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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

Kids at Risk
By Michael Childs

When University of Georgia researchers began studying the behavior of elementary school students in a 1992 national sample, the results were daunting.

"We found that about a third of the population looks so well behaved that they could easily be teachers' pets in their respective classrooms. And that's the good news," said Randy Kamphaus, a UGA professor of educational psychology.

"But the most surprising finding was the sheer prevalence of behavior problems in U.S. classrooms," he said. "Basically, we found that half the population has problems, either small or large. That proportion is larger than we expected."

It's also more than many teachers expected - so much so, that it is prompting many to leave the profession.

"You know, I tell people, 'I've got a physical job.' When I get home in the evening - and I'm usually at school 12 hours - I often feel that I'm just aching all over," said Karen Hankins, a first-grade teacher at Whit Davis Elementary School in Athens, Ga.

"Is it the stress?" Hankins repeats the question and ponders. "Well, teaching first grade is really just making sure that everybody is safe and taken care of, and that their needs are met. Your stress level depends on how determined you are to have all those things happen at one time."

To help teachers address these issues, three UGA researchers began the three-year Project ACT Early (Advancing the Competencies of Teachers for Early Behavioral Interventions of At-Risk Children), created by Kamphaus, Arthur M. Horne, professor of counseling and human development services, and Jean A. Baker, assistant professor of educational psychology.

The project couldn't be more timely. With some teachers leaving the profession early and a huge wave of others expected to retire, the U.S. Department of Education predicts there will be a need for 4.5 million new teachers within the next five years.

The program has provided a new approach that helps teachers identify and provide more specific assistance to all young elementary school students, including those who are at risk for academic, emotional and behavioral problems.

Behavior problems can lead to a variety of consequences, including learning problems, violent behavior and school dropout. And although the researchers are reluctant to discuss it and deny any direct link to the problem, federal education officials say the project may be an important first step toward curbing school violence.

Helping elementary school students early and preventing problems that could later explode into violence in middle or high school is certainly one of the long-range benefits of the program, according to U.S. Department of Education officials.

"It is one of the best anti-violence programs we've seen," said Beth Fine, program monitor at the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students.

But researchers say the program's first and foremost goal is to help teachers understand and provide better learning opportunities to all children, wherever they might fall on the behavior scale.

Teachers who leave the profession within the first five years say that they are not prepared for the kind of behavioral problems they encounter in the classroom and cite this as a primary reason for quitting, according to Kamphaus.

Hankins, a 23-year veteran teacher, said she has seen several new teachers recently quit the profession. "I've known some new teachers who decided that being a flight attendant looked a lot better."

One explanation for this trend is that many teachers today are trained well enough in their academic disciplines and know their subject matter for teaching, but may not have received enough instruction in classroom management, Horne said.

Different methods
Four Athens-Clarke County elementary schools are collaborating in the project, with 49 teachers and 950 children participating from grades K-3. The project is in its third and final year of classroom application. Researchers said ACT Early was developed to address both local and national issues that emerged as major concerns for education. The program focuses on:

  • using new and creative ways of identifying children at risk for educational, emotional and behavioral problems in the schools;
  • bringing technology to the schools to use in innovative and creative ways to address emerging problem areas;
  • using solution-based rather than problem-focused consultation to center on positive change;
  • assisting teachers in their efforts to best use their knowledge and skills as well as identifying resources they need to be optimally effective with children at risk; and
  • working collaboratively to identify educational concerns at the classroom and school levels so that available resources are better recognized and utilized.

The researchers used Kamphaus' Behavior Assessment System for Children, a rating instrument that asks teachers not to look at their classrooms in the conventional manner as behaviorally flat - where students are either good or bad - but as a pyramid with three levels of behavior: low, moderate and high risk.

Participating teachers said the behavior rating system has given them tools they can use to deal with at-risk students more effectively.

The new assessment method contrasts with the typical special education model in which students are placed in special education classes based upon their diagnostic category.

"Some teachers are very frustrated. They don't feel the needs of all children are quite adequately addressed by the existing system because of lack of resources," Kamphaus said. "And it could be that some of these children with significant problems have problems that are just temporary and would respond well to relatively mild interventions. [The special education model] is a complex process. They are caught between the dichotomy of disabled versus non-disabled."

ACT Early categorizes school-age children's behavior into seven groups, ranging from the well-adapted to the severely disruptive.

The categories offer models or guidelines that help teachers tailor their responses to each child's needs by identifying what that child may be experiencing, the researchers said.

"However, it's important to remember that every child is different and not every child will fit a typology perfectly," Hankins said. "It's not meant to be a labeling system."

The reality is that the procedures for handling problematic children are not addressing the needs of all children, Kamphaus said.

"And they are not particularly useful for designing prevention programs," he said. "For example, we found children who, according to teacher ratings, have extremely severe problems - yet they are not receiving special education services and are not being seen by local community health centers. As far as we can tell, they're not getting any sort of specialized treatment."

These at-risk children, who don't qualify for special services, Kamphaus said, are slipping through the cracks.

