How to help kids get through high school using non-academic skills
By Katherine Gombay
Steven Shaw, a professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, spent 17 years as a practicing psychologist working in hospitals and schools in South Carolina before coming to McGill. Shaw now runs the Connections Lab, where he researches how students who are most ‘at risk’ academically, whether because of their intellectual abilities, medical situation or behaviour problems, can improve their academic performance by working on a host of non-academic skills. With projects in Montreal high schools, and through mentorship programs involving the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, the Connections Lab is developing programs designed to help students and their families overcome risk factors and learn to develop the resilience that will help them both in school and in life.
How did you become interested in working with children with learning problems?
I became a school psychologist because I wanted to address the issue of minority over-representation in special education. As an American, I thought it was an important civil rights issue. This is a while ago, in 1985, and I thought then, and still think now, that this is one of the most important social justice issues in the States – because there was a certain population that due to their ethnic group status, whether they were Hispanic or Black, were receiving a different education. It was de facto segregation of schools and I thought that it was an issue we had to address. So even though I’m now removed from studying ethnic issues to a large degree, my main focus remains on the children who are at the highest risk for failure – how can we keep them from failing? How can we give them the most opportunities for success possible and how can we help them to develop their own resilience skills? We’re wasting too much potential as a society, by letting children who are at risk flounder in schools.
How is your research helping to change this picture?
About 12 years ago, I started working with children who have very low intelligence test scores – though not so low as to be intellectually disabled – but not high enough to be successful in schools. And what I did was follow these children with borderline intelligence for seven years to see what happened. We had tutoring and special programming where we really tried to improve their school functioning. Because a lot of people believe that for somebody with low intelligence, that it was almost their destiny that they would fail in school. But that’s not how intelligence works. Low intelligence may be a risk factor, but it can be overcome.
At one point, we had over 200 children we were following. And we were actually able to improve academic skills quite a bit – their reading, their writing, their math almost to grade level. But when they got to school, they were still failing. And that led us to the fact that there are many other things, beyond academics, that are necessary for success in schools.
What kinds of non-academic things are important for kids’ success academically?
We’ve called them meta-academic skills, and we really need a better name, but these are the skills that aren’t reading, writing or math but they’re still necessary for success in school. These skills come in five areas: they’re the (a) executive functions – things like planning, organization, impulse control; then there are (b) social skills; there’s (c) school adaptation – following the rules of school, getting used to the school experience, handling failure, responsiveness to supervision and things like that.
But we also found that children who were at high risk for academic failure were also at high risk for (d) medical problems. They often had diseases like asthma, diabetes, leukemia and HIV. But it wasn’t only about the illness, it’s also about how they coped with it. And then the last risk factor was (e) mental illness. There’s a higher percentage of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in this population.
So then we thought, let’s start developing intervention plans to train students to become resilient to these five risk factors, whether it’s poor social skills, executive functions or whatever. What we’re doing is developing a series of 12 session instructional packages addressing specific meta-academic skills for students who schools consider at risk. So far, the program is mainly for high schools, because in Quebec we have a huge problem with high school dropout levels and one of our goals is to decrease dropout rates.
What are you doing that’s different from the other people trying to tackle high school dropout rates?
What we’re doing is taking it from the perspective that if we improve some of the meta-academic skills like impulse control and the student’s ability to control their emotions – those are the two important skills – then students will benefit more from academic instruction.
For example, one of the students we worked with was a high school child who was very impulsive. He acted out aggressively, got into fights easily and was very poor at studying for assignments. In fact, his behaviour meant that he was at risk of being kicked out of school entirely.
We worked with him and by teaching him how to control his impulsive behaviour, not only was he able to spend more time in school without being asked to leave, he also did better in class. That’s because he was better able to prepare for class and attend to what the teacher was saying because he was less frustrated.
So he was better able to profit from studying. When he graduated he even got onto the honour roll.
But because each child is different, with different needs and issues, we’re actually working on creating 60 different packages so that the teachers can choose depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each child. So far, we’ve finished and evaluated four programs, and we are working on the rest. It’s a five-year plan to do this. It’s a big task, but children fail in schools for so many different reasons. I wish it were a one-size-fits-all solution, but it doesn’t work that way. The more that we can have a program that is selectable so that teachers can choose from it to meet the needs of each child the more it will be truly flexible enough to make a difference.
How do you judge the results of your research so far?
I think the biggest success we’ve had is with teachers. Because what we really see is that when we start using these sorts of programs with them, teachers start thinking about the students at high risk in a different way. It used to be that teachers would think of these students as having low ability, low potential – and would simply say to themselves that they were not going to be successful in school.
But once the teachers appreciate that students can develop these meta-academic skills, also called resilience skills, it gives teachers hope and they engage the students much more, and in more detail. We find that the teachers provide hope, engagement and encouragement to their students in a way that they never provided before. This is not because they are bad teachers. They just assumed that low intelligence means low probability of success and that their students were never going to become scholars – it’s an attitude that is pervasive.
Changing that picture feels like a pretty good thing to be working on.