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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Meeting Struggling Teens Where They Are

"Teens grappling with mental health or behavioral issues need additional support every day. Here's how our middle school provides it."

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A telephone conversation with the parent of an 8th grader who had been struggling in school was the turning point of what would eventually be a successful year for this student. Teachers had been emailing and calling home regarding Adam's incomplete work, attention-seeking behaviors, silliness in the classroom, and overall lack of motivation.
On this phone call, however, the school team working with Adam described to Adam's mother a new program we'd started to better meet the needs of some of our students, one we thought Adam should be in—our Learning Everyday Alternatives for Success and Achievement (LEASA) program. We shared how Adam would be in a smaller English language arts class, have at least two adults in all his other classes, and have a health and wellness class two days a week in addition to his regular physical education class. He'd have access to a mentor, an additional art class, and a structured study hall. Adam's mother's response? "Now you're speaking my language!"

Teen Years: Crucial Stage for Mental Health

Students like Adam have made educators at Capt. Nathan Hale Middle School—a 6th–8th grade public school in rural Connecticut that serves 375 students—rethink what teens most need from schools. Of course teens need a well-balanced educational experience that includes rigorous academics—but what about students who can't meet those demands without intense support?
Adolescence is a stage when many students are wrought with emotional turmoil and anxiety. Many teens need individualized, consistent support—and they need it at school, where they're asked to push aside anxiety about their appearance or sexuality, balance their desire for autonomy with their need for structure, and minimize their concerns about popularity in order to focus on understanding irony, isotopes, and isosceles triangles. Staying motivated for academics is difficult for every young adult. For those with additional risk factors, the obstacles can seem insurmountable.
The World Health Organization (2018) stresses that "Adolescence is a crucial period for developing and maintaining social and emotional habits important for mental well-being … and the more risk factors a young person is exposed to, the greater their chance of dealing with mental health issues." The school experience is a critical piece of developing those crucial habits for mental well-being.
There's evidence that adolescents are coming to school today with more complex social and emotional issues than at any time in history. As journalist Susanna Schrobsdorff (2016) noted in a story on teen mental health for Time:
Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It's a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics—suburban, urban, and rural; those who are college bound. In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys—totaling 6.3 million teens—have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Educators and health professionals are struggling with the causes and effects of this increase in anxiety and depression. Certainly many technological, societal, and familial changes are affecting today's youth. Researchers Balmer and Bullock (2017) list among factors likely to be contributing to mental health challenges "negative effects of social networking, heightened stress through media [exposure], poor nutrition … a motivational shift from intrinsic to extrinsic goals, and lack of cardiovascular exercise." We suspect the world of social media has exacerbated the levels of anxiety, depression, and—­ironically—loneliness of young people. Inter­personal skills are becoming lost to many teens whose main form of communication is through a device, and this loss affects their ability to work with others and communicate their feelings.

The LEASA Program: Small Classes …

At Capt. Nathan Hale, we developed LEASA because we've seen this increase in mental health and behavioral issues among our students. Michael was another student who helped us realize we needed a fresh approach. When he was in 7th grade, Michael was facing tremendous loss in his young life, including the death of his mother several years earlier and the recent passing of his grandfather. Michael was a bright young man who desperately wanted to fit in but struggled with social-emotional skills. School administrators often received phone calls from parents inquiring whether the administration was aware that Michael was scaring other students with his outbursts and threats. The school's clinical team was addressing Michael's needs as best they could with existing resources, including working with Michael's father, an overwhelmed single parent. But it wasn't enough.
We realized students like Adam and Michael needed something different—and so did the school. Even one student who is struggling to meet any level within Maslow's hierarchy of needs can dramatically change the culture of a class or school in his or her attempt to navigate the academic landscape. So we asked ourselves how we could best meet the needs of our isolated, anxious, angry, or disengaged students. LEASA was the result.
LEASA provides in-school help for students who are at-risk, vulnerable, or extremely disengaged so they can successfully meet social and academic standards. A significant aspect of the program is that it provides support within students' regular academic classes. Students in LEASA are part of small ELA, math, and science classes (which also include students not in the program), often taught by two certified teachers so students can receive more attention. A common strategy for disenfranchised students is to quietly disappear in a class or act out as a way to get removed from the class or get attention from peers when the workload seems too difficult and fear sets in. That doesn't work in these classes.
The program has the flexibility to provide a little downtime when needed and tailor activities to meet the students where they are on any given day. Students are also given enriching opportunities created especially for LEASA. The goal is to increase participating students' attendance, improve their grades, and encourage their active participation in academic endeavors and in their school community.
About four percent of the school's students participate in LEASA. Participants are selected using multiple criteria, including prior academic and discipline records, attendance data, and input from certified staff and students' families. Participation is optional. If a parent initially has doubts, we invite the parent to a meeting, at which the lead teacher explains LEASA and its benefits. LEASA students spend the majority of their day with non-LEASA peers. Our teaching staff works with both LEASA and non-LEASA students in the same classroom using the same curriculum. Due to our rotating block schedule and other factors, the majority of our students have unique schedules, so the classes specific to LEASA students aren't noticeable.
Another program goal is prevention. Many of the risk factors we see in students identified to participate in the program (such as drug use or poor family functioning) are factors the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018) has found may increase the risk of youth engaging in violence at school. By providing at-risk adolescents with the tools and skills necessary to make good, empowering decisions in middle school, we hope to prevent these youth from chronic absenteeism, undesirable behaviors, total disengagement, and gaps in their learning—all precursors of more significant issues moving forward. We strive instead to lead them to success in high school and beyond.
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AS PART OF A SERVICE-LEARNING CLASS, LEASA STUDENTS SERVE HOMEMADE SANDWICHES FOR KAFE KANGAROO.
(PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA WALTMAN)

