analysis
!e research team chose Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as an implementation
framework to guide the investigation given its focus on appreciating participants’ experiences and how they
make sense of social contexts (Smith et al., 2009). IPA employs a phenomenological approach, whereby
analyses produce a thorough and subjective account of perceptions and experiences instead of producing an
objective statement of experiences (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014). When conducting IPA, capturing meaning
is the central focus rather than identifying the frequency of themes. Additionally, IPA requires an in-depth
analysis of each participant’s experience to appreciate the unique context of individual narratives as a “rst step
toward making general statements (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014). !erefore, we read each transcript numerous
times to appreciate the trainees’ perspectives and engaged in a step-by-step process of understanding trainees’
32 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
experiences. In accordance with IPA, we aimed to produce meaning from the data, rather than apply an extant
theory to guide the analyses.
!rough engaging in multiple readings of the transcribed material, we identi”ed meaningful units of text
(codes). We then grouped these codes based on commonalities into lower-order themes. A thorough account
of lower-order themes was identi”ed (through attending to description), and meaning was assigned to themes
(interpretative analysis) to appreciate trainees’ perceptions and experiences. We documented connections
between emergent lower-order themes to inform the development of higher-order themes. Each higher-order
theme re$ected groupings of subthemes, which, in turn, re$ected groupings of codes.
!is step-by-step process of thematic analysis was completed in stages. !e “rst stage of analysis included
carefully reading the transcripts numerous times, writing comments and notes, and highlighting words,
sentences, or phrases that seemed to be meaningful for trainees. A sample note included: “Counselor learns to
give youth initiative to change injustices.” In this detailed way, the team examined each transcript individually
and documented notes accordingly. !is idiographic approach to analysis began with speci”c examples (initial
codes) and progressively worked toward producing emergent lower-order themes that were grouped into higher
order themes to represent generalized understandings (Smith et al., 2009). In producing the initial codes, we
focused on material in each transcript that illuminated trainees’ perceptions and experiences of engaging in
YPAR with youth. We then returned to the initial codes and transcripts with the goal of identifying the main
higher-order themes from the emergent lower-order themes using structural coding (Saldaña, 2013).
Two members of the research team engaged in triangulation of the analyses to verify interpretation
of data. Triangulation refers to the cross-validation of “ndings to work toward achieving comprehensive
understanding of the data (Patton, 2015). In the present study, the researchers conducted consistency veri”cation
by independently reviewing and documenting notes aside transcript content. Team members then discussed
the similar and diverse ways data were understood, following an iterative consensus process to ensure rigor
and reach an agreement regarding the content (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). Triangulation of data consisted of
the two investigators independently reviewing the data and identifying emergent codes and themes. We then
discussed the diverse and similar ways the data were understood with the goal of reaching 100% agreement.
In addition, an external auditor and doctoral student with expertise in IPA reviewed transcripts and themes
to ensure rigor and reach a “nal agreement. !e external auditor also engaged in the analysis of the coding
and themes, and then we subsequently discussed any di#erences and similarities in coding identi”cation. !is
process of triangulation and consistency veri”cation was important to ensure that “nal revision to our thematic
analyses best represented trainees’ experiences. A%er completing cross-validation, a table of lower and higherorder themes was created that captured trainees’ perceptions of YPAR group work in counseling (see Table 2).
Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse | Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools 33
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Table 2. Higher & Lower-Order “emes
Fun, interactive, youth-centered approach, not like counseling or therapy n
Therapeutic group environment that fosters rapport and connection 4
Focuses on issues of importance to youth 3
YPAR as a culturally relevant group space 5
Implementation challenges requiring planning, time, and commitment
Requires planning to overcome time constraints 4
Experiencing pushback and reluctance from school stakeholders 2
Environment of collaborative support to step out of comfort zone, overcome initial hesitancy, and
welcome new learning experience
Coming out of comfort zone/initial hesitancy 5
Growth in active learning skills 2
Learning the process of running a group 3
Navigating the balance of boundaries and blurring of counselor/youth roles 2
Growth in advocacy skills with focus on youth initiative and leadership 2
Note. n refers to the number of participants for whom each higher and lower order theme was salient.
