Sandra L. Christenson, Christine M. Hurley, Julie A. Hirsch, Melissa Kau, David Evelo and Willa Bates
Standards. Supports. Standards and supports. As more and more schools and service agencies respond to internal and external mandates to raise academic and behavioral standards, they are learning an essential lesson about the relationship between the two: supports must accompany standards. Setting standards for student performance without the supports to attain them actually places students at greater risk for school dropout. Adolescent development research has demonstrated again and again this critical nature of expectations and responsivity on outcomes for youth (Baumrind, 1991).
During our seven years of experience with federally funded intervention projects for high-risk youth, we have developed a system of support that helps even the most challenging young people meet school standards. In our work with secondary level students with emotional and learning disabilities, the aim was to increase school engagement and graduation rates for students at highest risk for school dropout. The system of support we developed to meet these goals is a monitoring procedure referred to as “Check and Connect” (Sinclair, Christenson, Hurley, & Evelo, 1997), facilitated by a category of professionals we call “monitors".
In the broadest terms, the monitor's job is to create a person-environment fit between the student and his or her school and home contexts that enhances the students' engagement with school. Recognizing the importance of students' multiple environments - home, school, and community (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) - monitors work to create positive relationships in all three environments.
While monitors, as described in this article, hold a very specific position in our intervention projects, the factors that help them succeed are relevant for anyone working to reconnect with hard-to-reach youth. The elements that have made our monitors successful can also help counselors, teachers, administrators, and service providers meet standards and provide support for the youth in their schools or organizations.
The Role of the Monitor
The role of the monitor is at the crux of our “Check and Connect” model. Each monitor is assigned a number of students and becomes involved with each one in a variety of ways. The monitor serves as a case manager, mentor, tutor, problem solver, and coach in some situations, and a listener, friend, and advocate in others. Although many of the monitor's tasks are similar across students, they may differ significantly according to the specific needs and contexts of individual students, their families, their teachers, and the other significant adults in their lives.
First, the monitors “check.” They provide ongoing, consistent, and timely monitoring of students' behavior for signs of early school withdrawal: tardies, absences, skipped classes, failing grades, and falling behind in credits. Second, monitors “connect": They provide support in an efficient and timely manner based on the students' level of risk or need. The specific interventions are then determined by the needs and preferences of the student and family, and by the strengths and immediate resources of the school, program, or community. The monitor keeps the student and his or her family focused on education, and strives to prevent or reduce the occurrence of high-risk behaviors for dropping out of school.
The role of the monitor can be more specifically defined by describing the five essential elements of the Check and Connect model: relationship-building, monitoring, problem solving, affiliation, and persistence-plus.
Essential Element 1: Relationship-Building
The monitor's first task is to build a relationship with his or her students. We have identified five elements that are critical to developing positive student-monitor relationships - as they are to building relationships with any high-risk youth.
Trust. Until students know that their monitors are trustworthy, the monitors do not get very far. For example, Rahul refused to have anything to do with his monitor during the first school year he participated in our program. After seeing her interact with his teachers, family, and classmates, he agreed to meet with her for lunch over the summer. After that, Rahul decided he would work with the monitor during the next school year. Specifically, students like Rahul reported that they began to trust their monitors when they saw the monitors follow through on their promises, when monitors were helpful (e.g., with schoolwork, finding jobs), and when monitors kept personal information confidential.
Time. Taking time to get to know the students is absolutely necessary to building relationships. With time, monitors can discover their students” interests outside of school, their goals for the future, and who their friends and family are. When monitors also take time to act as liaisons with family members, teachers and administrators, and communities, it enhances trust between monitor and student. For example, Lisa, a ninth grader, stated that she knew she could trust her monitor because he talked with her family about how she was doing in school.
Acceptance. The monitor must have a nonjudgmental relationship with his or her students, regardless of the student’s presenting behavior. Often students get themselves into trouble when they are angry at parents or teachers (e.g., by yelling, being disrespectful). With the monitor, however, students can feel a bit more free to “blow off steam” or discuss a problem without worrying that they will be punished or scolded. At the same time, however, monitors do expect respectful behavior from students, and use these interactions as opportunities to teach appropriate social skills.
