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School Social Work in Charter Schoolslocked

  • David DupperDavid DupperUniversity of Tennessee at Knoxville
  •  and Aubrey JonesAubrey JonesUniversity of Tennessee at Knoxville


Charter schools were founded as a new kind of public school that valued integration, autonomy, and innovation. However, the overall performance of charter schools has been mixed. While positive findings related to the performance of charter schools have been reported, a number of controversial issues and practices involving charter schools have also been identified in the literature. As the number of charter schools continues to grow, the demand for school social work practice in charter schools will also increase. Since a major focus of school social work practice is serving and advocating for at-risk students and their families, this article highlights several issues that have particular relevance for school social work practice serving at-risk students and their families in charter schools and proposes interventions designed to assist at-risk students and their families. These issues are: assisting parents of at-risk students with the application process, advocating for practices to enhance the long-term academic achievement of at-risk students, and equipping at-risk students with skills to meet the behavioral demands of “no excuses” charter schools.

Overview of Charter School Movement

Charter schools date back to the 1980s when Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposed a new kind of public school that valued teacher voice, integration, accountability, autonomy, and innovation (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014). Minnesota’s legislature passed the first charter law in 1991, and the first charter school opened in 1992 (Crutchfield & Teasley, 2016).

Charter schools are schools of choice that are publicly funded but free from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools (Gleason, 2016). They do not charge tuition. Although they are publicly funded, the US Census Bureau classifies them as private schools because they are privately managed (Bankston et al., 2013). Parents, educators, community groups, universities, or private organizations manage charter schools (Berends, 2015). Charter schools usually challenge standard education practices and sometimes specialize in a particular area, such as technology or the arts, or adopt a basic core-subjects approach. Some charter schools specifically target gifted or high-risk kids. They usually have smaller classes and offer more individual attention than conventional public schools (Child & Family Development, 2016) One of the original hopes for charter schools was that they would “serve as a sort of educational laboratory. Without the oversight and regulations of traditional public-school districts, charter schools would be free to innovate and test out new ideas” (Gleason, 2016, p. 1).

As of the 2015–2016 school year, more than 6,800 charter schools served nearly three million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia (Gleason, 2016). Over half of current charter schools are located in urban areas: one-fifth in suburban areas and the remainder located in rural/small towns (Berends, 2015). The vast majority of current charter schools (88%) do not have teacher unions (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools [NACPS], 2013). According to the NAPCS (2014), California (1,065 charter schools), Arizona (534), Florida (576), Ohio (374), Texas (280), and Michigan (276) are the leading states for number of charter schools.

Many public charters, backed by state law, specialize in serving low-income and minority children. Some of the best-known charter networks targeting low-income and minority children are the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Yes Prep, Green Dot, and Success Academy (Simon, 2013). Proponents argue that charter schools have several advantages over traditional public schools in serving racially and economically diverse students. For example, charter schools can be located in a geographical area that is convenient for at-risk students and their families (Bankston et al., 2013), as well as providing these students and families with an opportunity to transfer out of traditional public schools where they have had a history of failure (Ravitch, 2013).

A Mixed Record of Success

How do charter schools compare to traditional public schools? The results are decidedly mixed (see the Method Schools blog).

Ravitch (2010) summed it up this way: “In terms of quality, charter schools run the gamut. Some are excellent, some are dreadful, and most are somewhere in between” (p. 138). Charter schools have also been described as “an oasis from the entrapment of local public schools” as well as schools with “major internal problems that lead to closure because of lack of contractual fulfillment” (Drew, n.d.) This mixed record of success is borne out by a number of reports. While a 2006 report concluded that “there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools out-perform regular public schools” (Nelson, Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel, & Rothstein, 2005, p. 2), a more recent study conducted in 2015 concluded that “the overall performance of charter school students relative to demographically similar district students is mixed, and the results vary considerably among and within states” (Miron, Mathis, & Welner, 2015, p. 8). A 2009 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University reported several positive findings related to the performance of charter schools. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2009) found that:

Students do better in charter schools over time. While first-year charter school students on average experienced a decline in learning, students in their second and third years in charter schools saw a significant reversal, experiencing positive achievement gains.

