GGSE: Tell me about the Cultivating Wellbeing in Schools Research Team--how it got started, what it does.
Dr. Tyler Renshaw (CCSP, Ph.D. '12): The CWBS Research Team is the tentative name of the research group I supervise at LSU. We currently have four undergraduate students and three graduate students working with us to carry out a variety of projects related to “promoting wellbeing in schools.” We conceptualize “wellbeing” fairly broadly as all manner of successful functioning (both subjectively and objectively defined), and we go about the business of “promoting” it by developing and investigating assessment instruments and intervention protocols that are feasible for use in schools. One thing that might set our research group apart from others is that in addition to being interested in directly promoting wellbeing in students, we’re also interested in promoting the wellbeing of caregivers in schools, both for its own sake and for the potential indirect benefits it’s likely to have on student wellbeing.
That said, our research interests are pretty broad, and many of them can be seen as an extension of the work I was doing with Drs. Jimerson and Furlong while I was a graduate student in the CCSP at UCSB. Over the last couple years we’ve worked on developing several self-report rating scales related to student subjective wellbeing and teacher subjective wellbeing, all of which were inspired by Dr. Furlong’s measure development work in the areas of positive psychology and social–emotional skills. We’re also currently researching the relationship between students’ bullying involvement and their self-reported wellbeing using a nationally-representative sample of youth in grades 5–10, which has been largely motivated by the work of Drs. Jimerson and Furlong on school violence. Beyond these efforts, our research team is also in the middle of conducting several meta-analyses of what have come to be called “third-wave behavioral interventions,” such as mindfulness and yoga. Once these meta-analyses are complete, we hope to shift our research agenda toward progressing these kinds of interventions in schools.
GGSE: A lot of your work deals with "mindfulness." Could you explain what that is as a more technical term and why it's important?
Dr. Tyler Renshaw: Mindfulness has become pretty popular lately, especially in schools, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about it. There are different ways to conceptualize mindfulness, but we understand it to be a skillset, something that students and caregivers do, not something they have or something they are. It’s less like a cognitive ability and more like reading ability. Although it can be defined quite technically, a simple way that we describe it to students and teachers is by saying that mindfulness is a “super-skill” that is made up of three smaller skills: (1) mindful awareness, (2) mindful responsivity, and (3) mindful effort.
Each of these sub-skills can be understood and developed separately, yet it is only when they are used in combination that mindfulness is fully practiced. The first sub-skill, mindful awareness, refers to actively observing what’s going on here-and-now in one’s self and in one’s environment. To put it in student-friendly language, we operationalize this skill as noticing the little things happening right now. The second sub-skill, mindful responsivity, refers to the quality of our response to stimuli that we contact through mindful awareness. To frame it in student-friendly language, we describe it as being friendly to ourselves and others. The third sub-skill, mindful effort, refers to engaging in intentional action. This means purposefully initiating and sustaining productive behaviors, particularly in the face of adversity. To couch it in student-friendly language, we operationalize this as doing hard things on purpose.
Mindfulness training is basically a series of activities, ranging from classical breathing meditations to more modern metaphorical exercises, that help people develop and coordinate these sub-skills so that they can use them to improve the wellbeing of ourselves and others when it matters most. Evidence suggests that mindfulness is important for many reasons, but the most important reason is that practicing mindfulness seems to improve students and caregivers’ ability to self-regulate in stressful situations, which leads to improved outcomes for themselves and those around them.
GGSE: Are there misconceptions in the general public about school psychology? Are there things you wish people knew or understood better/differently about the field?
Dr. Tyler Renshaw: When I was an undergraduate psychology major, nobody told me about school psychology. Nobody talked about it as a career option. By good fortune, I happened to stumble upon a school psychology professor near the end of my junior year, who sparked my interest in applying to graduate school and, eventually, coming to UCSB. Several years later, it seems that things are changing, slowly but surely. I bump into an increasing number of undergraduates every year who have heard about school psychology in their classes (from a professor who’s not a school psychologist!). With undergraduate interest along with the continuing stream of excellent graduate students coming to LSU from places all over the country where someone (again, usually not a school psychologist!) has informed and interested them in the profession of school psychology, careers in school psychology are growing every year.
If I had to pick one thing that I wish the general public understood better about school psychology, it would probably be differentiating ourselves from other school-based service providers. Many people think school psychologists are the equivalent of school counselors or school social workers, when, in fact, we’re quite different. School counselors and school social workers have very important roles, but they are distinct from, and require very different training than, that of school psychologists.
GGSE: Who did you work with at the GGSE, and what was most beneficial about CCSP for you?
Dr. Tyler Renshaw: It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing that was “most beneficial” about my graduate experience at CCSP, because there were so many good things about it. Dr. Jimerson was my primary advisor at CCSP, and I immensely benefited from his enthusiasm for school psychology research, his focus on bringing scholarship to practice, and his encouragement to pursue an academic career path. I also did a bit of research with Dr. Furlong, whose passion for positive psychology and measurement research really rubbed off on me, influencing much of the content of my work since graduating. Although I didn’t work with them in a research capacity, I very much appreciated and benefited from the teaching and mentorship of the other school psychology faculty, Drs. Sharkey, Dowdy, and Quirk. My fellow graduate students were wonderful, as were the field supervisors and local school personnel I was fortunate enough to work with. When I look back on my experience now, it seems that all these people, from the faculty to the students to the supervisors, shared at least three attributes in common: they were very motivated, very talented, and very generous with their time. And those are all things I aspire to be now in my current position. I really loved my graduate school experience at UCSB, and I look back on it with great fondness and gratitude.
GGSE: Last April you came back to UCSB and gave the talk “To Infinity and Beyond: Navigating a Career at a Research I Institution." What was that like and why did you do it?
Dr. Tyler Renshaw: Dr. Jimerson invited me to come to back to UCSB as an alumnus and speak to CCSP students about my experiences applying for and working within a research-intensive university setting. Pursuing a research-intensive career in academia can seem like a daunting path, and so I was happy to return to offer encouragement and share what little wisdom I’d gathered over the past few years. I really enjoyed visiting UCSB, speaking with the current students, renewing relationships with some of the faculty who trained me, and, of course, walking along the beautiful trails and beaches of Santa Barbara.