… and Big "Extras"

Possibly even more important to the students than smaller classes are what we call "the extras"—special opportunities provided to these struggling members of our school community. A twice-weekly health and wellness class supplements participants' regular physical education class with an individualized approach to developing physical fitness and healthy living habits. Students engage in self-created workout routines to address their personal goals. They track their own progress and motivate each other. One LEASA learner commented, "Health and wellness helps me get out energy and get out stress. The program helps me with things normal classes don't help you with."
The service-learning class they take includes community service and mentoring opportunities. LEASA students run two site-based businesses for staff—the Cool Cats Copying Company and Kafe Kangaroo. Students working at Cool Cats copy the menus for the district each month; complete bulk orders for large group events like field trips; help individual teachers with copy jobs; and sort, count, and distribute flyers sent out through the main office. For Kafe Kangaroo, on certain (limited) days, students prepare lunch for staff who order one, giving students a chance to create a menu, shop, and cook. They handle taking orders and delivering lunches to staff.
LEASA students are highly motivated to earn this privilege. They learn executive functioning skills like organization, planning, and communication. It's a joy to see the pride and increased self-confidence they exhibit as they take on these leadership roles. Students are also creating a bird habitat on school grounds, and they manage a mobile library cart so students can return and check out books during lunch.
The twice-weekly structured study hall, which gives students support to get their homework or studying done and their binders organized, is another key element of the program. Many struggling students give up on homework because they can't find the time or space to tackle it or because the tasks seem too difficult. And lack of homework completion is often a contributing factor to students failing classes.
When students first start getting this support, they are each given a sticky note that lists their assignments, prioritized, before every structured study hall. The teacher forms work or study groups, assigns working stations, and gathers materials as needed. By the end of the year, students get started on their own, checking grades in PowerSchool, setting their own priorities, and gearing up to get work done. Having less homework to do at home is motivating, and the opportunity to have a teacher's help when they struggle with that homework seals the deal. One student admitted, "Without the study halls I would barely get anything done."
Additionally, LEASA students meet bi-monthly with the school social worker for team building through discussions and games. This fosters a sense of community and teaches students to work together, be empathetic and supportive, listen more carefully, and respond more appropriately. The last period every Friday is a reward for all LEASA students who've met their academic, attendance, and behavioral goals. In this period, students briefly talk about what they did that week to earn the reward and what they hope to improve in the coming week. Everyone congratulates each other's successes and pledges to support each other with next week's goals. This is followed by 10 minutes of quiet reflection and 30 minutes to relax as they choose.

Clear Results—Including for Adam and Michael

Heading into the third year of the program, the results are clear: A little extra support goes a long way. Comparing LEASA students' responses on a survey given in the spring with their responses to the same questions in the fall, the students expressed higher enjoyment in coming to school, a decrease in worry and anxiety during the school day, and significant increases in feeling that their teachers care about them and feeling that they are smart. Overall, 8th graders in the program said they felt prepared for high school, assigning credit for that preparation to LEASA.
A student named Nick summed up how LEASA helps him: "I know we're learning to work together, but it mostly feels like games. I like the privileges and the opportunities I get to finish work. It helps me feel successful because I get better grades than I ever have before—and I get rewarded for it on Fridays."
Many participants have also met the program goal of getting involved in the school community, something they previously lacked any interest in. The year they started in LEASA, one or more students participated in the Veteran's Day assembly, wrestling, track, basketball, student council, chorus, and band. Steady decreases in absences and tardies were seen throughout the school year. Office-level discipline referrals virtually disappeared.
Participating students seem to be learning more academically than they did before LEASA. They are in class more often, are more focused, and are more engaged in the school community. Ninety-one percent of grades on all LEASA students' report cards were C- or higher last year. Half of the students made honor roll at least one quarter; five out of the six who chose to apply were accepted to their first-choice technical high school; and no student's grades prohibited him or her from attending pep rallies, participating in enrichment activities, or going to school dances.
One 8th grader remarked during his first quarter in the program that he hadn't been allowed to attend even one pep rally or enrichment activity in 6th or 7th grade. He enjoyed them all as a part of LEASA!
So how did the LEASA supports translate for Adam and Michael? Both now attend our local high school and are succeeding in college-prep courses and making positive connections with school staff. Speaking with these former LEASA students, it's clear that the relationships they built in middle school and the supports offered there provided a foundation for their future success.
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A LEASA STUDENT PUTS INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGES ON EVERY STUDENT'S LOCKER FOR KINDNESS WEEK 2019.
(PHOTO COURTESY OF REBEKAH LABAK)

Toward More Good Days

All schools have students every year who just don't fit the typical grade-level program designed to meet the needs of the majority. When students like these aren't able to regulate their emotions or adapt to academic requirements, volatile behaviors often erupt—which can be daunting for even the most veteran educators and further complicate the students' problems. Yet when students who struggle socially and emotionally have good days, they are often wonderful to work with. The kind of intense support provided through LEASA can turn things around so good days become the norm.
Authors' note: All student names are pseudonyms.
References

Balmer, J., & Bullock, M. (2017). The perfect storm: Anxiety and depression in adolescents in the 21st century. National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, 6(1).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, October 30). Youth violence: Risk and protective factors. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/riskprotectivefactors.html

Schrobsdorff, S. (2016, October 27). Teen depression and anxiety: Why the kids are not alright. Time.

World Health Organization. (2018, September 18). Adolescent mental health.

Author bio coming soon

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