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Innovative School Programs
"An Imperative, not a Luxury: Reflections of a Pioneer on the Case for Comprehensive Affective Programs in Modern Education" -- by Jim Giorgi
"Education is not so much the filling of a bucket as it is the kindling of a flame." -Socrates
If there is indeed truth to the words of Socrates, then it stands to reason that all of the textbooks, lectures, teaching strategies and curricula in the world will fall short of the mark unless a student’s heart is on fire to learn, to grow, to excel. For when students arrive at school not just mentally prepared to learn, but with a sense of enthusiasm about taking the next step on their journey toward a mature and fulfilling adult life, then teachers, parents and administrators can all be confident and proud that their efforts have been successful. Are our students on fire to learn and to excel? For how many students is education an ecstatic experience, one that can not only compete with but triumph over the unholy trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll”, and other just as self-destructive, addictive and unproductive behaviors? Are we teaching to the heart as well as the head?
Education is the development of the total person, stressing excellence in character development and maturity as well as in academics. The intellectual, the physical and the emotional needs of students must be addressed. We have developed sophisticated, structured curricula and opportunities for students to develop the first two needs, but are woefully lacking in how we are addressing the third. There is a widespread failure to understand and acknowledge that how students feel about themselves, personally and socially, is the foundation for how those students will respond to and succeed with their educational experience on the academic (physical and intellectual) levels. Attempting to teach students academic subjects while their self-concept and emotional state are compromised is like pouring water into a bucket that has a lid on it - or trying to start a fire with wet wood. Protests that there is not enough time to spend on affective issues because of the demands to meet state and national standards focus on fortifying the superstructure when the foundation is crumbling.
All children have an innate evolutionary urge to become all they are capable of being. Too often we see this urge blocked, stagnated or damaged in our students. It is, of course, the primary responsibility of parents and family to provide from birth the kind of emotional support and guidance that will allow children to grow up feeling good about themselves, show up to school ready and eager to learn, and behave appropriately while doing so. Just a glance at our schools today shows clearly that this is not happening in an increasingly larger proportion of cases. Apathy, underachievement, oppositionalism, depression, anxiety, ADHD, conduct disorders, disruptive and violent behaviors are increasing in frequency and intensity. Stress and burnout due to the frustrations of working with students who are either unmotivated or actively resistant to learning are robbing us of some of our finest teaching resources. Dealing with these problems once they are at an advanced stage requires inordinate amounts of professional time, effort and money, and is still in many cases unsuccessful. Many students “graduate” from the educational system to the legal system. Billions of dollars are spent on prisons, in an attempt to remedy problems that could have been resolved much more simply and easily in childhood, and for pennies on those dollars. Worst of all is the awful waste of human potential and the dashed aspirations for a happy and productive life.
Where will these needs be met, when so many children today are not able to get their affective needs met at home, if not at the place where they spend the major portion of their waking time between the ages of 3 and 18 - their schools. If schools do not accept the responsibility for meeting the affective as well as the academic needs of students, the problems we see daily can only continue to multiply. Affective Education and other primary preventive interventions can no longer be left to chance. They must be nurtured, guided and supported as intelligently and systematically as are critical thinking skills and subject mastery.
The vast majority of educational professionals and paraprofessionals care deeply for children in general and their students in particular. Equipping them with the basic skills to create a more healing environment and to be maximally helpful to the level of their capacities in specific problem situations will actualize that caring into practical outcomes. Empathy, active listening skills, an understanding of the feelings behind the words and a repertoire of compassionate and helpful resources are not just basic therapeutic skills or even basic teaching skills. They are basic human skills, and can transform every teacher into a role model of emotional intelligence for their students. Every teacher needs to learn these skills, not to turn schools into massive mental health clinics but simply into places with “intelligent hearts”. The teacher training and certification process should include a requirement for a course on both undergraduate and graduate levels in basic affective awareness and intervention skills, with provisions for ongoing in-service trainings as needed. It is no longer sufficient for a teacher to say, “I teach [Reading, Math, Social Studies, Science, English, etc.]”, but, rather, “I teach children”.
