Every Monday during lunch, Poppy and Grace visit one of their favorite places, the South Pasadena High School (SPHS) campus, where curious students are drawn to their playful antics and furry coats. It’s a day in the life of two comfort dogs whose job it is to bring a moment of relaxation to students during what can sometimes feel like stressful days. Providing unconditional acceptance to students for the past two years, the pups are now part of the support provided by the Train Your Brain (TYB) program, a South Pasadena Unified School District social-emotional and behavioral care program for adolescents. The comfort dogs visit both SPHS and South Pasadena Middle School (SPMS) one day per week spreading smiles and joy around campus. Studies show that social-emotional practices like this improve student attitudes, behavior and ultimately performance.
Thanks to generous support from the South Pasadena Educational Foundation (SPEF), Train Your Brain began in August 2015 as a school-wide support program. The program integrates research-based prevention and intervention strategies drawn from three treatment models – (1) Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); (2) Neuropsychology, including mindfulness and self-regulation training; and (3) Cognitive Psychology.
“The Train Your Brain program is designed to be sensitive to and accommodate for individual student differences, based upon the belief that, just as young people exhibit particular learning styles, they also demonstrate distinctive social and emotional styles,” said Dennis Lefevre, executive director of Student Support Services. “We’ve put in place a number of practices to help students develop the skills that lead to improved attitudes about school, positive classroom behavior and better academic performance.”
SPUSD teachers and staff have been trained to use positive support strategies like a “60-seconds Fix” (one-minute mindful moment before an exam) and the four-to-one ratio of praise-to-correction (four praises for every one correction). Teachers also encourage students to use self-guided regulation techniques like visualization and breathing exercises when they are feeling pressure. Students with more acute needs may work directly with specialized TYB counselor, Natasha Prime, who works one day per week at the middle school and one day per week at the high school, delivering targeted, short-term therapy in areas such as anger-stress management, coping skills, social skills, and organizational/study skills. Prime also oversees several interns who are available to students for an additional two to three days per week at each campus.
During the 2016-2017 school year, the program has seen the largest growth as Prime and her staff regularly visit middle school intervention homerooms and ninth grade study halls to teach life skills such as anxiety/stress management and organizational skills to students. Through this focused delivery, TYB has touched nearly 400 students and has greatly enhanced many of the important protective factors for adolescent mental health already in place at both SPMS and SPHS. Program outreach supports the ultimate goal, which is to improve students’ social-emotional well-being by increasing feelings of competence, belonging, usefulness, and optimism.