!rough data analysis, twelve themes emerged, which were grouped into “ve higher-order themes and
corresponding subthemes. !e “rst two higher-order themes that were identi”ed related to how counselor
trainees perceive the use of YPAR as a therapeutic intervention (RQ 1). !e third, fourth, and “%h higher-order
themes related to counselor trainee perceptions of engaging in YPAR and its impact on developing counseling
skills, including multicultural and social justice counseling competencies (RQ 2). Table 2 depicts the number of
participant quotes that support each subtheme.
RQ 1: Counselor Trainee’s Perceptions of YPAR as a “erapeutic Intervention
“eme 1: Fun, interactive, youth-centered approach, not like counseling or therapy. !e “rst higherorder theme indicated that the YPAR groups deployed a fun, interactive, youth-centered approach, not like
counseling or therapy, and included three subthemes: a) therapeutic group environment that fosters rapport
and connection, b) focuses on issues of importance to youth, and c) YPAR as a culturally relevant group space.
!erapeutic group environment that fosters rapport and connection. Counselor trainees’ felt the YPAR
group provided a therapeutic environment that fostered rapport and connection. For example, some counselor
trainees felt hip hop lyric writing created a safe and supportive medium for students to disclose emotions. One
trainee stated, “I feel good kind of just helps them open up and it’s a safer setting where they feel safer, like
they feel ‘okay, this isn’t a therapy session, we’re just talking hip hop here. We’re just talking about my lyrics.’”
An additional trainee’s comment further highlighted this subtheme, “We came up with themes, but they were
34 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
able to spearhead the group. We have them writing lyrics based on their emotions and their experiences, and
being like what does this relate back to?” In this particular quote, the counselor trainee spoke of group work as a
creative process that facilitated sharing and the expression of thoughts and feelings, in turn supporting rapport
building and connection.
Focuses on issues of importance to youth. A second lower-order theme that emerged included
appreciating the focus on issues of importance to youth. One counselor trainee stated, “direction was critical
and we’re not just in here making music for an hour and shooting conversation, we are actually exploring
certain themes that aren’t necessarily academic but relevant to everything else that is going on in their lives.”
Further, counselor trainees appreciated how paying attention to issues of importance to youth resulted in a
shi% in power dynamics: “I like that it was focused on having the kids come up with what they want to change.
Putting the initiative on them, instead of assuming that we as counselors know what’s best for kids.”
YPAR as a culturally relevant group space. !e fun and integrative nature of YPAR fostered a culturally
relevant group process. To highlight this subtheme, one trainee stated,
We have one collaboration, that hasn’t been recorded, but there’s a portion of the group where we open
it with a song, discuss it as a group and…then we kind of come back and talk amongst themselves,
whereas we’re around but we’re letting them discuss amongst themselves and it’s a very positive way of
seeing how they work together.
!is statement illuminates the counselor trainee’s observation that students took the initiative and engaged
a culturally salient medium (hip hop lyric writing) in the YPAR process, which then strengthened group
cohesion. !e counselors were also struck by how using hip hop as a YPAR tool supported youth in producing
a tangible product stating,
!ey were able to actually put their songs down on paper so to speak and he [professor] could play back
to them and then he sent it o# and then he emailed them. I feel like that’s tangible results of something
they’ve completed throughout the past couple months…It was a whole other level of passion incited so
much con”dence and encouragement.
“eme 2: Implementation of challenges requiring planning, time, and commitment. !e second
higher-order theme signi”ed that implementation challenges required planning, time, and commitment and
included subthemes: Requires planning to overcome time constraints and experiencing pushback and reluctance
from school stakeholders.
Requires planning to overcome time constraints. When beginning to facilitate groups, trainees reported
that the decision-making and action-oriented process required planning to overcome time constraints. One
trainee shared, “the deciding part went on a little too long and they spent two weeks picking a topic. So, that
probably should have been condensed so they had more time to actually do something.” Other implementation
barriers consisted of inconsistent school attendance among youth. A trainee re$ected on this issue: “I just think
it’s a really cool approach. !e only thing was the kind of inconsistency, which had nothing to do with the group
itself. Just the group itself is only certain weeks and certain students can’t make certain days.”
