At the start of the school day at the Brightside Campus School, a bell rings, though the sound is unlike what most students across the country hear each morning.
It is soft and melodic, emanating from a small brass dish struck lightly with a wooden baton. Upon hearing the bell toll, students settle into their desks, take a few deep breaths, and begin to meditate.
Daily meditation begins each new day at Brightside, but it is just one small part of a three-pronged treatment plan that was incorporated into daily life for residents and students at the facility only a year ago. The program, which has been dubbed the Culture of Caring model, draws from three accepted forms of treatment for children with behavioral issues, mental illness, or who have experienced trauma. The model has never been seen nor used anywhere else but at Brightside.
And according to staff members, it’s working.
Brightside, a residential and outpatient facility that treats children with psychiatric, learning, emotional, and behavioral difficulties and includes a fully-accredited school for patients has a 125-year history of helping children. It began as an orphanage in 1881, founded by the Sisters of Providence. Brightside later pioneered programs in special education, substance abuse treatment, family support, and adoption services. The Brightside Campus School has a capacity for 140 students, including both residential and day school students, and has broken ground in the past with intitiatives like a culinary arts program, a retail store run by students, business/clerical classes, internships and community service programs, and teacher training and mentoring plans.
Brightside’s new treatment model is the next in a series of advances at the campus, and could be one of the most influential changes the facility has even undertaken.
“The Culture of Caring looks at the total child – spirit, mind, and body,” said James Bastien, vice president of Residential Services at Brightside. He added that the model’s premise is simple – it looks at the reasons why some children do well and why some struggle, and in turn tries to rectify those situations that can be a detriment to a child’s overall well-being.
There are risk factors for children, he said, like living in a poor neighborhood, being exposed to drugs, or living with a single parent. The presence of ‘protective factors’ like a loving parent or mentor, though, can often counteract those risks. A role model, he said, is essential to teaching the necessary life skills children need to thrive.
For many children at Brightside, those protective factors have been absent in their lives.
“So Brightside tries to create a total living environment that maximizes those protective factors,” said Bastien. “The goals are to stabilize behavior and, ultimately, to return the child to a less restrictive setting.”
The Culture of Caring model combines three widely accepted treatment philosophies: Psychological Educational Management (PEM); Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT); and Mind/Body Medical Institute Training (MBMI). Respectively, the three methods focus on interpersonal skills, emotional regulation skills, and mind/body skills; all issues that need to be addressed, says Bastien, before a child can learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The PEM module focuses on 186 different life skills, such as following directions, giving compliments, or reporting whereabouts to adults. Bastien said PEM skills are taught every day just as grammar or long division would be taught – diligently and regularly, in order to strengthen the probability that the student will begin to use the skills on their own, without having to be prompted.
“Eventually, they develop generalized skills,” said Bastien. “People respond differently to them, so they feel a sort of mastery.”
DBT is a more focused treatment, which helps students recognize and respond to both their own emotions and the unique situations that have shaped their lives.
“DBT teaches them to put a label on their feelings,” Bastien said. “It also teaches them ‘distress tolerance’ – how to handle situations that are stressful or trigger memories of abuse.”
The third portion of the Culture of Caring, MBMI, which incorporates the daily meditation sessions into the school day, was first introduced by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiac specialist. Benson conducted 20 years of medical research into the effects of meditation on the mind and body, Bastien explained, and found that MBMI-tailored meditation, which uses a trigger like the sound of a bell to begin and end a meditation session and requires focusing on a single word, repetitively, can counteract the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The three facets of the new treatment plan are incorporated into the school’s daily operation as well as the daily life of residents at Brightside. The models are currently looked at by Brightside staff as separate but interwoven components, but Bastien that said as the program progresses, he hopes it will eventually evolve into one model, different from anything else the behavioral health profession has seen before.
“There’s something called a ‘technology transfer’ in engineering that refers to using existing technology in a new way or combining different technologies,” he said. “Innovation occurs through that process. This is what we’ve done here — we’ve taken three existing, effective models and created something entirely new.”
Rolling out the new model at Brightside was a complicated undertaking; it required extensive training for staff — $300,000 worth — and moreover necessitated getting educators, counselors, and other staff on board with significant changes in treatment and teaching philosophies.
“The amount of change we asked the staff to undergo was huge,” said Bastien. “It will take a total of three to five years to roll this program out completely, and it has already been a long journey.”
But Lora Davis-Allen, principal at the Brightside Campus School, said the measurable indicators that the program is producing are impossible to ignore. Test scores are up, she said, including MCAS scores amongst the Brightside student population. And instances of physical restraint, sometimes the only option when a child is out of control, have dropped dramatically from an average of 30 per month to just one during an entire quarter.
“We have to monitor the program’s success very carefully,” said Davis-Allen. “We have to keep very detailed data to measure how it is working; but in general, the whole tone of the school has changed.”
Davis-Allen began her career in education in the Springfield Public School System, and said she can envision the positive effects Brightside’s new model could have in more conventional classrooms.
“You need to take care of a child’s needs first before they can learn,” she said. “In some schools, many of the children you’ll see don’t care about that vocabulary list you’re trying to teach them because they’re worried about getting home safely after school, or if there will be food for dinner.”
Incorporating Culture of Caring models may not solve every problem, but it would address them, she said. And training teachers in using the Culture of Caring approach can make them more mindful of their student’s needs.
“We have teachers who have started here and gone to public schools, and now, think of the level of training they are bringing with them. They are taking with them a different perspective, and that’s a perspective that they need to have.”
The Culture of Caring model has begun to gain national attention for Brightside; the National Council on Accreditation, which surveys all behavioral health facilities that receive state and federal funding, recently submitted a report to the facility that called the program “a story waiting to be written,” that was “helping to lead the nation.”
Davis-Allen said she and her staff are proud of the accolades, but more impressed with the students who are showing marked improvements due to the philosophical changes in their classrooms. She said one of her goals is to create an environment for her students that more closely resembles a ‘regular’ school, and part of that initiative has been to hold a formal graduation ceremony for seniors at the end of the school year. At the latest graduation ceremony in June, a student, PeeJay Coleman, woke at 4 a.m. at his home in Boston to ensure he would get to graduation on time to deliver a commencement speech.
“When I first came to Brightside on June 30, 2003…it was all about me,” reads Coleman’s speech. “Now at 17 years of age I’ve been able to move out of programs and make something of myself. One year ago I couldn’t. A lot changes in one year.”