"We've always seen placement in special classes and programs as problematic because to some extent children either qualify or they don't," Horne said. "There hasn't been much for kids who didn't qualify for special services, other than to say, 'All right, you don't qualify, so you stay in the regular class and get the regular instruction.'"

Networking teachers
The second aspect of the project has been to use computers to help identify problems teachers encounter in the classroom. Teachers then use decision-making software to identify priorities, select resources and develop skills to address the highest priority problems.

"We set up computers in the library and link them all together onto a large, central screen where all the information in projected," Baker said. The ACT Early staff would ask teachers what issues are impeding them from teaching at-risk children. The teachers would simultaneously type in their answers, all of which would be projected anonymously onto the screen.

"We might end up after five minutes of what we call 'brain writing' with a list of 50 to 60 items contributed by these teachers," she said. "In a normal format this would take us at least 20 minutes.

"The other issue is that schools have a hierarchical organization. The principal has more power than the assistant principal, and so forth.

So if I have an idea that the principal doesn't like, I'm not likely to contribute it to an open discussion," Baker said. "What the computer does is level that playing field. That's a very powerful piece of software."

Focus on solutions, not problems
The third component of the program is to focus on solutions to problems rather than causes. While understanding the cause of a problem is beneficial to help address it on a larger scale, it may not be useful within the classroom setting, according to Horne.

"What is more important is to assist the teacher in identifying what works for the particular student, and how that knowledge may generalize to other settings and other children," he said. "The focus is on, 'What can we do about it here in our classroom today? How can we make it better?'" This solution-focused view helps teachers concentrate on what works in the classroom, shifting the focus to what a child can do.

"One thing that comes to mind is the Turtle Club. [Horne] told a story to my class about how when turtles are stressed out they just pull in instead of lashing out," Hankins said.

"We had four little boys who couldn't maintain control of their mouths and of their bodies in the cafeteria at lunchtime. So we formed what we call the Turtle Club, and we learned that story and talked about how we could practice being turtles," she said. "[The Turtle Club] began to work so well that these kids were telling each other or were saying to me, 'I'm just going to turtle,' meaning, 'I'm just going to pull in. I'm not going to lash out. I'm not going to say anything.'"

Teachers are encouraged to look for instances when children are doing well in the classroom, identify the conditions that promote success and use that information to create more such opportunities - in essence, use children's strengths rather than their problems as the focus of intervention, Horne said.

It gives teachers a sense of control and empowers them to develop positive change strategies, according to the researchers. It also presents an alternative to traditional problem-focused methods, which often prove to be ineffective.

Team effort is key
The fourth component of the program is to focus on collaborative orientation in which the ACT Early team works closely with teachers - not as experts to "teach the teachers" but as collaborators. Teachers and ACT Early staff cooperate to identify solutions for specific problems and classrooms.

"Rather than function as 'outside experts,' the ACT Early school consultants work as part of the school team, focusing on the use of existing resources and knowledge," Horne said.

When the researchers began this project, 16 percent of the students at the four Clarke County schools were classified as high risk, 30 percent as moderate risk and 54 percent as low risk.

"You hear people say, 'Well I was a teacher 20 years ago, and I was able to handle a classroom.' They didn't have these kids in their classroom," Horne said. "Some of the kids we are dealing with today have concerns and problems that didn't exist in these schools as recently as six years ago. The numbers [of behavior-risk students] are larger and the behaviors are really much, much worse."

But researchers said they found the numbers encouraging in the second year of the project and believe that their methods are working. "Our findings show some of the children identified as having problems had considerably better behavior in year two," Kamphaus said.

The project not only has resulted in students improving their behavior but also in helping them feel better about who they are and become more a part of the school community, the teachers said.

"Last year, a child came to school and said to his teacher, 'Look.' And he had a gang symbol in permanent marker on his forearm," Hankins said. "This child who was marked up by a gang, said, 'I'm part of their club now. I belong to them now. And they said if I told somebody they were going to beat me up. But I'm afraid not to tell.'"

ACT Early gives teachers a vocabulary to use to talk to each other and the children, Hankins said. And it's working.

"I think one of the most powerful things that has come out of this is that even though that kid's support system at home might have been knocked out from under him, and even though he fits the profile of the kid most likely to be inducted into a gang at 7 years old, he belonged at Whit Davis," she said. "He knew he belonged with us. He knew he had a community, and I think that's the reason he wasn't afraid to tell."

Such stories suggest that the teacher is a very important person for managing and changing child behavior, Horne said.

During this, the third and final year of the project, the researchers are focusing on refining an intervention manual they've developed for teachers. They also are conducting evaluations of the project's effectiveness and plan to disseminate the materials through printed manuals and the Internet. The project is funded by a $750,000 grant from the Department of Education. The trio is planning to seek additional federal funding to continue the project for another three years in order to track the same students through the next three grades.

Researchers are optimistic the program will continue to have a positive impact on teachers and the classroom environment but, most importantly, on the children who need early prevention programs to help them move from the at-risk category to being effective learners.

Access ACT Early at http://www.coe.uga.edu/actearly/ for more information.

Michael Childs is the public information director for the UGA College of Education. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and has been an award-winning newspaper journalist for more than 19 years.


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