Experiencing pushback and reluctance from school stakeholders. Counselor trainees reported
experiencing pushback and reluctance from school stakeholders. For some, it was a challenge to initially engage
students in YPAR: “I think just trying to get them motivated was a little di&cult, but for the most part it’s been
really fun. !e students are having a good time, I hope, that’s what they told me. So, it’s been really great to see
what they can learn to do.”
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Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse | Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools 35
RQ 2: Perceptions of Counseling Skill Development and Multicultural Competency
“eme 3: Collaborative supports to step out of comfort zone, overcome initial hesitancy, and
welcome new learning experience. !e third theme supports the assertion that, for counselor trainees, the
YPAR group provided an environment of collaborative support to step out of one’s comfort zone, overcome
initial hesitancy, and welcome new learning experiences. !e subtheme describes how trainees were coming
out of their comfort zone and overcoming initial hesitancy.
Coming out of comfort zone/initial hesitancy. Several trainees spoke about feelings of anticipation
entering a new “tough” setting. For example, one participant shared,
I was excited, super excited, but also I had to do self-re$ecting like, “I am a White, female counselor
coming in to an urban based classroom.” How are the students going to connect with me? Are they
going to connect with me? Lots of that, so I kind of had those kind of nerves, but overall I was so excited.
Another trainee posited that YPAR opened her up to learning new systems and cultures:
It was a “rst experience of sorts…because I grew up in a suburban White neighborhood and I felt like
I needed to learn a lot “rst, or at least gain an understanding of how the culture works, how the system
works, how the individual comes from. So, I came from a place of just wanting to listen a bit “rst and ask
questions, kind of tread gently.
“eme 4: Development of counseling skills and con!dence as a counselor. Counselor trainees
described a sense of increased con”dence and counseling skill development, including three subthemes: growth
in active listening skills, learning the process of running a group, and navigating the balance of boundaries and
blurring of counselor/youth roles.
Growth in active listening skills. Trainees experienced growth in active listening skills, including how to
challenge youth to share through emphasizing the therapeutic relationship:
My personal relationships with the students, being able to listen to them, work with them today,
summarize what’s going on, being able to “nd those hidden pieces, like in their lyrics and tap into those
inner feelings, and then push them a little bit further to expand.
Another participant spoke of the importance of being open and allowing youth to take the lead: “When
we were talking about developing allies and encouraging talking to the counselors, they were like, ‘What about
social media? What about doing a survey?’ I was like I didn’t even think about that, this is awesome.”
Learning the process of running a group. Another lower-order theme concerned trainees’ growth in
learning the process of running a group. A particular quote that exempli”es this growth details a trainee’s
development of skills to foster groups with adolescents in schools:
I wanted to make these PowerPoints type thing and for me that’s an organizational thing. But, you also
need like open-mindedness of course, like I said you have no idea what your group is going to say, do, or
not do. So, being prepared to go with the $ow and be $exible. But, also help direct them as well.
!e trainee learned to trust the group process and relinquish control in supporting the youth.
Navigating the balance of boundaries and blurring of counselor/youth roles. Trainees spoke about how
to balance the boundaries of counselor and youth roles. Leading the YPAR groups appeared to assist with the
use of self-disclosure. A trainee re$ected on this development:
We would have a dialogue, and there is a certain amount of disclosure that I felt comfortable giving on
my end as sort of a way of relating to the student, and then I think in doing so gaining…and strengthening
their relationship and their comfort in facilitating gave momentum to their creative abilities.
36 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
“eme 5: Understanding di#erences and increasing self-awareness and advocacy skills. Counselor
trainees developed an understanding of di#erences as well as increased self-awareness and advocacy skills,
including three lower-order themes: fosters an understanding of di#erences and increased self-awareness,
appreciation of di#erent perspectives, and growth in advocacy skills with a focus on youth initiative and
Fosters understanding of di”erences and increased self-awareness. Trainees described the ways that
running YPAR groups fostered an understanding of di#erences and increased self-awareness. Trainees’ use of
self-re$ection increased a sense of awareness.
