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LIU Brooklyn’s Lisa Samstag Conducting “Dream” Research in Manhattan School

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Call it a dream come true. Lisa Samstag does.

In discussing her current work with the High School of Fashion Industries (HSFI) in Manhattan, the Professor of Psychology and Director of Psychotherapy Research at LIU Brooklyn’s Conolly College of Liberal Arts and Sciences regarded the program as an ideal combination of research and service, with real results and impact on the lives of at-risk students in one of New York City’s most competitive high schools. 

“This is really my dream,” Samstag said, “when I started at LIU 18 years ago, that we would have the ability to integrate clinical skills with research, and apply it to real world problems. We identified this problem: here’s a school where they have kids who aren’t doing well, and all the things the school has in place weren’t really doing enough. Our clinical expertise can be really useful in helping some kids who hadn’t made use of the supports that were already in the school.”

Samstag and her students are applying techniques developed at Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence to their work at the 76-year-old high school, seeking to both improve outcomes for struggling students in the school and draw conclusions that can improve education across the country.

“We have been working at applying the skills in the high school,” Samstag said, “working both with teachers to create classroom environments that are conducive to social-emotional learning, and also to working with individual high school students who are at risk for academic failure, and applying these skills to help them increase well being and achievement at school.”

The principles behind Samstag’s work with three students from LIU Brooklyn’s Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology were formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when researchers began to study the relationship between cognition and emotion. Yale professors developed the RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating feelings) program, and used it as the basis for research, much of which took place in work with students at a boarding school in New Hampshire.

The principles are also applied at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, and when HSFI principal Daryl Blank expressed interest in applying the techniques in his school, a partnership with LIU Brooklyn was born. In working with HSFI students, Samstag and her students encounter a different set of circumstances than the Yale researchers have in New Hampshire.

“We’ve been struck by the amount of stress that these kids are living with,” Samstag said. The guidance departments, they’re pretty tapped out. They can really use help from people like us, who can offer our clinical expertise, and really understand what it means to come from a family where there are too many people living in the same apartment, or Dad is coming and going, and how this impacts students and their capacity for learning. If you don’t have a place to study at home and do homework, that makes it really hard to do well at school. We have the opportunity to talk to these kids and here more about the things that they’re struggling with, things that guidance counselors don’t have time to do.“

It also offers Samstag and her team the opportunity to study how the Yale principles apply in a different environment. Where Yale’s team found that perseverance, or “grit,” was not a reliable predictor of academic success for students in New Hampshire, Samstag and her team may find it more important for the students they work with at HSFI.

“In a place like Manhattan and the High School of Fashion Industries,” Samstag said, “grit may function very differently. For those kids who do have this ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming adversity, these are going to be the kids who end up doing well. It’s interesting to think about how these social-emotional variables might function differently depending on who the kid is, or the school, the context.”

Depending on the results, the conclusions Samstag and her students reach could have far-reaching impact.

“Depending on what the research shows,” Samstag said, “in-class interventions could be developed. Teachers can be alerted to the fact that variables like emotional intelligence, recognizing feelings, and how feelings connect to thoughts can be integrated into the classroom.”

If that happens, Lisa Samstag likely won’t be the only one realizing a dream.

Posted 06/05/2017

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