Saturday, November 5, 2011

Academic Interventionist

Have you seen the show Intervention?  Basically, there is someone with a substance or addiction problem whose life is spiraling out of control.  Through the help of an interventionist, family and friends confront their loved one.  Parts of a typical intervention involve letting the person know how much everyone loves and supports this person, sharing the consequences of inaction, and the offer of extra services that will help this person turn his/her life around.

Let me be clear--in no way do I mean to compare our students to the people who are struggling with larger issues on the aforementioned show.  However, many students have academic problems, and, at least here in the Washington D.C. metro area, report cards are going out either now or in the near future in area school systems.  If students have serious academic problems, what do you do?

You call in the "Academic Interventionist," a.k.a. the school counselor.

One of the three domains school counselors cover, as stated in the ASCA National Model, is Academic.  The other two are Personal/Social and Career.  Our stated mission is to remove barriers to academic success.  Where do you start?

You start with data.  What students are not performing well academically?  Most schools nowadays have computerized databases from which you can pull the names of the students and classes that they have low grades in.  For example, at the end of every quarter I pull the names and courses of all of the students in my case load that are failing classes.  I look at all of them, but I am especially looking at students with multiple course failures in core-classes (math, science, English, and social-studies) as well as seniors failing classes they need for graduation.  Next, you go back to the data.  Are any of these students also struggling with attendance?  If so, that could be having a direct impact on their grades.  Are any of these students also having discipline problems?  Suspensions, time out of class and instead with the assistant principal or security, fights in the hallways, etc. can all be a part of their struggles with grades.  If these students are new to you, you can also look back at past test scores--there may be indications there about their ability to handle the level of class or classes they are in.  For example, the student may be in an Algebra 1 class, but if they are failing and their math test scores from their previous school were low, maybe a placement in an extra math support class or an Algebra 1, Part 1 class would be warranted.

Okay, "Academic Interventionist."  You've gathered information and data.  You are now ready to swoop in with your interventions.
  • Meet with the student.   This is probably the most important step after you have assembled the data.  What is their perception of why the grades are so low?  There is a big difference between "I don't do any of my homework" and "I am working really hard, turning everything in, and I still fail every test and quiz."  One implies that you will need to work with the student on internal motivation, time-management, and study skills.  The other implies that this student may need to find extra help, either from another student, the teacher, or an outside tutor, or perhaps they are in the wrong level of class.  The next set of questions is usually about the plan of attack.  What is the student going to do to differently to improve their grade in the next marking period or quarter?  Stay after with the teacher?  Do their homework every day when they get home?  Check the class Blackboard, School Fusion, or class website every day?  Have them be specific in this plan--it is too easy to say, yes, I'll stay after with the teacher and then never actually do it.  What day of the week?  Every week for a month?  Let's put it in your planner.
  • Bring in the support of parents and teachers.  After I've met with the students, I call every parent of my seniors who are failing classes for graduation to inform them of my concern and to remind them of the consequences of not passing the class.  You do not want there to be any surprises come May or June.  For students with multiple course-failures, starting with seniors, I call parent-teacher conferences.  These are not the one-on-one conferences that parents and teachers have pretty regularly on their own.  Rather, these are conferences that I set up in which all of a student's teachers, their parents or guardians, possibly their administrator, the student, and I get together to discuss the overall problem.  By having all of these people together you are able to get a more holistic view of the student, which makes you better able to find and address the specific barriers to academic success.  In cases where it is just one class, I might bring the teacher and student together so that the two of them can discuss the issue and come up with a solution, or I might recommend to the parent that they call the teacher to discuss the issues further about that specific course.  Again, the focus is on coming up with a specific plan, complete with benchmarks to be met and deadlines that will be checked.
  • Connect the student and/or families to additional resources.  After you have met with the student and facilitated communication with parents and teachers to further diagnose the issue and come up with a plan, it may be time to look at additional resources to help the student, and hopefully your building is full of options.  For some students, small group counseling may be highly beneficial in the areas of study/test-taking skills/organization, attendance, anger management, or grief and loss, to name a few.  Other students may need referrals to your school's substance and wellness counselor.  There will be some students who may need additional help looking ahead to their futures--groups or organizations that work with minority students or first-generation college students can assist in broadening perspectives and providing resources to aid in a pathway to college.  For some, the current educational environment may not be one in which they can thrive, and an alternative placement, either within the school system or outside, may need to be discussed.  Some students and families may need support from local social services or outside agencies, in which case they may want to meet your school social worker.  Still other students may need to be referred to a local screening committee to ascertain if there are learning deficits or processing issues that may be impacting their academic success.  In most schools there is usually a wealth of resources and staff support--you do not have to do it all alone.
There are two things to keep in mind as you go about intervening with your students and families:
  • Keep records.  I write down conference dates, phone calls, and generalized intervention plans directly on my F-list that I print out.  If I call conferences or meetings, I then keep notes from those meetings in my personal student files that detail what was discussed and the plan to move forward.  These can be helpful as reference but also demonstrate how the school has tried to assist this student and family in being more academically successful.
  • Follow up.  It is great to come up with a plan to help the student, outlining the student's responsibility (he/she should have the most) and any additional responsibilities by you, the parent/guardian, or the teacher.  However, it may all be for naught if you do not check in with the student and/or the teachers and/or the parents at least a couple of times through the quarter.  This is especially true of those students who are struggling the most.  Change does not happen over-night, and they are going to need reminders of the plan, as well as someone helping them to check in through the quarter or marking period.  If your school has interim grades, you can use these as a good benchmark to see how the plan is working and if there need to be modifications or additional interventions.  Most important, though, is that students need to know that there is someone in the school who genuinely cares about them being successful--it is the relationship you build with these students that can often be the biggest instrument of change.
What I have found over the years is that I end up utilizing my counseling skills a great deal through this process, as you begin to uncover the causes of a student's academic struggles.  What may start out as a data/paperwork process quickly moves into a humanistic endeavor.  This is what we spend years and countless hours of class to do--work directly with our students to effect positive change.  Through your work as an "Academic Interventionist," you can have a large impact on the lives and futures of your students.

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