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By Gale M. Morrison, Merith Cosden, Shane Jimerson, and Michael J. Furlong
As public schools strive to raise students' academic performance they encounter numerous challenges. These challenges include the need to address school violence concerns, school discipline, and students who are challenged by social, emotional, behavioral, substance abuse, and mental health problems. These problems are complex, affect students in different ways, and often co-occur; thus, they require effective, creative, flexible responses.
Schools cannot remain neutral on these matters because their responses can either ameliorate or exacerbate the impact that these problems have on students' development and ultimate academic success. It is possible that schools, through practices that are not developmentally or culturally matched to students, may inadvertently commit their own form of "systemic violence." Students who bring academic and behavioral challenges to school may become further disconnected from school through practices that fail to help them develop personal, social, and academic competencies.
The Center for School-Based Youth Development at the University of California, Santa Barbara (CSBYD at UCSB) was founded to address contemporary challenges for youth such as school violence, school discipline, substance abuse, child abuse, and learning disabilities. Its mission is "to enhance school engagement for ALL students through strength-based assessment and targeted interventions designed to promote social and cognitive competence." The mission is carried out through research and development and by increasing the cadre of educators who are knowledgeable about and support a comprehensive and coordinated approach to student support services.
Our mission suggests that student engagement in schools be addressed at three levels: students who are educationally engaged, students who are at risk, and students whose relationship with school has been fractured. In this article we summarize some of what we have learned through our research about meeting the needs of these three groups of youth.
Many students are appropriately engaged with their schools' academic and social mission; however, educators must continue to "reaffirm" this connection by understanding all students' needs and how to effectively address these needs in the context of school so that they may achieve to the maximum extent possible. Schools must not ignore the very students who are already on a positive educational track.
We have developed a model that links key elements of school engagement. Participation (behavioral involvement) contributes to the formation of interpersonal Attachments (social bonding), which in turn results in a student developing a sense of personal Commitment (valuing of education), and ultimately to incorporating school Membership (identification as a school community citizen) as part of his or her self identity (P >A > C > M). Such a way of thinking about school engagement is relevant to all students and, if used as the basis for educational practice, it has the potential to organize overall school improvement efforts designed to create a better, more effective school.
Another facet of school engagement has been explored by two of our center's research partners, Tom Hanson and Greg Austin of WestEd, who have examined the relationship between the levels of positive school resilience factors (such as being engaged in meaningful learning activities and having caring relationships at school). They have found that the gains schools make in promoting student academic learning (their primary mission) are greater when their students report that they have caring relationships and high expectations at school. Thus, establishing school climate conditions that foster the resilience factor of positive school engagement has the potential to benefit all students, not just those at risk.
One additional research interest of our center is to develop a better understanding of how schools create and sustain such climate conditions to enhance the social-emotional and academic competence of all students. We reason that these conditions are more enduring when they are infused into the academic fabric of the school. One initiative that we have been involved with that uses an infusion strategy is the Central Coast Service Learning Project. Schools within our region of California have adapted courses to embrace the principles of the service learning model that include linking course content and instruction to involvement in meaningful community service projects. These programs involve adaptation of course content and instructional approaches to encourage student self-exploration of their place as community citizens and increased awareness of pressing community needs, and to develop positive linkages between the school and the broader community. A primary objective is to link student learning objectives to involvement in meaningful, needed activities. As suggested by our ongoing evaluation of these projects, students report that they feel an increased sense of connection within their school and with the community. Such activities are one way to reaffirm positive student connections to school.
Another group of students is considered "at-risk" for educational failure or social maladjustment. Without additional intervention and attention these students may become alienated from school and devote their time and energy to activities that do not further their future educational adjustment: substance abuse, truancy, and destructive actions in the school and community. The schools' challenge is to "reconnect" these students to the academic and social mission of the school with more specialized interventions. Schools must reach out to students who are not fully engaged in the schooling process.
Students with learning disabilities provide an example of those who fall into this "at-risk" group. The research of Merith Cosden provides an example of information that will help "reconnect" students. Her research focuses on self-perceptions and self-esteem among children with learning disabilities (LD). One factor identified as related to self-esteem for children with learning disabilities is their "self-understanding" of what it means to have a learning disability. One reason that children with LD may not have an accurate understanding of their own disability is that there is no formal process for providing this information to the child and the child may not receive feedback as part of their IEP. Parents, often themselves anxious about the news, may be reluctant to talk with the child about their disability, or may lack knowledge and provide misinformation to the child. Among common misconceptions are the breadth of the LD problem and the fact that many believe they will outgrow their disability over time.
