New approach could prevent mental health problems in teens

A $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health will allow the OO researcher to evaluate the impact of structured learning in small classrooms on peer relationships and mental health in adolescents.

The five-year study by Mark Van Reesen, a research professor at the University of Oregon College of Education, will measure the mental health behaviors of students in 24 high schools in Oregon, Arizona and Wisconsin.

The project comes at a critical time. Reports have shown that one of the main consequences of the pandemic is that it not only causes children to fall behind academically, but also worsens their mental health in terms of isolation, especially in vulnerable children. Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called mental health among young people a national emergency.

Mark Van ReesenFocusing on prevention rather than cure, Van Ryzin’s structured small-group approach to learning, which combines technology with existing teacher curriculum, aims to improve peer relationships and reduce incidences of anxiety, symptoms of depression, and suicidality in mainstream high schools. .

A major difference to Van Ryzin’s approach is that all students participate, as opposed to more targeted approaches that attempt to identify and intervene with students who are believed to be at risk.

“Some of the biggest risk factors in adolescents for developing mental health problems have to do with relationships with peers,” van Reesen said. “Among teens, it’s important to be accepted by your peers and to have a group to cling to, where you belong.”

Van Ryzin has had positive results in previous studies with middle school-aged children and a pilot study conducted at UO in 2019 on how structured, collaborative, and small-group learning affects youth behavior, mental health, and academic success.

With the goal of addressing mental health issues without disrupting academic learning with a separate program, this approach can be easily folded into a teacher’s lesson plan.

Teachers randomly place students into small groups and assign each student a unique role or task, ensuring that they can be held accountable to both the teacher and the other members of the group. The approach also emphasizes positive connectedness—in other words, one can personally gain from enhancing the success of others—and the practice of collaborative skills.

“Students are still learning. Teachers are still teaching their core content. Everything happens according to the curriculum, but they get an added bonus; They get to know each other and build positive peer-to-peer relationships.”

He said the benefits of highly structured learning in small groups is that it encourages inclusivity and a sense of belonging among students as well. It also promotes positive social interactions and reduces situations where students feel left out, or when one student does all the work for the group. Teachers also share the benefits.

“It’s a whole new experience for some teachers when they’re not in the spotlight,” he said. “They don’t have to be ‘stage wise’ for an hour all day, which can be stressful. When using structured small groups, students actively participate in their learning, having conversations in group, and because their peers rely on them to perform their part, students who are more vulnerable will participate in the lesson.”

The study will also test technology developed to support educators. Pre-made templates that teachers can insert into any curriculum and course materials will provide step-by-step instructions to make group work a smooth and easy process for teachers and students alike.

When classes begin in January, van Reesen, the project’s principal investigator, and his team will begin laying the groundwork, developing assessments, recruiting schools, and conducting teacher training before classes begin in the fall. The project will monitor incoming ninth grade students during their final year of high school.

To measure progress, surveys of students and teachers will be conducted in the fall and spring during the four years of study.

“The surveys will ask them about peer relationships, victimization, stress, and social emotional skills, and will also ask them about symptoms of depression, symptoms of anxiety, and suicidality,” Van Reesen said.

The data will be used to assess the ability of the Van Ryzin approach to promote positive peer relationships, and thus prevent widespread mental health problems among adolescents. If successful, the project could potentially be extended to schools across the country and beyond.

Posted by Charlene Nelson, University of Communication

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