Advocacy. When educational or disciplinary decisions are being made, the monitor often acts as an advocate to help plan what is best for the student. The monitor supports students and families in their efforts to negotiate “the system” and work with school administrators and other school personnel. For example, Shonda was going to be expelled when mace was found in her locker during a random search. The coat in which the mace was found belonged to her older sister, who walked home from work late at night and carried mace for protection. Shonda's monitor helped her father figure out who to talk to at the district level. As a result, Shonda was suspended rather than expelled.
Referrals. Finally, monitors build relationships by connecting students to necessary resources in and outside of the school. For example, in our programs, monitors have helped students find jobs, enroll in alternative educational programs, make doctor's appointments, find transportation to school, secure mental health counseling, and enroll in treatment programs (e.g., chemical dependency). In other words, monitors work with students to address any barriers that may interfere with learning.
Essential Element 2: Monitoring
Students at risk for academic failure often improve their performance when they know someone is keeping track of it. Monitors check students” attendance, suspensions, grades, and other behavioral risk indicators on a regular basis. This information is communicated to students and appropriate actions are taken to help them improve their performance if necessary. Open, honest communication occurs.
Monitors also check in regularly with students' teachers to determine if their students are keeping up with classwork, to find out if there are upcoming projects or tests, and to uncover any behavioral issues that may be occurring in the classroom. When necessary, monitors serve as tutors, helping students complete assignments and sometimes even working with teachers to modify the format of exams. Finally, for students in special education, monitors attend students” Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and assessment meetings.
Essential Element 3: Problem Solving
Monitors help teach students how to resolve conflicts more effectively in a variety of ways. First, monitors instruct students in a five-step process for problem solving:
Step One: Stop! Think about the problem.
Step Two: What are some choices?
Step Three: Choose one.
Step Four: Do it.
Step Five: How did it work?
This process, modified from Braswell and Bloomquist’s (1991) cognitive-behavioral intervention, emphasizes the importance of thinking of alternatives, seeing different perspectives, and considering multiple outcomes. Whenever possible, the monitors help students apply this process to naturally occurring problems, rather than practicing them on hypothetical examples.
In order for students to generalize these skills, it is also important to teach students' parents the same problem-solving steps. In the middle school years, we were able to teach many parents these skills through monthly dinner meetings, at which attendance was very good. We believe our successful connection with high-risk families was due to the removal of logistical barriers (e.g., transportation, childcare), as well as our welcoming attitude. We discussed topics selected by parents and remained nonjudgmental about families that did not attend. The monitors delivered the information to these families at a later time, usually through a personal contact, such as a home visit.
Essential Element 4: Affiliation
Monitors try to build students' connection to school and their sense of belonging to the community in several ways. First, monitors serve as role models, communicating the importance of school to students, helping them understand the value of school and what they can get out of it. Second, monitors help link students to extracurricular activities (e.g., community services, after-school activities). Monitors also link students to formal (e.g., counselor, support groups) and informal (e.g., teacher, mentor) support personnel in the school. In order to help build this affiliation, monitors must get to know the adults and the “culture” of the student’s school and introduce families and school personnel to one another. Reducing a sense of alienation for the student and the significant adults in his or her life creates a sense of support and often generates other ideas for ways the student can increase his or her participation.
Essential Element 5: Persistence-Plus
Persistence-Plus refers to continuity, consistency, and persistence-defining characteristics of a good monitor or of any effective mentor for hard-to-reach youth. Because monitors are usually assigned to students who are “on the move” (i.e., students who have experienced many transitions in homes, schools, and treatments), their presence as a “constant” in the lives of these students is especially important. Monitors must follow through even when the student does not. For example, if a student is not coming to school or is showing signs of disengagement, the monitor remains involved and conducts home visits, makes contact with the family, and continues to work with the student, family, and community to re-engage the student. Or, if a student fails to keep an appointment even if it is for a fun outing the monitor had planned for the student, the monitor does not give up, but plans another event.