Charter schools had a larger and more positive effect for low-income students than for similar students in traditional public schools.

English-language learner students reported significantly better gains in charter schools compared with similar students in traditional public schools;

Special education students showed similar results as their traditional public-school peers.

In an effort to identify factors that accounted for their effectiveness, Dobbie and Fryer (2013) conducted an extensive study of 35 charter schools in New York City. The charter schools in their sample comprised charter schools emphasizing the social and emotional needs of the “whole child” through wraparound services and parental engagement, schools focusing solely on the selection and retention of teacher talent, and those employing a “No Excuses” model. They found that a number of factors were important predictors of school effectiveness, regardless of a charter school’s overarching educational philosophy. Gleason (2016) also examined the effects of charter schools on student learning and achievement in an effort to identify characteristics that distinguish good charter schools from bad ones. His findings were consistent with those identified by Dobbie and Fryer as important predictors of successful charter schools. They found that the most successful charter schools: (1) provide their teachers with frequent feedback and coaching on their instructional practices; (2) had longer school days, school years, or both; (3) use data to guide teachers’ instructional practices; (4) are far more likely to offer high-dosage tutoring (i.e., tutoring groups involving six or fewer students and that meet four or more times per week); (5) prioritize the objective of boosting students’ academic achievement above other possible educational objectives; and (6) hold high expectations for student behavior and strictly enforce their rules consistently across the entire school.

Controversial Issues Involving Charter Schools

In addition to highlighting factors associated with successful charter schools, it is important to note that a number of controversial issues and practices involving charter schools have been identified in the literature. This section will highlight those issues that most directly impact the provision of school social work services in charter schools. Since a major focus of school social work practice is serving and advocating for at-risk students and their families, we focus primarily on issues impacting the school success of at-risk and minority students in public charter schools. We highlight findings from a number of empirical studies, including a critical analysis of claims made in Miron, Mathis, and Welner (2015).

Critics have charged that charter schools are skimming off the best students from traditional public schools. Based on our findings, it appears that standalone charters, which account for more than half the total in the United States, utilize an application process to help ensure a homogeneous set of higher-performing students (Welner, 2013).

Since children with special needs are often more costly and difficult to educate, they are enrolled at lower percentages in charter schools as compared to traditional public schools (Arcia, 2006). Anecdotal research suggests that charter school personnel have discouraged caregivers from enrolling their severe special needs child in the charter school: often by suggesting the school is unable to meet the needs of the child (Ahearn, 2001; Arcia, 2006; Estes, 2009; NCTI, 2011). Since charter schools may face closure if their students perform poorly on standardized tests, students’ performance on academic tests can create a powerful incentive for schools to exclude low-testing students, which often includes students with special needs (Howe & Welner, 2002).

Stephanie Simon of Reuters described a number of ways these charter schools use the application process to “get the students they want” and “make it tough for students who struggle with disability, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives to even get into the lottery” (Simon, 2013). According to Simon (2013), these steps include: applications made available for only a few hours per year; lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations, and medical records; demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered (even though such documents cannot be required under federal law); and mandatory family interviews. The following case is a good example of how a cumbersome and complex application process can be used to “cherry pick” the best students. This case focuses on the Preuss School at the University of California at San Diego, which has earned a reputation as one of the best charters in the United States. It has been hailed by Newsweek magazine as a “miracle high school.”

