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Communication Matters

Helping Students Seek Positive Teams

By Rivka I. Olley, Colin Tozer, & Ericka Levy

Anthropology, sociology, and psychology chronicle the importance of people working together, from the earliest days, for survival. Our ancestors banded together to form groups to access safety and resources (hunting and gathering food), and in doing so created simple communities that later became larger and more diverse groups. Communities and groups used teamwork to ensure that all members thrived. Teams require participants to have trust, tolerance, reciprocity, and common goals and beliefs. A community or team is not always harmonious and may have factions that need to negotiate or conflicts that need to be resolved; however, they all have one thing in common: working together to achieve a shared goal or objective.

This year's theme for School Psychology Awareness Week is We're all in! Teams work. As noted above, when we think about teams, we usually imagine a group of people bound together for a common purpose such as sports teams, or a work team where several people come together to complete a specific task. Of course, all groups are not necessarily teams, because a team requires that the members work together to maximize each other's strengths and minimize each other's weaknesses.

During adolescence, it becomes apparent that students begin to separate from their parents and establish their own identity, seeking out other people and groups with whom to identify. For most teenagers, the transition to new teams (their friends, classmates, and teammates) is without difficulty. However, for some adolescents the transition is more like a rebellion and may lead to conflicts. They may gravitate to gangs to find friendship, identity, protection, emotional support, and a sense of belonging. The National Crime Prevention Council (2012) writes that:

One of the chief reasons [students join gangs] is alienation from key socializing institutions, especially families and schools. The lack of good socializing influences can result in rebelliousness and antisocial behavior, including vandalism, the use of alcohol and drugs, precocious sexual behavior, and violent crime. Delinquent behavior can predispose children to membership in gangs. Moreover, many children who join gangs are seeking a place where they are accepted socially … and have protection … respect, money, and because a friend, romantic interest, or family member is in a gang or has been in one. (p. 14)

Sometimes it feels like an overwhelming task to think about how families, schools, and the community can help all of our children to become aware of, and belong to positive organizations such as athletic teams and after-school clubs. As school psychologists, we are in an excellent position to use our knowledge of child development by communicating with adult stakeholders about children's needs as they move into adolescence. We must use our professional advocacy skills to help schools, families, and the greater community to provide positive outlets that allow young people to work together effectively and collaboratively in teams. Gangs offer students relationships, attachment, resources, protection, and safety much like the school and family, but with more negative outcomes.

In School Testing

School psychologists have specific knowledge to share with teachers, administrators, and parents about child development and the relationship of identity formation to belongingness, with the issue of team membership in the forefront. It is essential that schools create academic and social opportunities that are reflective of student interest in order to increase student engagement in positive teams. School psychologists can facilitate student engagement in activities that lead to greater involvement socially and academically by:

  • Providing workshops to help teachers understand the difference between a typical or a troubled teenager (e.g., the American Psychiatric Foundation's Typical or Troubled Program).
  • Creation of clubs that reflect student interests (e.g., a mobile apps club).
  • Teacher involvement in after-school clubs
  • Modeling inclusion and acceptance of all students.
  • Development of gender-specific clubs that have also shown to produce positive identity with school.
  • Involvement of all adults working in schools, such as school resource officers (school police), secretaries, maintenance personnel, and others.
  • Developing gang resistance and training programs for staff, administrators, parents, community partners, and students.
  • Promoting emotional and social competencies through teachers modeling appropriate responses (beyond sending the student to the main office) to students even in the face of inappropriate behavior or language.
  • Creation of teacher–student small group communities to encourage association with a positive, academically oriented team.

At Home

School psychologists are in a perfect position to bring together families (who are teams, too) and school teams to understand why students may seek out gang membership. Partnering with social workers, school counselors, school resource officers, and community-based partners helps to provide avenues that assist the student in moving toward more positive school- and home-based activities. Research shows that when parents and schools bond together, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, show more positive attitudes, and associate with more positive peers. School programs that include strong parent involvement are more effective. Activities to assist families could include:

  • Drug and alcohol education for parents and teachers regarding identification of students who are involved in use or abuse, and knowing the difference and where to seek help, including what is available through the school system.
  • Connecting families with community agencies to help with financial stress, lack of medical care, transportation, and other daily stress that can negatively affect the adults and the children, leading to identification with a gang that provides a more stable, though negative, environment.
  • Working with family members to address the family's involvement in gangs, which is affecting their child's identification with the gang and the ability of the child to progress academically.

In the Community

The literature in education and school psychology is clear in noting that schools must have a working relationship with the parents of the children attending the school and the community that it serves. School psychologists are knowledgeable about building relationships and partnerships with families and the community and can, therefore, help develop more positive teams.

School–community partnerships can weave together a critical mass of resources and strategies to enhance caring communities that support all youth and their families and enable success at school and beyond. Comprehensive partnerships represent a promising direction for generating essential interventions to address barriers to learning, enhance healthy development, and strengthen families and neighborhoods. (UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, p. ii)

School psychologists can assist students by working with all stakeholders and by:

  • Encouraging outreach by school staff with the Police Athletic League (PAL) centers, religious organizations, and agencies that are not directly school-affiliated.
  • Encouraging business to hire students or provide internships, thereby providing a positive team for the student.
  • Developing positive sports leagues that are inclusive of all students.
  • Working with after-school agencies to develop positive team programs.
  • Helping to find funding for after-school teen centers staffed by teachers and other community-based groups.


Melaville and Blank (1998) wrote, “One of the most important, cross-cutting social policy perspectives to emerge in recent years is an awareness that no single institution can create all the conditions that young people need to flourish” (p. 21). This continues to be true and school psychologists can help in many ways to guide students into membership in positive teams through our training and knowledge about child development, partnering with parents and the community, and the relationships we build with our students. Consultation with teachers provides an excellent time to engage them in the efforts to be more inclusive and engaged in the life of the students they teach. When we work with all the stakeholders, We are all in! Teams work.


National Crime Prevention Council, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice (http://www.ncpc.org)

National Gang Center, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov)

UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools (http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu)

Center for School Mental Health, the University of Maryland (http://csmh.umaryland.edu)

National Association of School Psychologists (http://www.nasponline.org)


Melaville, A., & Blank, M. J. (1998). Learning together: The developing field of school–community initiatives. Flint, MI: Mott Foundation. Retrieved from UCLA Center for Mental Health, http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu

National Crime Prevention Council. (2012). Keeping kids cool and comfortable and out of gangs [2012–2013 Crime Prevention Month Kit]. Retrieved from http://www.ncpc.org/programs/crime-prevention-month/crime-prevention-month-kits

UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools. (n.d.). School–community partnerships: A guide. Retrieved from http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/guides/schoolcomm.pdf

Rivka I. Olley, PhD, NCSP, is the supervisor of psychological services for the Baltimore City Public Schools. Colin Tozer, NCSP, and Ericka Levy, PhD, are school psychologists in the Baltimore City Public Schools.