Throughout the recent history of education, as critical educational issues have arisen, government and educational systems have galvanized to meet these challenges with comprehensive programs to restore not just adequacy, but excellence. As examples, in the 1960’s, the growing awareness that students’ level of physical conditioning had reached critically low levels led to the creation of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The realization that the United States was lagging behind other industrialized nations in mathematics, the sciences and technology led to a major initiative to provide incentives to aspiring math and science teachers. In response to deteriorating levels of academic achievement and standardized test scores, the No Child Left Behind Act was passed.
Over the past 30 years, emotional and behavioral issues in the schools have become increasingly problematic, yet educational policymakers continue to address these symptoms unsystematically and with palliatives rather than by acknowledging and addressing the underlying causes. Homicidal violence in incidents such as those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech are the extreme outbursts and only the tip of the iceberg. They arrest our attention and provoke outrage and grief, but when are they going to wake us up? It is time to establish a new paradigm for the deployment of mental health resources in the schools. The “medical model” of testing and counseling individual students is totally inadequate to meet the needs of the vast numbers of students in need. A school-based mental health professional (psychologist, social worker or counselor) typically can spend one half-hour session weekly with a student, if that much. The two hours or more it requires a psychologist to test a single student does absolutely nothing to resolve a problem directly. This approach is like fighting brush fires when the entire forest behind you is a blazing conflagration. Compare that effect on a child’s behavior with that of the positive influence that trained, understanding and supportive teachers, peers and parents, who have much more extended contact time with the student, can have. Such staff members can immediately respond to head off trouble or at least be able to refer for the appropriate level of intervention. If two hours of testing or individual counseling time could be spent supervising eight or more associate “helpers” who are providing direct intervention to dozens of needy students, the benefits to their emotional and behavioral development would be magnified significantly. Nor can such an approach be limited to special education programs. Even regular schools will need to become more “therapeutic” in the sense of being an understanding and supportive emotional as well as academic climate if we are to stem the tide of this crisis.
I have been involved with the educational system in one form or another throughout my professional career. Since the inception of my career 30 years ago, I have brought a commitment to excellence and a spirit of innovation in addressing the problems that interfere with students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach. My work extends the helping reach of the mental health professional by utilizing the natural “therapists” (teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, non-instructional staff and parents) within the context of the normal, daily school environment and routine. It is based on a consultation/ecological rather than a medical model of intervention, and is attuned to the ancient proverb “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he feeds himself for life”.
In 1979 I was a brand new itinerant psychologist in Orange County, New York, working in both the Pine Bush and Florida (a village in Orange County) school districts. Mary Lou Lougheed, the superintendent of Florida Schools, expressed distress to me about the increasing number of elementary students with emotional and behavioral problems. She mused rhetorically “What can we do about it?” I responded that I had an idea that could help, specifically, instituting a school-wide affective education program that would give all students’ an opportunity for their concerns to be voiced, and allowing them to feel that they were heard and understood. With Mary Lou’s enthusiastic financial and administrative backing, I obtained sets of the “Magic Circle™” Affective Education Curriculum, trained every teacher in the school in the theory and practice of conducting a Magic Circle lesson, conducted lessons weekly in every classroom in the school, modeled group leadership for the teachers until they were comfortable taking the reins, transitioned the leadership of the classroom sessions to the teachers (2 circle sessions per week was the standard), and was available to the teachers as a resource for their questions and problems throughout the school year. Students, teachers, administrators and parents welcomed the program enthusiastically, and it was featured in an article in the regional newspaper, the Times-Herald Record.
