(EdSource Today writer Kathryn Baron contributed to this article.)
In an era of budget cutbacks and more pressure on students to perform, some districts and teachers are finding ways to stretch their dollars to provide mental health services for students.
The secret sauce in programs that try to improve student behavior is relationships. The goal is to get students to feel connected – to their school, to their classmates and to their teachers. One strategy developed by an education professor showed that it doesn’t always have to be time-consuming for already jammed teachers; it can take as little as two minutes a day.
In the Two-by-Ten strategy, developed by education professor Raymond Wlodkowski, teachers spend two minutes a day for ten consecutive days having private conversations with their most challenging students. Teachers leave it up to the student to pick the topic, but may get the ball rolling with a comment or question such as, “You seem especially tired today.”
Teachers can learn a lot about what’s going on in the student’s life and begin to adjust their thinking, said Nancy Markowitz, professor of Elementary Education at San José State University and founder of the Collaborative for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child.
“Instead of seeing students as willfully being defiant of the teacher, the teacher understands that they’re exhibiting behaviors because something is going on in their lives that is causing them to behave in this way,” Markowitz said.
She taught Two-by-Ten to her classroom management students and had them use it while student teaching. One student teacher learned that a child who came to class in flip-flops, which was against school policy, was in charge of getting himself and siblings ready for school and couldn’t find his shoes that morning.
Wlodkowski’s research found an 85 percent improvement in the behavior of students as a result of their teachers using the Two-by-Ten strategy. Markowitz was amazed by her students’ results. “It had a bigger impact than I would have thought,” she said, “I knew there was research but I didn’t expect this.”
A disciplinary program creates a supportive school climate
Another program that relies on building relationships among peers as well as between student and teacher can be found in Oakland Unified School District. Teachers using the Restorative Justice disciplinary approach also check in regularly with their students. In addition, they participate as equals with their students in community-building circles where topics such as violence in the community or what is hard about being a teenager are discussed.
As students open up, they begin to trust each other and learn how to resolve their conflicts through words rather than fighting.
Luis Zarate, a sophomore at Met West High School, described his first experience with a community-building circle. “I was quiet, mostly observing and listening to what people said instead of talking,” he said. “I wanted to get a sense of how deep the conversation can get. I found it can get very deep, and that made me want to talk. It made me feel like the whole class was close, and so it was easy to get along with people.”
Oakland instituted Restorative Justice and other programs, such as an anti-bullying curriculum, to deal with the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions of African American students. Schools with the program have reported a decrease in suspensions as high as 85 percent.
The district has relied on grants and the creative use of federal dollars to support their efforts in promoting a more supportive and friendlier school atmosphere.
District relies on school social workers and nurses
San Francisco Unified has also used grants and other funding to provide mental health counseling. In the one-district city, voters have approved funds to support “wellness centers” in all middle and high schools and in elementary schools that have been identified as having a “high-needs” student population, said Gentle Blythe, a spokesperson for the district. Students in those elementary schools “are experiencing trauma in their communities every day,” she said. The centers are staffed by social workers, nurses and other people trained in mental health support. Every school in the district has access to social workers.
“We have a base of people at every school site trained in trauma and crisis,” Blythe said.
Group counseling can work better than one-on-one
Santa Clara Unified, near San Jose, is committed to helping middle school students transition smoothly from youngsters to young adults. Besides having dedicated counselors in the schools, a roving counselor, John Malloy, provides group counseling to students in the district’s three middle schools. Group counseling is obviously cheaper than one-on-one therapy and more effective as well, Malloy says.
“When you’re working alone with a psychologist or counselor, you still feel alone,” he said. In a group, students meet others with similar problems.
In his groups, Malloy said, “kids are learning to take care of each other, learning each other’s stories.” He asks the students to invite others to the group who “they feel weird around, who have problems, who don’t have any friends.”
But, Malloy asks, how many schools let students have an hour or two for counseling each week? Even with his district’s commitment to counseling, Malloy has met with resistance from teachers who say a student is failing their class and cannot skip it for a counseling session.
Peers of troubled students are key to preventing tragedies
Malloy says that schools without enough counselors should also be able to rely on teachers and administrators to identify troubled students. Stephen Brock, professor and program coordinator, School Psychology, California State University, Sacramento, agrees. He also thinks that relying on other students to point out a troubled peer is key.
Brock has spent his career trying to prevent tragedies such as Sandy Hook. His commitment began in 1989 when he was sent to counsel survivors of a schoolyard shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, where 29 children and one teacher were injured and five children died. The shooter used that era’s assault rifle.
“That experience had a profound effect on me,” Brock said. “It shaped my whole career.”
Since then, Brock has worked with the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) to develop a system called PREPaRE that trains people how to prevent tragedies, both natural and human caused, and, should they occur, how to respond. In California, about 40 people have been trained to offer the course.
“A kid doesn’t suddenly snap,” he said. “It’s a process. It’s a long path to follow to get to this horrible end. There are clear warning signs.”
After Columbine, the U.S. Secret Service published two studies of school attacks that discussed those warning signs: Implications for Prevention of School Attacks in the United States and Threat Assessment in Schools.
What matters, the reports found, are not appearances, but behaviors – words and deeds. Troubled students will act aggressively or will write about suicide or killing people. In the vast majority of cases, Brock said, at least one other person – often a peer – knew that the killer had a propensity to violence and had talked about harming others.
Brock says it is important for schools to emphasize to students that they are not snitches if they tell an adult about a friend who is talking about violence to himself or others. “We need to confront head on this conspiracy of silence among kids,” he said. “We need to make (telling an adult) heroic.”
“Most mental health problems are treatable,” Brock said. “Especially when we can identify and intervene early, we are more likely to reach these kids and substantially minimize the impact of mental health problems.”
Assuming the Best, Rick Smith and Mary Lambert, Sept. 2008
The Perception of Science Teachers on the Role of Student Relationships in the Classroom, Cheryl Mattison, Doctoral Dissertation, 2011
The Collaborative for Reaching & Teaching the Whole Child, San Jose State
Restorative Justice, Oakland Unified