Prospects for Children with Severe Behavioral Disorders

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 - 12:45pm

High school students who suffer from severe behavioral disorders face dire circumstances and a future tainted by risk.

By the time they leave high school, students with intensive behavioral disorders have dwindling options. A stint in jail is often more likely than a steady paycheck. 

“Over 50 percent of high school students with severe behavioral issues never make it to graduation. It’s a societal issue that has never been identified as a national priority,” says Lee Kern, Iacocca professor of special education. 

"These serious behavior problems are typically misunderstood. High schools do what they think they need to do because there simply isn’t a lot of research on behavior problems for this age group.” 

Conservative estimates indicate that two to three percent of all school-aged children demonstrate severe behavioral disorders, and far more experience mental health problems, but it is believed that only a small number receive proper services to address their issues.

Kern and a national research team is intent on changing that. Along with fellow principal investigators Steve Evans of the University of Ohio and the University of Missouri’s Tim Lewis, Kern received a $10 million grant to launch the Center for Adolescent Research in the Schools in 2008. 

The study is the largest of its kind to focus exclusively on the high school population. The research team has already begun designing intervention packages that will be delivered at secondary schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky. 

The interventions being developed fall into three categories: enhancing school and teacher capacity, building youth competence, and increasing family and community supports. An early test run in Bethlehem Area School district’s (Pa.) Career Academy has shown the positive impact of these interventions.

Principal Vivian Obledo-Shorey watched students increase their skills under the program. The methods worked—state test scores were up and her kids were spending more time in school than on the streets. “There’s always more to learn,” she said. “And I wanted confirmation that this type of support was the right way to go.”