In 1980, I was a psychologist for the Pine Bush School District, working in both an elementary (Circleville Elementary) and middle (Circleville Middle) school. The elementary school principal, Ralph Tavino, who was aware that I had established a Magic Circle program at the Florida NY School, requested that I duplicate that program at CES. With his support, the faculty at CES was trained and supervised, and ran the Magic Circle program as an integral part of the curriculum for the entire school year. Simultaneously, Dennis Listort, the principal at CVMS was concerned about the number of students with emotional and behavioral issues, many more than could be addressed by one-on-one, or even group, sessions with the psychologist. Working closely with Mike Duco, a new social studies teacher who had a counseling background, we solicited faculty volunteers who were willing to “donate” one free period per week to act as counselors for small groups (6 to 10 per group) of students who could benefit from a “rap” session, sharing their worries, frustrations and challenges with an understanding and supportive adult and their peers. Eight teachers volunteered for this program, were trained in basic listening and counseling techniques, and ran their groups on a weekly basis. In addition to leading the group discussions, each teacher met with me for a 15-minute weekly supervision session to discuss questions, problems, and any serious issues that may have been brought up by a student who might need a higher level of intervention. The program was very popular with the teacher volunteers, the students, and even those teachers who were not able to volunteer but noticed the difference in performance and attitude of their students who attended these groups.
In 1981, I learned of an innovative program developed by Emory Cowen, Ph.D. and his associates at the University of Rochester called Primary Mental Health Project (PMHP). This program screened primary and elementary grade students for being potentially at-risk for developing emotional, behavioral or learning problems, and assigned many of these students to weekly half-hour sessions of play therapy with specially trained and supervised paraprofessionals, who provided positive attention and feedback to these students. This program was perfectly aligned with my vision of expanded mental health service delivery. I immediately approached my supervisor, Director of Special Programs Janet Eskew and pitched the program to her. With her support, I and Guidance Counselor Sandy Bartnett attended PMHP trainings at the University of Rochester, wrote and received a matching grant from the PMHP Foundation, designed the “Special Friend” program and recruited and trained four paraprofessionals as therapy aides. CES principal Ralph Tavino also provided enthusiastic support, arranging for an empty classroom to be subdivided into three cubicles that were set up as play therapy stations. Students were screened and selected, and the aides began holding sessions in March of 1982. This program was an instant success, was featured in articles in the Wallkill Valley Times and the Times-Herald Record, and is presently still operating in the Pine Bush School District Elementary schools, 25 years after its inception.
In 1983, during my first year as a psychologist for the Special Education program at Sullivan County (NY) B.O.C.E.S., I was aware that due to a bitter contract dispute during the previous school year, there was considerable tension between administration and faculty members. With a team of teachers and administrators, we developed a full-day workshop focusing on opening communications, team-building, identifying specific problem areas in the day-to-day operations of the school as well as in communications between administration and staff, and brainstorming practical solutions that the administrators were committed to implementing. Tensions were eased and communication and operations moved significantly toward normalization as a result of this experience.
In 1984, B.O.C.E.S. Director of Special Education Mike Dollard, realizing that a haphazard approach to classroom behavior problems was no longer workable, mandated the creation of a structured, consistent school-wide discipline program. After attending trainings, and utilizing materials developed by Lee Canter (Assertive Discipline™), I worked with Mike and SETRC Trainer John Morgano to modify Canter’s program to be more appropriate for a special education population. We trained the entire faculty in the theory and application of the system, assisted individual faculty members in developing their specific classroom disciplinary system (comprising class rules and both positive and negative consequences for behaviors), and monitored and supervised the progress of the system, providing advice and support to teachers throughout the year as needed. I was also a key member of the crisis intervention team, along with Mike and Assistant Director Larry Daley, responding to and addressing disruptive students needing to be removed from the classroom and counseled to resume a level of behavioral decorum appropriate to the classroom learning environment.
Understanding that dealing with Special Needs students can be extremely stressful, even for the most experienced of teachers, Mike and John asked me to address this issue with a Stress Management program for teachers and paraprofessionals. I developed a 15-hour course that covered the theory of stress and specific stress management techniques, both responsive and protective. This course was extremely well received and repeated many times over the next several years. John and I also developed a 15-hour parent education course entitled Enhancing Parenting Skills, to meet the needs of parents of both special and regular education students. The course included such topics as parent-child communications, understanding the reasons for misbehaviors, constructive limit setting, assertive discipline techniques and therapeutic responses to emotional and behavioral crises. This course was also presented numerous times over a several year period and was well received. It was featured in an article in the local newspaper, the Sullivan County Democrat.