Monitors are present at school reentry meetings, court appearances, and other important meetings. They provide continuity; they know the student’s needs during and across school years. We have found that when monitors change from year to year or school to school, the relationship does not work as well because trust-building, which can often take a year or more, must begin again with each new monitor.
Not Always a Smooth Ride
Although working with students in these five ways and experiencing their pride when they reach their goals is tremendously rewarding, being a monitor is not always a smooth ride. There are four major barriers that often impede the path to success for both monitors and students.
Barrier 1: Time. Time affects the monitor's role in two ways. First, students have reported that they would prefer to see their monitors more often than the monitors are available, given their caseloads. For example, one student told us she would have been more successful in school if she could have seen her monitor on a daily basis. Second, because monitors follow students from placement to placement (e.g., alternative schools, treatment centers), they often spend considerable time developing new relationships and learning the “culture” of each new setting.
Barrier 2: Being an “outsider.” In our intervention projects, monitors are most often not employees of the schools in which they work. As “outsiders,” monitors have to clarify their roles with the many school personnel (from secretaries to principals) who work with the students, as well as gain these individuals” trust and cooperation. This is often a challenge. We have encountered “burnt-out” teachers and administrators who are resistant to working with us because we represent the very students who have been most challenging and seemingly unresponsive to their interventions. For example, one teacher’s comment to the monitor of an eighth-grade student with serious attendance and academic problems was, “You must be a miracle man to succeed. We have tried everything... School is not for this child.”
As outsiders, monitors also have limited influence in school policy decisions that directly affect students (e.g., grounds for expulsion). Often, the monitors' “outsider” status makes it difficult for them to attend important events or participate in decision making simply because they are not always present in the school building.
Barrier 3: Family resistance. The students and families in our programs tend to have had negative school experiences and are initially cautious when developing new relationships with a monitor. As stated previously, it can take up to a year to simply build trust. In addition, many of the situational factors that interfere with students' abilities to succeed in school are outside the monitors' sphere of influence. For example, some of the students we work with live in homes where one or more of the family is chemically dependent. While the monitor continues to work closely with the student to keep him or her engaged in school, the monitor must rely on others to address the needs of the other family member(s).
Barrier 4: Student and family mobility. Frequent school transfers and moves to new neighborhoods make it more difficult for both the student and the monitor to succeed. Like the student, the monitor must also develop new relationships and help establish new supports each time the student moves to a new setting. This process is time-consuming and often feels like three steps backward before the next step forward. However, when we see a student pass all of his or her classes, or successfully work through a difficult situation, we are reminded of why we face each of these four barriers head on.
Worth the Cost
In light of recent school reform and new academic and behavioral standards such as graduation requirements and zero tolerance policies, students at risk of academic failure need supports more than ever to help them meet these new standards. The Check and Connect monitoring procedure is one successful approach to keeping students connected to school and helping them meet school requirements for success. While pairing each high-risk student with an adult monitor who may spend years working with him or her in multiple settings may seem a costly solution to dropout prevention, failing to provide this necessary support for students ultimately costs far more.
I. The initial dropout prevention intervention study (during which Check and Connect was developed) was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (H-023K0017). The content and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement should be inferred.
2. The authors want to acknowledge the significant contributions of Martha Thurlow, Ph.D., and Mary Sinclair, Ph.D., in the development of Check and Connect.
Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11, 59-95.
Braswell, L., & Bloomquist, M. L. (1991). Cognitive-behavioral therapy with ADHD children: Child, familv, and school interventions. New York: The Guilford Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press.
Sinclair, M. F., Christenson, S. L., Hurley, C. M., & Evelo, D. (1997). Dropout prevention for high-risk youth with disabilities: A longitudinal study. Manuscript submitted for publication.
This feature: Christenson, S.L., Hurley, C.M., Hirsch, J.A., Kau, K., Evelo, D. and Bates, W. (1997). Check and Connect: The role of monitors in supporting high-risk youth. Reaching Today’s Youth, 2.1, pp.18-21