By Bryce Fricklas
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in the Worcester Telegram.
BOSTON – As student activists seek policy solutions to national gun violence in the aftermath of February’s mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, mental health providers are seeking innovative ways to provide solutions to school violence.
Their focus: preventing the violence before it occurs.
“One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our field is move toward school-wide prevention work, really investing in social and emotional learning, and interpersonal relationships among students,” said Dr. Silas Pinto, a school psychology lecturer at Tufts University.
“We’re working with individuals, to show them how to be more empathetic with each other, how to communicate their feelings, and how listeners can respond to that communication,” said Pinto. “If we invest in that space, then we can create an environment where people have a greater sense of belonging, and a greater sense of safety.”
The social and emotional learning model emphasizes developing a sense of community among students, who often spend up to 40 hours per week with each other. Through activities that develop a sense of togetherness, counselors and psychologists hope to foster an environment that will prevent the kinds of issues that often lead to school violence, like social isolation and alienation.
“If you have a greater sense of belonging, then you’re going to have a greater sense of safety. Then they won’t wind up in situations where they’re so stressed, so overwhelmed that they make decisions like taking someone’s life, or taking their own life,” said Pinto.
Psychologists hope that the recent attention on student mental health will push schools toward providing greater mental health services for their students.
Using the social and emotional learning model, schools are training children in conflict-resolution skills, teamwork and cooperation, and empathy. Activities range from teaching children how to handle challenging social situations, to identifying their emotions. Some focus on stress reduction and mindfulness, while others emphasize cooperation and developing relationships with peers. In one activity geared toward younger students, they are asked to write poetry from the perspective of a peer.
“A lot of programs have shifted away from including counseling, but we see it as an extremely important role,” said Pinto. “We need to invest in student relationships and interpersonal relationships. You need interpersonal skills before you get to reading and writing.”
These interventions are not only effective in violence prevention, but are also critical for supporting students affected by traumatic experiences that can range from being witness to violence, to coping with the death of other students in car accidents, a more common occurrence.
In an effort to prevent future violence, Boston Public Schools have partnered with the Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by parents of victims of the Connecticut school shooting that has developed gun violence prevention programs.
One of those programs is Start with Hello Week, which promotes students reaching out to each other, to create the type of community that the social and emotional learning model hopes to foster.
Additionally, Boston Public Schools will implement other Sandy Hook Promise programs, like the Signs of Suicide Prevention Program, which teaches students, as well as teachers, staff, and community members, to identify when other students show signs that they might be at-risk for causing harm to themselves or others.
The district will also utilize the Sandy Hook Promise’s safety assessment and intervention program, and the nonprofit will provide an app called the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System.
While the social and emotional learning model gives school psychologists a clear goal in how to reform mental health services for students, the distribution of these services is uneven across Massachusetts.
According to data collected by the Department of Education, few districts meet the ideal ratio of one psychologist per every 500 students. Notably, Chelsea has one psychologist for every 2,109 students. Schools with greater portions of economically disadvantaged students also have more social workers and counselors on staff, though the number of psychologists does not increase.
“One thing we know is that there are huge shortages of school counselors and psychologists in the schools, and a lot of school districts don’t necessarily have the recommended ratios of school psychologists to students,” said Dr. Kristine Camacho, president of the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association, which is dedicated to advocating for the psychological needs of children and raising the public awareness of the mental health services available to children.
“Our organization is collecting data to determine what the situation looks like in Massachusetts, but we don’t have that information available yet,” said Camacho. “The National Association of School Psychologists says they recommend that schools should have one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students, depending on how comprehensively the school psychologist is practicing. Nationally the rates vary.”
Yet while psychologists have found promising new solutions to the underlying problems that lead to school violence, like social isolation, in much of Massachusetts these strategies are hindered by their short staff.
“I can tell you visiting places all over the state, most places are probably underserved. They’re not the 1 to 500 that’s recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists. More typical ratios tend to be 1 to 1,000, but it’s going to vary from district to district,” said Dr. Arlene Silva, chair of the school psychology department at William James College, which hosts the largest school psychology program in New England.
The story is very different between schools in Boston, and those outside. Where some schools have psychologists and social workers on staff, others must share.
“In terms of social and emotional learning, I think Massachusetts is doing a good job. Teachers are taking the time to be explicit about teaching some of those skills. In Boston public schools, teachers have been very involved, but I know they have a shortage, so that really gets in the way of them being able to implement these programs,” said Silva.
As it trains the next generation of school psychologists, she said the college ensures that its graduates are comfortable providing counseling and therapeutic interventions. However, now the college strives to shift school psychologists’ role to ‘mental health providers’ who are able to help develop school wide interventions like improved school environment, positive behavioral intervention supports, problem-solving consultations with teachers, and other large-scope strategies.