Psychology students help youth overcome behavioral problems by explaining brain development

By:    Date: 08-27-2014

Through PY 639 Advanced Child Practicum and externships, UA students assist teens, pre-teens and their families by focusing on positive actions.

ARTICLE BY TAYLOR VEAZEY  |  PHOTO BY SHANNON AUVIL

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For Liz Adams, the day-to-day difficulties of working with troubled youth can be challenging. Adams, a fourth-year graduate student in the child clinical psychology program, has spent the last year and a half volunteering at The University of Alabama’s Disruptive Behavior Clinic. She said one particular case reaffirmed her career decision.

“The change from the first session to the last one was so tremendous,” Adams said. “He came in so angry and aggressive, and at the end a whole new person was sitting in front of me. It solidified that this is exactly what I want to do.”

Teens and pre-teens in west Alabama are referred to the UA Disruptive Behavior Clinic by the juvenile court system, usually for domestic violence issues, or by community sources. Kids attend mandatory weekly sessions for nine weeks, but families sometimes opt to continue therapy longer.

Five to eight UA students enrolled in PY 639 Advanced Child Practicum work at the DBC every semester. Each student conducts therapy sessions for approximately three
hours per week.

Graduate psychology students also gain internship credits and required therapy hours by participating in externships at the Alabama Department of Youth Services’ facility in Birmingham, Ala. Boys ages 12 to 18 are adjudicated for criminal offenses and can have serious behavioral problems. Two UA students spend 20 hours per week externing at the DYS facility every semester, and UA students treat 60 to 70 youth there each year.

At both the DYS facility and the Disruptive Behavior Clinic, students use an innovative treatment method developed by Randy Salekin, UA psychology professor and PY 639 instructor. The system teaches children about their brains, explaining what leads them to act impulsively and irrationally. This deflects initial focus from what they’re doing wrong.

Students then explain brain plasticity and how kids can help regulate emotions while
their brains are still developing. Salekin says this therapy is more effective at reaching troubled youth than typical methods such as empathy training or strict discipline. Treatments were tested at the Disruptive Behavior Clinic before UA’s partnership with DYS.

Adams said the children students work with often are misunderstood. “These kids are really great kids,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t think that when they hear about a disruptive child. It’s a way to give kids a good new start.”

Adams said beginning sessions are educational, with children learning the scientific makeup of the brain and how their experiences and choices can affect the way it forms. Kids usually enjoy these sessions, she said. “They learn they’ve got control over their life and choices,” Adams said.

Students then encourage children to form a plan aimed at relationships, education, career and athletics – with a common theme of improvement.

Adams said relational problems within families are typical, so kids are taught different ways to communicate and negotiate with parents and other family members. Parents are sometimes involved in the sessions too, so the parent and child learn to solve problems together.

“We teach them about decisions and consequences in a positive way,” Adams said. “Not things they’ve done ‘wrong.’ We want the focus to be on the future. We ask, ‘What do you want, and how can we get there?’”

Adams said she appreciates the opportunity to work at the DBC because such experience is rare in other psychology programs. “I learn new skills and how to handle new types of problems, and also learn a little about the legal side of issues,” Adams said. “It is a heightened experience and a serious caseload. But you further yourself as a therapist.”

Students in the practicum course attend weekly classes to discuss their cases and plans. Salekin said this helps them stay on target.

Salekin became interested in helping children with conduct disorders as a graduate student. While working at a detention facility, he realized there were not many good treatment options for those kids, and he wanted to think of better ones.

“Many of our clients will say, “You don’t understand my neighborhood’ or ‘You don’t understand my gang,’” Salekin said. “We’ve given them decision-making tips and challenge them to think, ‘Is that your only option?’ It gets them to think about things, and our hope is that it translates into their environments with parents and peers.”

Alesia Allen, treatment coordinator for the Department of Youth Services, said the presence of UA students enhances the services DYS provides. “We are afforded the opportunity to have access to bright people who add to our service delivery systems,” Allen said. “The students receive valuable experience as well as provide fresh eyes in our service to young people.”

Heather Britnell, a recent psychology doctoral graduate, spent the 2011-2012 school year externing at the DYS facility. She helped treat groups of six to eight boys at a time, reaching a total of 30. “Most of them are dealing with anger and frustration and
need to build self-esteem and confidence,” Britnell said. “We encourage them to think about what their future looks like when they leave there.”

Britnell now works with children at a community-based health center. She said the experience at the DYS facility allowed her to apply and practice her skills in a way no classroom activity could.

Meghann Sallee, a fourth-year graduate student working at the DBC, said she enjoys getting to motivate children and parents who have experienced a lot of negativity and may have hit their limit because nothing seems to be working. “Even though in the midst of the process, it didn’t look like it would work, by the end there was a huge transformation,”
she said. “They’re so proud. They get a certificate and feel like they’ve accomplished something; and they have.”

Sallee said she feels lucky to see the impact she is having on people’s lives.
“I am typically research oriented,” she said. “I enjoy doing it and collecting data. But to see actual lives and relationships transform – it’s hard to put words to that. It’s incredible.”

For more information about PY 639 Advanced Child Practicum or psychology externships at the Alabama Department of Youth Services in Birmingham, contact Randy Salekin at 205-348-6619 or rsalekin@as.ua.edu.