Grade School Counselors Could Boost Student Performance, Study Finds

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens

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President Barack Obama walks with Anthony Black from Washington, DC., as he meets with the five children who were featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman" in the Oval Office on Oct. 11, 2010. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The documentary "Waiting for Superman" is being hyped for shining the spotlight on what ails the nation's schools. But all the talk about education reform and charter schools aside, the answer to nurturing the well-being of the nation's youth may be as simple as adding counselors to grade schools, a new study suggests.

Providing the opportunity for grade school-aged students to meet with counselors is an experiment that could rapidly boost student performance, quell disruptive behavior and resuscitate schools, Randall Reback, an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College/Columbia University, tells ParentDish.

A former fifth grade teacher in East Palo Alto, Calif., Reback says he was inspired to research how mental health services could improve classroom conduct and boost the learning and emotional well-being of young children.

"I was teaching in a lower-income school and having significant problems with two students," Reback tells ParentDish. "At the time, the police department provided counseling at the school and within one week I was amazed at the transformation in these students and how less disruptive they were in class. We're (teachers and parents) so focused on grades, but we under-emphasize the powerful role mental health help can bring to our classrooms. What kids need most is one-on-ones with caring adults."

Reback says the research shows that at least one in five young children in the United States is impaired by mental disorders. Yet, he says, less than half of the states require school districts to employ mental health professionals at the elementary school level.

Schools where students have access to counseling show significantly less concerns with disruptive behaviors in the classroom and teachers worry less about students fighting, stealing, cutting class or using drugs, Reback says.

In schools where counseling is available, boys are more likely than girls to receive guidance, as are students who come from single-parent households or those whose parents are recently divorced, Reback says.

At the same time, Hispanic and Asian students are the least likely to receive access to counseling because "it is not strongly supported in their cultural traditions," Reback tells ParentDish.

"In 'Waiting for Superman,' obviously charter schools can be a great answer because students can be expelled if they don't meet behavioral standards," Reback says. "But, in public schools, we need to address behavioral issues in other ways. Teachers that can refer students for counseling report significant improvements in their classrooms."

Next on Reback's agenda: Studying the impact of early mental health intervention on crime and drug abuse among older students.

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