Faculty Spotlights

Stephen Brock, Ph.D. helping schools address student mental health

Stephen Brock

In recent decades, stressors affecting student mental health have received greater attention. Whether the crisis is community violence, a student’s suicide, or ongoing, chronic stress in the student’s life, such situations impair a student’s ability to learn and may be a central factor in academic achievement gaps.

Dr. Stephen Brock, a professor of School Psychology at Sacramento State, is working on a curriculum to help students and staff cope with chronic, ongoing stress – toxic stress – common in urban areas where there is constant exposure to violence and other stressors. This enhancement of the PREPaRE Model curriculum developed by the National Association of School Psychologists will update and complement the current workbook and workshops in school crisis prevention and response. Dr. Brock is the lead author of “School Crisis Prevention and Intervention: The PREPaRE Model,” which is used in the workshops.

Children exposed to chronic, ongoing stress view the world as a frightening place, says Dr. Brock, which often presents problems in school.  “While adaptive in certain circumstances, when you get a person who’s hyper-aroused in a school setting, it causes problems,” he says.

Students who have developed something like post-traumatic stress disorder may react violently to a simple classroom interaction or touch from a teacher or classmate. “They are quite simply reacting. Their frontal lobes are off line; they’re in fight or flight [mode]. They’re not really thinking through what’s going on,” says Dr. Brock. “I think if we can better understand the neurobiological consequences of toxic stress and how the school environment can – with trauma-informed practices – appropriately respond to it, that will be a good thing.”

Chronic stress has been found to cause changes in the brain, Dr. Brock explains. The hippocampus gets smaller, and the amygdala – which regulates emotion and arousal – gets larger and more active.

“With trauma-informed practices we can change brain structure,” he says. “We can increase the size of the hippocampus. We can reduce activation of the amygdala. And a school environment is the perfect setting for that, because schools are, as a rule, the safest place in our society.”

Teacher training in social emotional learning has been shown to be effective. And there’s no time like the present, as legislation requiring schools to adopt a suicide prevention policy goes into effect this fall.  “As children and teens spend a significant amount of their young lives in school, the personnel who interact with them on a daily basis are in a prime position to recognize the warning signs of suicide and make the appropriate referrals for help,” reads Assembly Bill 2246.

Dr. Brock will focus on expanding the PREPaRE curriculum to address toxic stress during his upcoming sabbatical. In the meantime, educators can find mental health resources and training on the NASP website.


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