DBT Skills in Schools

Amid the tumult of adolescence, with stresses and mental health issues afflicting nearly every teenager, many schools struggle to help students manage their emotions so they can succeed academically and in their lives.

Professor James Mazza is working to change that reality.

"Adolescence is a stormy time," Mazza said. "We know these rain clouds come and go, and what's a rain squall for some is a hurricane for others. Students who are struggling with mental health issues are not learning up to their academic potential. Thus, we need to help them with their mental health issues and managing their emotional distress, which will enhance their academic learning."

Over the past decade, Mazza and his colleagues have developed and tested an innovative social-emotional learning curriculum designed for students in grades 6-12. A practical manual for teaching that curriculum is outlined in the new book, DBT Skills in Schools: Skills Training for Emotional Problem Solving for Adolescents, available this summer from Guilford Press.

"We need to teach kids proactively how to deal with emotional distress, through using skills of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness," Mazza said.

Mazza said that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills—which form the core of the curriculum for the social-emotional learning course he and his colleagues created—have been demonstrated to be effective in helping adolescents manage difficult emotional situations, cope with stress and make better decisions. Pilot projects using the curriculum are taking place in Battle Ground, Wash.; Los Angeles, Oakland and Manteca in California; Portland, Ore.; Mahopac, N.Y.; Philadelphia; and Cork, Ireland.

"We start giving kids a toolbox of strategies and skills so when the next squall comes through, they can pull from that toolbox and implement the skills they have learned to ride out the squall and storm effectively," Mazza said. 

The book is written for school psychologists, counselors, social workers, teachers and nurses, and includes lesson plans, handouts and more for teaching skills such as mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness.

Richard Jones, a school counselor at Maple Grove School in Battle Ground, has used the curriculum (known as DBT STEPS-A) for two years with his 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

"In my 36 years as an educator I have used many programs, and this one is the most comprehensive and powerful," Jones said.

In surveying one of his eighth-grade classes, Jones noted that 96 percent of his students said they would use the skills they are learning.

"Imagine students learning that their thoughts and feelings can lie to them in a crisis situation, and gaining the skills to successfully deal with their issues," Jones said.


James Mazza, Professor of Education
206-616-6373, mazza@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu