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Public-school officials are looking into the heads of their students for more than letters and numbers as they use behavioral modification to gain control in the classroom.
Should teachers or other school administrators keep records about their opinions of a child's mental health from the time he or she enters kindergarten? What about analyzing playground habits? Or confronting the child with questions about discipline at home, how time is spent outside of school and what in life is "bugging" him or her?
Called "screening," such measures are being recommended for use in schools nationwide as the federal government gives teachers and mental-health professionals the responsibility for assessing and supporting the mental, emotional and behavioral health of the 50 million students who attend the 110,000 U.S. public schools. With the Clinton-Gore administration stepping up support, organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Education and private donors such as the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation gradually are surfacing plans to use the nation's schools as mental-health clinics.
But critics say bandaging a knee or providing a wholesome lunch, as schools have done for decades, is one thing and psychological explorations are another. They question the role of schools, governments and public-health authorities in an issue as sensitive and subjective as shaping behavior of children by psychological manipulation -- or even drugs.
Education officials counter that they cannot help students achieve academic goals without having a well-ordered classroom, and failure to treat "at-risk" kids results in an inferior learning environment for all. By identifying youngsters with problematic attitudes or behaviors before third grade and providing a "continuum of care," they assert, they will be able to prevent school dropouts, unemployment and criminal activities.
Patti Guard, executive director of the Office of Special Education Programs, or OSEP, at the Department of Education, tells Insight that OSEP's current focus is on "making changes for the entire school ... based on effective research models ... to achieve two positive outcome factors: positive behavior and reading." OSEP is working closely with Education Secretary Richard Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno and is asking Congress to set aside $50 million in next year's budget to fund schoolwide behavior intervention and support research projects that will serve as models for implementing identification and behavioral-modification techniques in schools around the nation.
"In the area of behavior the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support Center, or PBIS, at the University of Oregon is our biggest investment right now," says OSEP researcher Renee Bradley. PBIS focuses on children in kindergarten through third grade. She says the model they are recommending comes out of the mental-health field and that roughly 80 percent of children will respond to primary or universal interventions. About 15 percent of the school population requires more-focused prevention or education techniques, she says, such as group counseling, a point system or a special-education teacher. And about 5 percent need "pretty intensive one-on-one planned behavior intervention."
The Website for this University of Oregon project defines PBIS as "the application of behavior analysis to achieve socially important behavior change" Developed initially as an alternative to punishments (so-called "aversive interventions") for severe cases of emotionally/behaviorally disturbed kids who engaged in extreme forms of self-injury and aggression, the model is being extended for use with children in entire schools. The goal of PBIS is to apply "research-validated practices" to create school environments that "improve lifestyle results" including personal, health, social, family, work and recreation, by shaping each child's behavior.
This program is part of a longtime effort to integrate behavioral modification with academic studies. Some call the movement "Big Brotherism." While no one disagrees that children should behave in school, this marriage of the public-school system to the mental-health system for the purpose of controlling behavior is drawing fire. Should the state determine what constitutes an "improved lifestyle" into which children should be conditioned? And on what foundation do the lifestyle modifiers propose to build this positive behavior?
Even proponents of the plan question whether overtaxed teachers can afford to take more time away from academics to modify behavior and whether school districts can afford to hire a contingent of trained mental-health professionals. Assuming data could be gathered accurately on every student, should the information permanently remain on record? Who should be able to access it? And where do parents fit into the picture? For now, the federal research continues without answering those questions and the fashion of treating bad behavior as an illness -- not a discipline problem -- is sweeping the nation courtesy of the federal government.
To continue reading this article, please click here: Behavior Modification Programs
Author: Aimee Howd, Insight on the News, Nov 1, 1999
(For additional information relating to Behavior Modification Programs, see: Behavior Modification Schools)
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