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University of Oregon: New approach could prevent mental health problems in teens

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A $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health will allow a UO researcher to evaluate the effect of structured, small-group classroom learning on peer relations and mental health in adolescents.

The five-year study by Mark Van Ryzin, a UO research professor in the 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 a major consequence of the pandemic is that it not only put kids behind academically but also exacerbated their mental health in terms of isolation, especially in at-risk kids. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called mental health among young people a national emergency.

Mark Van RyzinFocusing on prevention rather than treatment, Van Ryzin’s structured, small-group approach to learning, which combines technology with an instructor’s existing curriculum, aims to improve peer relations and reduce the incidence of anxiety, symptoms of depression and suicidality in a regular high school population.

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

“Some of the biggest risk factors in adolescents for developing mental health problems has to do with peer relations,” Van Ryzin said. “Among teenagers, it is important to be accepted by your peers and to have a group that you hang with, where you belong.”

Van Ryzin has achieved favorable results in prior studies with middle-school-age kids and a pilot study conducted at the UO in 2019 into how structured, cooperative, small-group learning affects young people’s behavior, mental health and academic success.

Aiming to address mental health issues without disrupting academic learning with a separate program, the approach can be easily folded into a teacher’s lesson plan.

Teachers randomly place students in small groups and assign each student a unique role or task, which ensures that they can be held accountable by both the teacher and the other members of the group. The approach also emphasizes positive interdependence — in other words, one can gain personally from promoting the success of others — and practicing collaborative skills.

“Students are still learning. Teachers are still teaching their core content. Everything is happening according to the syllabus,” Van Ryzin said, “but they’re getting an additional bonus; they’re getting to know one another and building positive peer relationships.”

The benefits of highly structured, small-group learning, he said, is that it encourages inclusiveness and a sense of belonging among students as well. It also reinforces 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 an entirely new experience for some teachers when they don’t have to be in the spotlight,” he said. “They don’t have to be the ‘sage on stage’ for an hour all day long, which can be stressful. When using structured small groups, the students are actively engaged in their learning, they’re having conversations in a group, and because their peers are counting on them to fulfill their role, even more at-risk students will get involved in the lesson.”

The study also will test the technology developed to support teachers. Pre-made templates that teachers can plug into any curriculum and learning materials will provide detailed guidelines to make group work a seamless and easy process for teachers and students alike.

When the study begins in January, Van Ryzin, who is the principal investigator on the project, and his team will start laying the groundwork, developing assessments, recruiting schools and conducting teacher training before classes begin in the fall. The project will monitor incoming ninth graders through their senior year at high school.

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

“The student surveys will ask them about their peer relations, victimization, stress, social emotional skills, and will also ask them about their depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and suicidality,” Van Ryzin said.

The data will be used to evaluate the ability of Van Ryzin’s approach to promote positive peer relations and, in turn, prevent mental health problems among adolescents on a large scale. If the project is successful, it has the potential to extend to schools nationwide and beyond.