With a burning desire to maximize positive outcomes for the Management Needs population, Special Education Teacher Melinda Cormier and I co-developed a Model Therapeutic Classroom for Emotionally/Behaviorally Disordered students. This program was based on the philosophy that the classroom was established as a positive, welcoming and rewarding place to be, and incorporated programmatic modules to address the many possible contingencies during the course of the students’ day. It utilized the mental health professional as an integral part of the classroom experience. The psychologist/social worker/ counselor spent at least a half hour each day in each class to which s/he was assigned and also “dropped in” at random to monitor students, to address potential problems, or just to provide some extra attention to individual students. Melinda developed the academic aspect of the program, and I developed the therapeutic aspect. The daily schedule was structured and consistent. Academic lessons were planned and presented in accord with Madeline Hunter’s Elements of Instruction program and a multisensory, experientially based curriculum.
The modified Assertive Discipline program, including timeout and removal from the classroom options, was the standard for maintaining appropriate behavioral decorum. Constructive Limit Setting was used to respond to potential or actual behavioral outbursts. If a student received a timeout or was removed from the classroom, that student was required to participate in a structured dialogue (based on Dr. William Glasser’s Reality Therapy model) with the teacher, paraprofessional or the therapist, in order for them to be allowed to return to class. This dialogue focused on the student’s taking responsibility for the behavior that led to the disciplinary consequence, a commitment to make better behavioral choices should a similar incident occur in the future, and an affirmation of readiness to rejoin the class with appropriate behavior. Intrinsic and extrinsic positive reinforcers were used liberally and consistently, with students being able to earn hourly, daily, weekly and monthly rewards, privileges or activities. A daily group-counseling lesson was conducted in the classroom by the therapist with the teacher’s active participation, and many of the students received “pullout” individual or small group counseling sessions with the therapist as well. Once a week, the teacher and therapist met for half an hour to monitor performance and adjust strategies to maximize program effectiveness.
This program provided compassionate structure, firm but fair discipline, an atmosphere where all feelings were accepted unconditionally but behaviors were accepted conditionally, and where students were taught appropriate behavioral outlets for distressing feelings and impulses. Melinda and I presented this Model Classroom program at annual conferences of the New York Association of School Psychologists and the Association of New York State Educators of the Emotionally Disturbed, and at both conferences it was widely acclaimed.
Although at first we utilized commercial affective curricula for our daily class counseling sessions, Melinda and I decided to create our own unique therapeutic activities, which we termed the Dynamic Play Therapy program (based on the “Interplay” program of Dr. Jeanne Shub). This program focused on listening for the uncomfortable emotions or unacceptable impulses the students may have been expressing and then creating a weeklong series of discussions and activities to symbolically acknowledge and address them through creative play. The “Dream Protectors” Activity, for example, was based on a student’s expressed distress about a scary dream he had. I discussed having good and bad dreams with the students and also the idea of having a protective figure (an animal or mythic figure) to help them confront the dream “demons”. Melinda prepared a weeklong activity in which the students constructed their “protector” out of felt and stuffing (creating a “stuffed animal/figure) during class time. Students chose such figures as a bear, an eagle, a lion, and an angel, among others. The activity culminated with a group discussion in which the students, holding their completed “dream protectors”, each related an actual or imaginary scary dream in which their dream protector helped them to overcome their fear. The students then brought their protectors home with them where they were able to watch over their dreams and keep them safe. Nearly a dozen similar activities were created, including units on “Gremlins”, “Olympic Games”, “Journey to the Alien Planet”, “Puppets”, and “Clowns”, etc.
