Since 2011, Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood (WOW) program has delivered in-school, trauma-focused counseling and support to girls across Chicago. WOW is a two-year program for sixth through twelfth-grade female-identified students delivered within schools by master’s-level educated, clinically trained trauma-informed social workers and counselors. Each of these staff members works with 50-55 girls across four to five groups in a school. Groups meet once per week, during the school day. The counselors are also available throughout the day to help with the generalization of things learned in group. The curriculum focuses on five core themes: self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal setting, and leadership. For needs that cannot be addressed in a group setting, WOW counselors provide individual counseling and referrals to other services to a small subset of participating girls. WOW is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), narrative therapy, and key learnings from other school-based mentoring programs. Through their program, WOW aims to reduce post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms among young girls in a culturally competent way, helping them to thrive in school and achieve their aspirations.
Scaling Promising Practices in Youth Mentoring
This case study by Results for America highlights the Crime Lab and Education Lab’s role in the City of Chicago’s bold initiative to expand the evidence-based Becoming a Man group mentoring model to serve thousands of young men.
Randomized evaluation of a school-based, trauma-informed group intervention for young women in Chicago
Science Advances journal publication.
Working on Womanhood- Research Brief
Research brief for the Working on Womanhood project.
Seizing the Opportunity to Advance Education Equity
2021 Education Lab report on barriers to education faced by CPS students.
In 2017, the Education Lab partnered with Chicago Public Schools and Youth Guidance to evaluate Working on Womanhood using a rigorous randomized controlled trial design. The study was implemented in ten neighborhood high schools throughout Chicago during SY2017-2018 and SY2018-2019 and was part of the expansion made possible by the Mayor’s Mentoring Initiative. By building evidence about how we can support girls and give them tools to process and recover from trauma, we have the potential to mitigate harmful consequences like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, and subsequently improve the behavioral and life outcomes that are critical for our communities to thrive.
The study included over 2,000 Chicago Public School girls in 9th-11th grade, 85 percent of whom were Black or Latina. Girls did not show outward signs of risk factors – most were coming to school regularly and maintained at least a B average. However, the study team conducted a baseline survey that found staggeringly high rates of trauma exposure – nearly a third of the participating young women had witnessed someone being violently assaulted or killed, and almost half had someone close to them die violently or suddenly. Prior research has shown violence exposure has a direct impact on student learning – according to one study, Chicago students spend roughly one week out of every month functioning at a lower cognitive level solely because of their proximity to homicides. In this study, the Education Lab found that an astonishing 38 percent of 9th to 11th-grade adolescent girls in study schools exhibited signs of PTSD at baseline – double the rate experienced by service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Results suggest that WOW decreases girls’ PTSD, depression, and anxiety. While we did not find significant effects on our initially pre-specified outcomes – clinical threshold rates of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, we do find significant results on pre-specified secondary outcomes. Specifically, we found that participation in WOW causes a 22% decrease in PTSD symptom severity scores, which measured the frequency and intensity of PTSD symptoms, and a 38% decrease in scores that indicate “moderate trauma-related distress.” We also found that WOW participation causes a 14% decrease in depression and a 9% decrease in anxiety. At a cost of roughly $2,300 per participant, WOW far surpasses the standard cost-effectiveness thresholds used for evaluating medical and public health interventions. This threshold indicates the WOW program is not only effective but can be replicated at scale within resource-challenged public schools across the country.
The WOW evaluation has generated some of the first rigorous evidence about how cities can improve mental health and life outcomes for girls, with the potential to inform policy and practice in Chicago and in other cities seeking to better support children who have been exposed to trauma. Today, WOW serves thousands of students across schools in Chicago, Waukegan, Boston, Dallas and Kansas City.
We are thrilled that the WOW program is generating significant results for Chicago students. CPS is dedicated to supporting our students in and outside of school–and WOW provides exactly the sort of evidence-based, trauma-informed programming they need to thrive.
While Chicago students demonstrate extraordinary resilience, we know trauma and violence have a significant impact on student success. That’s why the WOW program is so valuable–it’s a real solution that disrupts the cycle of trauma and improves students’ well-being in and out of the classroom.
WOW was developed by and for Black and Latina women to disrupt the cycle of intergenerational trauma. We’ve seen dramatic improvements in the mental health and well-being of the young women we serve, and we’re proud that this rigorous study reinforces these results. We look forward to bringing the WOW program to schools and students across the country.
Despite astonishing and increasing levels of trauma among schoolchildren, there is a lack of evidence about what school and city leaders can do in response. We hope these findings inform how public and private dollars can address the specific challenges facing young women today–particularly in the wake of a global pandemic which has exacerbated trauma exposure among young people.
How This Chicago Program is Helping Girls With PTSD, Anxiety and Depression
Ngozi Harris and Monica Bhatt joined “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices” for a conversation about our evaluation of Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood program.
Working on Womanhood: Chicago Experts Talk Impact of School-Based Counseling for Girls
WGN9 speaks with Education Lab Senior Research Director Monica Bhatt about the Education Lab’s evaluation of Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood program.
Schools respond to mental health crisis by connecting students
This article about strategies to improve student mental health cites our evaluation of Youth Guidance’s Working on Womanhood program.