Identify Troubled Students, Doctor Says
Educational Psychologist Offers Tips to Help Schools Help Kids
In a recent interview marking the anniversary of a school shooting that killed two students and wounded 13, the then-teenaged gunman shares the warning signs he displayed before his tragic meltdown.
“My dad noticed my grades slipping … I would come home with bruises and lie to him,” says Charles “Andy” Williams, now 27, in the Oprah Winfrey Network interview.
“I didn’t know how to communicate that somethin’ really, really bad was goin’ on. I didn’t know how to talk about it.”
Take Andy’s story, says educational research specialist Dr. Mariam Azin, and multiply it by hundreds of thousands of students across the country. Among them are the next Adam Lanza, James Holmes, or Andy Williams – people who have become so emotionally disturbed, they turn to killing strangers.
“It’s the quiet kids who slip through the cracks and don’t get the help they need,” says the founder and CEO of Mazin Education (www.mazineducation.com), a social psychologist who has spent decades conducting research in educational settings and on at-risk students.
One high school for which she gathered data found that 750 of its 2,500 students reported having a substance abuse issue. But, in the year she studied, only 10 students were referred for substance abuse intervention, and just five of them connected with a program. Three completed it.
“The loud and disruptive kids who are having problems get the attention they need; the quiet ones don’t,” Mazin says. “If we can identify them – and we can! — and intervene, we can help prevent future violence and suicides.”
She says schools can take some simple but effective steps right now to begin identifying troubled students.
1. Make it everybody’s job. From the lunch lady to the custodian to the bus driver to the teacher, many adults notice small signs, like Andy Williams’ declining grades and his bruises. If everyone reported the small signs they saw, the cumulative effect could be one big indicator of a problem. “The cafeteria worker may notice he’s not eating,” Azin says. “The custodian may see him being bullied. One sign here or there gets overlooked, but if everyone knows that, if they see something that concerns them, they document it, then we’ll be able to connect those dots and make sure more kids get the help they need.” School leadership should make it everyone’s job to report.
2. Provide a safe way to report. Some people say nothing because they’re afraid they’ll be expected to make a decision about what the behavior means or they’ll have to do something about it. Some fear reporting will make them legally accountable. “Everyone involved with students needs to understand they are expected only to report what they see — changes in behavior, incidents that may cause emotional distress,” Azin says. “A single, isolated incident will not necessarily result in action being taken.” Schools also need to embed an infrastructure through which concerns can be documented securely as soon as an incident takes place.
3. Identify community services that can help. Schools may be reluctant to identify troubled students because they don’t have the resources to provide them with help. “Identify and develop relationships with programs and resources in the community to which students can also be referred,” Azin says. “While schools are the place where many troubled students can be identified, it does not necessarily follow that it is solely the school’s responsibility to provide all of the necessary services to those students and their families. It takes a village to help provide services to at-risk youth and their families and to help prevent school violence. But if we can’t document and clearly identify the need, it’s impossible to get these resources in place.
4. Embed a system for follow-up and monitoring. Once students who are showing signs of academic, behavioral, or emotional risk are identified and referred to appropriate services, a system for follow-up and monitoring needs to be embedded to ensure that they actually connect with appropriate mental and physical health services, academic intervention or other family services. Ideally, subsequent monitoring of progress will occur to see if the identified services and interventions are appropriate and producing the intended effects and to make necessary adjustments. “Oftentimes, the way it is now is that schools will make a referral but then it just goes into a black hole – nobody knows what happens afterwards,” says Azin.
After a tragedy, Azin says, those who knew the perpetrator recall the signs they witnessed: not speaking to classmates, drug use, bullying.
“People see the signs,” she says. “Shouldn’t we create a way for them to document that information and get these kids help before something terrible happens?”