Written by: Nea’la Prue
Interviews done by: Nea’la Prue & Myaira Arnold
For 10 years now, The Grassroot Project (TGP) has been successful in facilitating school-based health education programs and increasing sexual health knowledge for sixth grade students in the Washington D.C area. In 2018, TGP launched a nutrition and physical health curriculum for the same students to receive when they reached seventh grade.
But it doesn’t stop here: the TGP staff is now starting the research and curriculum development process for a mental health curriculum that will soon be launched for these same students once they reach eighth grade.
Why 6th, 7th, and 8th grade? The ultimate goal is for the middle schoolers working with Grassroots to engage in a continuous health education program during all three years of their middle school experience, and to learn something new about health each year. Grassroots refers to this as its health education and youth development “pipeline program”.
The mental health curriculum’s main focus is for the eighth-graders to not only learn what mental health is, but to also learn the importance of mental health and how it can impact their future.
We interviewed an American University (AU) men’s soccer player and all-around TGP rockstar: Master Trainer, Head Coach in both Nutrition and Sexual Health school programs, curriculum development intern, and health promotion major at AU, Swezen Kizito. Swezen has been involved in all aspects of TGP, and has also been helping to develop TGP’s new mental health curriculum.
During our interview with Swezen, we asked several questions about the research process behind the development of the mental health program. Swezen explained, “We constructed our research based off of already existing evidence-based research, and we’re basically following the same outline that we’ve been given because it’s evidence-based…We’ve identified seven methods to use for mental health wellness…some include, interpersonal skills, stress management, alcohol & drug use, etc.” These methods may be used as the core components to address mental health and wellness.
“Now we’re designing focus groups scripts” Swezen stated. Focus groups are another strategy to help the development of the mental health curriculum. Focus groups “help us know what else the community wants us to address,” Swezen explains. Some different types of focus groups that are being planned include interviews with school personnel (teachers, administrators, and mental health clinicians), students, and parents. A variety of different types of focus groups will give a better understanding of how to create a curriculum that will best fit the maturity level and needs of the eighth-grade students we will serve.
With this type of research, it is easier to not only create a high-quality and community-responsive curriculum, but also to develop key messages within each “Practice” (e.g. classroom session) that the student-athletes can share with students in this program. The key messages will help the students more easily remember the main points of the lesson that they learned that week in Grassroots.
Also in the interview, we discussed other considerations that TGP is keeping in mind while developing this new curriculum. A major consideration that Swezen mentioned is how to maintain the traditional “Grassroots culture” in a program designed for older students with a higher maturity level that the historical/typical TGP participant.
“With a different kind of approach because we’re dealing with a population at an age where their maturity and their growth shifts between 12 and 13 years old and there’s going to be a big shift in the way they want to learn each message … their maturity level…Mental health is a much more comprehensive topic that’s new to ourselves and to the students that we are teaching. It’ll be the same kind of games and activities but directed toward a different age group.”
Keeping the culture of Grassroots is a way that Grassroots connects with students on a deeper level. With mental health being a more sensitive topic to talk about, it is important that the safe and positive culture of our Grassroots programs is maintained throughout all three years of a student’s experience in Grassroots.
“I’m just going to have to become knowledgeable with the mental health curriculum as I did with the other programs.” said Swezen. When it comes to teaching the kids about really sensitive topics, it can be hard for the student-athletes, but Swezen believes that “every health topic needs a facilitator, just like when people are discussing an issue that is affecting their community.”
Through his experiences as a curriculum development intern, running community focus groups, and facilitating programs, Swezen believes TGP has helped him gain the confidence to successfully teach the new mental health curriculum that with be launched fall 2019.