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There are a number of middle school students who experience difficulty making the transition from childhood to early adolescence and may be described as high-risk. This article describes an after-school program designed to promote healthy identity and adaptive personal choice behaviors in a high-risk group of middle school students.
Developmentally, middle school students are transitioning from late childhood to early adolescence. It is a time of many changes and, at times, turmoil. School counselors play an integral role in creating developmentally appropriate services for this age group. In general, middle school students have unique needs based on the rapid shifts in their physical, psychological, and social development (Roeser, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2000). Physically, they are entering puberty; psychologically, they are dealing with issues of industry and identity. As issues of autonomy and identity become much more important to them, simply completing their schoolwork because it is what their teachers ask is no longer sufficient motivation, especially if they perceive school to be meaningless or boring. For youth in this developmental phase, the most important relationships are no longer exclusively with family members, and peers become much more influential during this time (Fowler, 1981; Turner & Helms, 1995).
It is a challenging time in which children's perceptions of school and expectations about their future are being remolded into a form that will remain fairly stable throughout the rest of their lives (Roeser et al., 2000). This developmental period sets the stage for problem-solving approaches later in life (Jessor, 1987), and adult attitudes and behaviors toward risk taking often have their antecedents in youth (Logan, 1991).
More than half of all middle school students are able to manage these multiple biological, psychological, and social transitions without major problems. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of students encounter distress when making the transition from childhood to early adolescence. Roeser et al. (2000) noted that 25% to 50% of all children in the United States aged 10-17 are "at risk for curtailed educational, emotional, economic, and social opportunities due to their engagement in high-risk behaviors and activities that include violence and vandalism, unprotected sex, abuse of alcohol and drugs, skipping and failing school, and so on" (p. 444). Students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds are at particular risk for engaging in these behaviors (Roeser et al.), for having lower or more unrealistic occupational aspirations (Rojewski & Hill, 1998; Rojewski & Kim, 2003), and for having delayed psychosocial development (Marcon, 1997).
Wilson Middle School and Its Students
The After-School Counseling Program
After-school programming was chosen for several reasons: (a) This is a vulnerable time for high-risk behaviors in this age group, (b) the program would not interfere with students' classroom instructional needs, (c) parents and caregivers would be more accessible for participation, and (d) space for the program was more available in the school. Conducting the program after school provided students additional counseling time and addressed issues that might not have been focused on during the regular day. In addition, the after-school program provided for a lower counselor-to-student ratio.
The program services are provided once a week in conjunction with the university's practicum class. The program is composed of three types of intervention: individual counseling, family counseling, and group guidance. Most students receive 1 hour weekly of both individual counseling and group guidance. Family counseling is provided to the student and his or her family at the request of the family or on the recommendation of school personnel. Each semester approximately 10 master's-level practicum counselors provide 2 to 3 hours weekly of individual and/or family counseling. Additionally, there are two guidance groups per semester, with up to 10 WMS students and two practicum counselors. One faculty instructor and two doctoral-level teaching assistants provide supervision.
Practicum counselors begin their individual counseling with the middle school students by identifying personal goals for growth and development. These goals are grounded in developmental theory and focus primarily on issues of identity and personal choice. Students are encouraged to describe their values and aspirations in an effort to promote a healthy, future-oriented sense of self, as well as to enhance intrinsic motivation. The students also explore their daily choices to evaluate whether these choices are likely to promote or hinder their aspirations. Additionally, individual counseling sessions are used to develop more effective methods of problem solution and self-assertion. For example, students are taught to use the acronym STAR (Stop, Think, Act, and Review) when making adaptive personal choices.
Weekly group guidance activities focus on the development of positive conflict resolution and adaptive peer relationships. While individual counseling and group guidance are not specifically coordinated, middle school students have an opportunity to practice and implement the problem solving and assertiveness strategies learned in individual sessions. As many of these students were referred to the program following discipline referrals, the majority of the group guidance activities use cognitive behavioral techniques and psychoeducation to develop adaptive anger management and conflict resolution strategies. For example, sessions focus on improving verbal and nonverbal communication skills, understanding myths and facts about conflict, using "I" statements, and developing positive self-assertion skills. The group guidance activities also explore both negative and positive peer influences as well as provide time to practice ways to avoid negative peer pressure.
Family counseling typically is initiated when caregivers are frustrated with behaviors related to the normal family developmental tasks of this life stage such as separation/individuation, growing autonomy, and increased peer influence (Carter & McGoldrick, 1988). For the middle school students participating in the program, these normal developmental issues often are reflected in oppositional behaviors, poor communication, and negative peer choices. Family counseling sessions primarily focus on improving communication, implementing age-appropriate discipline strategies, and promoting adaptive peer relationships. This portion of the program is not limited to biological parents. In several cases, the caregivers have been grandparents, extended family, or foster parents.
The case of Terry illustrates how the program is integrated and implemented.
The Case of Terry
The counselor was able to use the current incident to process everyone's concerns about his poor capacity for anger management. The counselor also identified the need for improved communication between Terry and his parents. Then his parents were contacted, and they agreed to come in the following week for family counseling. The family session focused on having Terry and his parents openly discuss their concerns about his future, given his current behavioral choices. They also were able to identify family communication patterns that did not facilitate developmentally appropriate relationships and problem solving. Specifically, the parents seemed to be using an authoritarian parenting style that did not allow much autonomy and input from Terry. The family agreed to make developmentally appropriate shifts in communication and relationship patterns. At the end of the family session, Terry agreed to participate in the after-school program. He has continued to participate more actively and appropriately in all aspects of the program.
Personal Reflection Exercise #4
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