So, for me just learning about these lives that I don’t live and really hard-hitting things that really just
open your eyes and make you see things in other ways. I would say de”nitely; it kind of helps you do a
lot of self-re$ection.
Another trainee suggested that the self-re$ection during the group process allowed her to cultivate empathic
understanding of students’ experiences and stated,
You really have to understand where kids are coming from. !e “rst piece we did was identity and
understanding what students think of themselves…so, taking their thoughts and feelings and then
having us self-re$ect and then put ourselves in their shoes, helping us to understand their personal
identity has helped me see myself in a counselor role.
Appreciation of di”erent perspectives. Counselor trainees also perceived skill development concerning
appreciating di#erent views, life experiences, and values. In the following quote, this trainee described the
ability to understand the whole student and their environment:
I think it helped develop multicultural skills because you’re always going to recognize based on the
student you are going to get di#erent answers and di#erent responses…and a lot of the time that does
have to do with where they are from, if there is a language barrier, what they are dealing with outside of
Another trainee spoke about appreciating the variety of life experiences youth bring to the group:
You have to think of aspects of their lives, what experiences are they having, whether that’s in the school,
outside the school, in the home. So, I think they are all going to bring in di#erent things, but based o#
their culture they’re going to see the world di#erently and having di#erent opinions on di#erent topics
within the school.
Growth in advocacy skills with focus on youth initiative and leadership. A third and “nal lower-order
theme pertains to trainees’ growth in advocacy skills. While re$ecting on their growth as a counselor, one
participant said, “I think exactly like giving the kids initiative and seeing what they feel has been an injustice in
the school.” !is statement illuminates how trainees learned to foster youth initiative to change injustices during
their facilitation of YPAR groups. An additional statement further supports this theme. One individual stated,
It’s valuable to be a soundboard for them, so they can feel comfortable in the space and just validate all of
their feelings that they are bringing. Especially when it’s a topic that is rooted in the school like the ones
my students are dealing with.
In this quote, the trainee suggested that they learned how to validate youths’ feelings and frustrations rooted in
challenging experiences in school.
Cook, Levy, & Whitehouse | Exploring Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools 37
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!is study explored how counselor trainees perceived the use of YPAR as a therapeutic intervention and
vehicle for developing counseling skills, including multicultural and social justice counseling competencies.
Counselor trainees conducted YPAR groups during practicum “eldwork with urban youth. Several themes
emerged suggesting support for the use of YPAR in school counseling. Counselor trainees perceived YPAR to
be helpful in facilitating therapeutic connections and rapport with youth. Given that YPAR explicitly promotes
intentional power sharing, while acknowledging systemic inequities, it is anticipated that youth would feel
comfortable talking openly and honestly (Ozer et al., 2013).
Counselor trainees also emphasized their appreciation of YPAR’s focus on issues of key relevance to
youth, which they perceived as substantially di#erent from traditional counseling practices. !ese “ndings may
suggest the importance of supporting youth in leading the counseling process and transcending traditional
approaches to therapy. Of note, the process of facilitating YPAR groups enabled counselor trainees to grapple
with issues of power dynamics on their paths toward deploying culturally responsive and social justice-oriented
interventions. While graduate programs prioritize supporting counselors-in-training in the practicing of basic
active listening skills (Weger et al., 2010), this study shows how YPAR strategies can transcend traditional
models of counseling to o#er experiential opportunities that hone necessary multicultural and social justice
skills among trainees, such as defusing problematic counselor-client power dynamics. Researchers who have
conducted YPAR groups in schools envision its application as an opportunity for the youth of color to reclaim
their voices and decision making in spaces where they are o%en “expected to be controlled by the system rather
than in control of the system” (Kohfeldt et al., 2011, p. 34). Overall, counselor trainees appreciated the ways that
YPAR empowers youth to guide the knowledge and awareness of issues that are impacting them as they see it
for themselves (Cook & Krueger-Henney, 2017).
Evidence in the current study suggests that allowing counselor trainees to engage in YPAR group
facilitation during practicum can lead to a variety of positive outcomes relative to counseling skill development.
Scholars posit that it is the role of the counselor educator to promote the professional advocacy of counselorsin-training, which requires that graduate students learn to be comfortable stepping outside of their comfort
zones (Havlik et al., 2019). Findings in this study support the use of YPAR to meet this professional
development need. En route to developing multicultural competence, Ratts et al. (2016) argued counselors
needed to understand cultural di#erences and engage in practices that foster deep self-awareness. Multicultural
development is particularly important given the data that suggest clients of diverse backgrounds o%en “nd
counseling professionals untreatable, or unable to understand them and their experiences (Ahmed et al., 2011;
Day-Vines et al., 2007; Lindsey & Marcell, 2012). !erefore, the results of this study are promising in that
the counselor trainees reported a more profound sense of self-awareness and an increased understanding of
cultural di#erences. In support of allowing clients to feel understood and validated, Studer (2015) highlighted
the signi”cance of counselor trainees developing practical communication skills during practicum and
internship experiences. In the current study, participants indicated they had further developed their active
listening skills through YPAR group facilitation. Overall, trainee reports of being able to step out of their
comfort zone, understand di#erences and increase in self-awareness, and active listening skill development all
reinforce graduate coursework and outcomes relative to the totality of their pre-service training experience.
Findings are limited due to the small number of counselor trainees and lack of racial diversity of
participants. Although the study provides qualitative insight with respect to the application of YPAR in
counseling training, it is not possible to extend the “ndings beyond the participants’ experiences. Relatedly, the
present study does not include the perspectives of the youth who engaged in the YPAR groups. Interviewing
the high school students individually or as part of a focus group could provide greater understanding of the
38 JSACP | Volume 12, No. 1 | Summer 2020
application of YPAR in counseling. Furthermore, there were additional limitations with respect to the qualitative
analyses. Member checking with trainees was not conducted due to the logistics of the trainees having exited
the counseling training program at the time of analyses completion. To account for this limitation, the external
auditor was a doctoral student whose positionality and experiences were somewhat more related to trainees’
experiences compared to the faculty researchers. Qualitative methods did not include ethnographic procedures
to ascertain the integrity of YPAR implementation to ensure the principles of YPAR were adhered to throughout.
Lastly, the use of IPA and its focus on capturing meaning rather than identifying the frequency of themes or
applying itself to the calculation of intercoder reliability scores may be limiting insofar as it allows for a rich
understanding of participant perceptions but is less able to reduce experiences into quanti”able meaning units.
!us, additional research is needed to further explore the application of YPAR in counseling.
Implications and Conclusion
!e implications for this study are vast. Whereas prior research in school-based YPAR interventions
seldom focuses on practices for counselors, the current study provides school counselors with preliminary
support needed to advocate for the use of YPAR-based group work. !e present study also lends support to the
application of YPAR as a youth-centered impactful counseling approach. School counselors looking to innovate
their ASCA (2012) national model comprehensive school counseling programs might consider integrating
YPAR as a meaningful and engaging way to bring youth on their advisory councils. !ere are additional
implications for use of YPAR in pre-service work with counselors to support counseling skill development by
allowing them to facilitate groups as part of either their practicum or internship experiences.
YPAR training and implementation in “eldwork is just a start toward building cultural and race-related
re$ection. In particular, it is important to keep in mind the wide body of research that has identi”ed the tendency
for White Americans to avoid confronting issues of racism and White privilege due to the frequent experience
of distressing emotions (D’Andrea & Daniels, 1999; Kordesh et al., 2013). It behooves counselor educators to
address these emotional responses in ways that facilitate self-awareness and promote authentic advocacy and
anti-racism work in schools. !e results of this study are just a beginning step toward exploring the application
of YPAR in counselor education. Additional research is needed to explore how YPAR in counseling can promote
equity-based practices in schools.
Corresponding Author
!e authors declare that they have no con$icts of interest. Correspondence concerning this article should be
addressed to Amy Cook Ph.D., Department of Counseling and School Psychology, Wheatley Hall Room 160,
100 Morrissey Blvd., University of Massachusetts Boston, MA 02125.
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