Melinda and I also wrote and received a grant to develop a Music Therapy program for her classroom. Activities focused on both classical and contemporary musical forms and included games to identify musical instruments by sound, listening to and discussing famous musical pieces (e.g., Peter and the Wolf), making musical instruments, singing and playing along accompanied by an electronic keyboard, and many other musical activities.
Sullivan BOCES also participated in the “Foster Grandparent” program, which utilized volunteer senior citizens who wanted to contribute their talents and experience to make a difference in the lives of students in need. Utilizing a training curriculum derived from PMHP, several of the “foster grandparents” were instructed in basic active listening, communication and therapeutic techniques, and were assigned to meet weekly with a caseload of students. Again, they received ongoing supervision from one of the counselors to address questions or problems they may have experienced in their sessions.
After leaving public school service in 1992, I specialized in EEG Biofeedback, designing and developing the clinical programs for two Biofeedback clinics – with Dr. Mary Jo Sabo at The Pain and Stress Biofeedback Center in Spring Valley NY, and with Dr. Steve Larsen at the Stone Mountain Counseling Center in New Paltz, NY. In 1995, Linda Vergara, the assistant principal at Enrico Fermi Elementary School in Yonkers, NY walked in the door of the Pain & Stress clinic, and our lives were changed forever. Linda brought her son, eight-year old John Michael, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and been expelled from the private school he had been attending. The school and a psychiatrist had recommended Ritalin for John Michael’s condition, and Linda had refused due to her concern about the side effects of the drug. She had heard about EEG Biofeedback as a treatment for ADHD, and wanted to try it as a last-ditch attempt to help John Michael without resorting to drugs. We began treating him with EEG Biofeeback, and the results were dramatic. Within two months, his misbehaviors had decreased dramatically; he was paying attention in school, finishing his homework and sitting appropriately at the dinner table – all miracles, in Linda’s estimation. She mused that in her school there were so many children with serious learning and behavioral problems who could benefit from EEG Biofeedback but whose parents could never afford the cost of private treatment, and asked if it was possible to set up an EEG Biofeedback center right in the school. Thus was born the Yonkers Public School EEG Biofeedback Project, the first of its kind in the nation. Working with a shoestring budget, Mary Jo, I, and a small, dedicated staff formed Biofeedback Consultants, Inc. and developed an in-house EEG Biofeedback program at the Enrico Fermi School. This program, over its five-year history, treated hundreds of students with serious learning and behavioral difficulties and was acclaimed as a success by teachers, administrators and parents. In its last year of operation it was expanded to two other elementary schools in the Yonkers district. It was discontinued in 2001 only because the school board was making drastic budget cuts for the following fiscal year. Before its demise, however, the Yonkers Project had garnered national attention, and was featured in articles in Psychology Today Magazine, Parade Magazine, Natural Living Magazine, CNN, ABC Good Morning America, Good Morning Westchester (cable station), National Public Radio, the Yonkers Herald-Statesman, and in the book A Symphony in the Brain by Jim Robbins.
Too many past national crises have been addressed with a battlefield mentality, and with very questionable results. “Wars” have been waged upon drug abuse, drunk driving, poverty, racism, hunger, and many other social problems. The emotional and behavioral problems of children and youth today, which constitute the roots of these crises, will not be resolved by waging war upon them but rather by waging compassion. We have all of the components to create a service delivery system that will exponentially extend the helping reach of school-based mental health professionals and provide a level of service for every level of need. Parents need to be involved as extensively as possible and in every step of the way so as to generalize the overall influence of these interventions outside as well as inside the schools. A modest investment of time and resources now will reap billions of dollars and millions of happier, more productive lives in dividends down the road. If we start now, we can look forward to the graduating class of 2020 as being the first class to have progressed through their entire school experience without ever having their affective needs relegated to chance. This is an outcome at least as important as those that spawned initiatives for improving physical fitness and academic excellence. It is worthy of the commitment of our best efforts, and demands nothing less. What are we waiting for?
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© 2007 Jim Giorgi