Author: Rossen, Eric
Date published: March 1, 2012
The Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services, also known as the NASP Practice Model, outlines 10 general domains of school psychological practices. This article is one in a series that highlights various domains within the Practice Model and, through an interview with a practicing school psychologist, illustrates how these domains are effectively applied in everyday professional activities.
Interventions and Mental Health Services to Develop Social and Life Skills
An estimated 2 million students are retained each year in the United States, typically as a result of underachievement, excessive disciplinary or behavior problems, or both (Jimerson, Renshaw, & Skokut, 2010). Despite a lack of research support for retaining students in a grade, and the potential for more negative outcomes than positive following retention, this practice has continued to increase over the last several decades. This trend is likely the result of several myths associated with grade retention (see Jimerson, 2010), including the erroneous beliefs that students will benefit from the gift of time, that retention promotes school success and achievement, and that retention does no harm. In truth, grade retention is associated with long-term negative academic, social, and emotional outcomes; increased risk behaviors (e.g., substance use); increased violence, aggression, and criminal behavior in adulthood; and higher school dropout rates (20-50% increase). Grade retention is the single most powerful predictor of school dropout.
Importantly, retained students experience lowered self-esteem, a dislike for school, and decreased attendance - all of which exacerbate the issues that resulted in retention in the first place. In fact, one study found that sixth graders rated retention as a more stressful event than the death of a parent (Anderson, Jimerson, 8c Whipple, 2005). Thus, the social and emotional impacts of retention are significant. This is particularly troubling given the known relationship between social-emotional functioning, mental health, and learning.
A series of empirically supported interventions to prevent retention are available in the academic literature (see Jimerson et al, 2006). Many of these recommendations are intended for preventing retention or intervening when students have been considered for retention (and rightfully so). Given the continued practice of retention in schools, it is also helpful to consider practices that may support students who have already experienced retention.
Gary Matloff, PhD, NCSP, a school psychologist for the Broward County (Florida) School Board, developed a unique group counseling program that serves underachieving middle school students with a history of having been retained one or more grade levels.
Describe the intervention you have implemented in your schools to support retained students.
For 8 years, I have utilized small-group counseling in an effort to reach out to middle school students who have been retained at least one grade. As a function of feelings of alienation because of having been left behind their age appropriate peers, the experience of the group's unique social culture in fostering trust, belonging, acceptance, and a common identity has been the major therapeutic factor. The mission of the group is to provide a therapeutic environment whereby students develop stronger senses of self-esteem and self-competence that all too often are severely damaged as a result of a history of chronic underachievement and subsequent grade retention(s).
The counseling groups, which meet weekly during one class period, last for the entire school year and students are grouped together with their grade level peers. Groups that had met in the previous year continue to meet the following year (s) until the transition to high school. New groups are formed each year depending on the school's needs pertaining to the number of identified students who fit the selection criteria. Students who are candidates for the group are those who do not have significant learning concerns; they typically have a consistent history of average to above average standardized test scores and prior history of strong academic performances in earlier grade levels. These students have long been described by teachers as being bright and capable, yet they lackmotivation, are socially immature, and/or struggle with unresolvedemotional issues that have impacted their school performance.
The structure and topics discussed during the counseling groups typically is left in the hands of the students to ensure that the discussions are personally relevant. Ongoing topics have focused on personal and emotional struggles in having been retained, coping with dysfunctional family backgrounds, conflicts with particular school staff, maladaptive peer socialization issues, substance use and/or experimentation and other risky behaviors, academic achievement, and recreational and leisure pursuits. As their particular group becomes a consistent fixture in these students' school lives, the group continues to offer much needed social and emotional support throughout the school year.
How has this activity benefited the students, families, the school, and your district?
The intensive support these students received has been invaluable in boosting their sense of connectedness to school. Pre and post behavioral ratings, according to the Behavior Assessment for Children (BASC), have shown improvement in students' attitude toward both school and teachers. Discipline referrals for disruptive behavioral problems had decreased while academic grades also have shown a noticeable improvement. Those further along in the group process, most notably the eighth graders who had been together since the previous year, were noted to have expressed a healthier degree of optimism toward their transition to high school, which is reflective of their greater hope for the future and a renewed sense of self-confidence, negating significant risk factors associated with dropping out. To date, at least 40% of students having participated in one of the counseling groups have successfully completed their high school education (this figure is based on those who have since transitioned out of middle school long ago enough to have graduated from high school and their whereabouts still are known). Higher success rates noted among students from later groups who are nearing high school graduation reflect a positive outcome in comparison to the often cited high dropout rates for students who have been retained at least one grade level.
