Students Share Lifeskills at Local Elementary School
The town of Banks, Ore., population 1,400, sits at the junctions of Highways 6 and 47 amid the farmlands and vineyards of western Washington County.
Banks Elementary School, a modern brick structure located near that confluence of rural highways, also finds itself at the crossroads of changing economics and demographics. While most of the families represented in the nearly 600 K-6 students at the school still derive their income from the area's traditional industries agriculture and timber, increasing numbers of Banks residents commute outside the city to non-natural resource jobs.One of those "commuters," psychology Professor Alyson Burns-Glover, rolls the approximately five miles south to work at Pacific University. A specialist in social skills and group cohesion, Burns-Glover was intrigued to find that Banks Elementary, where her daughter was in the first grade, employed a program called Lifeskills. Created by Susan Korvalik and Associates of Federal Way, Wash., the program uses 23 values and abilities aimed at community building through personal responsibility, caring for others, and skills such as listening and patience.
In conversations with school counselor DD Stillson, Burns-Glover discovered several other things about the school that piqued her interest. First, Stillson is the only counselor for the entire student body. Second, though the school is rated as one of Oregon's exceptional elementary schools overall, it has one of the highest student/teacher ratios in Washington County. And like any school, some of the students struggle with academic as well as personal issues.
Wouldn't it be great, thought Burns-Glover, if Pacific could help the Banks kids while enriching Pacific student training? "I knew that many of our psychology and sociology majors had expressed an interest in being therapists/counselors for kids, so I thought it might be good to pair our students with the counselor there and see if we couldn't collaborate to create a great experience for Pacific students and Banks students focusing on my area of research and (Stillson's) expertise in school counseling," said Burns-Glover. The "Lifeguides" collaboration was born.
Since 2003 about 10 Pacific students each year have been Lifeguides at Banks from one-on-one work with at-risk students to small group activities. Last year, 20 Pacific students coordinated an activity day for each of the school's grade levels.
Before they begin their work at Banks, though, Pacific's students take a battery of classes in social psychology and small group interaction designed to equip them with skills for an elementary school population. Burns-Glover also leads them through classes on the roots of empathy and aggression and brings in Pacific Outback Director Chad Toomey '94 for six weeks of instruction on how to facilitate physical activities and group exercises, which create trust and break down barriers. In fact, said Burns-Glover, the Banks program "is really like 'Pacific Voyages' for the elementary school age groups," referring to the University's outdoor student orientation adventures, led by Toomey. "He
works with me in teaching the Pacific students how to do physical activity exercises and group work to create activities in which kids of all abilities can engage and learn how to trust, cooperate, and persist without having to use the formal classroom format."
Dan Eisen '07 has been a Lifeguide since fall 2005. He and other Pacific students worked with first and second graders in the classroom and on the playground. They went into the classroom at least once a week and facilitated an activity that focused on a single Lifeskill (in this case Effort - Do Your Best.) "We made homemade kites that the students could decorate and then fly out at recess," he said. "This activity exemplified effort because the students realized that they needed to put effort into making their kites look nice and aesthetically pleasing. They also realized that flying the kites took a lot of effort, as they could not simply stand still and expect the kite to fly."
Last spring, Eisen also worked with Jarrett Takayama '08 and Jake-Travis Barsana '06 to create and implement one of the best-received Lifeguides projects, a flag-football program for sixth grade at-risk boys. "We used football as a vehicle to teach these students the Lifeskills and various skills that would help them succeed in school and other aspects of life," said Eisen.
Emphasizing the importance of respect and cooperation during a semester of games, Eisen and the Pacific students began to notice changes in the Banks students. "We were able to watch the boys transform in confidence, respect, and friendship," said Eisen. "The boys bonded with each other as well as with the Lifeguides. They began to become more confident and some worked harder in school. In fact ... some boys had their best year yet."
Added Takayama, "The other mentors and I also noticed these boys grow and succeed through this program. It provided pride and joy knowing that we had impacted these boys' lives in a positive way." The three Pacific students were so inspired by the experience that they made an hour-long documentary film about the football project.
Stillson said she has seen the changes too. "It's really amazing what the (Banks) kids picked up," she said. "The Pacific students are young and enthusiastic, and bring this energy the kids really relate to. They are articulate and accessible and quickly formed bonds. The kids really loved having them around." One Banks student, in fact, wrote Stillson that the activity day "was the most fun day of school ever," while another wrote of one of the small group activities, "I started looking at kids in my class differently and made new friends."
Transformation for both groups of students is really at the heart of Lifeguides, said Burns-Glover. "I've seen this experience transform my students as well as the Banks kids. I always tell my students who want to go into counseling psychology, 'I know you have the brains and I know you have the heart to do it, but do you have the guts to do it?' Our students get to see the tremendous resiliency and also tremendous need of these kids. It makes them understand that working with kids has great benefits and also some real moments of heartache. They need to see that before they choose that career."
One Pacific student, Joel Lampert '05, Psy.D '10, said the Lifeguides program was a factor in his decision to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with Pacific's School of Professional Psychology. "Being a Lifeguide at Banks was an amazing experience. The students are great and it's awesome to know that you can have such an impact on them.... My goal is to apply my clinical skills in working with underserved populations, especially students. One of the reasons why my experience at Banks was so influential was that it provided me with the opportunity to experience, first hand, some of the problems and issues that I might encounter as a professional in the field of psychology."
It cuts both ways, too. One Banks student who apparently had never thought of college as an option told Stillson he now wants to do just that - at Pacific. Bottom line, said Burns-Glover, "I think that it is very important for every child to feel 'necessary.' And I think that college students often need to be encouraged to be committed to something larger than themselves - to also 'be' necessary."