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Program Solving Student Behavior Problems

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By Damon C. Williams, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune

It’s a fact that behavioral and social issues are among the myriad obstacles facing minority, low-income and at-risk students. Child psychologist Dr. Brian Daly believes the program “The Incredible Years,” can help ease those issues, through both student interaction and by supplying an unorthodox method of reaching those students.

Daly is also an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Psychology.

“The ‘Incredible Years’ program basically teaches kids the skills they need, such as following classroom rules, anger management and developing relationships with their peers and teachers,” Daly said, noting that the originators of the program — geared to students in K-3 grades — would use puppets and other techniques. “Over the years of working in schools with practicums, I’ve seen some of these behaviors starting very early on — in kindergarten and first grade.

“And without intervention, it becomes worse,” Daly continued. “So I started looking for evidence-based programs used with low-income minority students that have shown positive effects.”

The program is uniquely designed to reach students in the very young grades, because once a student reaches middle school, the problems become much more ingrained and harder to correct. Even the puppets play a huge role in reaching the students.

“The group leaders use puppets, which seems a little hokey at first, but for kids in K-3, even though there’s a ventriloquist delivering the intervention lessons, the students suspend belief and start staring and following everything the puppet says and does,” Daly explained. “So the students are taught these very important skills by someone they are excited about, and not just some adult standing up there, talking to them about the need to follow classroom rules.”

The program also uses a dinosaur puppet and characters, Wally and Molly, who for purposes unique to minority demographics of the school district, are cast as African-American.

Daly and his team currently implement the program in three North Philadelphia schools — Paul L. Dunbar Elementary, Tanner Duckrey Elementary and Gen. George G. Meade Elementary — and is funded via a series of three-year grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

So far, the program has reaped rewards.

“We’ve seen by looking at the analysis of the kids most at risk in terms of having worse behavior and lowest social skills, that their behavior and academics improves the most. When we do analysis on those kids — they tend to be the ones improving the most, improving up to what we consider the normal range,” Daly said. “You have one third of the kids [in any particular class] that are really struggling, and for those kids we think further down the line will continue having problems, they move from the lower third to middle third.”

That the three schools Daly currently works out of are all located less than a mile from Temple University is no coincidence. Daly said that he has formed a long-standing relationship with the university that has enabled him and his staff to operate in those schools.

“I came to Drexel University from Temple — which used to have a partnerships program in Dunbar, Duckery and Meade. Back then, the school district had control over those schools, but Temple was putting management programs and academic and mental health programs in those schools. Since we had already established relationships with the schools, it was easy to work with them,” Daly said, adding that efforts are currently underway to expand the program to West Philly schools Samuel Powell Elementary and Morton McMichael Elementary. “We also do a university partnership with Drexel and Temple to implement programs. We are also training graduate doctorial psychologist to run this program, so they are more apt to go back into these schools.”

The program, Daly said, also benefits teachers, as it gives them an added educational tool they can use when gaining control of the classroom is a priority.

“Most new teachers leave within five years after starting and one of the top three reasons is they can’t get classroom behavior under control. New teachers are very excited to teach, but if they can’t get behavior under control; once they lose that control they give up,” Daly said. “That’s a big problem. Half of the most promising teachers are leaving, and they are most likely to leave inner city, underfunded schools.

“So students who are most at risk, most often are not getting the attention they need,” Daly continued. “When we do our 20-week program, teachers continue to use skills we taught them, and continue using them on a yearly basis. None of the teachers that we have trained left because of burnout.”

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or dwilliams@phillytrib.com.

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