In This Issue

Prevention corner

Discussion about how group psychologists who work in schools can help children labeled “mildly mentally retarded.”

By Elaine Clanton Harpine

This is our third column from frustrated teachers. Previous responses echoed the dissatisfaction of a third-grade teacher who was concerned about a student in her class who had been labeled “mildly mentally retarded.” The question “How can we prevent this from happening to another child?” is still unanswered.

We turned to school administrators to seek a response. Unfortunately, the school administrators with whom we spoke were not willing to give a written response. One school administrator who works with special needs students was willing to speak on promise of anonymity.

Response

Absolutely nothing can be done. Our hands are tied. As long as we use test scores and special needs categorizations to fund schools, nothing will change.

This bleak prediction of doom does not sound promising for students, teachers, and the well-being of all school personnel. The displeasure and sense of helplessness coming from our schools marks an area of desperate need in the field of group prevention. It is not by any means the only need, but still an area of immediate concern. Most children receive mental health services through the schools, and the most prevalent form of mental health services used in the schools are prevention groups. Therefore, as group psychologists, we need to be alarmed about the treatment services being offered in the public school system. While we may not be able to change the system (continuous praise for those who are trying), we can influence and change the way in which group prevention is being used in the public school system. Therefore, we as group psychologists need to ask ourselves, Can we help students who are labeled “mildly mentally retarded” and can we help prevent such stigmatizing labels from endangering the life and well-being of children and teens? I believe that the answer is, yes.

If you walk into most schools and ask if they use prevention groups, they will describe prevention-based assemblies or special prevention programs conducted through the classroom. If you dig a little deeper, you will discover that such prevention-based assemblies or classroom prevention programs are conducted with children and teens sitting in classroom desks listening to someone speak and ask questions or in large assemblies where masses of students listen to a speaker. If you go online and search on the computer under the topic group prevention, you find group prevention services available for schools, but the pictures on these websites show students sitting in mass assemblies on the gym floor or in rows of desks in the classroom. Yet, in a special issue of Group Dynamics on group prevention, we took the stand that in order to be classified as a prevention group, the group must include interaction (Conyne & Clanton Harpine, 2010). Where is the interaction between 300 students sitting clustered on the gymnasium floor listening to a speaker, even if that speaker uses puppets? Where is the interaction in a classroom prevention group where students sit quietly with their hands folded in front of them on the desk?

If you work in school-based settings and particularly if you use prevention groups in your work, then we must insist upon change. Children and teens are being ostracized by labels such as “mildly mentally retarded.” The stigma of academic failure is causing students to give up and stop trying in school. Academic failure and grade retention are two of the highest predictors for students who will drop out of school. Bullying and teasing, in person and through social media, have not ended. The horrendous horror of the recent school violence compounds the fears that young children and teens must face every day. Prevention programs can help students cope with these problems, but only if group prevention programs are conducted correctly.

As the Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy, we need to insist that group prevention programs, if a program is going to carry the prevention label, be conducted in keeping with the actual principles of group prevention. If you just want to lecture students, then call it a lecture, not a group prevention program. We, as group psychologists, need to offer more prevention programs in school-based settings, and we need to offer training for those who conduct group prevention programs. Maria Riva, our Society’s president, emphasized the need to expand training efforts at our recent mid-winter board meeting. In group prevention, we desperately need to expand our training efforts.

For those who work in school-based settings, you may be shaking your head and saying, “it’s impossible; schools will not let you conduct such group prevention programs.” The pressure of test scores kills many counseling programs in the schools. Do not overlook the value of after-school programs. Many community-based organizations are happy to have group psychologists conduct group prevention programs. Cost is a factor, and you may need to find a grant for funding such efforts because many community-based organizations cannot pay your fee.

The need is evident. Our response awaits. I hope you’ll join this dialogue. Please send comments, questions, and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine.