RAP Club: Improving Mental Health and School Performance in Urban Eighth Graders
Purpose: In this project, researchers will evaluate the impact of RAP Club, a prevention program intended to improve skills to cope with stress and trauma and academic outcomes in low-income urban middle school students. Research has shown that chronic stress and trauma exposure negatively impact self-regulation (i.e., executive functioning, emotion regulation) and effective stress response, increasing the risk for emotional and behavioral problems and academic difficulties. However, few evidence-based programs address the mental health needs of vulnerable adolescents, and even fewer examine these issues from a universal, classroom-wide approach. The research team will test the RAP Club curriculum to determine the efficacy of a universal program in preventing the negative effects of chronic stress and trauma and improving academic outcomes for urban middle school students.
Project Activities: In this study, researchers will use a randomized control trial to study the efficacy of RAP Club on 8th grade students' mental health and academic outcomes. Intervention implementation and data collection will occur in four cohorts, testing one cohort per project year. Students in the treatment condition will receive RAP Club from their school mental health worker and a young adult community co-facilitator. Students in the control condition will receive Healthy Topics, a program designed to teach students about general health behaviors, from their school nurse or gym teacher and a young adult community co-facilitator. Students will be assessed prior to treatment, after the assigned treatment is over, and four weeks after treatment has ended. The researchers will also conduct a cost analysis to determine how much schools would have to pay to implement RAP Club.
Products: The research team will generate evidence of the efficacy of RAP Club for low-income urban middle school students. Researchers will also produce peer-reviewed publications.
Setting: This study will take place in an urban school district in Maryland.
Sample: Approximately 800 eighth grade students from 32 schools will participate in the study. Study participants are predominantly African American and come from low-income backgrounds. The sample includes both general education and special education inclusion students.
Intervention: RAP Club is a 12-session prevention program designed to promote self-regulation skills and education outcomes for upper middle school students in low-income urban settings. The intervention is adapted from Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress (SPARCS), a trauma-informed treatment that targets urban adolescents exposed to chronic stress and trauma. The main components of the intervention include cognitive behavioral therapy strategies (e.g., methods for effective communication, problem solving), mindfulness strategies (e.g., teaching awareness of emotional states, using a mindful approach), and psychoeducation (e.g. lessons about how stress and trauma affect the body). The intervention is delivered in a group format and is facilitated by school mental health professionals and young community members. Previous research on RAP Club shows evidence of promise for improving teacher-reported academic competence, classroom behavior, emotion regulation, and social competence, as well as reducing students' internalizing symptoms and conduct problems and raising academic performance.
Research Design and Methods: The research team will randomly assign 800 students to receive either the RAP Club or the Healthy Topics control intervention. RAP Club will be implemented by the school mental health worker and a young adult community co-facilitator twice a week for six weeks. Healthy Topics will be implemented by the school nurse or gym teacher and a young adult community co-facilitator twice a week for six weeks. To examine mental health and academic outcomes, student measures will be collected at baseline, immediately following the six-week intervention period, and four months after the intervention. Following the intervention, the researchers will conduct a focus group with students who participated in RAP Club at each school to explore their experiences in the program. The researchers will also conduct individual interviews with (1) one teacher whose students did not participate in RAP Club and (2) RAP Club facilitators (i.e., mental health counselors, community members) at each school to obtain further feedback on the intervention.
Control Condition: In the control condition, students will receive Healthy Topics, a 12-session health education curriculum designed by the researchers to serve as a comparison to RAP Club.
Key Measures: Direct assessments will include: the Adolescent Self-Regulatory Inventory; Emotional Awareness Questionnaire; Children's Coping Strategies Checklist; Children's Depression Inventory; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Checklist—Civilian's Version; Penn State Worry Questionnaire—Child; Exposure to Violence Scale; Life Events and Daily Hassles Scale; and a demographic form. Teachers will complete the Dysregulated Behaviors and Social-Emotional Competence components of the Self-Compassion Scale; Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire; Rating of Student Internalizing; and Academic Competence Evaluation. The researchers will also acquire school records including end-of-year grades, test scores from the Maryland State Assessment; and students' attendance, probations, and suspensions.
Data Analytic Strategy: The research team will use multilevel modeling to evaluate the impact of RAP Club on students' mental health and academic outcomes and to explore mediating and moderating effects. The researchers will analyze related qualitative data from focus groups and interviews by developing thematic coding schemes and causal network diagrams.