The process of learning what it means to have a learning disability is a two-edged sword. Learning about one's weaknesses is a necessary first step toward developing skills for successful adaptation to school, work or social relationships, but the development of self-understanding also means recognizing differences between oneself and others in ways that indicate that one is less capable than his or her peers. Thus, when first faced with the understanding of what it means to have LD, students may show lower self-esteem, at least temporarily.
Interactions with friends, family, and school personnel can lead to accurate and positive understanding, or confusion and negative perceptions. The development of positive self-understanding is influenced by whether or not family members and close teachers have an accurate understanding of LD, as well as the child's opportunities to discuss their disability with knowledgeable and caring others. The availability of significant others with whom to discuss their disability is particularly important to high school students. A developmental shift can be expected to occur during adolescence, as the individual is able to grasp a more differentiated view of self (i.e., "I have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others"), which leads to greater self-acceptance. This ability to identify one's strengths and weaknesses allows the adolescent to advocate for his or her needs more effectively.
Cosden's research points to the need for interventions to build self-understanding and to help students with concerns about having LD across their life span.
The third group of students is those for whom the relationship with the school has been significantly fractured. These students may have been "pushed out" through disciplinary procedures, dropped out on their own, or been excluded because of their inability to function in "regular" school settings due to their educational or behavioral needs. For these students, efforts are needed to"reconstruct" their relationship to the school. In addition, community service coordination is likely to be needed.
Two research efforts associated with the Center for School-Based Youth Development have focused on reconstructing fractured relationships between youth and school/family/community entities. Turning Points, a project awarded to Gale Morrison by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, focused on elementary and junior high school students who were being "pushed out" of school due to behavior problems. This project revealed the complexity of problems that were being experienced by students who misbehave in school. Reconstructing a positive relationship with these students was done in a variety of ways, which did not necessarily entail changing the skills and abilities of the students (although successful interventions in that regard are helpful) but through altering some fundamental key environments. For example, changing teachers, changing peer groups or changing schools and giving the student a chance to start off with a clean slate improved engagement. Giving students an opportunity to succeed in some aspect of school such as sports was one avenue to reconstruct a reason to "connect" with school. Persistent and caring outreach to families, whose dysfunction was interfering with student performance at school, also made a difference.
The research of Shane Jimerson and Michael Furlong offers additional strategies for reconstructing students' relationships to school. The family-focused, neighborhood-based emphasis of the four-year, longitudinal NEW VISTAS project employed a transactional-ecological model of youth development that highlighted the dynamic influence of relationships with adults, individual characteristics, and environmental influences in a youth's social context. The program specifically addressed family-based risk factors (such as parental conflict, child abuse, and family history of problem behavior), but also identified individual assets or strengths that may be valuable in promoting social and cognitive competence and reconstructing relationships with the school context. This program involved a series of careful assessments, interviews, and emphasis on the individual youth and family members. Sensitivity to cultural and gender considerations was emphasized. Important also was the inclusion of an array of professionals (e.g., educational, mental health, drug and alcohol, social services, juvenile justice). Results examining the efficacy of these multidisciplinary comprehensive intervention services have revealed positive changes in behavior problems, social-emotional functioning, mental health, family relationships, and school related indicators (e.g., participation, grades). The research of Jimerson and Furlong further reveals the importance of understanding the unique characteristics (both assets and risks) of high-risk youths and families and providing coordinated interagency collaborative services to promote the social and cognitive competence of high-risk adolescents.
Schools must attend to the needs of all students through programs designed to reaffirm, reconnect, and reconstruct relationships with students who have these three types of responses to school. The challenge of assisting schools toward success requires a two-pronged approach: (a) designing and implementing evidence-based interventions to develop the social and cognitive competence of all students, and (b) helping to incorporate these practices into the mainstream as part of the overall context of school reform.
Gale M. Morrison, Merith Cosden, Shane Jimerson, and Michael J. Furlong are Center Faculty for the Center for School-Based Youth Development at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They may be reached at 805/893-5419 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Additional information about their research and resulting strategies can be found on the Web at www.education.ucsb.edu/netshare/c4sbyd/index.html.
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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/163.
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