It serves only low-income students whose parents don't have a four-year college degree. Yet within that demographic, the school screens aggressively for aptitude, drive and parental support. The 23-page application requires students to hand-write a long essay and several short-answer questions. They must submit a graded writing sample from their old school, and then explain what they learned from the assignment and how they could have done better. They must provide three recommendations. And their parents must respond to a page of questions, including: “Describe what type of service you will contribute to this school. Please be specific.” If they don’t speak English, parents are asked to secure help from a translator . . . Applying this past fall for a seat for her 11-year-old daughter, Villanueva, who speaks little English, couldn’t understand some of the parent questions and was afraid she would disqualify her daughter with clumsy responses. She turned to staff at her daughter's after-school program to guide her through, line by line. To her joy, her daughter got in. “Thank God I had the help,” Villanueva said. “If I was on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

(Simon, 2013)

However, it must be noted that charter schools that specialize in serving low-income and minority children (i.e., Knowledge is Power Program-KIPP, Yes Prep, Green Dot, and Success Academy), as well as most for-profit charter school chains, use simple application forms that ask little more than name, grade, and contact information (Simon, 2013).

Critics have also charged that charter schools “push out” underperforming students through strict discipline policies and practices including suspension & expulsion. Much of this controversy centers upon the discipline practices within “No Excuses” charter schools. “No Excuses” charter schools are often concentrated in low-income communities of color and operate under the assumption that poverty is “no excuse” for failing schools (Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014). While “No Excuses” charter schools are distinguished by an intensive focus on basic reading and math skills, frequent testing, a culture of college preparation, high standardized test scores, parental pledges of involvement, frequent data-driven assessment, and dramatically increased instructional time through an extended school-day and year (Dobbie & Fryer, 2013), our discussion will focus on a number of controversial discipline practices implemented in “No Excuses” charter schools. Discipline policies and practices in “No Excuses” charter schools are highly rule-based and regulated, and there are no excuses for noncompliance. A central “No Excuses” premise, explicit in all handbooks, contends that “students’ academic success, always the primary goal, is dependent on erecting a highly rule-ordered and regulated environment . . . enforced through continuous streams of reinforcements and penalties” (Goodman, 2013, p. 89). It is assumed that

not a moment of the day can be ‘wasted’ . . . any time off task is time squandered . . . moments of mental wandering, even when the child is silent, are wasted . . . children, without exception, should demonstrate 100% compliance 100% of the time . . . there are no excuses for noncompliance, for every second counts.

(Goodman, 2013, p. 90)

Not surprisingly, some at-risk children have a difficult time adjusting to the behavioral expectations of this highly rule-ordered and regulated environment. For example, Taylor (2015) described the experiences of a kindergarten student at Success Academy charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn:

She racked up demerits for not following directions or not keeping her hands folded in her lap. Sometimes, after being chastised, she threw tantrums. She was repeatedly suspended for screaming, throwing pencils, running away from school staff members or refusing to go to another classroom for a timeout.

Carr (2014) examined the behavioral expectations and consequences for misbehavior as outlined in parent-teacher handbooks from several “No Excuses” charter schools in New Orleans comprising predominantly minority students. Based on this review, Carr contends that the administrators and teachers in these schools “share an aversion to even minor signs of disorder” and defend their intensively regimented discipline policies by stating that they are preparing their students for college, many of them first-generation college aspirants.

Based on information found in parent-student handbooks in three charter schools in Philadelphia (Knowledge is Power Program-KIPP, Mastery, and Young Scholars), as well as visits to classrooms in these charters, Goodman (2013) provided a number of ways in which various rewards and sanctions are implemented in these schools. Students receive demerits “for chewing gum, being out of uniform, being unprepared for class, using a cell phone, or not having the card in one’s possession (four demerits). And the accumulation of four demerits results in a Saturday detention” (p. 91). For accumulating points, students are rewarded with trips and access to special events. At another school, students receive a weekly paycheck of $50 and deductions are made for violations of core values, or PATH (Professional, Attentive, Thoughtful, and Hardworking), “as well as for violating the behavioral codes (i.e., stand and sit straight, make good choices, always 100% on task and engaged, respect, track the speaker, shine)” (p. 91). Shaming is also used for infractions including having to wear

a special distinguishable shirt and spending the day in silence, neither speaking nor being addressed; being required to eat separately and silently; stand in the back of the classroom during lessons; or write 50 times over, ‘I will work and behave in the best way I know how and do whatever it takes for me and my fellow students to learn.’

