The Big Picture

Urban Fellows program

Shared Perspectives Improve Professional Insight

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. In the wake of such tragedies, a new proposal suggests that educators become responsible for identifying potential mental-health issues and referring students to the proper resources. GSEP education students are already ahead of the pack thanks to the opportunity to collaborate with psychology students through the Urban Fellows program.

A multidisciplinary group of education and psychology professionals, established by California state superintendent of public instruction Tom Torlakson is recommending that teacher-credentialing programs require mental-health awareness curriculum. The 35-member student mental-health policy workgroup was tasked with providing recommendations on teacher reform to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

According to a study in School Psychology Quarterly, only 34 percent of teachers surveyed were confident in their abilities to identify student-health needs and direct them to the proper resources. In the workgroup’s formal recommendation, they stated that “significant mental-health and wellness knowledge is required to fully address student barriers to education.”

For the past five years GSEP has supported this kind of training through the Urban Fellows program. The program trains education and psychology students to work in underserved communities where mental-health challenges among students are more likely to go undiagnosed and untreated.

By virtue of their day-to-day interactions with students, educators are well positioned to provide prevention and early intervention. In many cases, teachers and administrators do not have adequate resources or training to address these types of challenges.

“Teachers have the opportunity to recognize consistent patterns but they need to know what to look for,” said Donald Grant, lead faculty for the Urban Fellows program. “Most teachers don’t know how to empower parents or family members to help their children so we work with GSEP students to help them understand that there are a lot of community resources available.”

What separates the Urban Fellows program from other multicultural- or diversity-focused curriculums is the space for students from both disciplines to share their experiences and gain insight from a professional outside their own field.

“The education students in the Urban Fellowship are learning to understand the underlying needs and components of mental health that can negatively impact the classroom,” said Grant. “The psychology students have the opportunity to learn and collaborate with the leaders of a child’s primary space—the classroom—and are exposed to the language of academia.”

Fellows in the program work at different urban sites and gather once a month to discuss their experiences. Grant also leads the groups through discussions surrounding issues critical to the communities the students are serving, such as suicide, depression, trauma, and poverty’s impact on mental health.

“The synergy between the two disciplines is crucial because it provides the whole picture. Teachers share what they see in the classroom to support what clinicians are seeing in their office,” Grant said. “By creating the relationship between the education and psychology students, it opens a dialogue for teachers to discuss classroom issues with clinicians and get real-time feedback.”

Grant said that teachers often react punitively to student behaviors because they have not been trained to consider how they might reconstruct the classroom environment in ways that address the student’s needs. Psychology students are able to give the education students the insight they need to make necessary adjustments while gaining new insights themselves.

“Many times, psychologists have to operate based on what they see during an appointment or on reports received, but it is rare to get such firsthand insight into daily behaviors,” Grant said. “If you are going to appropriately identify and then meet the needs of the youth, having an intimate awareness of what happens in the classroom is important.”

For psychology students, the Urban Fellows program offers an opportunity to learn how to build and work on a multidisciplinary team. This type of situation increases their comfort level in working with a teacher to develop techniques that support the mental well-being of the students in the classroom.

“Urban Fellows helps students understand how behaviors connect to a need,” Grant said. “When you have professionals in the room with a good understanding of both and you combine that with dialogue, you get strengthbased, culturally competent solutions.”

Part of the Urban Fellows curriculum includes an overview of the way county systems such as foster care or juvenile court function. Grant said that for educators and clinicians, developing empathy for the process a family may be going through is an important part of becoming more flexible and sensitive.

“If we can equip teachers with tools that support a heightened awareness and a better understanding of what certain behaviors mean or what different mental-health needs look like,” said Grant, “they can ask the right questions and engage the parents.”

Whether mental-health awareness will become a requirement for credentialing programs remains to be seen. The goal of the Urban Fellows program is not to turn teachers into therapists, but to increase their awareness of mental-health issues that could impact the efficacy of their teaching.

For now, the Urban Fellows program will continue to do its part to provide this valuable experience to as many students as possible, but the current fellowship program only provides financial support for up to 14 students—seven from each discipline.

“It may require nonstop fundraising, but we need resources for more fellowships,” said education professor Reyna García-Ramos. “It would greatly enhance the opportunity to train more of our graduate students to respond to the needs of the underserved communities right here in our own backyard.”

For more information about the Urban Fellows program, visit bit.ly/UrbanFellows.

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