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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Fort Thomas Independent Schools Conducts Resiliency Poll Among Students

Resiliency is key to well-being in children and adults. Photo: via Creative Commons

School shootings. Natural disasters. Teen suicides. Bullying. These are some of the nightmares children (and adults) have had to face. Childhood should be carefree, but so many times it’s not. Even if a child is not exposed to real physical threats or danger, fears and anxiety can have a debilitating effect on a child’s self-esteem and ability to learn.

Much as we would like, we cannot shield children from all adversity. Yet, there is good news on that front. Resiliency, the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change, is a skill that can be taught, according to the American Psychological Association.

There is now a body of valuable research on resiliency skill development, and educators across the country are beginning to assess, strategize and plan for ways to help students on all grade levels build those skills.

In the course of discussions about what traits a Fort Thomas graduate should have, resiliency, grit and emotional well being were listed as key skills for the future. With guidance from Dr. Richard Gilman and other researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the district conducted a "resiliency poll" in April to survey students and identify the level of resiliency in Fort Thomas schools.

The resiliency poll

Almost all students in third grade through high school were given the survey asking them how they feel about a variety of experiences at school. The findings were aggregated to show the big picture of how the district is doing overall at different grade levels.

While school counselors and personnel did not know student’s individual answers, those whose answers put them in a high-risk category were identified and steps were taken to support those students and their families.

Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Jamee Flaherty shared information from the survey at the May school board meeting. She said the survey is a valuable tool, especially going forward. Not only does it offer a way to identify children who may need immediate support and attention, but it will help identify improvement and challenges within the district in years to come.

Students were asked questions about a variety of factors including satisfaction, positive school experiences and hope, but also about perceived victimization and ostracism.

Identifying and helping students at risk

The survey placed students along a continuum. Student reporting strengths in all key areas and who had no evidence of stress were identified as Optimal. The goal is to bring as many students as possible into this strong category.

In the Average category. students reported strengths across many key areas and little evidence of major distress. These students are considered to be functioning well but not necessarily excelling.

Those who placed in the Sub-Optimal category had some strengths but many challenges in key areas. At-Risk students reported few strengths and high distress levels. Within the At-Risk segment a few students were in need of immediate attention. Both these groups of students would benefit from counseling and other support services.

After the poll results were in, elementary, middle school and high school counselors and administrators talked through those students who might need immediate support and additional referral to mental health experts.

"We made student visits…We talked to parents and determined a plan," said Flaherty. "So, not only did we receive these scores so we have a baseline, we also wanted to make sure we are doing something to impact those who are in the red [at-risk] category."

Overall positive results for Fort Thomas

Flaherty shared some positive news about the data from Fort Thomas.

  • Students placed in the optimal category ranged from 7 percent in high school to 15 percent in elementary school, and the percentage of those considered at-risk were 7 percent in elementary school, 11 percent in middle school and 18 percent at the high school level.
  • Most of the district’s mean resilience variable scores were at or above national norms across all grade levels.
  • In Fort Thomas, “positive school experiences” were significantly higher than the national average at all grade levels, and “academic standards” were also much higher than the national norms for middle and high school students.
  • The percentage of middle and high school students who reported feeling severe levels of victimization was less than the national average.
  • The percentage of middle and high school students who reported significant psychological distress (anxiety, depression) was less than the national average.

Concerns for the future

The survey also identified a few areas that presented more challenge for the district including feelings of ostracism, which were slightly higher for Fort Thomas (2.23 percent for middle school and 2.36 for high school) than the national average (2.16 percent for both middle school and high school).

And, while levels of anxiety and depression were lower than national averages, Flaherty said the hope is that the number of students who express these issues can be reduced.

Superintendent Karen Cheser noted that self-harm was the only area in which the school had individual answers. Armed with that information, staff was able to intervene and help students who were planning to harm themselves, so the survey has been a valuable tool already.

Flaherty said research has shown that as the poll is administered each year, the number of at-risk students in higher grades declines as students in need of help are identified and get the help they need earlier.

The next step in the process, she said, is to meet with researcher Dr. Gilman in June to discuss any issues that arose and to prepare for next year. For more information about resiliency, see the American Psychology Association's Resilience Guide for Parents & Teachers.

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