(David et al., 2006, p. 14).

Based on these examples from numerous “No Excuses” charter schools, it appears that the type of instruction utilized in these schools requires “very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told” (see the related blog post). Losen, Keith, Hodson, and Martinez (2016) contend that these “harsh, highly rule-ordered and regulated discipline practices can do academic harm that is not reflected in test scores” (p. 9). Based on 18 months of fieldwork and interviews with 92 students, teachers, and administrators, Golann (2015) argued that “these schools’ highly prescriptive disciplinary practices, while arguably contributing to their academic success, have unintended consequences for students. As students learn to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority, they are not encouraged to develop the proactive skills needed to navigate the more flexible expectations of college and the workplace. “No Excuses” schools thus promote academic achievement while reinforcing inequality in cultural skills. These findings suggest that what works for academic achievement may not coincide with what works for students’ success in later life stages” (pp. 112–113).

Beyond rewards, sanctions, and shaming, there are concerns about the impact of school exclusion practices (i.e., suspensions and expulsions) on groups of at-risk students in “No Excuses” charter schools. While many effective charter schools reserve suspension as a measure of last resort (Losen, Keith, Hodson, & Martinez, 2016), there is evidence that when suspensions are used, children of color and children with disabilities are suspended in disproportionate numbers compared to white students. Based upon their review of suspension rates involving children of color and children with disabilities in charter schools, Dudley-Marling and Baker (2012) reported that more than 500 charter schools suspended black charter students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for white charter students and that 235 charter schools suspended more than 50% of their enrolled students with disabilities. Repeated suspensions can result in a downward spiral for at-risk students that results in greater numbers of pushouts and youth getting into trouble with the law (Carr, 2014). There is also a possibility that implicit racial bias is a contributing factor in discipline disparities in charter schools “where Black suspension rates are high and/or disproportionate.” (Losen, Keith, Hodson, & Martinez, 2016, p. 17). A recent Stanford University study on teachers’ implicit bias found that when teachers reviewing a description of an unknown student’s misbehavior were told the behavior was the second occurrence, they were likely to recommend harsher discipline if the repeated offense was associated with the name of a black student than when it was associated with the name of a white student, despite the fact that the written descriptions were identical except for the name of the student (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015). Further review of this research should be evaluated among charter school providers. Further information about identifying bias will be discussed below.

Implications and Recommendations for School Social Work Practice in Charter Schools

As of 2012, it was estimated that more than 1,400 social workers practice in charter schools across the United States and that 1,150 were full time and 380 were part-time employees (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [ED, NCES], 2012). As the number of charter schools continues to grow, the demand for school social work practice in charter schools will also increase.

Charter schools have been referred to as “education’s best hope” (Wallis, 1994) due to the freedom they allow educators. For example, charter schools offer educators a unique opportunity to experiment with the curriculum, administrative and organizational structure, staff flexibility, and parent involvement. As a result of this freedom, charter schools have reported successful outcomes with more diverse students (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2009), engaging students in both rural and urban settings (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2009), parents reporting higher satisfaction with class size and quality of teaching (Manno et al., 1998) and higher rates of students attending college after graduation (Zimmer et al., 2009). Charter schools are rising in popularity and are “favored by two out of three Americans” (Bushaw & McNee, 2009, p. 13). While a number of charter schools have experienced great success, the mixed results of some charter schools make it difficult to make positive claims across charter schools in general. Since a major focus of school social work practice is serving and advocating for at-risk students and their families, we focus primarily on the potential opportunities and barriers awaiting school social workers in addressing the needs of at-risk students and their families in charter schools.

Based on factors that have been shown to be associated with successful charter schools as well as factors found to be detrimental to the success of at-risk students in charter schools, this section highlights several issues that have particular relevance for school social work practice serving at-risk students and their families in charter schools and propose interventions designed to assist at-risk students and their families. These issues are: assisting parents of at-risk students with the application process; advocating for practices to enhance the long-term academic achievement of at-risk students; and equipping at-risk students with skills to meet the behavioral demands of “No Excuses” charter schools.

Assisting Parents of At-Risk Students with the Application Process

While charter schools that specialize in serving low-income and minority children use simple application forms that ask little more than name, grade, and contact information, some parents and guardians of at-risk students may have a difficult time completing the application process, especially if English is not their first language or if they have limited English fluency. School social workers may assist parents of at-risk students in completing the application process, as well as advocating for simplifying the application process. The application process requires that parents be organized and English speaking and have the time to devote to complete the application process, which may be especially difficult for poor single-parent families. Social workers should be made available to assist prospective families with the application process. Social workers can advocate for simple applications that require little information and reflect applications often used within charter schools that serve low-income and minority children. Linguistically appropriate applications for the community should be made available and is consistent with standard nine of the NASW School Social Work Standards that states “School social workers shall ensure that students and their families are provided services within the context of multicultural understanding and competence” (National Association of Social Workers, 2012).

School social workers should assist the parents and guardians of children with special needs in addressing enrollment barriers. Since the 1970s Federal disability laws have continued to evolve to ensure that children with disabilities benefit from and have access to public education and instruction for all children (Mead, 2008). Mead states:

Section 504 and the ADA require that educational programs be operated free from discrimination on the basis on disability. Idea provides funds to assist states to accomplish this task and lays out procedural framework by which schools must identify each child with a disability, determine the child’s unique needs and provide whatever special education and related services are necessary to make available a free appropriate public education. [FAPE] (p. 2).

Charter schools are obligated to fulfill this responsibility as much as TPS (Ahearn, Giovannetti, Lange, Rhim, & Warren, 2004). Several studies have shown that charter schools may not always be provided with necessary guidance about enrolling students with special needs and may lack the resources and support needed to properly train, prepare, and fund special education in their school (Arcia, 2006; Estes, 2009; Mead, 2008; NCTI, 2011; Rhim Ahearn, & Lange, 2007). School social workers play a key role in addressing these issues by educating school staff on special needs policies, advocating for services to meet the needs of these students, and advocating for an inclusive school environment.

Advocating for Practices to Enhance the Long-Term Academic Achievement of At-Risk Students

There is evidence that low-income students and English-language learner students enrolled in charter schools perform better academically compared to similar students in traditional public schools over time (CREDO, 2009). While first-year charter school students on average experienced a decline in learning, students in their second and third years in charter schools saw a significant reversal, experiencing positive achievement gains (CREDO, 2009). A number of factors were important predictors of school effectiveness, regardless of a charter school’s overarching educational philosophy. Several of these factors have direct implications for school social work practice: (1) frequent feedback and coaching for teachers, and (2) “high-dosage” tutoring for students.

Even if a teacher learns the effective curriculum, methods, materials, and strategies to work with students, it is likely these skills may not transfer to the classroom (Scheeler, Ruhl, & McAfee, 2004). There are several explanations for why this may be so (Gersten, Morvant, & Brengleman, 1995) that makes feedback and coaching of teachers essential to the learning environment. Joyce and Showers (2002) found that teachers who were able to transfer their new knowledge in five ways, including the implementation of strategies more often than their un-coached counterparts. Additionally, coached teachers were able to adapt the strategies they learned to meet their goals, whereas un-coached teachers were not as successful (Joyce & Showers, 2002). Other such research has noted the effectiveness of peer coaching to help teachers develop new techniques and transfer of techniques (Gingiss, 1993; Showers, 1987; Swafford, 1998). With this in mind, school should seek to support their teachers by providing helpful feedback and learning opportunities through coaching. This may be an area in which school social workers can coach teachers in de-escalation techniques and other useful skills.

The “high-dosage” tutoring curriculum utilized by many “No Excuse” charter schools have allowed children to gain mastery in areas where they had otherwise struggled (Fryer, 2012). This program removes the negative connotation generally associated with tutoring, by providing all children with a tutor instead of ostracizing the children who need extra instruction. To accompany this innovative approach, the schools have developed an intensive recruiting process for hiring teachers and mentors (Fryer, 2012). Teachers are generally hired based on previous records of effectiveness and are required to attend personalized professional development classes throughout the school year (Fryer, 2011). The eleventh standard of the NASW School Social Work Standards emphasizes the importance of social workers advocating equality in academic progress for all students. This includes advocating for the most effective teaching methods for all students.

Equipping At-Risk Students with Skills to Meet the Behavioral Demands of “No Excuses” Charter Schools

Beyond helping to enroll students in charter schools, school social workers also need to ensure that at-risk students exhibit the necessary skills to meet the behavioral and academic demands of the highly structured environment of “no excuses” charter schools. Since many at-risk students already have a difficult time adjusting to the behavioral demands of the traditional public-school setting, this difficulty will only be compounded given the highly rule-ordered and regulated environment of “No Excuses” charter schools where students must do whatever they are told and where sanctions and shaming may be used to regulate student behavior.

A number of factors may contribute to the problematic behavior of at-risk students. As the Adverse Childhood Experiences study has become more widely known, research on the effects of trauma on children has grown (Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, & Hamby, 2015; McLaughlin et al., 2013). According to Costello, Erkanli, Fairbank, and Angold (2002), about 25% of children and adolescents have experienced at least on traumatic event in their lives. The impact of abuse, neglect, violence, and other forms of trauma on children and youth is substantial: all areas of their lives, including school, are impacted. When a child is constantly exposed to trauma their stress levels stay high, which negatively affects the brain and puts them at risk for poor development (McEwen, 2000). Often, children who have experienced multiple traumas (complex trauma) exhibit behavioral problems, learning and memory problems, as well as a poor immune system (McEwen, 2000). Exposure to violence has been associated with host of negative outcomes such as decreased IQ and low reading ability (Delaney-Black et al., 2002), lower GPA (Hurt, Malmud, Brodsky, & Giannetta, 2001), decreased graduation rates and higher counts of school days missed (Grogger, 1997; Hurt et al., 2001). Moreover, children who experience trauma may not have adequate coping skills often resulting in externalizing behaviors (Perfect et al., 2016) often leading to misdiagnosis of operational defiant disorder or attention deficit (Black, Woodsworth, Tremblay, & Carpernter, 2012). As a result, it is important that school social workers advocate for trauma-informed practices in charter schools. A trauma-informed system is one that understands the widespread effects of trauma, recognizes the signs and symptoms, and implements policies and practices that effectively respond to those who have experienced trauma (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2014).1

The problematic behavior of at-risk students may also result from a lack of those social skills necessary to meet the demands of the school environment. In other words, there is a discrepancy between the adaptive skills that students need to survive in the school environment and those adaptive skills they currently possess (Schinke & Gilchrist, 1984). The highly structured and regulated environment of “No Excuses” charter schools present significant behavioral challenges for at-risk children and youth who may come from home environments with little to no supervision and few positive adult role models. Many at-risk children and youth have had little, if any, opportunities to learn or practice the behaviors that will be expected of them in traditional schools, let alone the highly rule-ordered, regulated, and unforgiving environment of “No Excuses” charter schools. If these students are not targeted and provided with the skills required to meet the intensive behavioral demands of this highly structured environment, many students will end up in a downward spiral of accumulating demerits, being repeatedly punished, and some even being suspended for their behavioral problems. This is a major challenge awaiting school social workers providing their services in charter schools.