Through the structure of maintaining a counseling group program for retained students, the school faculty developed a heightened awareness and increased sensitivity to the unique social-emotional needs of these students. This awareness has resulted in alternative programming efforts, increased attention to the importance of students' social and emotional needs, and improvements in student scheduling that focus on the importance of a good match between the students, their ability levels, and the instructional style of teachers. School faculty especially had come to regard the school psychologist in the building as a valued, competent contributor to the well-being and success of all students. Ourmiddle school has become a positive example in the district as to how the school psychologist has an active, direct role in fostering the academic, behavioral, and social functioning of its students.
What are some of the initial barriers you faced in implementing this counseling group?
Identifying appropriate students who were most likely to benefit from participation in this type of counseling group proved challenging as trial and error dominated the selection of students in earlier groups. Students who were insincere in utilizing group counseling in a constructive manner created a negative tone in earlier groups as a function of high levels of disruptiveness and mistrust. Subsequent groups appeared better able to profit as a result of the focus in recruiting those who were more willing to acknowledge personal struggles, regrets, and desires for change. Further, including students who were willing to positively contribute to group discussions helped foster a mutual sense of reciprocity among group members.
Schoolfaculty have had a rather tenuous relationship with school psychologists previously assigned to the school, in which school psychologists have rarely lasted more than a year, maintained a variable, itinerant schedule, and predominantly represented the stereotyped role as assessor. Teachers were reluctant to have their students leave class on a regular basis; however, adopting a rotating schedule whereby groups met during a different class period every week, minimizing their having to miss a particular class, has improved teachers' cooperation. As I became a more common fixture and better known as a team player, teachers also became more amenable to collaborating on enhancing students' well being.
Varying professional obligations and priorities continue to make the prospect of consistency in meeting for the group challenging. Meeting weekly, even if able to meet at different time periods of the day, sometimes is a daunting prospect relative to more pressing needs that can be impressed upon the school psychologist at any given point in time. Maintaining clearly established priorities and a strongly organized manner has helped greatly to ensure consistency in meeting with the groups. In turn, the group tends to become a priority for the students, who seek out the facilitator early on the day of or even a day or two before to inquire about when the group would be meeting for that week.
How do you plan to continue or improve upon this activity in the future?
Over the years, numerous arrangements have been tried to foster the ideal group setting for maximum outcomes. Flexibility continues to be needed in forming future groups to ensure targeting of those students who need and subsequently may benefit the most from participation.
Of particular interest is to impose greater structure on the focus in transitioning to high school. For example, students in the group often express idealized thoughts and desires about what high school will be like, which often results in disappointment and discouragement after having finally made the transition. More direct exposure to what can be expected should be incorporated, serving both as a source of inspiration and encouragement and to better ground the students in reality. Of benefit may be to recruit one of the high school guidance counselors to meet with the group to highlight important points to consider, field personal questions/concerns, and give the students an advance opportunity to develop a supportive relationship with an adult in the high school. A more direct peer connection could be utilized by having previous group members now in high school meet with the students and/or organize a visit to the high school. Such activities would serve to better focus subsequent discussions in group sessions and facilitate more thorough processing of issues surrounding the transition to high school in a proactive manner.
Although this intervention is a valuable secondary prevention effort, it is important to reach vulnerable students from a more primary prevention perspective; in other words, preventing the occurrence of grade retention before it happens by addressing social, emotional, andbehavioral factors on amore school-wide level. Larger scale efforts are needed for all students to assist in fostering stronger degrees of resiliency that are embedded in efforts to promote academic success. Such an approach would in turn decrease the need to directly address such concerns after the fact and eliminate the negative outcomes associated with retention.*
Anderson, G. E., Jimerson, S. R., & Whipple, A. D. (2005). Students' ratings of stressful experiences at home and school: Loss of a parent and grade retention as superlative stressors. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 27(1), 1-20.
Jimerson, S. R., Renshaw, T. L., & Skokut, M. A. (2010). Grade retention and promotion: A guide for educators. In A. Canter, L. Z. Paige, & S. Shaw (Eds.), Helping children at home and school III: Handouts for families and educators. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Jimerson, S. R. (2010). Grade retention: A fact sheet. In A. Canter, L. Z. Paige, & S. Shaw (Eds.), Helping children at home and school III: Handouts for families and educators. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Jimerson, S. R., Pletcher, S. M. W., Graydon, K., Schnurr, B. L., Nickerson, A. B., & Kundert, D. K. (2006). Beyond grade retention and social promotion: Promoting the social and academic competence of students. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 85-97.
ERIC ROSSEN, PhD, NCSP, is the NASP Director of Professional Development and Standards.