The numbers tell a grim story: By the time students with behavioral or emotional problems get to high school, they may be so alienated from adults or disruptive to their classmates that they simply drop out.
According to a 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Education, the high school graduation rate for students identified as emotionally disturbed was only 35 percent in 2002, the latest year for which figures were available, while 56 percent of those students dropped out. No other group of students with disabilities monitored by the department had a lower graduation rate or higher dropout rate, the report showed, and the numbers hadn’t changed substantially in 10 years.
To help address that problem, a consortium of seven universities has received a $9.6 million grant from the federal government to establish the National Research and Development Center on Serious Behavior Disorders at the Secondary Level. Researchers affiliated with the new initiative will search for successful methods for educating a group of students that some experts see as long overlooked.
“Historically, schools have allocated more special education focus at the elementary level,” said Richard B. White, the president of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, a division within the Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children. “We’re thrilled that the [Department of Education] is dedicating so much money to this neglected population.”
It’s a difficult population to work with, both because of the students themselves and how they are treated in school, researchers say. Teachers are often looking for a way to control older students’ behavior, not necessarily change it. Teenagers may be so defensive and guarded that they’re not as receptive to outreach as younger students may be.
“The problem is so complex,” said Lee Kern, a professor of special education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and the principal investigator of the new research center.
Adolescents with behavior and emotional disorders are a societal problem that has never been identified as a national priority, Ms. Kern said. “Recently, there have been a lot of efforts towards prevention, which is a good thing,” she said. “But there are children with multiple risk factors or for various reasons are not responsive to those interventions. We don’t have the techniques yet to adequately address their problems.”
For the researchers, developing a package of effective teaching and behavior-management techniques means reaching beyond the classroom. Parent training will be a part of the interventions under investigation, as well as teacher training.
For the first two years of the five-year grant, Lehigh University, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and the University of Missouri in Columbia will pilot several different programs designed to reach adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Some of the approaches have already shown some success for students with other types of disabilities. For example, helping students with organization has been helpful for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Steven W. Evans, a professor in the school of graduate psychology at James Madison University and the director of the university’s Alvin V. Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center.
“It’s not just organization of belongings, it’s organization of time and responsibility. We set up some systems to help them do these things,” said Mr. Evans, a co-principal investigator with the center .
Better organization may help cut down on the student frustration that can lead to emotional outbursts or other behavior problems, he said.
Other programs to be investigated have shown success with younger children, but have not been evaluated with adolescents. And, some of the methods the researchers plan to study “we’ll be inventing from scratch,” Ms. Kern said.
The researchers will also try to help students develop healthy habits for their lives outside of school, a strategy of particular importance for students teetering on the brink of adulthood. “We want to teach them to make healthy choices,” she said.
After the small-group pilot studies, the researchers plan to roll out the interventions to a larger group of about 500 students and track their results over the remaining three years of the grant.
Four additional universities will be a part of that effort: the University of Maryland College Park; the University of Kansas in Lawrence; the University of Louisville in Kentucky; and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
All of the interventions will link mental-health providers and special education. The need for such “wraparound” services is intense, Ms. Kern said: An estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of students who have mental-health problems, which often show up as behavior disturbances, don’t get the treatment they need, she said.
Among those students who do get treatment, Ms. Kern said, the vast majority receive it at school. “We know that we need to have evidence-based, effective practices in school,” she said.
The grant comes at a time when both school districts and mental-health providers have said clearly that neither are providing adequate services to young people struggling with emotional and behavioral problems.
The Cleveland school district, for example, brought in an outside agency to delve into its ability to provide for the emotional needs of its students, after a 14-year-old student shot and wounded two teachers and two students, then took his own life, in October of last year.
The Cleveland report, released earlier this month, found that while adults in the 52,000-student district believe many students have social and emotional problems, only a few piecemeal efforts exist to address the issues. The study found that teachers were concerned that schools didn’t have the resources to address their students’ needs; for example, guidance counselors at two high schools that were examined spent more time on crisis management and re-enrolling dropouts than actual counseling.
A task force of the Washington-based American Psychological Association released its own report Aug. 13 on children with mental-health problems. According to the task force, 15 million children nationally have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, but only a quarter of them are getting appropriate treatment that is based on scientific evidence. The rest fall victim to a fragmented, inefficient model of mental-health care, the task force said.
Those who work with adolescents with behavioral or emotional disorders said they welcomed the federally funded research center, but also noted that negative attitudes that some adults hold toward such teenagers need addressing. Such attitudes are an understandable reaction, but not helpful, they said.
“A lot of our students aren’t very cuddly,” said Richard Spring, a school social worker at the Ingham Intermediate district in Mason, Mich., a regional agency south of Lansing that has a program for youths with severe behavior and emotional problems.
Mr. Spring works at the district’s secondary learning center, with students from ages 13 to 26. Many of the students make great strides when adults do the painstaking work to peel back students’ defensive layers, “like an onion,” he said.
That’s when they show their softer sides, but it takes time, he said. “You can’t come at them with a hammer. There’s got to be something that establishes a fundamental trust between you and that student,” Mr. Spring said.
Susan Albrecht, a professor in the department of special education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said teachers lack tools to address behavior problems.
“People are inclined to try and stop behavior, because that’s the immediate need. They don’t necessarily have the time or the experience or the techniques to try and change behavior,” she said.
Many promising practices exist, “but we need more empirical data,” said Ms. Albrecht, a nationally certified school psychologist and a member of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders. With such information, the practices that are shown to be most successful could then be incorporated into teacher training programs, she said.
Mr. White, the CCBD president and a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, suggested the new federally financed research center could help close the knowledge gap affecting students in their final years of precollegiate education.
“We’ve put so much emphasis on prevention,” he said. “Even those involved would say our knowledge base is much less developed at the high school level.”