Every year countless children succumb to the labels of failure or at risk of failure as they struggle in the classroom. My research, stretching over the past five years from Dallas to the Bronx, shows that group-centered interventions may hold the key to restoring children to psychologically healthy adjustment and classroom success.
This book will present the theory that underlies group-centered counseling interventions and discuss research substantiating such prevention programs. The book will include hands-on, short-term, ready-to-use group-centered motivational interventions that have been tested with at-risk children in school-based settings.
Group-centered motivational counseling interventions combine the benefits of therapeutic group process, intrinsic motivation, and play therapy. Research has shown that children especially benefit from group counseling. Play is the language of children. Intrinsic motivation leads to self-determination and engaged learning. When we combine play, intrinsic motivation, and group cohesion, the benefits of group process and the environment of play enable children to grow, learn, and change in a positive environment. For children who have been labeled at-risk, group-centered interventions can mean the difference between success and failure. Efficacy retraining becomes an integral part of the program. As Albert Bandura (1994) stated, skill building is an essential ingredient in efficacy retraining; children must experience success outside of the counseling environment as well as within. Through group-centered interventions, the same school community that hampers the child from learning can then foster learning by creating a positive psychological environment of change.
One of the biggest problems facing public schools today is the pressure on administrators, teachers, and students to perform on commanded tests. School-based mental health treatment often suffers under the demand for higher test scores. Teachers fear that students will miss out on classroom instruction if they participate in therapeutic programs. Parents fear that children will not perform satisfactorily on prescribed tests if they participate in "extra" programs. The attraction of combining efficacy retraining, intrinsic motivation, and group counseling is that it eliminates the need to worry about taking children away from content instruction in the classroom. Group-centered motivational counseling interventions teach remedial skills in an efficacy retraining motivational setting; therefore, students receive both interventions and cognitive instruction.
Efficacy retraining changes how children learn by changing cognitive and academic motivations, expectations, and the perceptions of the child. Preliminary data from my research on group-centered interventions shows that efficacy retraining can be taught and group-centered counseling intervention programs can be transferred successfully to the classroom. Research substantiates that play therapy works with at-risk children. The difference with group-centered motivational counseling interventions and traditional play therapy is that the play emphasis is not open-ended investigative therapy or recreational play; group-centered motivational play aims specifically at giving children the cognitive skills whose lack caused them to fail in the first place.
I have tested all of my group-centered motivational counseling intervention programs in school-based settings. So far, I have worked with children who were expelled from the public school system in Tampa, children from the projects in Chicago, private and public school children in the Bronx, children from two elementary inner-city neighborhood schools in Ohio classified as failing schools, the lowest scoring at-risk readers in a suburban Ohio school, and Hispanic migrant worker children in Texas. Preliminary testing has been exceptionally promising, and I am currently applying for grants so that we can expand our research base. I am applying for a three-year National Institutes of Health grant to incorporate my program into three local public school systems.
Group-centered motivational counseling interventions are new and different, and they work. Response to presentations at the 2005 and 2006 APA conventions has been strong. Our first journal article is currently under review, we are tabulating data from our first one-year study, and a new test site is scheduled for this spring with a two-year follow-up planned. As a Southeastern Regional Coordinator for the Society for Community Research and Action, I am currently engaged in preliminary discussions for organizing a two-day conference on school-based mental health. Interest seems to warrant organization of such a conference. I have also been assigned to work with a committee planning a national summit on group work. School-based mental health is a growing concern for all psychologists and school-based health practitioners.