Boost! Program Dramatically Improves Student's Behavior

ALIVE program fosters positive change in troubled students
By Steve Higgins
Special to the Register
Courtesy of the New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN — A female student at Barnard Environmental Studies School was sent to the principal’s office numerous times last year for bullying and other disruptive behaviors, and the first few weeks of the new school year brought more of the same.
Since late October, though, there have been no visits to the principal’s office, and the young girl recently received a reward for good behavior in her classroom.

What changed? School officials included her in a new program called ALIVE, or Animating Learning By Integrating and Validating Experience.

“Since joining the ALIVE group, she has taken on a leadership role there and it’s been a major catalyst for change in her life,” said Nicholas Perrone, school climate leader at Barnard. “She has really turned around her behavior in class.” This change not only improved that student’s ability to concentrate in class, but also resulted in a calmer more focused atmosphere for her classmates.

ALIVE is among the many programs supported by Boost!, a partnership between United Way of Greater New Haven, the city of New Haven and the New Haven public schools, to support children’s overall development and help them thrive in the classroom.

Designed and operated by the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma — the nonprofit arm of the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven, ALIVE was introduced at Metropolitan Business Academy last year and expanded into the other four Boost! schools this year. They are Barnard, Clinton Avenue School, Augusta Lewis Troup School, and Wexler-Grant Community School.

ALIVE provides social and emotional support services to students who face challenges in their personal lives that affect their behavior and progress in the classroom.

In the ALIVE classroom, students are invited to make meaningful connections between their lives and their schoolwork. Through co-teaching and the use of art, drama, music and poetry, students express themselves and gain a stronger sense of self-worth and belonging.

“Students are affected by stress and that gets in the way of their abilities to get the most out of their school experience,” said Dr. Nisha Sajnani, director of drama therapy, community health, and ALIVE School Based Programs at the Post Traumatic Stress Center.

ALIVE also uses project-based learning to introduce students to themes of community, identity, society, justice, territory and borders, and communication skills. The program also conducts professional development classes for teachers and school staff members.
“We are committed to a preventive approach,” Sajnani said. “We work to foster conditions so that students feel there is a supportive adult in the building who knows what is getting in the way of their learning.”

Perrone said he has already seen a major reduction in the number of students being sent to the principal’s office due to discipline problems.

“We are experiencing a small fraction of the amount of referrals we had in the past,” Perrone said. “It shows there is a real need to tackle students’ emotional needs as well as their academic needs.”

Referring to the female student who has improved her behavior so rapidly, Perrone said, “I think it’s because she is able to share her experiences and validate them, and understand that even though she is going through difficult things she is strong enough to do the right thing and make good choices.”

Perrone said teachers have welcomed the program not only because it reduces disciplinary problems but also because ALIVE counselors help them learn strategies to deal with students facing challenges at home.

“Even with three full-time support staff, a counselor, a psychologist, and a social worker, we were still understaffed,” he said. “This is a great opportunity because we know there are behaviors happening in school carrying over from student experiences from home.”

United Way and its Boost! partners decided to expand the ALIVE program after conducting a survey of freshmen at Metropolitan Business Academy: 92 percent said the ALIVE course helped them make a positive transition to ninth grade, and 93 percent said the topics discussed were relevant to their personal experiences.

Laoise King, vice president of education initiatives at United Way, said ALIVE and other programs conducted by the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma have quickly proven their worth.

“All five boost schools identified behavior as an area where they could use increased support,” King said. “The foundation has been able to work with each school to design programming specifically tailored to the needs of each individual school.”

King said many teachers see students’ personal and emotional issues interfering with learning experiences, and have seen a dramatic increase in students’ ability to focus because of the support they are receiving from the foundation. This year, United Way invested additional funds into the program this year so the foundation could hire two more drama therapists, with plans to add more staff in the future.
“We know that children’s social, emotional, and physical well-being play a big role in academic achievement,” said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. “I want to thank the United Way and all of the service providers involved for stepping up and making a commitment to getting our students the services they need to succeed.”

The Boost! program is adding other new services to these area schools as well, and is seeking funds to support the effort. To contribute, go to