Reduce challenging student behavior using youth engagement specialists

An alternative to the school resource officer, a youth engagement specialist can use a therapeutic approach to managing behavioral issues students are experiencing. What roles should these professionals play?

As concerns about police officers in schools continue nationwide, Penn Hills (Pa.) School District has adopted an alternative approach to keeping students safe in one of its middle schools. Instead of school resource officers, youth engagement specialists respond to student behavioral issues using a therapeutic approach at Linton Middle School.

“We believe relationships are paramount,” says Jesse McLean, executive director of western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio at Pressley Ridge, the Pittsburgh-based organization that supplies the specialists. “Once you build relationships, you can definitely move to create change for students. They know you’re trying to work with them, not against them, to figure this out together.”

Consider these attributes of youth engagement specialists if you want to replace school resource officers.

1. Visibility.

Have youth engagement specialists be visible to staff and students throughout the day, says Nancy Hines, the district’s superintendent. Each school floor has two youth engagement specialists who cover the halls and check in on classrooms throughout the day. “They will notice if a usually very animated teacher is quiet or if there is a lot of noise coming from a room that is generally quiet,” she adds. The specialists also see students as they get off the bus and transition from class to class. If a student seems like he’s having a rough day, a specialist can engage with the student to find out what’s happening.

2. Communication.

Ensure teachers and other school staff understand the mission of youth engagement specialists and know when to contact them—not law enforcement—to help a student who is dysregulated calm down and talk about why she’s upset, McLean says. “The students know that we talk to the teachers and know the teachers talk to us, and whatever we’re discussing is for their best interest.” A student may just need a few minutes out of class to talk about what happened on the bus or why she had to stay up late the night before, for example.

“Our goal would be to prevent a student’s behavior from escalating,” McLean says. “Most school security officers are trained for law enforcement and do not receive trauma training and other specialized training. We want to make sure that students are given everything they need to be able to deescalate and resume their normal day.”

3. IEP Involvement.

Ask youth engagement specialists to participate in students’ IEP meetings so they can contribute to and implement student plans, McLean says. “We participate because we need to be able to carry them out.”

4. Protection.

Set up a safe space for youth engagement specialists to escort a student to if the student needs some time away from other students. Linton Middle School has a “New Directions” room where students can go to work through their challenges with a school counselor, Hines explains. “It gives kids a place to deescalate, but also a safe place to engage in problem-solving and work through their issues.”

5. Training.

Ensure youth engagement specialists receive ongoing training on crisis prevention and intervention, cognitive behavioral intervention for trauma in schools, and strategies for connecting with students, McLean says. They should be able to pick up when a student may prefer to talk with a female specialist over a male specialist. And they should understand that students will respect them if they show students respect, he says. “I love the middle school population because once you get them engaged, they will call you when they’re 30 years old.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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