LaVome Robinson is proving the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” in her work with African-American adolescents in Chicago.

Backed by a  five-year grant of nearly $3 million from the National Institutes of Health, the professor of psychology is making a difference in the lives of at-risk teens through an intervention program—Success over Stress (S.O.S.)—which gives them skills in reducing stress, anxiety and aggression. S.O.S. includes 15 weekly group sessions during which the students learn to identify stress, understand its symptoms and causes, and manage it with a range of strategies.

“We give them strategies they can put in action—problem-solving strategies, relaxation strategies, thought-stopping strategies, and alternative-thinking strategies—so they can gain some control,” says Robinson.  “By the end of the sessions, the teens can monitor their stress levels day-to-day, put a strategy in place when they need to, and generally maintain their equilibrium.”

Robinson and her research partner, Leonard Jason, designed S.O.S. to work for these kids, in this place, at this time. “The life of an African-American child in Chicago is radically different from the life of a white child in Chicago and even of an African-American child in other cities” says Robinson. “Yes, like other kids they worry about their grades or about their social lives, but the biggest thing they worry about is their safety in the midst of potentially explosive situations. Generic stress reduction programs just won’t help.  So, we made sure that everything in the S.O.S. program—the identified sources of stress, the examples and case studies, the language used by the group facilitators—is relevant to these specific teens.”
 
“The first year of the grant we went through the curriculum, point by point, asking groups of kids to evaluate the materials,” adds Jason, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Community Research. “Lots of researchers just ‘parachute’ programs into communities. What we did—making sure the program’s content and delivery really fit with these teens—almost never happens. But that makes all the difference; that makes S.O.S. powerful and productive.”

Over the course of the study, nearly 350 ninth-grade students will participate in S.O.S. “Just as they need to be prepared for mathematics, or prepared for geometry, they need to learn how to navigate the social and emotional challenges that teens face every day,” Jason explains. The weekly sessions are staffed by professionals with advanced degrees and by DePaul graduate and undergraduate student volunteers. Rigorous before-and-after assessments pinpoint what’s working and what’s not.

Group leaders say they can see the difference in the young high schoolers early on.

“They start with bad attitudes and end up open and attentive,” says Collette Gregory, a group leader who has an MA in psychology from Columbia University, New York. “It’s a big deal for them to be able to identify the sources of stress they can control. By the end of the program, they’re able to talk about themselves and their feelings, and they’re happy about that.”
 
“The intervention decreases the teens’ ideations about hurting themselves and others,” adds LaTrice Wright, a facilitator with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northwestern University. “These kids experience so much, and it’s not enough to tell them, ‘everything’s going to be okay.’ They’re taking in the materials; they’re engaged in the activities. The kids in my group say ‘I really love Wednesdays, it’s my favorite day of the week’—that’s the day we meet.”

Christopher Whipple, a facilitator who has an MA in Community Psychology from DePaul and is currently in DePaul’s PhD program, echoes that sentiment:  “So far, I’m getting great feedback from the kids, and I love making a difference.” Jane Kemp (BA ’15) agrees:  “I was surprised at how much the students want to learn the stress management techniques and use them in their daily lives. Each session has a real, positive energy.”

The program also benefits DePaul student volunteers, as Whipple says: “Working in this program gives them valuable career experience.”  Kemp calls her participation in S.O.S. “an opportunity for hands-on research,” adding that it has inspired her to become a school psychologist and to focus on intervention science in graduate school.

“CPS has said to us ‘this is great!’ because the teachers and administrators recognize the relationship between stress management and academic performance,” says Robinson. “Everyone would like to bring this program to scale: We’d love to work with every ninth grader in Chicago. That’s our long-term hope.”