Successful Career Counseling Interventions Used with Students in Poverty: A Preliminary Report

By Valerie Couture, Na Mi Bang, Angela McCoy Harless

The American School Counseling Association (ASCA) maintains national standards for professional school counselors and mandates that school counselors provide support to students in three areas: academic, career, and personal/social (Dahir, Campbell, Johnson, Scholes, & Valiga, 1997). It is estimated that 41% of school aged children in the U.S. come from a low-income home (NCCP, 2016). Children who come from poverty need career counseling interventions that address their particular issues and work-life goals (Harless & Stoltz, 2018). Students who come from a poverty background have barriers to obtaining post-secondary education and employment, including mental health disorders, low academic progress, school dropout, and career identity development issues (Harless & Stoltz, 2018). Research has shown that providing career counseling interventions specifically for low-income students provides the support these students need to be successful in reaching their goals (Dimmit & Wilkerson, 2012).

Importance of Career Counseling
There is a link between education and income as salaries increase with each level of education and unemployment decreases with each level of education (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). Socioeconomic status (SES) impacts the educational aspirations, occupational aspirations, and career expectations of students (Eshelman & Rottinghaus, 2015). School counselors have a role to assist students at all levels of K-12 education in their career development. This qualitative study examined the career counseling interventions school counselors use with students who live in poverty.

Interviews with School Counselors
Five school counselors with experience working with students in poverty, at least one year of school counseling experience in Arkansas, and current licensure in school counseling were interviewed. The four females and one male were White/Caucasian, working in rural and suburban settings. The age range of the school counselors was 39 to 60 years old. Individual interviews lasted approximately 30 to 50 minutes. The interview data was recorded via a digital voice recorder and transcribed.

Themes Emerged

1. Empowerment and Self-Advocacy. A consistent theme when working with students in poverty was empowering students to be self-advocates. A participant specifically stated, “Then, I think we have to empower them to be self-advocates, and to learn how to communicate on their behalf, and to research, to know what all is out there.”

2. Access to Food and Information. Providing free or reduced lunch at school and providing weekend food bags was an example of how school counselors support students in poverty. In addition to access to food, exposing them to different services for which they may be eligible, such as fee waivers for the ACT, SAT, and college applications, was important.

3. Collaboration with School Leaders and Community Members. A consistent theme found among the participants was working with school leaders and community members to provide career development and support to students in poverty. One participant explained, “Because you may come across a situation that you’ve not ever dealt with before and it helps to go out there and say ‘does anybody ever’... and you’re maintaining confidentiality, but you’re saying, ‘I have a student and this is what the deal is, what have y’all done in this case? What worked and what didn’t?’ That type of thing. The network is really, really good.” Using resources provided by churches was helpful because the churches donated to the weekend food bags.

4. Diverse Activities and Interventions. Providing social-emotional support and building relationships with students and families is key. One way school counselors build relationships with students is by attending their extracurricular activities. One participant stated, “The next time you see them, you can say ‘you did a great job when you were singing last night!’ and all that kind of stuff.”

One of the interventions suggested to assist the students in occupational exploration was to provide different career activities. One participant addressed, “One of the first things that we do with them is I give them a resume template.” Students’ self-assessments and the use of online resources were the main career interventions used in the schools. For example, one participant stated, “This year all of our 7th graders have done career exploration through the Kuder navigator program online.” Holding career fairs so students can learn about different career fields from working professionals was one way that students enhanced their occupational knowledge.

5. Challenges and Supports. The participants all encountered challenges to providing career counseling support. “We just don’t have enough time. So you just have to learn how to work more efficiently, intentionally, and you have to set your priorities.” School counselors also reported a lack of parental support, busy student schedules, lack of funding, and the time it takes to coordinate outside career professionals. It was mentioned that “I think that parental support and encouragement in the biggest challenge. Especially if parents do not have more education than high school.”


Implications for School Counselors
It is important for school counselors to be aware that students from poverty face career development issues, including higher drop-out rates and lower academic attainment, as compared to the general population (Harless & Stoltz, 2018). This study is an important step in understanding what current school counselors are doing to assist their students. The results of this study indicate that school counselors need the following to provide better career counseling support to students in poverty. First, school counselors need to empower students to be self-advocates. Second, school counselors need to be aware of the basic needs that students from a poverty background may struggle with. Third, it is important for school counselors to collaborate with school leaders and community members to help students become aware of the occupational options available. Fourth, school counselors must inform parents/guardians about the students’ career options, the benefits of exploring these options, and the steps to achieving career goals. Fifth, career development activities, such as self-assessments, online resources, and career fairs, are important for students to have access to. Lastly, the lack of time, funding and parental support are the challenges that school counselors encounter when working with students in poverty. This study implies that students in poverty need more a) physical and emotional support from school counselors and other professionals with respect to their self-esteem and job application process, b) guidance through collaboration among school counselors, parents, administrators, mental health professionals, and community leaders, and c) resources and assistance with career decision-making.



Dimmit, C., & Wilkerson, B. (2012). Comprehensive school counseling in Rhode Island: Access to services and student outcomes. Professional School Counseling, 16(2), 125-135.

Eshelman, A., & Rottinghaus, P. J. (2015) Viewing adolescents' career futures through the lenses of socioeconomic status and social class. Career Development Quarterly, 63(4), 320-332.

Harless, A. M., & Stoltz, K. B. (2018). Integrating narrative approaches with early recollections to provide career counseling with low-ses secondary students. Journal of Individual Psychology, 74(1), 117-133.

National Center for Children in Poverty. (2016). Basic facts about low-income children: Children under 18 years, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1194.html

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Median weekly earnings by educational attainment in 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/median-weekly-earnings-by-educationgender-race-and-ethnicity-in-2014.htm



Valerie CoutureValerie Couture, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School Counseling program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her research is focused on counseling with marginalized populations, and counselor skill development. Dr. Couture can be reached at vcouture@uca.edu





Photo Na Mi BangNa Mi Bang, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School Counseling program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her research is centered on career counseling, student assessment, and multicultural counseling. Dr. Bang can be reached at nmbang@uca.edu





Angela HarlessAngela McCoy Harless, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Texas A & M University-Texarkana. Her research agenda is on students in poverty and wellness counseling. Contact Dr Harless at aharless@tamut.edu

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