Fortunately, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, carried out by classroom teachers and other school staff, have been shown to positively impact students in a number of areas critical to their success in the school setting. Social emotional learning (SEL) focuses on five competencies as outlined in the following definition: social and emotional learning is a

process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

(CASEL, 2013)

SEL programs have been shown to enhance skills, attitudes, and positive social behaviors and reduce behavior problems and levels of emotional distress (Durlak et al., 2011). In addition to equipping students with the skills required to meet the extensive demands of “No Excuses” charter schools, SEL programs have also been shown to help students engage in and benefit from instruction (Campbell, & von Stauffenberg, 2008; Casel, 2013; Denham, Brown, & Domitrovitch, 2010).2

In addition to SEL programs, Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) have been shown to be effective in helping students adapt and flourish in the demanding environment of “No Excuses” charter schools. Mindfulness has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 145). In their systematic review and meta-analysis of mindfulness-based interventions in schools, Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, and Walach (2014) reported that “mindfulness-based interventions in children and youths hold promise, particularly in relation to improving cognitive performance and resilience to stress” (p. 1). These authors examined studies that reported on the effectiveness of a number of MBI components that included breath awareness, working with thoughts and emotions, psycho-education, awareness of senses, body-scan, kindness practices, and yoga. Mindfulness practices have been shown to result in changes in the brain that correspond to less reactivity (Goldin & Gross, 2010) and an increased ability to engage in tasks even when emotions are activated (Ortner, Kilner, & Zelazo, 2007). Studies have also shown that mindfulness practices reduce feelings of stress and anxiety in stressful social situations (Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Pbert et al., 2012; Hoge et al., 2013). There is also evidence that mindfulness practices are effective in helping children who have suffered adverse childhood experiences and may experience severe reactions (e.g., sweating, nausea, terror, and immobility) to a routine classroom practice (e.g., a pop quiz) (Mindful Schools, n.d.).

Zenner et al. (2014) argued that mindfulness practices can benefit teachers as well as students in the high-stress school environments. They suggest that teachers should be trained in mindfulness and that teachers

could then promote mindfulness in their pupils through teaching mindfully, and through teaching mindfulness directly in diverse settings. For if mindfulness is to be established in a school-based framework it will have to be teachers who are the agents and ambassadors of change. This might be a good resource for teachers’ own resilience and prevention of burnout, in addition to being, very likely, the best way of delivering mindfulness in schools (p. 18).


As the number of charter schools continues to grow, the demand for school social work practice in charter schools will also increase. Given the unique demands of the charter school environment, it is important that school social workers educate themselves about the opportunities and challenges awaiting them in charter schools in their efforts to address the needs of at-risk students and their families. Since school social workers are the primary mental health providers for students and may be the only counseling professionals available to students and their families (Early & Vonk, 2001; Hennessy & Green-Hennessy, 2000; Kelly et al., 2010), it is imperative that school social workers are proactive in targeting students for help, innovative in developing interventions to meet the unique demands of this school environment, and resourceful in advocating for at-risk students and their families. We hope that this article is helpful in equipping school social workers with the knowledge and skills to begin to meet these challenges.

Additional Resources

The mission of The Center for Education Reform is to expand educational opportunities for all youth in America. The webpage is designed to be a resource for parents and educators. It provides information regarding state education opportunities as well as education information recently in the media, salient issues in education, advocacy opportunities, and more. The CER also provides the Parent Power Index—a national and statewide overview of the overall score regarding school choice, charter schools, online learning, transparency, and teacher quality to help inform parents of their options. This tool can be utilized by school social workers to better understand what options are available to individual students and is available online.

The mission of the TLPI is to ensure academic success of children who have experienced trauma. This webpage can be utilized by school social workers to further understand and identify resources for working with youth have experienced trauma. The webpage not only provides perspectives from parents, students, teachers, and principles but also several resources, examples, and publications to give the reader a holistic understanding of the trauma informed approach.

This resource offers mindfulness-based courses aimed toward educators. Also included on this webpage is further knowledge regarding the impact of mindfulness in schools and the latest research on brain development and mindfulness.


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  • 1. More information about trauma informed schools can be found online.

  • 2. Detailed information about social emotional learning and the five competencies can be found online.